RIVERBEND, BAGHDAD - We were collected at my aunts house for my cousins birthday party a few days ago. J. just turned 16 and my aunt invited us for a late lunch and some cake. It was a very small gathering- three cousins- including myself- my parents, and J.'s best friend, who also happened to be a neighbor. . . By 8 pm, my parents and J.'s neighbor were gone. They had left me and T., our 24-year-old female cousin, to spend a night. It was 2 am and we had just gotten J.'s little brother into bed. He had eaten more than his share of cake and the sugar had made him wild for a couple of hours.
We were gathered in the living room and my aunt and her husband, Ammoo S. [Ammoo = uncle] were asleep. T., J. and I were speaking softly and looking for songs on the radio, having sworn not to sleep before the cake was all gone. T. was playing idly with her mobile phone, trying to send a message to a friend. "Hey- there's no coverage here. . . is it just my phone?" She asked. J. and I both took out our phones and checked, "Mine isn't working either. . . " J. answered, shaking her head. They both turned to me and I told them that I couldn't get a signal either. J. suddenly looked alert and made a sort of "Uh-oh" sound as she remembered something. "R.- will you check the telephone next to you?" I picked up the ordinary telephone next to me and held my breath, waiting for a dial tone. Nothing. . .
T. suddenly sat up straight, "Do you hear that?" She asked, wide-eyed. At first I couldn't hear anything and then I caught it- it was the sound of cars or vehicles- moving slowly. "I can hear it!" I called back to T., standing up and moving towards the window. I looked out into the darkness and couldn't see anything beyond the dim glow of lamps behind windows here and there. . .
Meanwhile, the sound of cars had gotten louder and I remembered that one could see some of the neighborhood from a window on the second floor. T. and I crept upstairs quietly. We heard Ammoo S. unlocking 5 different locks on the kitchen door. "What's he doing?" T. asked, "Shouldn't he keep the doors locked?" . . .
I stood awkwardly, watching them make preparations. J. was already in her room changing- she called out for us to do the same, "They'll come in the house- you don't want to be wearing pajamas. . . "
"Why, will they have camera crews with them?" T. smiled wanly, attempting some humor. No, J. replied, her voice muffled as she put on a sweater, "Last time they made us wait outside in the cold." I listened for Ammoo S. and heard him outside, taking the big padlock off of the gate in the driveway. "Why are you unlocking everything J.?" I called out in the dark.
"The animals will break down the doors if they aren't open in three seconds and then they'll be all over the garden and house. . . last time they pushed the door open on poor Abu H. three houses down and broke his shoulder. . . " J. was fully changed, and over her jeans and sweater she was wearing her robe. It was cold. . .
Twenty minutes later, we were all assembled in the living room. The house was dark except for the warm glow of the kerosene heater and a small lamp in the corner. We were all dressed and waiting nervously, wrapped in blankets. . .
"There will be no problem," My aunt said sternly, looking at each of us, thin-lipped. "You will not say anything improper and they will come in, look around and go." Her eyes lingered on Ammoo S. He was silent. He had lit a cigarette and was inhaling deeply. J. said he'd begun smoking again a couple of months ago after having quit for ten years. "Are your papers ready?" She asked him, referring to his identification papers which would be requested. He didn't answer, but nodded his head silently. . .
We waited. And waited. . . I began nodding off and my dreams were interspersed with troops and cars and hooded men. I woke to the sound of T. saying, "They're almost here. . . " And lifted my head, groggy with what I thought was at least three hours of sleep. I squinted down at my watch and noted it was not yet 5 am. "Haven't they gotten to us yet?" I asked. . .
A big clanging sound on the garden gate and voices yelling "Ifta'u [OPEN UP]". I heard my uncle outside, calling out, "We're opening the gate, we're opening. . . " It was moments and they were inside the house. Suddenly, the house was filled with strange men, yelling out orders and stomping into rooms. It was chaotic. We could see flashing lights in the garden and lights coming from the hallways. . .
Suddenly, two of them were in the living room. We were all sitting on the sofa, near my aunt. My cousin B. was by then awake, eyes wide with fear. They were holding large lights or ‘torches' and one of them pointed a Klashnikov at us. "Is there anyone here but you and them?" One of them barked at my aunt. "No- it's only us and my husband outside with you- you can check the house." T.'s hands went up to block the glaring light of the torch and one of the men yelled at her to put her hands down, they fell limply in her lap. . .
I listened for Ammoo S., hoping to hear him outside but I could only distinguish the harsh voices of the troops. The minutes we sat in the living room seemed to last forever. . .
Suddenly, someone called out something from outside and it was over. They began rushing to leave the house, almost as fast as they'd invaded it. Doors slamming, lights dimming. We were left in the dark once more, not daring to move from the sofa we were sitting on, listening as the men disappeared, leaving only a couple to stand at our gate.
"Where's baba?" J. asked, panicking for a moment before we heard his slippered feet in the driveway. "Did they take him?" Her voice was getting higher. Ammoo S. finally walked into the house, looking weary and drained. I could tell his face was pale even in the relative dark of the house. My aunt sat sobbing quietly in the living room, T. comforting her. "Houses are no longer sacred. . . We can't sleep. . . We can't live. . . If you can't be safe in your own house, where can you be safe? The animals. . . the bastards. . . "
They took at least a dozen men from my aunts area alone- their ages between 19 and 40. The street behind us doesn't have a single house with a male under the age of 50- lawyers, engineers, students, ordinary laborers- all hauled away by the ‘security forces' of the New Iraq.