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A Baghdad resident seeks a safe haven

BAGHDAD, Iraq—I left my home Monday.

As my family fled the fighting that's engulfed our neighborhood in Baghdad, I gazed out the car window, thinking that I might never again see the fruit stand off our street, the shops where my sisters and I bought soft drinks, the turquoise-domed mosque where we prayed in the holy month of Ramadan.

And to think I'd spent Sunday in my garden, using the forced free time of a curfew to plant geraniums for spring. Later that night, Shiite militiamen encroached on our Sunni enclave; the reverse had happened in so many other neighborhoods, and now it was our turn. Any thoughts of the future were overshadowed by the need to survive the night.

A year ago, I was a newlywed excited about finally having a place of my own. I filled it with what we call baghdadiyat, the artifacts of a bygone time in Iraq's history: an Ottoman trunk, Persian carpets, copper spoons and silver vases finely etched with designs of birds and flowers. Abstract paintings by young Iraqi artists hung on the wall. My garden outside was ringed with stones and filled with climbing vines and seasonal flowers.

When it became too dangerous to dine at restaurants, my husband and I would sometimes set a table in the garden and eat together under a floodlight—if there was electricity. This was my sanctuary from war.

With the birth of our daughter last September, I became even more grateful for a safe place where I could play with her and momentarily forget the sad stories I hear all day in my job as a journalist.

But the violence in Baghdad worsened over the summer. Strangers crept into the Jihad district, our middle-class neighborhood of Sunnis and Shiites. Were they there to protect us? Nobody knew for sure.

Many families didn't stick around to find out; both Sunni and Shiite neighbors began to flee. More strangers took over the deserted homes, sometimes renting and sometimes simply moving in. Their sect wasn't the problem—it was the breakdown of a community's trust, the sudden vulnerability of a once close-knit street.

My husband and I weren't ready to give up on Iraq, but we asked our relatives and friends not to visit because they, too, would be regarded as strangers. We kept telling ourselves that this would pass and that things would return to normal. We just wanted to hold on to our life.

But things never returned to normal. When the school year ended, the neighborhood grew even more deserted. One day, a carload of gunmen drove by our home and peered into our garage. We'd already endured a wave of killings and kidnappings in the area, so we didn't want to take any chances. We packed up and moved temporarily to my in-laws' home in a safer district.

Two days later, a car bomb exploded on our street. It blew out every window in our home. A chunk of the bomber's car landed in our garage. Shrapnel and dust covered my pretty carpets. And still we returned to our home.

This time, however, we took more precautions. My husband knocked down a wall and built a passageway to my parents' home next door so we'd have an escape route in case we were attacked. We stopped shopping at the neighborhood grocer because we were afraid of drive-by shootings and bombings on the main street.

We lived there, on the edge, still hoping. After much debate, my husband overruled me and left on a job-hunting trip in another Arab country. I hated it, but I knew that he was doing it for the good of the family.

He was still out of the country when another tide of violence washed over Baghdad last week. We heard that Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents were battling in other areas, and we began to understand that we weren't immune. In the past few days, we began hearing of an imminent attack in our neighborhood, and a 24-hour curfew caught us unprepared.

We hadn't stockpiled food. Like many Iraqi families, we had only light weapons in our home—an AK-47 rifle and a pistol. We grew nervous, especially the men. They would be responsible for defending our home. Since his compulsory weapons training in Saddam Hussein's era, my brother hadn't had much target practice.

I stuffed my passport, cell phone, cash and ID into a small pouch that I kept on my body or under my pillow. By the third day of the curfew, we'd run out of fresh bread, so my aunt, my baby daughter and I walked to a nearby bakery. A strange car circled the area at least three times, defying the curfew. My aunt whispered for us to go.

We walked away quickly, my legs heavy with fear.

"Here they come again," my aunt said, and we started to run.

I looked back and saw the blue car again, a few feet away. Gunfire rang out, and the people in line at the bakery scattered. I pushed my daughter's stroller as fast as I could through a garbage-strewn lot to get home faster. I decided that we wouldn't leave home again until the curfew ended.

On Sunday night, I was home watching the evening news when my sister rushed over from next door and said, "There's a lot of shooting outside. Can't you hear it?"

The loud whir of my generator, our only source of electricity that night, had drowned out the gunfire a few blocks away. Within minutes, we feared, we'd be under attack.

Even though we'd planned for this moment, I panicked. I switched off the generator, but I couldn't find my flashlight. As I fumbled in the darkness, my daughter started crying and grabbing my leg. I scooped her up, wrapped her in a blanket and rushed to my parents through the back passageway.

My family gathered in the living room, terror in their eyes. The women and children moved to a corridor away from the windows. The men made frantic phone calls and readied their weapons.

Men stood watch on the roofs, and some neighbors fired warning shots out their windows. After a while, it seemed as if everyone was shooting. Then a loud boom sounded, a rocket or a mortar, very close.

My daughter woke up crying. When the shooting grew louder, I covered her ears with my hands.

"What am I still doing here?" I asked myself. "What more needs to happen for me to leave?"

I felt angry with myself for being so stubborn, for staying in the neighborhood long after most of my friends had fled. I made a promise to myself: If we made it through the night, I'd leave.

The shooting died down after midnight. We tried to sleep, but we woke up nearly every hour and checked to see if the sun had risen. Somehow, morning seemed safe.

After dawn, the curfew ended, but we didn't want to be the first family on the road. Who knew if there were illegal checkpoints? Car bombs? Gunmen?

I stood in my home, remembering how my husband and I had told everyone that we'd never leave. I looked at my paintings, the century-old chest, all the antiques that we'd spent days picking out so carefully in Baghdad's ancient markets. They weren't just things, they were memories.

I had two suitcases. What to take? I stuffed one with my daughter's clothes and diapers, along with all our personal documents. Into the other went my smallest painting, a cherished Indian bedspread and warm sweaters for winter.

As we began loading the car, I realized that there was no space for the second bag. With a broken heart, I left it behind.

I told myself they were just material things. There's nothing we can't buy except our lives. Nothing was as important as my daughter, and I was still just grateful that we'd made it to morning.

I took one last look at my cozy living room, locked the door and walked away.

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(Al Awsy is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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