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Vignettes from Iraq

BASRA, Iraq—Bassim Qassim, his wife, Nada Gazey, and their 2-month-old baby were among a sea of Iraqis caught up in the violence of the first days of war.

"There was death all over the place," said Bassim, 40, a driver and laborer. Yet they managed to escape Basra, dashing through frenzied crossfire, hitching rides and trekking for long distances on foot.

Their flight past one checkpoint was captured in a photograph by Knight Ridder. Today, when they see themselves running, holding hands with a look of fear and desperation on their faces, they are reminded of the sadness and sorrow of the time. Relatives and friends had died, only to be buried on the sides of roads by strangers.

Since then, little has improved. After returning to Basra from two weeks of refuge with relatives in Umm Qasr, the Iraqi port city on the border with Kuwait, the couple found their house had been looted, stripped of every piece of furniture. Most of their possessions were gone.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Bassim and Nada say nothing in their lives has gotten better. It was bad before. It's bad now. Bassim and one of his brothers are the sole support for their extended family, which includes several physically and mentally disabled siblings.

Some days Bassim finds work driving.

Some days he finds work as a laborer.

Many days he finds nothing at all.

Prior to the war, life had been a struggle, too. Even though he and his brother were once jailed by Saddam at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, Bassim echoes the widespread view that at least under the Hussein regime there was security in Iraq.

These days, Bassim and his family live in a crumbling four-room concrete rental house. He fears they'll be evicted because the landlord wants tenants who can afford to pay more.

"Things are going from bad to worse," Bassim said.

Rawa Khalil was running near the Zubaryr Bridge, south of Basra, on March 30, 2003. Tears wet her face as she and the other refugees fled the terror around them. She stopped and stared at a Knight Ridder photographer. A photo depicts her fright. Smoke from an oil fire is rising behind her head.

Earlier that day, Rawa, 14, her five brothers and sisters, their spouses and their children had fled Abu Qasib, a small village north of Basra, because fighting had flared up there between British forces and Saddam loyalists. They wanted to return to their home south of Basra, which they had left the previous week in order to escape more fighting.

In a recent interview, Rawa recalled the photographer and wondered, "What is she doing, taking pictures of this?"

Now the teen spends much of her day at home watching television when she's not doing chores around the house. Rawa hasn't gone to school since the war began. Before the invasion, her teachers taught her very little. They forced her and the other students to clean or do other chores.

Rawa and her mother believe that life is better for them now, but mostly because the shooting has stopped.

"Today we have no more fear of death from bombs," Rawa said.

In April 2003, there was a gaping hole in a wall of their house. One of two missiles fired by British troops had left a 4-by-6-foot opening in the cinderblock.

Sadiq Baqer Sabham was lying in the living room of his Basra home a week after the attack, with two injured legs. His sons doted on him, massaged his legs and turned him when lying in one position became more than he could bear. His wife, Ghanima Mohamed Salman, was in the hospital, possibly facing amputation of one of her legs.

Fourteen months later, the hole is still there.

Two crutches lean against the cracked concrete living room wall.

Across the room sits Ghanima—one leg showing from beneath her long dress.

Sadiq joins her, struggling to sit down because his ankles hurt from the shards of shrapnel still in them. He said the hole is still in the wall because they can't afford to fix it. One of the missiles also destroyed the blue minibus he used to drive for a living, so he's been without work.

"I don't feel alive," Ghanima said, rubbing her eyes. She complains that she can't she get out to visit relatives or neighbors or run errands like she once did. She spends most of the days watching television or sleeping.

"I feel like a prisoner in the house."

As he recuperated last year, Sadiq said he was angry that missiles had hit his house, yet grateful for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But now that he still hasn't received any restitution from the British military and can't support his family, he's not so sure he feels the same way. Two of his sons have been working as drivers, but they don't bring in much money. They tried to start a taxi service and had purchased a car. But, as is so common in Iraq these days, someone stole the vehicle.

"At least under Saddam, I had my own business," Sadiq said. "Now my wife has lost her leg, I'm injured and can't make a living. So we prefer the old days."

Oroba Shalash was frantic. Her father had been taken into custody by American troops from the Umm Qasr home during the first hours of the war.

She told a gaggle of journalists then that she wanted him back. She wanted to know where he was, that he was safe.

Every day for two weeks, Oroba and her mother visited the Camp Bucca detention center, hoping for answers. The next two weeks they came every other day.

Her father recalled that while his daughter and wife were outside the prison, he was crowded into a large tent with around 300 other men. After the Red Cross paid a visit to the facility a week or so after he was detained, the prisoners were moved to better accommodations that housed only about 10 men to a tent. Despite the crowding, he said he was treated well.

He was released after a month.

Oroba, a lawyer, now works at the port in Umm Qasr handling contracts for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. She remains bitter about her father's arrest. Normally, a well-groomed man, he returned after his jailing unshaven and still dressed in the same night clothes he wore when arrested.

"I hugged him and I cried. Now until the day I die, I'll never forget that day. I hate the coalition forces because of what they did to us," Oroba said, looking at her father.

Before the war began, the petite 24-year-old said she was confident that the Iraqi army would be victorious. She added that while she never approved of Saddam's repression of her people, she admired his strength.

Now she has little confidence that Iraq's new government will be effective.

"I never expected to live under occupation," she said. "Deep inside we got defeated as a people."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HANDOVER-VIGNETTES


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