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Best of 2013: Watching as Iraq crumbled

  • 07 January 2014

Ten years ago in Baghdad, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I sat with my Iraqi friend in his photo store. I was his last customer, he said; the bombs would begin tomorrow. And then he began to quietly weep.

We sat in silence for several minutes before he spoke again: 'We don't know our future now, we have no idea what will happen.' It was this uncertainty that raised his anxiety, having no idea how it would all turn out. Indeed nobody knew. 'I'm so sorry,' I whispered, and wept quietly with him. 

Then he held out his shaking hand and gave me the prayer beads he was holding. 'Thanks for being here,' he whispered. I remember thinking that his life, and the lives of others like him, would not be given a second's thought in the coming days as the missiles rained down on Baghdad.

The bombs started the next day, early on 20 March 2003. I carried his prayer beads every day.

Ten years on I doubt that in his worst imaginings, he would have predicted what we see in Iraq today: a divided, violent, failed state, its social fabric torn, a new sectarian religious dictatorship in place receiving orders from outside powers such as Iran, political death squads, Al Qaeda cells wreaking havoc, flagrant human rights violations, minorities persecuted almost to the point of extinction. I could go on.

I went back to the photo store of my friend the next time I was in Baghdad, a few months after the initial invasion. It was still boarded up. I continued to return each month, but there was no sign of him. I have just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq and again I made the regular pilgrimage to the place on busy Saddoon Street where his shop used to be. I don't think I expected him to suddenly be there.

The trip is more about marking that solemn occasion, the day before everything changed, like visiting a memorial, or a gravesite — to commemorate.

As the world marks the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media hosts many 'experts', 'analysts', former generals and politicians, most of whom have never been to Iraq or, if they have, resided in the 'Green Zone', Saddam's former palace, a virtual foreign city-state surrounded by concrete and razor wire.

This retelling of history from the view of official sources excludes