Baghdad Violence Gives Family Harsh Choice

Gunfire is a daily event in the mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood where NPR employee Saleem Amer and his family live. His wife and son are scared of the fighting, but his father says moving would do no good. All of Baghdad is dangerous.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And a single day in Baghdad can change everything. City residents face the daily threat of bombing and bullets. They are almost prisoners in their own homes, afraid to go out. Security dominates their lives.

NPR's Saleem Amer shares this the story of his home.

SALEEM AMER: I live in a mixed neighborhood. It's mainly Shia, though, and recently the remaining 11 Sunni families were threatened. My father built our house himself during the Iraqi-Iranian war, and he thinks that it's the best house in Baghdad because it's big enough to take us all with our families, our wives and our babies. It has a garden and eight rooms. I wake up around 7:00. Often, the first thing I hear is a firefight.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMER: I woke my wife and Yousef, my four-month old son, and went to my father's bedroom. My two brothers were already sitting there. We come to this room when the fighting gets too bad. It does not have any windows. We started to talk about what we always talk about these days - security.

Should we move? Is this neighborhood too dangerous to live in? My father is not convinced moving would help.

Unidentified Man (Father of Saleem Amer): (Through translator) I built this house we are living in. We had good friends and neighbors. We can't go to another area, even though I think that things might get worse here. Most people are confused and would stay even with all the trouble rather than move to an area they know nothing about. There's trouble in all of Baghdad.

AMER: It's not a good thing to live in a mixed neighborhood anymore because it means different militias, some Sunni, some Shia, are fighting for control.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMER: And it means fight between the militias and government forces. A year ago, my father used to tell us not to leave our neighborhood without a good excuse. The explosion, the shooting didn't happen here then. We felt lucky to live with peaceful people of different sects and religions.

Around two months ago, things started to get worse. A bomb went off in the street, a man and a woman were killed and a dozen more wounded. People started accusing each other along sectarian lines. Then people began getting threat letters. Then the militias began assassinating people.

That's when we started having family security meetings. We decided how to go out. We arranged our shopping trips to market once every two weeks. The rest of the time, we are prisoners at home. I only leave to go to work. My wife does not leave at all.

But thinking you are safe because you are a prisoner in your house is wrong. You will still get government forces raiding your home, breaking your doors and destroying everything precious to you. The militia might raid your house, too, but they will kill you. If you are lucky, you only get graffiti on your wall telling you to leave. And, of course, there are the random bullets and mortars. Around 11:00 in the morning, we hear another gunfight.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMER: This is my father again.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We hear gunshots in the morning, afternoon and at night, not to mention the explosions. It's like being in a state of war and you don't know its result. We go to bed not knowing what will happen. We wish the government would do something to put an end to the trouble.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMER: Sometimes, the Iraqi army will attack a nearby house. We have no idea why. And then there are the explosions. Our windows were blown out a few times. We gave up replacing the glass; the flying shards were too dangerous. Now we just covered the windows with plastic bags. I think about moving away to another neighborhood in Baghdad but, like my father says, will it make a difference?

Our last hope is leaving our country. I never saw good times here, not for the last 35 years, but it still our country. It is not a great country but here I have friends, relatives and memories. Even if I convince myself to leave, who says we will be welcomed by another country?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

AMER: This one scared us so much. We are in the house. We have no idea what it is. I worry about my family, but thinking about my son is the scariest part. The last explosion happened a few days ago. My son, Youssef(ph), kept crying for hours. I'm afraid that something is damaged inside him. But I try to avoid taking him to the doctor. I don't want to hear bad news. These explosions terrify my wife, Zaharak(ph). Normally, I joke with her about it, calling her chicken-hearted. I get scared, too, but I don't want to show it to her. Whenever she hears an explosion or a firefight, she grabs Youssef immediately. She holds him as close as possible to her chest and stops talking. I ask her how the explosion makes her feel.

Ms. ZAHARAK AMER (Wife of Saleem Amer): (Through Translator) I keep my son with me at home all the time, but I still worry about him because of these random bullets and mortars. Our fate is in God's hands. But I don't regret having my son, because I love him and can't live without him.

AMER: The last time Zaharak went to a shop was seven weeks ago. We don't plan to go for another two weeks. She wants to leave this neighborhood as fast as possible.

Ms. AMER: (Through Translator) I just want to move to a better neighborhood. Baghdad doesn't have a safe area anymore because of explosions, suicide bombings, assassinations, mortars; they're everywhere. But maybe we can move to a less dangerous area.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

AMER: I'm tired of thinking so negatively, but this is our life. I didn't choose to be Iraqi, and I wish I wasn't. But we still need to keep moving toward the unknown future, the future that will put you in a grave, or make you a prisoner or a slave or a refugee.

That is our life. Finally, after having many family security meetings, we have decided to move. But my father is afraid that either the militias or the government will use our abandoned house as a base. That is what they are doing with all the empty houses. We are trying to find a house big enough for us all. We have to leave all these memories behind and start a new life. But this is Baghdad and it's not safe at all anywhere.

Saleem Amer, NPR News, Baghdad.

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