Life Inside the Green Zone

Their house is like a time capsule in Baghdad's Green Zone. Oddly ordinary in a street where ubiquitous barbed wire and guards make mini citadels of the old dwellings where foreigners now work, it sits on a small green lawn. Manal Mamdouh, 65, and her husband Salah Mahmoud, 63, who own the home behind the hedge and wall, came here long before this was a fortified campus. After the 2003 invasion, they refused to sell out to the foreigners willing to pay anything for a safe enclave in a hostile city. They miss their old neighbors, who long ago made way for Iraqi VIPs and burly contractors. They fear the occasional rocket attack. But over five years of war they've learned to regard their odd environs as "heaven" compared to the hell outside.

Indeed, life goes on smoothly for these few remaining original residents--as long as they take care not to venture even to their front gate without the identity cards that they always need to have ready to show patrolling American military police. Armed with this documentation, they regularly go through the checkpoints into the city's "Red Zone." And they have the perspective of age to debate which times in Iraq's modern history have been worst to bear. Salah, a retired civil engineer, thought the decade of sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime was the worst until he saw this current war. Wife Manal, a retired schoolteacher who tends to carry most of the conversation around her reserved husband, thought it might have been the Iran-Iraq War. She points toward two bullet holes in an outside wall she says were made by an Iranian fighter jet during the 1980-88 conflict. But then she agrees, this war may have been worse than that one. "Each is worse than the other," she jokes in a voice stronger than you'd expect to come from so small a face under the big glasses and headscarf.

The couple bought the roomy home with the terracotta floors in the 1970s. That was back before these leafy surroundings--near a presidential palace--had become the domain of Saddam's favorites. Though part of the wealthy elite, they say they were glad to see the end of the dictator's rule. Chatty and accommodating, it's easy to see how the couple makes easy acquaintances with the Western soldiers and civilians who have reshaped their world. They live there with their two grown children and grandchildren. Salah, trim and serene, keeps the lawn green and builds porch swings as a hobby. For a guest, Manal breaks out a rich Iraqi lunch--roast chicken, potato and parsley salad, rice and bottles of Gatorade, a gift from friendly American checkpoint guards.

During the invasion of 2003, they hid in a windowless kitchen pantry as American missiles targeted the nearby government buildings. After the city fell, Manal and her daughter, dressed in white and carrying a white flag, emerged from the mostly abandoned streets and startled passing soldiers. They explained that they were searching for food and ended up tasting their first MREs. They dared not leave their home empty for fear of the looting spree that did indeed overtake the city and spill into the palace district. Salah wielded an iron bar to protect the house as he cursed the Americans for not imposing a curfew and calling back the Iraqi Army.

Things got worse, of course. Manal's trips outside the Green Zone for diabetes treatment at a Baghdad hospital became increasingly threatened by sectarian militias along the route. She would see pickup trucks bringing the wounded and dead from bomb sites to the emergency room. Inside the Green Zone or out, it's hard to find any city resident who doesn't personally know people who have died violent deaths. One of Salah's cousins died after being shot in the head. Manal's half brother Farouk suffered severe burns in a bombing near his vegetable stand. A relative smothered the flames, so thick that he did not at the time recognize the man underneath. Farouk lost the use of his mutilated hands and says he wishes he had died in the blast. Salah and Manal concur that recent months have seen less bloodshed--but still wait with trepidation every day for their son to return from commuting to his job at a clothing store outside the fortified zone.

Manal says toppling Saddam wasn't worth all the death that followed. Her husband offers a more mixed view, saying Saddam was repressive and had to go. But he laments that the American failure to secure and rebuild Iraq brings nostalgia for the old regime. "When people say, 'We long for Saddam's days,' this is a disaster," Salah says. "He was a huge criminal. The fact that they say that is the biggest disaster."

They hope the calmer climate in Iraq will last. But they long for an overall turnaround in their country's stature. "We were more sophisticated than the countries in southern Arabia. Why are we going backward while they are going forward?" she asks. On trips outside their protected world, she sees the unemployed men selling tissues and gum in intersections. Salah, the engineer, thinks the United States should sponsor large road and bridge projects that would relieve both the traffic and unemployment. "Can't they do that?" he says. As for their new contractor neighbors, Manal says, "What have they done?"

Whatever happens, they say, they will not give up their house to follow their friends into the dangerous Red Zone or out of Iraq. When the phones work, they stay in close contact with the little diaspora from their side street. Those now on the outside, they say, miss the old neighborhood.