Iraqi Letters

Iraqi Students Write About Life in War and Their Non-First-World-Problems

These essays written by Iraqi students attending college in Kurdistan chronicle life in wartime for young people trying to study and survive in a country ripped apart by violence.

© Ceerwan Aziz / Reuters

The millenial generation of Iraq has grown up under constant conflict and economic hardship, which has affected different parts of the country, and different segments of the population, in different ways. As Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunna, Shia, Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, there is no single Iraq experience, but many different but related stories that make Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Daily Beast asked young people from different parts of the country, 'What does it mean to be a young person in Iraq today?' These are some of their responses written in their own English.

#My-Non-First-World-ProblemBy Mohammed Khaluq

Every day as I navigate through the internet, checking my Facebook account, watching videos via YouTube, and reading tweets, I encounter complaints about things that are not worth complaining about. Waiting in a line to get gas, not getting comments or likes on Facebook, worrying about buying the next iPhone as soon as possible, and disliking having your parents tell you what to do are some of the silliest first world problems, “FWP,” I get exposed to. These are a drop of water in a wide sea because those complainers have no idea about the non-FWP that millions of Iraqis and other people in other parts of the world are facing each and every day.

My non-FWP, let me say our non-FWP because most Iraqis have the same problems, is not being able to meet the deadline for this article, not because I cannot, but because I may die at any moment because a random flying bullet or a mortar may decide to pay a little visit to my home and find a shelter in my body. An explosion may force me to cease to be if I decide to stop writing and go outside to visit a friend or spend some time in a café. Our lives in Baghdad, since I came in 2003, have always been besieged by darkness and death, mourns and cries, struggle and pain.

I was only 14 years old when the sectarian conflict between Iraqis reached its peck after the attack on Imam Al Hadi’s and Al Askari’s shrine in Samarra in February of 2006. The school ended an hour before the usual time. We were the only people standing on the corner of the street. Some militias passed by waving guns in the air, and at that moment I realized something bad was about to happen. When I got back to home, the atmosphere was full fear and concern. I remember hearing that a war may start after the attack. I was kept at home, not allowed even to go outside to the main street because those steps that I might have taken could have been my last in this world.

One of the strongest memories in mind is when my next door neighbors lost their son in an explosion while he was coming home from university. As I write these words I can still hear his mother, his sister, and his aunt crying out , “Ali, Ali”. I can still her them crying. The scene of them taking that young kid to Najaf to bury him is still in my mind. The sun was just starting to send its golden rays upon the city, yet in everyone’s eyes, the sky was as dark as moonless night. His mother was standing near the door shouting his name, slapping her face very hard. It was like time stopped for a moment, and everyone realized that Ali’s smile will be put into the ground with his body, but his image laughing will be always in our minds and hearts.

Things changed after 2010. We could sense some stability around. The number of people dying decreased. However, that is not the situation anymore. The ISIS is trying to drag the country into another hell to destroy its unity, to murder the dreams and the hopes of its youth, and to put an end to this thing called Iraq. They have started attacking everything from shops to cafes, from universities to schools, from mosques to churches. Everyone is a target at any moment despite his ethnicity or belief.

My non-FWP is that someone may play this scene again, but this time one of my family or my friends will be playing the role of the lost beloved. I wake up every day to the possibility of hearing that someone I care about has been killed in an explosion, lost a part of his body, or is just missing. I wake up every day to the possibility that I may not see my home again. We are tired of sending out young people to the graves just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are tired of seeing our dreams being executed every day in front of our eyes without having the ability to do anything to stop the causes. We are tired of having great dreams without even having one chance to accomplish them in reality. It seems that the world is aiming to destroy this country to the ground. It seems that the world is not willing to give the Iraqis any chance to dream of prosperity because even in our dreams, we face death.

I may sound hopeless and like someone who is giving up, but I am not. I am just telling the story of our daily life in Iraq. If we look at Iraqis everywhere, you will realize how much fighting spirit they have in their souls. After every explosion, they clean the place and everything is put back to normal again. We may forget those who die every day, and it may become a routine for us. However, the truth is in everyone’s mind that there is a dark part in which he remembers every horrible image he has seen and every beloved person he has lost.

The minefieldsBy Kazho Muhsin

My first clear memory of war goes back to 1996 when I was only 3 years old. I keep thinking, how can I remember something that happened when I was three? But I do remember it; a few short images from the past. I remember walking through the minefields with my dad and my mom. I was only three but I was carrying a small bag in one of my hands, and holding my father’s hand in the other. I was walking and singing my aunt’s lullaby carelessly until I heard my dad’s voice calling my name. I turned around and I looked at my dad shouting and telling me not to move. I looked around and I saw everyone looking at me; I was in the minefield next to a mine. I started crying, and I shouted to my dad who told me to close my eyes. This is what I remember mostly from the civil war that happened in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990’s. I was later told that my dad had saved me by taking me out of the field carefully.

Flash forward years later, 2003. I do not remember which day it was and what class I was in, but I was in my 5th year in elementary school and suddenly we heard one of the teachers shout, “It’s done, no more Saddam, we are free, no more Baath regime!” Of course, I did not know who Saddam really was, except that he was the one who killed my uncle, and made my mother, my father, and my uncles forced to fight in the war against him. What a joyous moment; everyone was dancing in the school backyard, teachers throwing sweets and money in the air while dancing and we danced around them happily, knowing something horrible was over. An era of terror existed no more; or that’s what we thought. No more war.

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From then on, we started hearing about the rest of the country, other parts of Iraq which before only existed to us as land far away. Every day, we heard about bombings, ethnic conflicts, and people dying. Then, around 2005 we finally had a government in Iraq. A government for the people and of the people, supposedly. However, the conflicts continued even though this government existed. I do not need to tell you about them, because you probably have heard it all in the news, although most of the news media do not really tell you what it is going on.

Around three weeks ago, the World Cup started. I watch the World Cup games like the rest of the world, but I keep thinking the rest of the world must be so happy now watching the games; they must be safe. I watch the games, but the games are momentous distraction for me because around three weeks ago, while the rest of the world celebrated the World Cup, Iraq experienced something else.

Three weeks ago, “ISIS controls Mosul” was the lead story of one of the newspapers in my hometown. Suddenly, fear broke out. Who? Why? How? These were the questions in people’s mind and on my mind. What happened? How could ISIS control a city with this government? What does this mean for us? Why am I scared now when I have lived through the conflicts all my life? The answer was, maybe because people started calling the conflicts war. War, what a scary word, I keep thinking. I thought the war was over after 2003. I thought that the conflicts would be resolved, but no. Eleven years later and we are saying Iraq is at war again. It is so easy for everyone who is not from this country to say the previous sentence, but to live here and experience it, it is something else.

Iraq is at war again. Every day I check Facebook and Twitter and keep refreshing the pages to hear the news about ISIS. To see what’s new and whether they have moved forward. I keep checking to see the number of deaths, the people who are displaced from their homes, and the people who are fighting on the front line. I keep wondering what it feels like to lose a parent, a daughter, a child, a lover. I feel helpless at moments because I do not know how to help the people who lost their families and friends. But I keep hearing that Kurdistan will gain its independence and this will be over.

Kurdistan will gain its independence soon, that’s what people say here; the joy that sentence gives me is indescribable. For a moment, I feel relieved, but I start thinking again, so what if we gain independence? What will happen next? Can we trust the government here? Will anything actually change here? Will we be safe from ISIS? But even if we are safe from them, what about the rest of the country? I know how they feel, they won’t be safe, they will experience pain and sadness everyday and they will be tortured every moment. So how can I be happy for Kurdistan’s independence, while I know that my friends are suffering since they are part of the conflict? These thoughts keep crossing my mind and answers seem to exist nowhere. I have to look at the news every day, and check for updates every moment to get answers, but I’m lost, there seems to be no answers in this country.

Two days ago, my father told me he will be going to the frontlines with the Kurdish army as a part of the medical team. I have nightmares about the minefield again, but this time, my dad is in the minefields, on a mine, and I need to be the one who saves him, but how? That’s what I keep wondering.