The worst days of our lives

In the first of a new series by IWPR Iraq, entitled "Iraqi Women's Voices," an anonymous contributor tells the story of her life in the self-declared "Islamic State of Iraq."
By an IWPR contributor in Baghdad
Iraq, Baghdad. © S.M. /
An Iraqi woman in Baghdad in 1990. © S.M. /

BAGHDAD (IWPR) – My neighborhood in Baghdad was once known for its luxurious houses and large gardens. It was a quiet place when I moved here in 1990.

I was in primary school then, and in the afternoons, children would spill out of school and the streets would fill with shoppers, bringing the neighborhood to life. We would often stay out until midnight, even during the difficult days of the United Nations sanctions.

One of the things that I always enjoyed about my neighborhood was its diversity. My closest friend, Thanaa, lived two blocks away. While she was pious and I am secular, such things were not an issue for us. She went to the mosque almost every day to pray and to hear the sermons of the imam. Although I wanted to accompany her, I never had enough faith to do so.

Islamic State of Iraq

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, everything changed. I started to hear strange stories about people being killed and kidnapped, some of whom I knew. Residents began leaving for safer areas.

Then it got even worse. By 2005, my neighborhood had gained the reputation of being one of the most dangerous places in the capital. A Sunni extremist group calling itself the "Islamic State of Iraq" took over, declaring my neighborhood their stronghold in Baghdad.

The members would patrol the area by night, either on foot or in cars. They has weapons slung over their shoulders and would shoot people dead in the street for breaking one of their "rules."

We learned of their "laws" from their flyers, which told residents not to dare challenge their authority or work with the Americans, and also praised al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It was common knowledge that they used a local mosque as a meeting place and to store weapons.

They made it clear that one of their objectives was to rid our neighborhood of Shia.

I hadn't thought much about sectarianism when I was growing up because it was never an issue in this neighborhood. However, it entered my life one hot afternoon when there was a knock on the door. It was Thanaa and her mother, who had received a note telling them, "Get out, you Shia people."

"It is over," said Thanaa, speaking not only for herself but for most of the Shia in our neighborhood. "We can't stay here any longer. They threatened to kill all of us if we stay, and they have even banned me from praying in the mosque, saying it's for Sunnis only. I will miss you."

We hugged and cried, and she was gone.

'I complied with the new "laws" of my neighborhood, while my blood silently boiled'

For those of us who stayed, life changed dramatically. Although my family is secular, we are Sunni by background, so we were not threatened with sectarian attack. However, for the first time in my life, I could not leave the house without putting a scarf on my head and wearing long sleeves and skirts. Trousers, of course, were out of the question. I made sure never to wear make-up when leaving the house.

My parents are liberal and never told me what to wear, so I enjoyed a lot of freedom growing up. The new restrictions were difficult for me to take. I complied with the new "laws" of my neighborhood, while my blood silently boiled.

The consequences of not complying were made very clear. A friend of mine once rushed into my house, her voice trembling as she told me how she had almost been killed. The skirt she was wearing was long but apparently too tight-fitting. It had caught the eye of a militiaman who stopped her and threatened to kill her if she ever dared to leave the house like that again.

Boys too were banned from wearing shorts or certain hairstyles that might stand out. The mixed school I once attended is gender-segregated now. After it was attacked and a pupil was killed, children stopped going to class.

Our once-bustling central shopping street emptied, and all of the shops were forced to close.

It was one of the worst times of my life, and I hope that it remains a thing of the past.

Neighbors returning

After two years of continuous suffering, the situation has now started to improve somewhat. My neighborhood pressured the government to include us in the Baghdad security plan, and members of the Sunni "Awakening Councils," who have pledged to cooperate with the government [against the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq,] have helped establish security.

My neighbors are slowly beginning to return from places such as Syria, where many of then had run out of money. They hardly recognize the neighborhood, which is a shell of its former self after the fighting between the Islamic extremists and Iraqi and US forces.

A Shia woman named Um Salam has come home. However, she says the memories are almost too difficult to bear. She is selling her furniture and will not be staying on. Her son Salam was killed by al-Qaeda.

"I can't stand living in my house any more," she told me. "Each wall and corner reminds me of Salam.… He was a peaceful, quiet boy who was killed because of his sect. It is unjust."

I recently decided to venture out and wander the streets. This was unheard of just two months ago, when I would only go directly from my house to university and return home before dark.

It was quiet, and security forces were everywhere. The neighborhood still feels like a ghost town, a war zone. Many houses have been destroyed, although a few shops have reopened with the help of a $2,500 incentive given by the government. Some of the beautiful old historic buildings have been burnt down or blown up, and the largest pharmacy is closed.

The people in my neighborhood generally divide into two groups: those who believe something good will come out of all this and security will improve; and those who believe that the "Islamic State" group is still active and will return to take control of the area again.

Thus, even with the improved security, we remain uneasy, as one question lingers at the back of our minds – will we ever be safe again?

This article was re-published with permission from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, It is the first in a new series of first-person reports from IWPR Iraq called "Iraqi Women’s Voices." The writer’s name and the name of her neighborhood have not been revealed because of security concerns. All other names have also been changed.