In Saddam City, signs of hope

Baghdad: In a fetid, sprawling slum, desperate Iraqis band together against gunmen who attack their neighborhood.

War In Iraq

April 16, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In this neighborhood called Saddam City, theft hardly seems worth the effort because there is almost nothing to steal. People have little food or water, few belongings, no electricity. They have, though, a ton of automatic weapons and just enough hope - optimism would be too strong a word - that they are willing to shoot at people, and they do.

Saddam City has the highest concentration of poor people in Iraq, somewhere around 3 million souls who live little better than the sickly horses and donkeys that stand in the heat like statues under a sun that beats down mercilessly.

The animals stand next to, and sometimes in, the steaming piles of garbage that line the wide strip of dirt that marks the neighborhood's borders, that tells visitors they are entering a dangerous neighborhood filled with desperate people.

Residents have been firing those rifles because they have had no hope for decades and are unwilling to lose the little they have gained with the arrival of Americans. And gunmen, maybe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's fedayeen, have been shooting people who live here, women and children being no exception, trying to steal that hope.

Saddam City is one giant slum that seems to sprawl forever, but each gutterless dirt road leads to malnourished children, to worried mothers battling clouds of black flies as they scavenge through piles of trash for fuel or food, to frustrated men who have been beaten down for more than two decades and now see a better future ahead but with gunmen standing in their way.

The people who live here are Shiites, members of the Muslim sect that Hussein, a Sunni, chose to weaken to make himself appear stronger. When he felt particularly threatened, the security forces that monitored this place wielded torture and murder with as much thought as writing parking tickets, and no one but these people gave it a look.

"Saddam Hussein provided only enough food so we could survive to serve him, not to live," said Fadhil Muhsin al-Zurgani, who is 60, gray-haired and skinny, and nearly blind behind eyeglasses round and thick.

"He made the dog hungry so it will follow him."

That Hussein named this neighborhood after himself seemingly had to result from a plan to add insult to the other forms of cruelty he had mastered, because he could not have been proud of the setting.

Saddam City comprises about 9.3 square miles, about one-tenth the size of Baghdad proper, but is home to half its population and most of its hell. People are crammed inside tiny houses like mice in a hole, and the smell of sewage wafts everywhere.

This area used to be called Thawra, or revolution. Most Shiites in Iraq are in the south, and people were drawn here with the promise of sharing in the riches of Iraq's oil. They were lied to.

Residents shed the name of their neighborhood soon after U.S. forces drove the Iraqi military from the holes that still mark the neighborhood, making it look all the more like the moon. The people here now refer to their neighborhood as Sadr City, named for the Shiite leader Muhammad al-Sadr who was killed by the government in the late 1990s.

That is one of the signs of hope.

Over the past week, gunmen have arrived here sometimes during the day and sometimes at night, unseen. They fire weapons at whatever moves, then try to get away.

So men and boys have been patrolling the streets with their Kalashnikov rifles fully loaded, have set up their own roadblocks leading into the city, using bricks or stones or bedsprings or pieces of wood with spikes pounded into them.

They stop visitors at gunpoint to interrogate them about their intentions, where they live, why they are coming into their neighborhood if they do not live here, because there is really no reason to enter if not to return to a crumbling mud-brick house, likely to be filled with a dozen people living cheek to jowl in no more than four rooms.

Sometimes there are arguments at the checkpoints, and a rifle shot and another death seem only a word away, so people are advised to drive slowly and to be careful and not to move hands or arms too quickly.

On Monday, residents shot two men, maybe three, depending on who is telling the story, and maybe they were Hussein's thugs, or maybe they were foreign fighters. They would have seen children playing soccer, barefoot, in dirt and garbage and the waste of wobbly horses and exhausted donkeys and packs of mangy dogs.

The outsiders who were shot, whoever they were, were taken to the Hijja Alqaiem mosque and locked in rooms, then they were taken to a hospital for treatment and then moved to another, the Thawra Alam Hospital.

"We have to fight with everything we have to defend our families," said Sheik Russohh al-Gharrawi, who has been using the scratchy amplifiers fixed atop his mosque to implore his followers to grab their rifles. He set the minimum age for patrolling with a Kalashnikov at 15, but many of the boys who carry the guns strapped over their backs like schoolbags appear under 12.

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