In Iraq, the Grim Reaper Creeps Closer

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By: Luke Baker

Death creeps up on you in Iraq. The longer you remain amid the country’s violence, the more insistent, the more bullying it becomes. Over time, more people you know die, or are left maimed, or have scrapes with death that leave them psychologically scarred.

All along there have been stories about it — those killed by aerial bombardments, children blown apart by suicide bombs, families caught in crossfire, slain at the hands of insurgents or murdered by criminals. In March of last year, I stood in the street in Kerbala as suicide bombers exploded among crowds of Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims, killing more than 100 people, including dozens standing around me, strangers who became new victims of Iraq’s conflict.

But in recent months, the deaths have grown more personalized. It’s not just random people who die anymore, but people you’ve met, people you’ve interviewed, some you know quite well, colleagues you work with everyday, friends even. Almost every week, someone on the staff at Reuters, just one of a dozen or so news organizations still operating in the country, has a new tale to tell of a relative — a brother, a mother, a cousin, or a son — killed in terrible circumstances.

Last month, one of the team of drivers, Yassin, said he needed some time off to look for his brother who had been missing from his job as a blacksmith for five days. Relatives searched fruitlessly, until, desperate, they decided to look in Baghdad’s morgue, a building on the banks of the Tigris that is literally overflowing with bodies.

After trawling through the autopsy rooms, pulling out the cold trays on which the bodies are kept, Yassin found his brother, Ibrahim. He recognized him by a tattoo on the inside of his arm and by the clothes he was wearing. He couldn’t recognize Ibrahim’s face because his body had been left outside in the sun after he was killed and the intense summer heat had burned his skin beyond recognition.

Two days ago, another driver, Saed, still wearing the black clothes of mourning he has worn since his brother died in a car accident, heard that his cousin had been killed. A Shi’ite Muslim who had lived all his life in a mostly Sunni Muslim area, he was killed for belonging to the “wrong” religious sect. “Death squads” from either sect now operate. They drive around ridding neighborhoods of Sunnis or Shi’ites.

In recent months, the litany has continued: the brother of the man who buys food for the office was killed by a roadside bomb, the cousin of our Arabic service correspondent was tortured and killed after being taken by the police, the father-in-law of one of our translators was shot by U.S. troops and had to have his leg amputated, the brother of our reporter in Falluja was killed by Iraqi troops.

Last month, a Sunni Muslim politician who became a regular source was gunned down in Baghdad because he was working on writing the new constitution. His name and number are still in our list of contacts — emotionally, it’s not easy instantly to erase them.

That is just one office. Others have similar stories to tell.

The vast majority of those who have died are Iraqis, and a huge number are also innocent victims. There is no definitive record, but Iraq Body Count, a U.S.-British non-profit group, estimates 25,000 civilians were killed in just the first two years after the war began. They compiled the figure from media reports, which suggests the total is probably much higher — far from every death is reported by the media. Almost none of those mentioned above were.

Over the same period, more than 1,850 U.S. troops have also died, 1,400 of them killed in combat, and more than 13,000 have been wounded, many of them horrifically, with the loss of limbs or their sight.

Journalists have not escaped either. More than 50 reporters and media workers have died in Iraq since March 2003, making it the most dangerous place in the world for the media to work.

Reuters has had two cameramen killed, shot dead by U.S. tank or machinegun fire. Another cameraman, a freelancer who worked for Reuters, was shot dead last November during a U.S. Marine offensive in Ramadi. Several other Reuters cameramen have been shot at, barely escaping alive.

Marla Ruzicka, a young American woman who ran an aid group that worked to win compensation for the innocent victims of war, and who was a constant presence among the press corps in Baghdad, was killed by a car bomb on Baghdad’s airport road.

Sometimes the horror stories come out of nowhere. I met an Iraqi Airways official in northern Iraq two weeks ago and we chatted for a while about his life and family. Last week I called to see how he was doing and he broke down on the phone.

“It’s too terrible,” he said. “I came home from work three days ago and as my son was running to say hello to me, he collapsed on the ground. I went to him and he was covered in blood.” His son, 10-year-old Mohammed, had been hit by a stray bullet. It went through his neck, severing his vertebrae, and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

One of Iraq’s leading psychiatrists, Dr Harith Hassan, believes the country may be the most psychologically damaged in the world, thanks not just to 25 years of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, but the past 2-1/2 years of violence. “The long-term implications are profound,” he told me this month, estimating that up to 70% of the patients he sees are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “What’s going on is really a catastrophe from a psychological and a social point of view.”

It is perhaps not for nothing that one of the legends of the grim reaper is set in Iraq. According to the legend, a servant sees Death in the market in Baghdad. Fearing his time has come, he runs back to his master and begs a horse to ride far away to Samarra. After he has fled, the master goes to find Death in the marketplace. “Why did you scare my servant?” he demands of Death. “I wasn’t trying to scare him, I was just surprised to see him,” Death replies. “For I have an appointment with him this evening in Samarra.”

In Iraq these days, the Samarra of the legend can seem all around.

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