BAGHDAD — The thump of a car bomb explosion, then a whoosh of flame interrupting homework; the low boom of a roadside bomb and seconds later the shattering of glass jolting families awake; an apartment door being kicked open in the middle of the night and someone shouting in a foreign language; the pop, pop, pop of bullets whizzing past in a firefight and the bang of doors slamming as grown-ups drag children inside.
For six years, during the war launched by the United States in 2003 and the sectarian conflict it gave birth to, this was the soundtrack of life in Iraq, and especially for those under age 26 — about 23 million people, nearly half of the population. Trauma was a daily event. Losses touched nearly every family.
Now, especially in Baghdad, many young people want to move on. The cities have somewhat recovered from the war years, and more affluent young Iraqis frequent coffee shops, go to malls and attend live concerts. Even so, most conversations keep circling back to a relative who was killed, family members who were displaced or lingering doubts about Iraq’s future.
Wars leave scars even when people survive with their bodies intact. The metallic whirring of helicopters, the flash of flares, the smell of burning after bombs, the taste of fear, the ache of something lost — all of these linger long after the fighting stops.
“The war took away our childhood,” said Noor Nabih, 26, whose mother was wounded in crossfire from a passing American convoy and then seriously injured again in a bomb blast.
Joao Silva, a New York Times photographer, and Alissa J. Rubin, a senior correspondent, recently talked to young Iraqis in Baghdad about their lives, their thoughts on the American invasion and the state of their country. Here are some of their stories.
‘I was so scared I lay down on the ground.’
Mohammed Hassan Jawad Jassim, 25
Mohammed was 5 at the time of the invasion. Every explosion startled him. The first time he saw an American vehicle hit a roadside bomb, he said, the blast vibrated through him; then came a barrage of bullets.
“I was so scared I lay down on the ground and pressed my face into the road,” he recalled.
Before long, the U.S. soldiers began to knock at the family’s door in search of Shiite Muslim militia members loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr. “I was afraid they were going to shoot,” he said.
With 17 sisters and brothers, and a father who could barely piece together a living working in a garage, Mohammed could not focus at school, and dropped out after second grade. “I had thoughts of death,” he said. “Sometimes I tied a blindfold around my eyes and sat in a dark room.”
When he was 21, his daughter, Tabarak, was born and he wanted to get a government job but had no connections to politicians who could help him. Indignant, he joined the 2019 youth protests over government corruption and the Iranian presence in Iraq, known in the Arab world as the October Revolution.
On his first day at the protests, a tear-gas canister exploded in his face, pulling one eye out its socket and damaging the other. His world went dark.
Now his daughter is 4; he also has a 1-year old son, Adam.
“My only wish is that I could have my eyesight so that I could see my children,” he said. “Adam came into the world after I was hit, so I have never seen him.
‘When I play, I forget where I am.’
Fadi Khalil Ibrahim Paulus Alo, 26, and his sister, Fadia Khalil Ibrahim Paulus Alo, 24
Throughout the war, Fadi and his sister, Fadia, found solace in the Baghdad Music and Ballet School.
Many of their fellow Christians had fled Iraq, and the smell of smoke filled their lungs as they studied. American soldiers kept barging into their family’s fifth-floor apartment in search of insurgents, only to stop in their tracks when they saw the portrait of Jesus in prayer over the television.
But the music school was a refuge for the siblings, a world of harmonies instead of explosions.
“When I play, I forget where I am,” said Fadi, a computer auditor at the Central Bank of Iraq, as well as a flutist in the Iraqi National Orchestra.
But when the notes fade, he wonders whether he can really spend the rest of his life in Iraq.
Fadia is now a marketing agent for an Iraqi electronic payment system and a violist in the orchestra. When she was 12, a car bomb exploded at a municipal court next door to the school. She recalled the eerie silence right afterward and then screaming.
After checking on her brother, she fetched a first-aid bag; bandaged the leg of the principal, which had been sliced by shrapnel; and helped first graders who had been cut by glass and shrapnel. “The children were so scared, so I knew what I had to do,” she said.
“It was strange to be so calm when everyone was screaming and crying, but it came from God,” she said.
Fadia loves the theme music from the film “LaLa Land” and Smetana dances. Unlike her brother, she sees her future in Iraq.
“I am attached to this place,” she said. “When I am here, I feel at home.”
‘It was all beautiful until Hussain was shot.’
Dalia Mazin Sedeeq Al-Hatim, 24; Hussain Sarmad Kadhim Al-Bayati, 26
Dalia, 24, and Hussain, 26, met at the hospital where they were both pharmacists. It took Hussain just a month to know he wanted to marry Dalia and for Dalia to feel the same about Hussain.
They had much in common. Both were from families that prized education; both had grown up with the sounds of war. Dalia remembered watching the Nickelodeon cartoon channel when bombs began to fall on Baghdad; Hussain remembered windows being blown out from a bomb blast.
And both their families fled to Syria when the war came too close to home. Dalia’s school bus driver disappeared during the sectarian fighting and was later found dead, and the same happened to Hussain’s brother’s school bus driver.
Their one difference — Dalia is a Sunni Muslim and Hussain is a Shia Muslim — did not matter to them, although they knew it might to others. “Even if our sect could be an obstacle, we agreed that it wouldn’t be,” Hussain said.
“On the day I proposed to Dalia, my father insisted that I tell Dalia’s family that I am a Shia so it is clear and Dalia’s family won’t be surprised someday,” he said. “They said: ‘We do not care what sect you are. We care that you love our daughter and she loves you.’”
Even before their Feb. 18 wedding day, the violence that is part of daily life touched them. Hussain was stabbed and shot during a robbery while working the night shift at a pharmacy.
“It was all beautiful until Hussain was shot and now we were once again reminded of the reality of Baghdad,” Dalia said.
They hope now, Hussain said, “for health and safety.”
‘I cannot see much of a future.’
Sulaiman Fayadh Sulaiman, 22
Sulaiman was 3 years old in August 2003, and having an early breakfast with his father in their family’s garden when, he recalled, “five bullets came to our house, four hit the wall and different parts of the house, and one hit me.”
The bullet went through his abdominal wall and passed into his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. Then, as he was being treated at a spinal injury hospital, a huge truck bomb targeting the United Nations headquarters next door badly damaged the hospital and buried him in rubble.
Months later, his father brought him to the gate of an American base, hoping to find aid for the boy, since his initial injuries were caused by a skirmish with U.S. soldiers. A soldier told his father that he would bring Sulaiman to the United States for treatment, and that he “would send me back able to walk again.”
But when they returned to the base, he said, “the soldiers at the gate said the soldier who was going to take me had been transferred two days before.”
Years later the disappointment is still traced upon his face.
Since then, Sulaiman has found flashes of joy as a member of the Iraqi Paralympic archery team, competing internationally. For brief moments, he said, as he holds his bow, fits his arrow and pulls the string, he can smile. But the happiness fades quickly.
“I cannot see much of a future,” he said.
Hamza, 24, grew up with the military in his blood. His father had been a colonel when Saddam Hussein was in power, and rejoined the Iraqi Army, which the Americans initially dissolved, after it was reconstituted. He bonded with the American soldiers he worked with, rising to the rank of general.
“My dream, my passion for becoming an officer, started at the age of 12,” Hamza recalled. “Our school had a costume party, and my father gave me his uniform with his rank and colors to wear. It was a great thing, and the next day I told him, ‘I want to become like you.’”
But the family was seen as traitors by some of his father’s former army colleagues who had joined the insurgents fighting the American military. One group of militants tried to kidnap Hamza’s older brother. Then, in 2014, Hamza’s father was killed as he was fighting in Anbar against the country’s newest scourge, the Islamic State.
From then on, he said, he wanted “to make my father be proud of me in the hereafter and feel that I did something for him, just as he raised and supported me.”
Hamza graduated at the top of his class in military college and became the youngest lieutenant in the history of the post-2003 Iraqi Army. His first mission: to fight the remnants of the Islamic State, the same militants who killed his father.
Now he is an officer in charge of security for the Joint Command, which includes the senior staff of the Iraq Armed Forces. His dream is to reach the same rank as his father.
‘I still have fear inside me.’
Noor Nabih, 26
Soft voiced and restrained, Noor recited her experiences of life after the invasion.
She is a Sunni Muslim, from the religiously mixed area around Samarra about two hours north of Iraq’s capital, and at first the fighting did not touch her. But in 2005, she said, “we began to hear the sounds of gunfire and explosions.”
“We knew it was the Americans, because the news was everywhere that this was an American war,” she recalled.
Soon after, the family moved to Baghdad. But back in Samarra, her fathers’ four brothers were kidnapped by anti-American Sunni insurgents. The youngest, the one Noor was closest to, “was shot many times, his body was left by a rubbish heap.”
Then the insurgents torched her grandfather’s house.
When Noor was 11, the family returned to Samarra to put flowers on her uncle’s grave. As they drove, a firefight between U.S. troops and insurgents forced them to take a detour. A stray bullet flew through a window, hitting her mother in her side. They believed it came from the U.S. troops because of its caliber.
Her father instructed her to stop the bleeding with tissues, she said, but the blood soaked through. “I felt I had lost everything,” she said.
Her mother survived, and the family fled to Syria for a time. Then, soon after they returned to Iraq, a bomb attached to the underside of her parents’ car by unknown people left her mother with a traumatic brain injury.
“I do not feel safe in Iraq, period, and if I have a chance to leave this country I will,” Noor said. “I still have fear inside me every day, despite all my attempts to forget what I have seen.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.