Death And Life Inside The World’s Most Terrorized City

Alice Martins for BuzzFeed News

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Dhulfiqar Oraibi hadn’t even wanted to leave the house that Saturday night.

He was tired. Earlier that day, the 16-year-old and his 26-year-old brother, Muthana, had gone to Baghdad’s International Airport to pick up their father, back from a business trip to Italy. It had been hot outside, with temperatures well above 90 degrees for much of the day. All were cranky from fasting dawn to dusk during Ramadan. Dhulfiqar was taking an evening nap when his father felt drawn to his youngest son’s second-floor bedroom to check on him.

“This feeling came to me and just drew me upstairs,” said Ghanim Oraibi, a former star defender on Iraq’s national soccer team, who rarely climbed stairs because of a nagging knee injury. “I spent five minutes watching him sleep and had this feeling it would be the last time I would see him.”

The explosion struck three hours later, at about a quarter to one in the morning of July 3, a walloping boom that shook the ground beneath the central and southwest neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. Ambulance and police sirens erupted throughout the city. A plume of thick black smoke rose, filling the night sky. Oraibi, woken by the explosion, searched for his sons but couldn’t find either of them. He tried both of them on their phones, finally reaching Muthana. Over the din, all he could make out was “pray for us” before the line went dead.

Oraibi had no idea Dhulfiqar had been coaxed out of his nap by Muthana and by his son-in-law, Ahmed Kadhem. The young men had left the house to take advantage of the cooler late-night temperature for a last-minute shopping trip to the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada. Eid al-Fitr, the weeklong holiday at the end of Ramadan, was coming up, and they wanted to buy some new clothes ahead of a vacation in the northern city of Erbil. So they joined the thousands of people who had flocked to the streets that night, taking advantage of the stores, cafés, and restaurants that had come back to life since Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi lifted an unpopular 12-year midnight curfew last year.

“I spent five minutes watching him sleep and had this feeling it would be the last time I would see him.”

Hundreds of people were in the streets — some shopping, others drinking tea and smoking shisha, still more simply out for a late-night stroll — when the explosion went off. The suicide bomber set off a car bomb at a key point along Inner Karrada street, between the Hadi and Laith multistory malls. Witnesses described a sound like a huge drum in their ears and an impact that tossed people dozens of feet away. Fire quickly engulfed the entire area, and the sounds of screaming competed with the wailing of car and building alarms.

In the confusion, some people out on the streets ran inside, worried about more bombs going off, while others already in the shops fled deeper into the shopping centers. But poor construction standards and minimal fire safety regulations meant the explosion set both buildings alight. More than 300 people died in the bombing and subsequent fires. The attack, claimed by ISIS, plunged a lively Ramadan night in one of the capital’s most vibrant districts into a scene of horror. Some of the bodies were so badly mangled that they have yet to be identified, more than three months later. The bodies of others who died appeared unharmed, their lungs scorched by toxic smoke inhalation as perfumes from the many fragrance and cosmetics shops burned.

Muthana and a friend spent hours searching through the bodies at the mall. Working alongside rescue workers, they pulled out scores of bodies. Eventually he identified his brother-in-law, Ahmed Kadhem, by the watch he had given him. It was already daylight when they came upon Muthana’s little brother. “The last one was Dhulfiqar,” he said. “His legs had been burned off.”

Ghanim Oraibi’s wife places a football jersey over a picture of their 16-year-old son Dhulfiqar, Sept. 24, 2016.

Alice Martins for BuzzFeed News

For days afterward, mourners beat their chests and wept in endless and all-too-familiar processions of grieving. The dead were carried in simple wooden coffins from mosques across the capital, placed on the top of minivans, and taken to the great cemetery at the shrine city of Najaf, where Shia bury their dead. Sunnis took their dead to the cemetery at Abu Ghraib, just to the west of the capital, while the small number of mostly Chaldean Christians buried their loved ones at a cemetery just to the northeast of the city limits.

And yet, for all the death and the trauma it caused Iraqis, the bombing drew relatively little attention from the rest of the world, especially when compared to attacks over the summer in Nice and Orlando. It generated few front-page headlines and little, if any, of the nonstop TV coverage that follows attacks in the West. “The worst ISIS attack in days is the one the world probably cares least about,” the Washington Post concluded at the time.

Watching wall-to-wall news coverage of the aftermath of attacks in the West, Baghdad residents wish the world would also pay attention to their suffering.

“Baghdad is not just a city for Iraqis,” said Dhia Assadi, an Iraqi politician. “It’s a historical city, the first city of 1 million people. It was the first with a proper university, a city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together and negotiated with each other. What is happening shouldn’t be happening to us. It’s a job for everyone in the world to solve.”

“We are facing bombs every day. Bomb, bomb, bomb — every day.”

Thirteen years after the US invasion of Iraq unleashed a new era of instability, many around the world have grown numb to violence in the Middle East, especially in Baghdad. During the peak years of 2006 and 2007, the city was struck daily by as many as 20 car bombs, suicide bombings, and roadside explosions targeting security forces, but often killing civilians. The country remains the world’s leading location of terrorist incidents, and Baghdad is the most dangerous city, with more than 1,000 incidents recorded each year. In October, a suicide bomber set off an explosion as a group of Shia religious pilgrims celebrated the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, in which at least 35 people were killed. It went barely reported by international media.

In the West, such attacks upend national politics, changing the outcome of elections, as they did after the 2004 commuter rail bombings in Madrid; help feed into the rise of right-wing politicians in France and Germany; or lead to drastic reformulations of security policy, as seen in Belgium after this year’s Brussels airport and subway bombings.

But terrorist attacks in Baghdad rarely have any political consequences. Just as Americans have grown numb to mass murders at schools, so too have residents of Baghdad mostly learned to shrug at the repeated bombings. Normal life proceeds. Street vendors and shop owners who survive bombings rinse their friends’ blood from their hands and sweep away the broken glass, setting up their stands at outdoor markets or reopening their doors, sometimes just hours after attacks. Men, women, and children stoically return to the new shopping malls, cafés, and parks that have sprouted around the capital.

Over the years, Iraqi authorities have managed to reduce the frequency and severity of the bombings by deploying new technology, improving law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts, and sharpening emergency response. But with Iraq’s budget severely strained by low oil prices and and the high cost of the war against ISIS, Baghdad remains woefully unprepared for attacks that would challenge even the wealthiest cities in the world.

“In New York, it’s once every 10 years,” said Dr. Ramzi Hadi Moussa, director of emergency ambulance services at Iraq’s Ministry of Health. “We are facing bombs every day. Bomb, bomb, bomb — every day.”

A view of the mall in Karrada, Sept. 22, 2016.

Alice Martins for BuzzFeed News

Iraq’s wave of terror began with three attacks during the hot, chaotic summer that followed the US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. That August, three attacks — outside the Jordanian embassy in western Baghdad, at the UN headquarters in the capital, and near the shrine of Imam Ali in the southern city of Najaf — established a pattern that would have dire consequences for Iraq.

In the years that followed, mainly Sunni insurgents set off thousands of bombs at outdoor markets and funeral tents in Shia neighborhoods. In turn, this fed the growth of armed Shia militias that prowled Sunni areas of the capital, abducting and murdering young men, in a cycle of violence that highlighted the government’s helplessness.

Authorities have sought desperately — if not always effectively — to stop these attacks, and stories abound of brave soldiers and cops putting themselves in harm’s way. Ending the attacks is a crucial element in boosting public faith in the elected government of Haider al-Abadi and weakening Shia militias largely organized, trained, or funded by Iran.

Every attack grinds away at public faith in the government. But the Karrada bombing was a far more severe jolt. Many Iraqis refused to blame ISIS for the bombing, instead placing responsibility on the authorities in Baghdad.

“I don’t believe it’s ISIS. I believe the government is trying to do this,” said Badeel Abdul Redha, 33, who lost his brother in the Karrada bombing. “There are problems between the parties, and the weak people like me are in the middle.”

“Women were screaming, children crying. There was firefighters yelling, and the nonstop sounds of sirens.”

Bowing to enormous public pressure voiced over social media and at politically charged funerals, al-Abadi’s government was forced to act. It discontinued the use of handheld bomb detectors long ago proven in UK courts to be fraudulent. Security operations were stepped up and checkpoints tightened; the frequently targeted Inner Karrada Street was turned into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Reducing the terrorist attacks is a priority for the government as well as the several thousand US and other military personnel in Baghdad.

Though US officials declined to confirm details of how Americans help Iraqis counter terrorist attacks, they acknowledged playing a role in training Iraqi personnel and advising officials on securing Baghdad. Many Iraqis feel the US bears a special responsibility for the transformation of their capital into one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Iraqis frequently lament that it was during the botched aftermath of the US invasion that extremist militant groups began stocking up on Iraqi munitions and explosives left unsecured by American forces. They argue that it was the US that decided to disband the Iraqi armed forces, which could have fought the terrorists. And it was the Americans that hardened the country’s divisions by doling out government positions based on religious and ethnic identity.

To Americans watching a US presidential campaign unfold in which Iraq is an occasional rhetorical device, the story of US failures in Iraq may already sound like history. But 13 years later, Iraqis suffer daily from the consequences.

Phone operators at an emergency call center in Baghdad, Sept. 19, 2016.

Alice Martins for BuzzFeed News

At the firehouse in central Baghdad, men sat around chain-smoking cigarettes and checking their phones. Across the city, many of the police, ambulance drivers, and other first responders were watching the big Germany–Italy European Championship soccer game on TV. It had been relatively calm in recent weeks, with long, hot Ramadan days subduing the unruly city. But then, just after midnight on July 3, the phones at Baghdad’s emergency center began to ring. Reports of a bombing in Karrada. Then a fire. The calls became increasingly panicked, desperate. Very quickly it became clear this was going to be a really nasty one.

Dozens of water tankers arrived from all over the city, with firefighters battling the inferno until well past dawn. “It was not a normal fire,” said Hamid, 28, a rescue worker. “People think if you douse a fire with water it will stop, but this wasn’t like that.”

Bombings in Baghdad are often followed by second or even third explosions and attacks timed to target first responders. Abbas Shelashadai, who has been driving an ambulance in Baghdad for 10 years, sometimes responding to multiple terrorist attacks in one shift, knows this all too well. Last year, Shelashadai, 58, was getting ready to pick up a wounded soldier in the southern Baghdad district of Dora when a colleague volunteered to take the call for him. When the team arrived at the scene, they were surrounded by insurgents, who opened fire on them. The driver, Akram Mohammad Tai, 45, was killed, the other two members of his crew wounded. Stricken with guilt for weeks, Shelashadai promised never again to let someone else take one of his assignments.

Despite the carnage he has witnessed, nothing prepared him for the Karrada bombing. Pulling up in his ambulance, he couldn’t quite believe the scale of the destruction. “People were burned,” he said. “It was something very awful. Women were screaming, children crying. There was firefighters yelling, and the nonstop sounds of sirens.”

The bodies of the wounded and dying were brought to Baghdad hospitals, which are barely capable of looking after the daily flood of victims of car accidents, let alone those hit by roadside bombs or gunshot wounds. A bombing of this scale was overwhelming. Distraught, angry relatives soon followed, and doctors remember a scene of chaos.

Dr. Mustafa Saleh was stunned by the number of patients and the extent of the injuries he saw when he walked into the emergency room of his west Baghdad hospital early that Saturday morning. ER doctors were still struggling to treat patients, many of whom had suffered severe lung damage and extreme burns exacerbated by toxic chemicals, as well as the more typical retinue of shrapnel wounds and crushed limbs.

“The situation in Karrada is devastating, because the bodies were mangled beyond recognition.”

“It was one of the bloodiest days of my life,” said Saleh. “Hundreds of people were trying to find their relatives, screaming. There was a huge number of ambulances. There was blood on the floors and at the entrance to the emergency room outside and a very bad smell of burnt flesh.”

Saleh is 35 years old, and his professional career has been consumed by war. He was trained at a time of peace, but watched in despair as the country’s medical system collapsed following the 2003 US invasion. He recalled the first day he was preparing to treat patients from a big terrorist attack, following a suicide bomb at a bus station. The ER chief at the time was a legend, a veteran of the Iran–Iraq war. “He said, ‘You guys are going to see some very hard things. I saw it in the war. Stay calm. Listen to me. And don’t panic.’” The now all-too-familiar procession of police, bleeding patients, and relatives began flooding the hospital. He and another young doctor began moving a patient when his severed head came off. “My colleague went into shock, his eyes became big, and I had to escort him from the hospital,” he said. It was the first of many such horrors.

Despite efforts by US officials to help rebuild the country’s medical infrastructure and billions spent on public health, the fleet of ambulances is already outdated, medics remain improperly trained, the number of doctors inadequate. Patients die needlessly of wounds that should be relatively straightforward to treat.

The carnage of the Karrada bombing shocked even Baghdad doctors long used to the most extreme violence. More than three months after the attack, officials have yet to identify around 60 of the bodies, and a handful of DNA specialists are slowly sorting through the human remains. “The situation in Karrada is devastating, because the bodies were mangled beyond recognition,” Saleh said.

A staircase inside the mall in Karrada shows the extent of the damage from the bombing, Sept. 22, 2016.

Alice Martins for BuzzFeed News


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