A.K., an Iraqi who works as a translator for a private company in Baghdad, was lying on the couch at home watching Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets a few days ago when the early evening calm was shattered by an explosion.
“The explosion made me jump from my seat, crying out my son’s name. He was the first person I thought of, since he was out at the gym,” she recalls.
“I immediately picked up the phone and called him, to check if he was alive and whether the explosion was near him,” she says of her 14-year-old son, who doesn’t remember a time when Baghdad was not plagued by violence.
Her son was walking home and said he was fine. “You may wonder how can I trust sending my son to a gym in these circumstances,” says A.K., who was willing to be identified only by her initials. “I say I can’t prevent him. He’s a teenager, and he wants to enjoy his summer holiday. And he wants to build up his muscles.”
Checkpoints, bombings, electricity blackouts and the like have become the norm in Baghdad, a city of around 6 million people, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But even for a population used to such a life, the events of the past week seem different.
Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, known as ISIS or ISIL (or in Baghdad as “Daash”), have swept down through northern Iraq, capturing the city of Mosul, where Iraqi army units largely walked away from their posts without a fight. ISIL has captured large amounts of territory and is reported to be closing in on Baghdad, where Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has offered to arm civilians willing to fight the Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
“After what has happened in Mosul and some northern areas, people here in Baghdad are worried, afraid and anxious, and they are in anticipation of what could happen next,” says A.K. in an email interview with Newsweek.
“There are rumors that Daash is heading towards Baghdad, and that’s creating a feeling of uneasiness,” she continues. “People are trying to stay away from the streets. I see fewer cars in the streets and of course larger number of useless checkpoints dotted round the city. People are rushing to banks, maybe to withdraw their money or to send it abroad. My friend’s parents-in-law are buying food and stocking up.”
She says there were signs that Shiite militias, such as those linked to influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were arming and expanding, with government approval.
“A few days ago, another friend saw minibuses carrying young men stopped near one of the Sadr offices in Baghdad, and they were handed weapons—this happened the day after Maliki agreed to arm whoever wants to carry a weapon,” A.K. says.
She adds that she is most worried about her son, and she’s trying to find a way for the two of them to leave Iraq. She has asked her son to shave the mustache he had started to grow recently, worried that he was starting to look too old.
“I’ve learned after more than 10 years this country is doomed not only by Daash (ISIL) but by its people and the way they think, whether they’re politicians or ordinary people,” she says. “I want my son to live a happy, normal life, where he can go to the gym or anywhere else without me worrying about him.”
A.K. adds, “My son was supposed to go with his friend to a mall in Mansour district. I told him I wasn’t happy about that, but he started to shout that he needs to enjoy his time, watch a movie and eat popcorn. I couldn’t stop him. But this morning his friend called him and said his parents refused to send him to the mall, thank God.”
She continues, “Me and my friends make jokes about ISIL coming to Baghdad. When I told them that I want to get my hair dyed, one of them said, ‘Daash is coming, they’ll kill you if they see your hair uncovered, and they will order you to stop wearing jeans or putting on makeup.’ We use black humor to lift from our shoulders the fear we feel. And I will dye my hair tomorrow, no matter what.”