For five months Baghdad has been my adopted home. After three trips here over the past two years, I packed up my one-bedroom apartment into a storage unit in Irving, Texas and flew out.
I fell in love with Iraq the first time I arrived. I liked the "cha" sound that peppered the Iraqi arabic, the hot fresh bread, Samoon, that is shaped like an American football and the language that is filled with warm niceties. "Hello my eyes," you will hear someone say to a complete stranger.
On one trip to a poor neighborhood in southeast Baghdad where as many as 40 children were killed, grieving women screamed for their children and they scratched their faces until they bled. But they still welcomed me into their homes, offered me hot tea and their precious clean water. Even in their deepest moments of grief, they opened their home and hearts to a stranger.
In Najaf I mingled in the Shiite shrine, where the revered Imam Ali is believed to be buried. Women doused themselves in rose water and bowed to God under a ceiling of shimmering mirrors, kissed the golden gates and asked for help as they placed their hands on the gold bars that surround the tomb. I walked on the dead in the Valley of Peace, the largest Shiite Muslim cemetery in the world. Here Saddam paved the roads over many of these Shiite graves, anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army battled U.S. forces in 2004 and hid between the beige tombs and a man told me he only found peace among the dead here. "If your heart is heavy come to the Valley of Peace and it will lift your burdens," he told me.
But when I landed here in January ready to work with the six Iraqi journalists I'd worked with on all my trips, I realized things had degenerated much further then I even understood. The violence and fear was permeating life. Our office manager lived in the hotel now, his family safe in Syria. His name is Omar, a Sunni name, and a death wish if you run into a Shiite death squad. Our superstar reporter Mohammed hadn't had a home for over a year. He spends every night listening to songs in our office, chatting to friends online and lamenting that he was now a stranger in his own nation. Most of his friends were killed or fled.
Everyone of the office staff told me their plans to flee. I wanted them to go to a safer place, but I was devestated to lose my friends, my guides, my colleagues.
They are not alone, more than 2.2 million Iraqis are taking refuge in neighboring states and another 2 million are internally displaced as cleansing campaigns by Shiites and Sunnis in their respective neighborhoods continue. Palestinians are being forced out, Christians forced to convert or leave. But Iraqis say their passport is a curse, no one wants them. UNHCR said this week that the "crisis is staggering" as they made a plea with the world to keep their borders open.
Shatha, my closest friend in Iraq, hugged me like she did the first day I arrived here in 2005 and told me she had to go.
"I want to push my daughter in a stroller down the street," she said. "I've never done that." Dima, her baby girl, was already bouncing off the walls, she'll be two in the fall. On quiet days Shatha brought her to our office and she'd wreak havoc with the cutest face and a devilish smile. We let her.
I remember how Shatha would bravely wrap her up when she was a few months old to come on interviews with us. We worked on a story about pregnant women scheduling their births, afraid to be shot on the road as they sped to the hospital at night. Dima gurgled close by as I took notes and Shatha translated.
On Shatha's last night she spent the night in the bureau and we listened to music and danced with Dima. Later that night she cried.
"I'm so scared," she said. She'd sold her things, but no one would come to her neighborhood to pick them up. So she made the drive with her uncle to the bloody Diyala province, to drop the things off. On her last night she gathered up the tokens of her and her husbands travels and tastes. And in a pit of fire in the backyard she burned everything, Shiite books from Najaf from a reporting trip, a book on the constitution her husband picked up from Washington D.C., CDs and anything with English on it.
"What if someone searches the house," she said. "I don't want them to think we're spies." She lived in the Sunni part of her neighborhood and was caught in the middle of a violent Shiite/Sunni turf war.
Everyday there are stories like Shatha's. On this blog I hope to give you glimpses into what I see in Iraq. The sadness, the fleeting moments of joy and hope, the political battles and the stories of the about 170,000 U.S. troops here. This is a story that everyone has an opinion on but sometimes we forget that at the most basic level it is just a story of people trying to survive.