In March 2003, I was in my second year at the University of Baghdad, studying engineering. The U.S. invaded Iraq and my dormitory emptied out, as we all returned home and waited to see what would happen.
In my hometown of Basra, we watched U.S.-led coalition troops surging into the city. Yet people still couldn’t believe it — that longtime dictator Saddam Hussein was gone. For it to be real, we had to wait for Baghdad to fall and only once we saw that on television did we trust this new reality. On our screens, a coalition-run TV channel called al-Hurriya, or “Freedom” in Arabic, broadcast the iconic scene of Hussein’s statue in Baghdad being demolished and the bronze face covered by an American flag.
Two decades on, we have learned that spectacle was mere propaganda, and that freedom cannot be imposed by an occupying force. And all these years later, I’m still struck by this contrast: The magnitude of what Iraqis lost — and continue to lose — and how vivid our memories are of the war, as we must deal with the repercussions in our daily lives, whereas the war has become a blurry image for Americans.
On the day the statue fell, I recalled that historic scene with a widowed neighbor in his 60s. He sarcastically portrayed it this way: “This is what would happen if you dismantled a scary toy, which kids have tried desperately to dismantle by themselves for 30 years!” For him, Hussein represented the shattered toy, and the crowds who previously would have been too afraid of him were now kicking his statute fearlessly. Weeks later, the neighbor, who had been a prominent member of Hussein’s Baath Party, knew that civilian militias were out for revenge. Before they got to him, he shot himself in his bathroom.
By then, the entire city had sunk into chaos. Masses of people roamed Basra barefoot, with happiness and tears, while searching for their missing relatives who had been detained by the Baath Party for decades. I too became enthusiastic and curious. There were rumors of underground prisons. People believed voices were coming out from the concrete walls of the Baath party offices, where their loved ones may have been trapped for decades, like ancient fossils.
Myths and truths shuffled simultaneously. I observed a real crowd of prisoners, their pale-yellow faces exposed to the sun after years of darkness. They broke out of the jails and chased people who avoided them due to their stinky smell. They kept roving, asking, “Where is the exit?” as though they were still inside.
Despite so many conflicting feelings those days, Iraqi souls were fueled by hope. If you’d asked them then what was the worst scenario they could imagine for their future, they would never have envisioned themselves where they are now. It was a moment of great expectations. The decades of tyranny by Baath men in olive uniforms were over; we supposedly were reaching the end of the tunnel, but what was a bright light at the end turned out to be a flare of a forthcoming hell.
We got the TV channel Freedom, but freedom didn’t materialize, and what followed were two decades of brutal civil wars, political turmoil, widespread corruption, sectarian tensions, looting of our history from museums and archaeological sites, interventions of adjacent countries and Islamic State’s extremist insurgency that seized a third of the country.
Under Hussein’s rule, we recited three words every morning at school: Unity, freedom, socialism.
During the first decade after the American invasion, that dictionary changed a bit. American missiles were to bring us “democracy” from the sky, while the language of suicide bombers and religious radicals took root on the earth. Each new Iraqi ministry was supplemented by a U.S. adviser, yet almost half a million people had been killed.
Iraqis became badly divided. Shrines and mosques started exploding, as sectarian checkpoints cropped up to examine your identity and figure out your sect. Hundreds of civilians were slaughtered just because their names pointed to the opposite sect. Then, in the second decade, Islamic State carried out a reign of terror in northern Iraq that included rape, abductions, executions, mass murder, extortion and seizure of state resources. In Iraq’s parliamentary system today, new mini-Saddams have emerged in national politics out of the country’s various religious and political factions, carrying on his regime’s brutal legacy.
Looking back 20 years, the invasion didn’t just change Iraq’s future, it altered the world’s memory about Iraq and its people. Once known as the home of Mesopotamia, one of the world’s early civilizations, Iraq became associated with terror. Its two legendary rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, are choking, as Iraq’s new leaders have failed to protect our water resources, and climate change threatens to run them dry. Iraqis who had the ability to leave fled to wherever they could be safe and build a life.
I came to the U.S. seven years ago; it wasn’t easy to leave my home. When I tell Americans that I’m from Iraq, they typically have negative perceptions about the country and its people, and lack basic knowledge, including place names or even where it is on the map. Often, I run into American soldiers who did a tour there. A few weeks ago, a woman told me she served in Mosul. “I helped people there,” she said, excitedly. It’s very hard for Iraqis to see the American military presence as having helped us, given what we’ve lived through.
Despite all the tragedy, our country is not broken forever. I know young activists, artists and journalists expressing themselves, even risking their lives. We’re still working on democracy, on our own terms, and we know democracy is a long process — after all, the U.S. is still working on its democracy, even after 200 years.