Baghdad Burning: Tales From an Iraq War Survivor

The last thing Omar Alshujery remembers seeing when the first American bombs moved Baghdad in 2003 was a “huge light.”

“I saw a huge light,” Omar says, “and I screamed, ‘Take cover!’ Then, the earth shook.”

Alshujery, then only 12, screamed as the force of the explosion slammed him against the wall.

Seconds later, as the next wave of bombs raged outside the thin plaster walls that cradled Alshujery, his parents, and his five brothers, the strength went out, engulfing Alshujery’s childhood home in darkness-a darkness that would ultimately swallow his grandfather and his uncles.

Despite the reports, war is not a pretty thing. It’s neither sterile nor photogenic. It’s complicate and convoluted; it’s bloody and disorganized; war is a filthy, ravenous, thousand-toothed beast, and it feasted on Iraqi and American alike.

The death tolls vary. By the time the Iraq war “ended” on Dec. 18, 2011, the Associated Press calculated 100,600 casualties between March 2003 and April 2009, but an independent 2007 British report placed that number closer to 1.2 million between March 2003 and August 2007 alone. What neither figure accounts for are the casualties of soul suffered by survivors like Alshujery-a survivor of a war between enemies who both claimed his family as casualties.

During the first stages of the invasion, Ashuljery watched as the U.S. Army’s Third Division swarmed the streets of Baghdad, the ground trembling under the weight of the onslaught.

“We heard the F-16s and the Humvees,” Alshujery says. “Then my uncles and grandpa cried because they knew our country was gone-destroyed.”

Baghdad fell into chaos after the invasion. The streets were littered with dead bodies, and the city reeked of putrefied flesh. Alshujery and Baghdad’s 6 million other residents went nearly seven years without electricity and running water.

“Life was good before the war,” Omar says. “It was peaceful. We had security. We were working, doing business, and traveling outside the country. Everything was good.”

After the invasion, all of that changed. The country fell into chaos, and Iraqi civilians were caught in the crossfire of the Americans and Iraqi soldiers, the thieves and bandits, and the Iraqi resistance fighters-A.K.A. “the terrorists.”

Suddenly, Baghdad-“God’s Gift” in translation-was the most dangerous place on earth, and each day was fraught with new horrors for Omar and his family.

In 2005, American soldiers stormed their home in the middle of the night and attempted to rob his family at gunpoint. When Omar and his relatives refused to give the soldiers their money, the Americans arrested his father.

One year later, when Omar was 16, he was kidnapped at gunpoint for the second time, this time by Iraqis.

Omar and his uncle, Saeed, were driving by the desert near Anbar, Iraq, when armed men forced his means to pull over. After stepping out of the car, they were beaten, bound and tossed into the trunk of a dark green 1993 BMW in 104-degree heat.

After driving for nearly half-an-hour, the gunmen stopped the car and dragged Omar and his uncle out of the trunk. One of the gunmen aimed a pistol at Omar’s head and commanded him to put his head down and stare at the ground.

“In that moment, I had no fear,” Omar says. “It was just zero. I accepted it as it is, and I said, ‘O.K., I’m going to die.’ I didn’t close my eyes. I was thinking, ‘Will the bullet go by or not?’ And, ‘will I see my blood before I die?'”

Omar and his family ultimately fled to Syria in 2006 after the kidnapping and murder of his uncles and grandfather.

“We had enough. I watched as armed men kidnapped my uncle Salem and my grandfather Taha had been missing for more than a year,” Omar says. “After discovering Salam’s body with more than 30 bullet holes, we finally had it. We crossed the border into Syria that night.”

He lived in Syria for nearly two years before the International Organization of Migration helped Omar and his family move to the United States in 2008.

“The war took everything and left us with nothing, Omar says. “It destroyed our homes, our businesses and our lives.”

Despite all that the war took from Alshujery, the 22-year-old retains home. Today, Omar shares a modest Portland apartment with his mother, his father, his five brothers and his sister.

He’s studying engineering at Portland Community College, a degree he dreams of one day using by returning home to Iraq-after the war and the occupation-after the violence and the bloodshed, when his country can rebuilt-brick by brick and life by life.

“I look by the past, and I see pain and darkness,” Omar says. “My life was a night with stars and a light to guide me by the darkness. I lost the stars. But I have the light, and the stars are in my heart.”

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