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Dexter Filkins

“In places like Dora, Gazaliya and Sadiya, the insurgents had taken to killing the garbagemen. It seemed strange at first that they would do that, kill a man who collected the trash. Then they started killing the bakers. In those places, naturally enough, the garbage piled up in the streets, heaps of it, mountains of it, and there wasn’t any bread. Then they started killing the teachers, and the teachers stopped going to the schools. And the children stopped going, of course. So: no bread and no schools and mountains of trash. Ingenious, I guess, if you wanted to stop the functioning of a neighborhood.

Not long after, I talked about these things with Yusra al-Hakeem, one of the Iraqi interpreters I worked with. Yusra was one of my best Iraqi friends. She was bright, funny and loud, one of those Iraqis who had taken immediately to the new freedoms. And yet in the past year life had changed dramatically for Yusra, and Yusra had changed herself. A Shiite and a liberal, Yusra had begun wearing a long black abaya, which she loathed but which was necessary, she believed, to protect her from the militias in her neighborhood. Yusra usually tore it from her head the second she walked inside the Times compound. ‘Stupid thing,’ she’d say, hurling it onto the couch.

And now Yusra had decided to leave the country. At first she joked in her usual way. ‘After 1,400 years, the Shiites have had their chance, and look at the mess they made. The Shiites, they cannot govern Iraq—bring back the Sunnis!’ And then a laugh. Yusra didn’t mean it—she loathed Saddam. But the danger was different now, debilitating in a way it had not been during the years of Saddam.

‘I am so tired,’ Yusra said. ‘In Saddam’s time, I knew that if I kept my mouth shut, if I did not say anything against him, I would be safe. But now it is different. There are so many reasons why someone would want to kill me now: because I am Shiite, because I have a Sunni son, because I work for the Americans, because I drive, because I am a woman with a job, because’—she picked up her abaya—‘I don’t wear my stupid hejab.’

She took my notebook and flipped it to a blank page. This was Yusra’s way of explaining her situation and, sensing the limitations of language, she would sometimes seize a reporter’s notebook and diagram her predicament. She drew a large circle in the middle.

‘This was Saddam,’ she said. ‘He is here. Big. During Saddam’s time, all you had to do was stay away from this giant thing. That was not pleasant, but not so hard.’

She flipped to another blank page. She drew a dozen circles, some of them touching, some overlapping. A small galaxy. She put her pen in the middle and made a dot.

‘The dot in the middle, that is me—that is every Iraqi,’ she said. ‘From everywhere you can be killed, from here, from here, from here, from here.’ She was stabbing her pen into the notepad.

‘We Iraqis,’ she said. ‘We are all sentenced to death and we do not know by whom.’

And so she would leave Iraq. For Jordan, for Syria—and then, if she was lucky, for America.”


From The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

Read on:

  • Andrew Bacevich cites the theological concept of original sin to answer a political question about future warfare
  • My all time favorite debate: Christopher Hitchens versus George Galloway on the Iraq War
  • I wrote a post about how the incentives of the U.S. political system, and structure of our military, perpetuate endless wars

Iraq War