Baghdadis tell their side: 'It was hell' THE OTHER SIDE OF VICTORY WAR IN THE GULF

July 30, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When the bombing of the capital began, his teen-age daughter leapt from her bed like a spring and cried in fear, "They are coming."

Mr. J gathered his family downstairs in a darkened dining room and told them, "It is now out of our hands. We can do nothing." They watched the ribbons of anti-aircraft fire knit the sky as Baghdad glowed in the lash of the bombardment.

In her home, Mrs. O shivered in bed: "I was paralyzed with fear. I did not think it would happen. It was hell, such hell."

They are the citizens of Baghdad, the pawns caught on the board of global politics when the game became war. Now that it is over and more reporters have returned to Iraq, they give their accounts of fear and endurance, of what it was like on the other side of the bombs.

Mrs. O, like perhaps half of Baghdad's 4 million residents, fled the city. Mr. J stayed throughout the aerial siege. Their accounts are typical. Just as typically, they are afraid of being identified by name.

"On the first night, there was a horrible explosion," Mrs. O said. "I said to my husband, 'This is it.' Then I heard the zzhush, zzhush -- the sound of missiles. We got to know that sound very well."

She lives in a fashionable neighborhood in a seven-story apartment building. The structure danced with the force of concussions, Mrs. O said. They decided to run to a nearby shelter.

"It is a five-minute walk, but I was paralyzed," she said. "The sky was like fire. There were explosions, sirens." At the shelter, they saw the first fatality: a woman dead of a heart attack.

"At daybreak, we decided to try to leave the city." For weeks, Mrs. O had kept suitcases packed for travel and enough food for a week. They hurried back to the apartment through the drumbeat of more explosions. It was dark. There was no telephone.

"Maybe a million Baghdadis had the same idea at the same time," she said. "There were thousands and thousands of other cars. People were panicking. Children were crying. There were no traffic lights, and you just drove every which way to try to move. We thought we were going to die on the road."

They stayed at a cousin's town 60 miles from Baghdad. Even that far away, they could feel the earth shake with the bombardments.

"It was like a daily program. The planes flew over every evening, very, very high. Sometimes we could see them, sometimes we could just see their smoke [vapor] trails. Four minutes later, 'Boom.' We got on the roof of the building, and we could see a horrible glow from Baghdad. I felt miserable. I was furious at Bush -- Mrs. Thatcher, too. I felt hatred so strong. How can he do this? How can he bomb the children? The people? How can he destroy all the beautiful things we have built up?"

In Baghdad, Mr. J had a different routine: "Every evening at 9, I poured myself a double whiskey. My son had hooked up a car battery to the radio, so I turned on the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.], Voice of America and Radio Damascus or Radio Cairo."

His wife and three children brought their mattresses to sleep downstairs in their home. Eventually, the raids became routine. "When we were having supper and the planes would come, we wouldn't even stop. We knew they aimed at government targets, and we would be safe unless there was a mistake."

Daily life was exhausting. Baghdad was virtually closed. They collected water from one small spigot that still dribbled. They used candles and lanterns. Every day, Mr. J walked for miles in search of food.

In February, Mr. J's elderly brother died. The last thing he said was that he was afraid of the planes. The brother was a Christian. There was no priest to bury him, no coffin, no way of getting to the cemetery. They held a funeral in the yard of a church in a lonely ceremony with barely 15 people watching. "In normal times, there would have been 400 who came," Mr. J said sadly.

"I was not angry at the Americans," he said. He blamed Saddam Hussein. "The only thing I am angry about is the Americans stopped. If they would have landed at the Baghdad airport, nobody would have been against them. If the war had lasted another three days, 99 percent of the army would have deserted."

Mrs. O returned to Baghdad immediately after the cease-fire on Feb. 28. There was no electricity or heat. She hauled water from five miles away. She cooked bread on a kerosene heater. After three weeks, they began to get water one hour a day. "You were so excited, you didn't know what to do. Do I wash myself? Do I wash my clothes? Do I cook?"

She swears she saw this: one high-flying jet engaged in skywriting, painting "Bush -- USA" with the vapor trails. "It was like waving a red cloth to a bull," she said. "The Americans behaved like bosses. We felt occupied, even though they were in the air."

Her greatest anger is directed at the Americans, but even Mrs. O faults her government.

"Most Iraqis are asking, 'What for? Why all the suffering?' They are more bitter and bitter.

"They feel that this one," she said with a nod over her shoulder in the direction of the presidential palace, "this one has to go."

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