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January 6, 2004
Happy New Year...

From River in Baghdad


Technically, I haven't blogged for a year- not since 2003. We've been phone-less for the last few days. The line suddenly went dead on us around 4 days ago and came back only this afternoon.

So this is 2004. Not surprisingly, it feels much like 2003. We spent the transition from last year into this one at my aunt's house. She dropped by on the 30th and said that since no one was going anywhere this year, we should spend it together at her house. If there's one advantage to war, then it's the fact that families somehow find themselves closer together. Every year, we'd all be in a different place: parents at a gathering somewhere and E. and I with our friends; other people would spend it at one of the dozens of restaurants or clubs holding New Year parties.

This year, New Year's Eve was a virtual family reunion. We decided we'd gather at my aunt's house but it couldn't be too big a gathering otherwise we'd be mistaken for a 'terrorist cell', women, children, dishes of food and all.

We got there at around 6 pm and found out that the power had been coming and going all day and that the generator had just enough gasoline for around 3 hours of electricity. We decided we'd save it up for the last two hours of the year which turned out to be a wise decision because the electricity went out at around 8 pm and didn't come back until noon the next day! We're lucky we left our house early because E. found out that roadblocks were later set up in several areas that had the people trapped well into the next day.

Almost an hour after we got Aunt K.'s house, a blast shook the whole area. I was preparing to light a bunch of candles set up in the middle of the table, when suddenly a huge 'BOOM' shook the room, the windows and the family. E. and I ran outside to see what was happening and we found my aunt's neighbors standing around at their gates, looking as perplexed as we felt. We later found out that a bomb had exploded near a small fast-food place a few kilometers away. 'Tea Time' is a little two-storey restaurant in Harthiya that sells hamburgers and other sandwiches full of fries and mayonnaise.

We sat around from 8 until 11 in the dark, munching on popcorn, trying to remember the latest jokes (most about the Governing Council) and trying to pretend that the candles were festive candles, not necessary candles.

While many people consider 2003 a 'year', for us it has felt more like a decade. We started the year preparing for war. While the rest of the world was making a list of resolutions, we were making lists of necessary items for the coming battle. We spent the first two and a half months of 2003 taping windows, securing homes, stocking up on food, water and medication, digging wells and wondering if we would make it through the year.

March brought the war and the horror. The scenes we witnessed made every single day feel more like a week, some days felt like a year. There were days where we lost track of time and began counting not hours and minutes, but explosions. We stopped referring to the date and began saying things like, "The last time we saw my uncle was, the day the Americans bombed that market in Al Shu'la and dozens were killed."

They say the war ended in April, but it didn't end in April. April was just the beginning of another set of horrors, watching Baghdad burned and looted by criminals, seeing the carcasses of burnt cars and the corpses of charred humans on the roadside, watching the tanks and Apaches shoot right and left, realizing that it had turned from a war into a full-fledged occupation.

So we sat, the last few hours, thinking about the last few months and making conjectures about the future. In the background you could hear a few explosions, some gunfire, helicopters and planes. I kept thinking something terrible was going to happen and we'd never see the beginning of a new year.

At around 10 pm, they turned on the generator and we gathered around the television to watch the rest of the world celebrate their way into the New Year. The kids fell asleep on the living-room floor, in front of the kerosene heater, before the clock struck 12 and the thuds around us began getting heavier. Immediately after twelve, the sounds of warplanes and explosions got so heavy, we could hardly hear the television. There was nothing on the news, as usual. Al-Iraqiya was showing some lame fading in and out of its motto on a blue background while all hell was breaking loose outside. We found out the next day that a restaurant in A'arassat, a wealthy area in Karrada, had explosives planted in front of it.

What have the first few days of 2004 felt like? Exactly like the last few months of 2003. The last few days have been a series of bombs and explosions. A couple of nights ago they were using cluster bombs to bomb some area. Before the bomb drops, you can hear this horrible screaming sound. We call it 'the elephant' because it sounds like an elephant shrieking in anger. I'm not sure what it is or what its purpose is. Someone said it's supposed to be some sort of warning signal to the troops on the ground to take cover in their tanks before the bomb hits. It's usually followed by a series of horrific explosions and then the earth shudders.

It's strange what you can get used to hearing or seeing. The first time is always the worst: the first time you experience cluster bombs, the first time you feel the earth shudder beneath you with the impact of an explosion, the first tanks firing at houses in your neighborhood, the first check-point... the first broken windows, crumbling walls, unhinged doors, the first embassy being bombed, the first restaurant. It's not that you no longer feel rage or sadness, it just becomes a part of life and you grow to expect it like you expect rain in March and sun in July.

May 2004 be better than 2003. Note from Editor: We don't know the identity of River. But we hope he keeps writing.

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