Baghdad Diary

Silence, Louder than Any Scream

The Iraqi Planning Ministry is destroyed
The Iraqi Planning Ministry in Baghdad is hit by a U.S. missile, March 20, 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP).

Tuesday, March 25: Until now, the windows in my room have had only a few cracks. The continual missile attacks, which are now coming closer, have opened larger fissures in the glass. I fear that shards of glass will be flying into my face soon. I get busy sticking on more tape.

It is dark outside. I can barely see anything. Nature itself has broken loose. It is as if it had decided to give us a foretaste of the apocalypse: At noon, the skies suddenly darkened. A sandstorm and thunderstorm followed. Then it rained mud. One could no longer breathe the air. It is full of dust and the stench of oil, which has been burning for days now in ditches dug around the city. Everything is in a fog. One can no longer distinguish people or things. The bolts of lightning look like the tracers arcing in the sky, and the thunder sounds like bombs. There hasn’t been a storm like this in 10 years. For believers it is a sign from Allah. The storm delays the Americans. We cannot believe the Hotel Al-Rashid will be a target.

Wednesday, March 26: What we believed was impossible has happened. The Americans have not spared even the mythic Hotel Al-Rashid. It was only scratched. Was that a mistake? Or was it supposed to be a message? Myths are shattered in wartime, as are ethical sensibilities.

The news arrives in the afternoon: One of the Shiite neighborhoods in the northern part of the city has been bombed. After we drive through the wall of black smoke, we are faced with a terrible sight: two bomb craters at the edge of the street, the asphalt has been torn apart for a hundred meters. There is the wreckage of market stands, and burnt-out cars. And then the half-destroyed buildings. The inhabitants are walking numbly around in the wreckage. Only men are in sight. It is silent. A silence louder than any scream. The last of the ambulances is leaving the site. All of the victims have been removed. Only pools of blood remain on the asphalt. The first reports are of 15 dead. All civilians.

Thursday, March 27: The bombs fall. Continually. The howling of the sirens, which shriek to announce the beginning and end of each air raid alarm, merge into a single, hair-raising noise. And over it, now, there is the voice of the muezzin, reaching us thanks to a crackling loudspeaker. The detonations prevent me from sleeping. There is no longer a quiet place in the capital.

The bombing is meant to weaken military resistance. It is also meant to terrorize the population. Its psychological effects are guaranteed, especially among the weakest of them—the children. Among the older people, heart attacks are increasing.

Friday, March 28: On this, the Muslim Sabbath, Imam Thaer al-Ani promises the Iraqis victory. Al-Ani is the imam of the the Mother-of-All-Battles Mosque. This is a slogan coined by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. He had the mosque built to commemorate the resistance of the Iraqi people in 1991. The building is an architectural monstrosity. The minarets are shaped like Scud missiles and Kalashnikovs. We have experienced a night worse than any other. The buildings shake from one end of the city to the other. Almost the entire telephone network has collapsed, increasing panic among the inhabitants.

Saturday, March 29: In wartime, mourning moves at a difference pace. The worst massacre since the war began, 55 dead at the Shual market in northwestern Baghdad, is only a couple of hours old, and already new targets are being hit. A missile has “disemboweled” the Ministry of Information. A mass of people has collected on the terrace of the press center and set up a kind of protest show with flags: a black one for grief, a red one for martyrdom, a green flag for Islam, and the Iraqi flag. Pieces of the exploded missiles are collected like trophies. The crowd shouts: “Baghdad will triumph!”

Sunday, March 30: Wars need symbols, and one of them is Iraq’s new hero, Ali, a martyr in the struggle against the Anglo-Americans. The historical Ali was the patriarch of Shiism. The shrine of Imam Ali, a magnificent mosque, stands in the holy city of Najaf. And it was here that a noncommissioned officer in the army, Ali Jaffar Musa al-Nomani, blew himself up, along with his car, at an American checkpoint yesterday. He took 11 Marines with him, the Iraqi media reported, while the Americans speak of four dead.

Ali “the Martyr”: He has become a symbol of resistance to the invasion. Many will follow his example, and not just Iraqis. Saddam Hussein has preached a holy war to win the support of Iraq’s Shiites and the Arab masses. This war will ruin the situation for Iraq’s secularists for a long time.

Monday, March 31: Basra’s inhabitants are fleeing the city. People in Baghdad are fleeing from one side of the Tigris to the other. The international press center has been moved to the other bank of the river, to the Hotel Palestine. Now we are all here.

Basra is just preliminary to the siege of Baghdad. The image of a“Stalingrad of Mesopotamia,” which seemed to be merely a product of Iraqi government propaganda, is beginning to acquire reality, at least in its tragic dimension.

The bombings have continued to intensify. The penetrating whine of the fighter-bombers and the blast of the missiles overwhelm my brain, robbing me of both understanding and psyche. The siege of Baghdad has begun. And we feel that we are in a trap.

Giuliana Sgrena is a correspondent of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. She wrote this diary from Baghdad for Die Zeit.