The boys who lived through the thousand and one black nights of Baghdad want to rebuild devastated Iraq

Students waiting for a bus on Al Muttanabbi street in Baghdad. They claim they will have the strength to rebuild a democracy for Iraq twenty years after the US invasion and the fall of Saddam. (Jerome Delay/AP)

It was the third night of the war and Baghdad had turned into an inferno of fire and concrete flying through the air, twisted iron and huge columns of smoke. The great buildings of the regime saddam hussein on the west bank of the Tigris River were hit by US bombs. In a succession of few seconds Buildings that until then appeared to be indestructible were imploding and disappearing..

Balls of fire shot up into the sky, changing from deep red to orange to yellow. The explosions followed one after the other in a matter of seconds. The ground trembled as in an earthquake of great intensity. The window panes seemed to bend in two or three. The shock wave threw me against the balcony wall from where I was observing what was happening., about 1,000 or 1,500 meters away. With the third burst I flung myself into the room with my stomach against my back.


Deaf silence for a few seconds.


Another moment of silence and anguish.


Shaking. Daze. Lack of reaction.

The headquarters of the ruling party baaz, the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Oil and the seat of the national government were hit by missiles. They imploded. As if it were a controlled demolition, the explosion caused them to fall in on themselves. A few days later, when I was able to reach the place, there were only huge holes filled with rubble.

war in iraq
The boys of the war in Iraq lived the thousand and one black nights of the stories. Today, the invading foreign troops are already in the past. (ODD ANDERSEN / AFP) (ODD ANDERSEN /)

happened in the morning of March 22-23, 2003, 20 years ago. The flimsy defenses of the Saddamist regime fell like little pieces of paper. The government was collapsing and the US army was advancing south into Baghdad with almost no resistance. In two weeks they would be taking control of the capital of Iraq and Saddam would flee to hide in another hole, like the one where the buildings had disappeared, but much smaller and undignified.

Before leaving the already invaded country, I went to see a family of Iraqis who had lived in Spain. Badía divorced her husband years before and went to live in Madrid. When the war broke out, she went back to be with her children that her father wouldn’t let out of Iraq. I chatted for a long time with 15-year-old Ali on the balcony of her house from where we could see the disorderly traffic that was gradually returning to the avenue haifa. She told me how she saw the future. “My friends from school, from the building, everyone I know thinks the same thing,” she told me. “We don’t like those from the Baath party or the fundamentalist Shiites or those who come from exile. And they don’t know us. They don’t understand that we want the same as any other kid from America or Syria. We want to be free, modern, independent. And me and my friends are going to do everything to have that freedom”.

Iraq, young people want to rebuild the country after 20 years of the US invasion.
A group of women crosses the “bridge of the martyrs” over the Tigris river on the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the US invasion. (Jerome Delay/AP)

Twenty years later, not far from where the bombs fell on government buildings, crowds of teenagers now gather on Fridays to listen to rap and hip-hop festivals like the one that took place last weekend. Khalifa OG, a 23-year-old rapper who formed a band with some classmates from the Hay al Jihad school in Baghdad. His last song tabsy, was downloaded a million times in eight days. There are the kids who survived the civil war and the anarchy created by the US invasion, who never lived under Saddam’s dictatorship and who are fed up with religious sectarianism, tribal chieftains and the extreme corruption of the society in which they live. Khalifa OG says that they were born during the thousand and one black nights comparing it with the tales that Scheherazade told King Shahriar in order not to die.

Of the fantastic stories of the magic carpet and Sinbad the Sailor, there are only a few sculptures left in some roundabouts in Baghdad that survived the bombings and the civil war, the magnificent works of the sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmatwho died while being taken to a hospital during one of these clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.

Iraq, young people want to rebuild the country after 20 years of the US invasion.
The image of a young Iraqi last week in Baghdad, impossible to see in the context of the last 20 years of internal wars. Today, a new generation makes it possible. (Jerome Delay/AP)

The Iraqi capital is enjoying a rare parenthesis of peace these days in a painful modern history of violence. The historic center came back to life after the protests that took place there for almost a year due to the lack of work and corruption. The ancient book fair has reopened and people hang around the stalls without the fear they had until a few months ago that a kamikaze might appear at any moment and sow death. In the suburbs that until recently were a hotbed for al Qaeda and ISIS militants, is now packed with kids wanting to show off their latest-model cars. The girls walk calmly and the vast majority do not cover their hair or faces and dress like any other girl their age from a European capital. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt, and repair work is everywhere. It is not that there is an extraordinary economic boom, but a new middle class that wants to get rid of the past is prospering.

The war toppled a dictator whose imprisonment, torture and execution of dissidents kept 20 million people in fear for a quarter of a century. But the US invasion also shattered what had been a unified state at the heart of the Arab world, opening a power vacuum and leaving oil-rich Iraq a wounded nation in the Middle East, ready for a power struggle between Iran, the Arab Gulf states, the United States, terrorist groups and Iraq’s own rival sects and parties.

Iraq, young people want to rebuild the country after 20 years of the US invasion.
Rapper Khalifa OG summons thousands of young people in the presentation of his show, last week, on one of the stages built on the banks of the Tigris River (Jerome Delay/AP)

The trauma of war is not that it disappeared. It is impossible. At least 300,000 Iraqis died between 2003 and 2023according to him Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Also about 4,000 US soldiers and as many special agents and contractors. They were 20 years of destruction and death, unemployment, sectarian violence and terrorism. Kids who go to see their favorite rapper remember their teenage years without electricity all too well. Although half of the 40 million Iraqis are not old enough to remember neither the days of Saddam nor the 20 day war. They enjoy the “spring” that they live, with freedoms that their parents never dreamed of.

When I was able to enter Saddam’s palace, in the so-called Green Zone of Baghdad, two days after the fall of the regime in 2003, the American soldiers were sleeping on the armchairs and some were bathing in the dictator’s pool. Today, the palace is fully rebuilt in the splendor of decades ago, though it has lost the marble sculptures of Saddam’s head in a Saladin-style turban that adorned the entrances. There, in a black and white marbled room with damask sofas and surrounded by paintings by contemporary Iraqi artists, the president Abdul Latif Rashidwho took office in October, received two colleagues from the Associated Press who also lived through the war in Baghdad and returned to see the changes two decades later. Rashid spoke enthusiastically of the country’s prospects. He said the global perception of Iraq as a war-torn country is a thing of the past. “Iraq is rich; peace has returned, he assured, “and there are opportunities ahead for young people in a country experiencing a demographic boom.” And he added: “If they have a little patience, I think life in Iraq will improve drastically.”

Iraq, young people want to rebuild the country after 20 years of the US invasion.
Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a doctoral candidate at Mustansiriya University, during a talk with PA envoys at the Alshabander cafe. (Jerome Delay/AP)

They also interviewed Noor Alhuda Saad26, PhD candidate at the Mustansiriyah University, and a good example of the change that is taking place in Iraq. She says she grew up as a political activist and human rights defender during protests that denounced corruption, demanded basic water and electricity services, and fought for fairer and more inclusive elections. “After 2003, the people who came to power – the old guard Sunni and Shiite parties and their militias and related gangs – did not understand what the concept of democracy was, they were and are deeply authoritarian”she says, tapping her pale green nails on the tabletop. “Young people like me were born into this environment and we are trying to change the situation,” she adds, blaming the government for failing to restore public services or establish a fully democratic state after the occupation. “The people in power don’t see these as important issues that they need to resolve. And that’s why we’re active.”

At another table in the cafe in the elegant and bohemian neighborhood of Karrada, which 20 years ago already had an underground cultural life that was “tolerated” by the regime and which in subsequent years became one of the areas with the most attacks, now read Safaa Rashid. He is also 26 years old and says that he wants to be a writer. The café has a well-stocked library, photos of Iraqi writers and tourism posters, nothing different from a similar one in Brooklyn, Mexico City or Montevideo. Safaa was a boy just starting primary school when the Americans arrived. “We had an order, it was bad, but it was an order and a law. With the invasion, order was broken and the Iraqi state was left vulnerable to those who began to fight for their national and international positions. We live another dictatorship”. Today he believes that the situation has changed radically. He and his friends can sit in a cafe in full view of everyone and freely discuss what is best for the country. “If they let us, I think our generation can start creating a new Iraq and a new Middle East.” Safaa assures.

Iraq, young people who want to rebuild the country 20 years after the US invasion.
Boys taking pictures of rapper Khalifa OG’s show last week on a stage built on the banks of Baghdad’s Tigris River. (Jerome Delay/AP)

I hope I make it. I saw how they destroyed their country in those days of the invasion and on two subsequent visits. The Americans never knew what they were there for. The Iranians thought they had their backyard there. They still believe it in some southern regions. But in the majority Sunni areas in the center and in the Kurdish region in the north, things are different. It seems that there is no longer room for the Islamist insurgency, nor for the “warlords” or tribal chiefs who are only looking for their own benefit. Perhaps, with a few years of democracy, corruption will lessen and become tolerable. Ali’s dream is a little closer. Noor and Safaa, who follow him generationally, are convinced that they are going to make it. The war seems to be a memory lost in the mist of a thousand and one nights.

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