Life amid lawlessness

Editor's note: Photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer went to the Middle East in January, rode into Iraq with Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion in March, then covered the war's aftermath from Baghdad. There, before she left this month, she befriended a remarkable woman amid the rubble. May 2003.

 

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Waving a small white flag in one hand and clutching her 14-year-old daughter with the other, Dr. Suaad Abdulla made her way slowly and resolutely toward the decades-old Baghdad Gate at the outskirts of the city, down the six-lane President's Highway guarded by U.S. soldiers and the ghostly remains of Iraqi tanks.

 

She felt the fear in the sweat of her daughter's delicate hand, but she pressed onward.

It was early April, and American troops were prepared to penetrate the Iraqi capital. A Kuwaiti translator for the U.S. Army yelled through a loudspeaker for all Iraqis to go home, and that was exactly what she was doing. As she approached the tanks, she pointed to the wreckage on the other side of the gate, the remains of the home she helped build.

In the smoky light, the tanks parted to create a path for her and her daughter. Dr. Abdulla, a veterinarian, and her family had been living at a friend's house.

She had returned to save her documents, a collection of papers pertaining to her house, her farm, her water rights to the river that runs through her property, the fodder businesses stolen from her - proof of years of legal battles with Saddam Hussein's bureaucracy.

The bits of paper will one day help her rebuild her life with her husband, Taha Al Musawi, and their six children.

 

The bombardment 

I will remember Dr. Abdulla for a long time. In a land where the roles and expectations of women have been strictly defined for centuries, I was surprised to find a woman who combined steely strength, warm sentimentality and intelligence infused with wisdom.

Our encounter was a precious gift to me – she showed me the best of Iraq in the most trying of times, a dignity of spirit that made me richer for simply having experienced it.

In late March, Dr. Abdulla's yard and the area around the Baghdad Gate had teemed with Iraqi tanks, soldiers, artillery and missile launchers. Dr. Abdulla and her family decided to stay at a friend's house. Her husband, a police captain, remained at his station, which he was ordered to protect.

As American forces advanced toward Baghdad, most of the Iraqi soldiers fled, leaving an arsenal of weapons on her property.

On April 3, the bombardment of Baghdad Gate began. From a grove of trees in the distance, Dr. Abdulla, who had taken some of her children back to the house to bathe, watched as each piece of Iraqi weaponry was bombed, sending exploding mortar rounds and rockets in all directions, five of which landed in their house.

After three days, a sizzling, smoking skeleton was all that remained of the four-bedroom home and veterinary clinic. The land was littered with the charred remains of tanks, artillery and rocket shells. 

Dr. Abdulla's husband finally returned. The family guarded their property from looters by day and received protection from the U.S. Army at night.

 

Sweets and flowers

The soldiers brought the children sweets, and the children in turn brought the soldiers flowers. The men became familiar with the aroma of the flat, crusty bread Dr. Abdulla baked daily in the stone oven behind her house.

One by one, she learned their names from the embroidered letters on their helmets and khaki uniforms: Jackson, Hanson, Oliver, Abdulhay.

"They shared with us everything they had, " said Dr. Abdulla. "They were so sorry about our house because it was not an American military mistake, it was an Iraqi military mistake." She said she understood that her house was damaged by U.S. bombing because the Iraqi soldiers placed weapons there.

After 10 days, the soldiers left for another mission. The soldier named Jackson had left the family with a beautiful blanket, but it could not protect them from the looting that followed.

"Day by day, the situation becomes more difficult, because weak people who can't control themselves do wrong," said Dr. Abdulla. A neighbor farmer tried to divert her water to his property, and that escalated into gunfire and the gravest of insults: She called the old man a woman.

She defended her farm, firing several threatening shots into the air with her AK-47. Men from the neighboring family later apologized, not to her, but to her husband.

Almost daily, thieves stole from the family – a pistol, a short-wave radio, money. Rumors began to circulate that women were being taken from their families in Baghdad. Dr. Abdulla began to fear for her daughters, who range in age from 14 to 4.

"We need a brave, strong and wise leader, because we are too divided," she said. "Maybe we'll find a leader, then later kill him. We love to kill our leaders – and then we cry. From past, present to the future, it's the same."

 

The bejeweled bride

Suaad Abdulla and Taha Al Musawi met when she was 13 years old and he was a 27-year-old police officer. They married when she was 19 and a veterinary student at Baghdad University. 

The wedding took place at her father's home in Basra in 1987. Iraq was at war with Iran at that time, and the ceremony was cut short when the city came under Iranian artillery bombardment. The traditional sum of $27,000 was paid to her father, and the bejeweled bride left with her new husband for Baghdad.

Mr. Al Musawi so prized his bride that he gave her seven rings, three necklaces and six bracelets – a total of 300 grams of gold – for their wedding. She wore all of it on their wedding day. 

He helped her study and raise the children. "He always wanted me to be the most beautiful woman wherever we went, so he encouraged me to wear makeup," she said.