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The children of the Iraq war have grown, but some wounds do not heal


Twenty years after the US invaded Iraq, a veteran Times correspondent and photographer asked Iraqis how they grew up in wartime and what their hopes are now.

BAGHDAD - The thud of a car bomb exploding, then a hiss of flames interrupting duties;

the roar of a roadside bomb and, seconds later, the bursting of glass that wakes families;

an apartment door being kicked open in the middle of the night and someone shouting in a foreign language;

the pop, pop, pop of bullets whizzing by in a gunfight and the crash of doors slamming shut as adults drag children inside.

Family photos of Mohammed, before and after his injuries.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

For six years, during the war launched by the United States in 2003 and the sectarian conflict that it gave rise to, this was the soundtrack of life in Iraq, and especially for those under 26:


23 million people, almost half of the population.

The trauma was a daily occurrence.

The losses affected almost every family.

Now, especially in Baghdad, many young people want to move on.

The cities have recovered somewhat from the war years, and the more affluent young Iraqis frequent coffee shops, go to shopping malls and attend live concerts.


most conversations

revolve around a murdered relative, displaced relatives, or lingering doubts about the future of Iraq.

Wars leave scars even when people survive with their bodies intact.

The metallic hum of helicopters, the flash of flares, the smell of burning after the bombs, the taste of fear, the ache of something lost... it all lingers long after the fighting stops.

"The war took away our childhood," says Noor Nabih, 26, whose mother was injured in crossfire from a passing US convoy and then seriously injured again by a bomb blast.

Joao Silva,

a New York Times photographer, and

Alissa J. Rubin

, a senior correspondent, recently spoke to young Iraqis in Baghdad about their lives, their views on the US invasion, and the state of their country.

Here are some of their stories.

I was so scared that I fell to the ground."

Mohammed Hassan Jawad Jassim, 25 years old

Mohammed was 5 years old at the time of the invasion.

Each explosion startled him.

The first time he saw a US vehicle crash into a roadside bomb, he said, the explosion made him vibrate;

then came a hail of bullets.

"I was so scared that I dropped to the ground and pressed my face to the road," he recalls.

Before long, US soldiers began knocking on the family's door, looking for Shiite Muslim militants loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"I was afraid they would shoot," he said.

With 17 sisters and brothers, and a father who could barely make a living working in a garage, Mohammed couldn't concentrate in school and dropped out after second grade.

"I was thinking about death," he says.

"Sometimes I would tie a


and sit in a dark room."

When he was 21, his daughter, Tabarak, was born and he wanted to get a government job, but he had no contacts with politicians who could help him.

Outraged, he joined the

2019 youth protests

against government corruption and the Iranian presence in Iraq, known in the Arab world as the

October Revolution


On her first day at the protests, a tear gas canister exploded in her face, knocking out one eye and damaging the other.

His world went dark.

Now her daughter is 4 years old;

she also has a 1-year-old son, Adam.

"My only wish is

to get my sight back

so I can see my children," she says.

"Adam came into the world after I was beaten up, so I've never seen him."

Fadia Khalil Ibrahim Paulus Alo, 24, during a rehearsal at the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

When I play, I forget where I am."

Fadi Khalil Ibrahim Paulus Alo, 26, and his sister, Fadia Khalil Ibrahim Paulus Alo, 24.

During the war, Fadi and his sister Fadia found solace at the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet.

Many of his fellow Christians had fled Iraq, and the smell of smoke filled their lungs as they studied.

US soldiers would break into his family's fifth-floor apartment looking for insurgents, but would stop short when they saw the picture of Jesus praying on TV.

But the music school was a haven for the brothers, a world of harmonies instead of explosions.

"When I play, I forget where I am," says Fadi, a computer auditor for the Central Bank of Iraq and flutist with the Iraqi National Orchestra.

But as the notes fade, he wonders if he will really be able to spend the rest of his life in Iraq.

Fadia is now a marketing agent for an Iraqi electronic payment system and a violist in the orchestra.

When I was 12 years old, a car bomb exploded in a municipal court next to the school.

He remembers the eerie silence that followed right after and the screams that followed.

After checking on his brother, he took a first-aid kit, bandaged the headmaster's leg, which had been cut by shrapnel, and helped the first-year students who had been cut by glass and shrapnel.

"The children were very scared, so I knew what to do," he said.

Fadi and Fadia in their church in Baghdad, the scene in 2010 of an Al Qaeda attack on worshipers during prayer.

More than 100 people were taken hostage and 52 died.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

"It was strange to be so calm when everyone was screaming and crying, but it came from God," she said.

Fadia loves the theme song from the movie "

La La Land"

and Smetana's dances.

Unlike her brother, she sees her future in Iraq.

"I'm attached to this place," she says.

"When I'm here, I feel at home."

Dalia Mazin Sedeeq Al-Hatim and Hussain Sarmad Kadhim Al-Bayati at their wedding banquet.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

 'Everything was nice until Hussain was shot.'

Dalia Mazin Sedeeq Al-Hatim, 24, and Hussain Sarmad Kadhim Al-Bayati, 26.

Dalia, 24, and Hussain, 26, met at the hospital where they were both pharmacists.

It took Hussain only a month to know that he wanted to marry Dalia and Dalia to feel the same way about Hussain.

They had a lot in common.

Both came from families that valued education;

both had grown up with the sounds of war.

Dalia remembered watching the Nickelodeon

cartoon channel

when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad;

Hussain remembered the windows being blown out by a bomb blast.

And their families fled to Syria when the war got too close.

Dalia's school bus driver went missing during sectarian clashes and was later found dead, as was Hussain's brother's school bus driver.

Dalia is a Sunni Muslim and Hussain is a Shiite Muslim.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Their only difference - Dalia is a Sunni Muslim and Hussain a Shiite Muslim - did not matter to them, although they knew that others did.

"Even though our sect could be an obstacle, we agreed that it would not be," Hussain said.

"The day I proposed to Dalia, my father insisted that I tell Dalia's family that I am a Shiite so that it would be clear and Dalia's family would not be surprised one day," he said.

"They told me: 'We don't care what sect you are from. We care that you love our daughter and that she loves you.'"

Dalia and Hussain, both pharmacists, at their mother's pharmacy in Baghdad.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Even before their wedding day, February 18, the violence that is part of everyday life affected them.

Hussain was stabbed and shot during a robbery while working the night shift at a pharmacy.

"Everything was nice until Hussain was shot and we were reminded again of the reality of Baghdad," Dalia said.

They now expect, Hussain said, "health and safety."

Sulaiman Fayadh Sulaiman has been paralyzed from the waist down since he was shot when he was 3 years old in 2003. Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times

 I don't see much of a future."

Sulaiman Fayadh Sulaiman, 22 years old

Sulaiman was 3 years old in August 2003 and was having an early breakfast with his father in the family garden when, he recalls, "five bullets reached our house, four hit the wall and different parts of the house, and one hit me." .

The bullet passed through his abdominal wall and through his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Then, while he was receiving treatment at a hospital for spinal cord injuries, a huge truck bomb targeting the United Nations headquarters next door severely damaged the hospital and buried it in rubble.

Sulaiman arrives for archery training at Baghdad's Al-Shaab stadium.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Months later, his father took him to the gate of a US base, hoping to find help for the boy, since his initial injuries were caused by a skirmish with US soldiers.

A soldier told his father that he would take Sulaiman to the United States for treatment, and that he would "make me able to walk again."

But when they returned to the base, he said, "the soldiers at the gate said that the soldier who was going to take me had been transferred two days before."

Years later, the disappointment is still marked on his face.

Sulaiman at archery practice.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Since then, Sulaiman has found glimmers of joy as a member of the

Iraqi Paralympic archery team,

which competes internationally.

For brief moments, he says, as he holds his bow, adjusts the arrow, and pulls the string, he can smile.

But happiness fades quickly.

"I don't see much of a future," he says.

Noor Nabih with her son.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

I still have fear inside of me."

Noor Nabih, 26 years old

In a soft, restrained voice, Noor recited her experiences of life after the invasion.

She is a Sunni Muslim and lives in a mixed religious area around Samarra, about two hours north of the Iraqi capital.

But in 2005, he said, "we started hearing gunshots and explosions."

Shopping in Baghdad.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

"We knew it was the Americans, because everywhere the news was saying it was an American war," he recalls.

Soon after, the family moved to Baghdad.

But back in Samarra, his father's four brothers were kidnapped by anti-American Sunni insurgents.

The youngest, the one Noor was closest to, "was shot many times, left his body next to a pile of rubbish."

Later, the insurgents burned down his grandfather's house.

Noor with her husband, Mustafa.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

When Noor was 11 years old, the family returned to Samarra to lay flowers on her uncle's grave.

As they were driving, a firefight between US troops and insurgents forced them to swerve.

A stray bullet went through a window and hit his mother in the side.

Due to its caliber, they believed it came from US troops.

Her father told her to stop the bleeding with tissues, but the blood soaked her.

"I felt like I had lost everything.

His mother survived and the family fled to Syria for a time.

Shortly after returning to Iraq, a bomb planted by unknown persons in the underbody of her parents' car left her mother with a

traumatic brain injury.

"I don't feel safe in Iraq, period, and if I have the opportunity to leave this country, I will," Noor said.

"I still have fear inside of me every day, despite all my attempts to forget what I have seen."

Lieutenant Hamza Amer Chamis, center right, inspecting troops at the Baghdad Joint Command headquarters.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

So that my father will be proud of me in the afterlife."

Hamza Amer Chamis, 24 years old

Hamza, 24, grew up with the army in his blood.

His father had been a colonel when Saddam Hussein was in power, and rejoined the Iraqi army, which the Americans initially disbanded, after its reconstitution.

He developed ties with the American soldiers with whom he worked, rising to the rank of general.

Hamza helps his mother, Entisar, prepare coffee for guests at their family home in Baghdad.

Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times.

"My dream, my passion to be an officer, started at the age of 12," recalls Hamza.

"Our school was having a costume party, and my father gave me his uniform with his rank and colors to wear. It was great, and the next day I told him:

'I want to become like you'."

But the family was viewed as traitors by some of his father's former army buddies, who had joined insurgents fighting the US military.

A group of militants tried to kidnap Hamza's older brother.

Then, in 2014, Hamza's father was killed while fighting in Anbar against the country's newest scourge, the

Islamic State group.

From then on, he said, he wanted "my father to be proud of me in the afterlife and to feel that I did something for him, just as he raised me and supported me."

Hamza graduated at the top of his class from military school, becoming the youngest lieutenant in post-2003 Iraqi army history.

His first mission: fight the remnants of the Islamic State group, the same militants who killed his father.

He is now the officer in charge of security for the

Joint Command,

which includes the senior commanders of the Iraqi armed forces.

His dream is to reach the same rank as his father.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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