Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary

In more than 20 trips to the ravaged city, TIME's Aparisim Ghosh has navigated countless perils. His extraordinary story offers a rare insight into the daily life of Iraqi citizens

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Welcome Home: Time Baghdad correspondent Aparisim Ghosh returns to the Iraqi capital.

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As we drive past, I can hear a gun battle somewhere--the deep rumble of U.S. military M-16s and the higher-pitch clatter of AK-47s. The gunfire is a momentary distraction for Wisam, my driver, who is telling me about yesterday's atrocity--66 people killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowded market in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City. Last year that giant slum was the safest district in Baghdad. Now I mentally add it to the list of neighborhoods I can enter only at great risk.

Like many Iraqis, Wisam likes to drive pedal to the metal, and while it's a good idea to get away from Amariyah as fast as possible, I am acutely conscious that I'm not wearing my seat belt. Iraqis never wear one, and for me to buckle up would be like sticking a FOREIGNER ON BOARD sign on the windshield, a bad idea in a city where kidnapping gangs are known to cruise for lucrative targets. As an Indian, I can often pass for a local if I keep my mouth shut--my Arabic is rudimentary--but in public places I have to be careful to avoid other obvious signs of foreignness: seat belts, chewing gum, headphones.

To bring me up to date with the news, Wisam rattles off a long list of recent atrocities: a high-profile kidnapping here, a massacre there, a car bombing someplace else. Long before we reach the city, I've heard so many ghastly things that the harrowing flight is already a fading memory. Sensing my sinking spirits, Wisam apologizes for the overdose of grim tidings. "You know how it is in Iraq," he says with a grin. "All news is bad news." Then he tells me about the 10 bodies that were discovered in his neighborhood in the past few days, all of them his fellow Shi'ites. The bodies were decapitated, the heads never found. He tells me how, since a suicide bombing in a nearby neighborhood, his wife has been suffering anxiety attacks when she goes shopping. I feel ashamed that a mere hour's worth of Baghdad's reality has brought me down; Wisam and his family live it all the time.

For Iraqis, reality is not just a suicide bomber in a crowded marketplace or militias running amuck in the streets. It is an accumulation of daily dangers and dilemmas--and the growing certainty that things are about to get worse. American officials and Iraqi politicians who live and work in the fortified bubble of the Green Zone are still reluctant to use the words civil war. At the start of this year, they were dismissing an all-out battle between sects as impossible. In March they were saying it was improbable. Now they cautiously suggest it is not inevitable. And that's the optimistic perspective. A more despairing assessment was on display last week in departing British Ambassador William Patey's final diplomatic memo to London. "The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy," Patey wrote in his message, which was leaked to the British media. For ordinary Iraqis who live on the other side of the Green Zone's tall walls, the time to debate if and when civil war will start is past: it is already under way. It's a view that I share. After three years of dwindling optimism over Iraq's future, I now feel a mounting pessimism.

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