After 20 Years, An Iraqi Returns To A Changed Land After two decades in the U.S., Aseel Albanna couldn't wait to return to Baghdad, the place where she grew up. But the city has changed so much, she barely recognized parts of it.

After 20 Years, An Iraqi Returns To A Changed Land

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As American troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq last month, one Iraqi woman was heading in the other direction. She was visiting her homeland for the first time in two decades. Many years ago, she left Iraq to finish her college degree in the United States, ended up settling in Washington, D.C. Now, think about everything that has happened to Iraq since she was last there. She left a country where Saddam Hussein was in charge. She returns to a country where Saddam is dead, and Iraq has gone through years of war. NPR's Sean Carberry accompanied her on a tour of Baghdad. Let's listen.

ASEEL ALBANNA: I can't believe I'm here. I just have sheer joy inside me.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: In September 1991, Aseel Albanna was about to finish her last year of architecture school in Baghdad. Wanting a break from the years of war and hardship, she took a trip to the U.S. But a planned four-week visit turned into a 20-year stay. She doesn't recognize much as the car pulls away from Baghdad airport, but when it enters a residential district, the memories come flooding back.

ALBANNA: Oh, looking at Baghdad-style houses, these are the - this is what I remember. These are the old houses, the flat roofs. Now I'm in Baghdad. Now I see it.

CARBERRY: But it's not long before her initial euphoria starts to fade into disappointment.

ALBANNA: What? Jadriya used to be a beautiful neighborhood. Oh, my God. This is really shocking.

CARBERRY: Like most neighborhoods in the city today, in Jadriya, there are checkpoints, blocked off streets, compounds surrounded by concrete blast walls, electrical wires running haphazardly everywhere, and everything is covered with thick dust.

ALBANNA: This neighborhood used to be, like, all brand new, beautiful houses, beautiful yards, beautiful streets, beautiful greenery. And now it's, like, I don't know how to describe it. It's a mess.

CARBERRY: Later that day, she heads off to visit her old house in what was once a largely Christian neighborhood. Most of the Christian families, like hers, have long since fled. Her street looks deserted and dilapidated.

ALBANNA: I'm speechless.

CARBERRY: After an emotional pause to soak in the scene, she approaches the house where her family and friends gathered for a small party the day she left Iraq.

ALBANNA: I can't believe I'm actually standing in front of my door 20 years later.

CARBERRY: The yard is overrun with tall, wild grass - gone are all the fruit and olive trees of her memory. The concrete outer wall is cracked and crooked, the iron gate reinforced by scraps of metal. An ugly old generator sits in front of the house.

ALBANNA: It just looks deserted, just a deserted, old house. There's no more life left in it. What I have is only memories left of this, because right now, I barely recognize it, to be honest. The only thing that's still here is the breeze, that Baghdad breeze. That's the only thing that I recognize.

CARBERRY: For the next few days, Aseel swings between moments of joy and excitement to shock and sadness as she visits her old high school, her favorite markets, and one of her favorite streets in the city.

ALBANNA: It's very empty. Sharia Rashid used to be so crowded, you couldn't - wow. Everything's closed down. This feels like a ghost town right here. This used to be the busiest, absolutely busiest street of Baghdad. It was just alive.

CARBERRY: This afternoon, Sharia Rashid is shuttered and bleak. Nearby, Abu Nawas Street, overlooking the Tigris River, doesn't seem much better.

ALBANNA: This used to be the river walk of Baghdad, wide sidewalks looking over the river, full of people day and night, families, children. This is more like the pure - Baghdad pure, before all the added layers of security and trash and antennas and wires. And right now, it seems deserted to me.

CARBERRY: And it is deserted. The once-popular fish restaurants have been torn down.

ALBANNA: But Tigris is still there, and the winds still - it feels like Baghdad. I think the spirit of Baghdad will never change, no matter what. Baghdad and Iraqi people will endure, but visually, I think the city is just completely destroyed. It used to be a beautiful city, and I'm searching really hard to find its beauty.

CARBERRY: Despite her sadness over the condition of the city, Aseel says that she doesn't want to board the plane to leave the country again. This time, she hopes it won't be another 20 years before she returns

Sean Carberry, NPR News.

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