“I planned to become an owner of a modest shop or a college teacher, but the war took eight years of my life and with the Kuwait occupation and the following economic siege I lost more years in war and poverty,” he said, describing the effects of years of conflict on his life.
Naeem, with a wrinkled face and dark teeth, is in his fifties now. He owns a trolley car which he uses to carry people’s shopping and luggage, and competes for work with other trolley owners more than 30 years younger than him.
Naeem’s story is one of many illustrating the sizeable changes in the lives of yesterday’s soldiers who were lucky enough to stay alive during the successive wars of Saddam's regime. These were changes that people were forced to experience in a political system that gave them only two choices: fight or be sentenced to death. The stories reveal physical, psychological, economic and social losses. And the losses are obvious: a young man in 1980 was faced with eight years of soldiering, followed by another war with Kuwait, with further years of reserve soldier duty. All in all, some men lost at least 12 years of their lives in military camps and wars.
“After being released from the army at the end of the war with Iran, I went back to my home in one of Kufa’s rural areas devoting my life completely to farming. With the end of the season, I was summoned again to fight the Kuwait battles,” said Hamid Wada’h, a 46-years old construction worker. “In the 1990s people’s conditions improved but I couldn’t go back to farming before 1994, the day of my release from the army.” By that point, as the country’s economic plight worsened under international sanctions, Hamid lost confidence in the ability of agriculture to provide for his family and decided to seek work in the city. “In 1995, I decided to work in the city as an unskilled construction worker. I have continued to do so with an income that barely covers the food expenses of my eight-member family.”
Tuman Ghazi, a 50-years old poet and critic tells another story. He was in the battlefield from the first day of the war with Iran. Limited choices compelled him to volunteer and as he held a physics degree he was made an officer. “This was better than being summoned as a soldier. Food portions, working hours, salaries, and mobility privileges given to officers were completely different to those of soldiers.”
Despite being captured, Tuman’s decision to become an officer allowed him to retire at an early age following the end of the Second Gulf War in 1991. The law allowed prisoners who returned to retire. “A year after my retirement there was a huge inflation in the country caused by the economic siege. It was then that I discovered that my salary, which was excellent at that time, barely covered the expenses of my family for 15 days of a 30 days month and so I decided to work. I made a hole in the wall of my house in 1993 turning it into a bakery and continued to work as a baker for almost 10 years.”
What makes Tuman’s story differed from those of his war generation is that he did not 'surrender'. In the mid-1990s, despite his family’s economic difficulties, he entered the University of Kufa and obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Arabic literature. In 2003, he became a professor at one of the ever increasing number of private colleges in Najaf after the fall of Saddam. He is now preparing for his PhD at the University of Kufa.
Retrieving the memories of those he met in more than one military camp, Tuman said: “I do not know what happened to them and what they are doing now, but I am sure that the lives of many have irreversibly changed because of the war.” The government’s lack of a vision for these people is a “moral turpitude of the new political system,” he said, adding that “there is no legislation aimed at restoring their mental, psychological, social or financial status. They lost a big part of their lives unable to take their own choices; they suffered the direct impact of wars and they are now guards of schools and buildings or unskilled laborers working for low incomes. We should not only pity them, we should react.”
The years have passed and the Iraqi system has changed, yet for many of these men life continues to be a struggle as they strive to reassert themselves and recover from the years that were taken from them.
“In reality, I am not doing anything better than what I used to do when I was a soldier during the war. I was then fighting fiercely under the burning sun without knowing why. Now I am pushing my trolley car under the burning sun also not knowing why. I feel indifferent. I was and I am still obliged to do things only to stay alive,” said Naeem, the trolley worker, describing his feelings while staring at a big sign in the street calling on people to participate in the up-coming municipal elections.