Safia Ismail lived with her husband and two daughters in Sayyidiyah, a mixed, middle-class neighborhood in southwest Baghdad. Mirroring the larger collapse of the city into sectarian warfare during 2006, when Sunnis were killed or chased out of most of the area, Ismail’s life quickly unraveled. She tells her story with the help of an interpreter.


Before all of this, we had a good life. We had a television in every room.

In February 2006, the situation in Sayyidiyah began to get very bad. The terrorists had taken over the neighborhood, and there was fighting [with the Iraqi army].

My husband was with his family in Ramadi at this time. He called me to say he was coming to get us. I told him not to come because it was not safe. But he said he was already in the car.

That was the last time we spoke. He disappeared on the road. I looked for him everywhere. I looked in all the hospitals. But I never found his body.

I stayed with my family. I kept looking for him.

My brother supported us. He considered my daughters as his own. Anything he did for his children, he did the same for mine. He was murdered later in 2006, in June.

My husband’s family blamed me for [my husband’s] death, even though I had told him not to come. So they didn’t give me anything, even my ID card and my ration card. They are still getting my food in Ramadi.

After my brother was killed, things began to get very bad. The insurgents were killing women and children but we were terrified to leave and we didn’t know where to go.

One day, the woman next door to me was killed. They asked her for water and she argued with them and they shot her in the head. I saw this with my own eyes.

After this, we decided to flee to my uncle’s house in a different part of the neighborhood, but on our way we got trapped between the insurgents and the [Iraqi] army. The insurgents were hiding and the army was just shooting randomly.

We found ourselves in front of the insurgents. Bullets were going all around us. Even today, you can go to that street and see the tracks of the bullets in the walls.

While this was happening, my daughter just closed her eyes and started running, first one way and then the other. Then a small boy came out of a house and his mother came running after him. She was naked because she had been bathing. We ran into that house and collapsed on the floor and we stayed there for a long time while the fighting was going on.

After a while, we started laughing about it. We were making jokes about my daughter running this way and that. Can you believe we were laughing? That’s how crazy we were.

We tried to go to Dora (a neighborhood in southern Baghdad) but there was a big car bomb. That was the first time the children saw something like that, and it was the first time I saw pieces of bodies.

Later, after the fighting was finished, we went back to the house in Sayyidiyah. The insurgents had left but they took all our furniture. They found our money that was hidden under a mattress. Then they noticed a loose tile in the floor, and they must have thought there was more treasure under there because they tore up the floor.

The Americans came into the neighborhood and did some raids. They treated us well and we didn’t have problems with them.

We learned who all the insurgents were. They were people from the neighborhood. They were still there but we couldn’t say anything to them because we were afraid of them. I wanted to ask them why they stole everything from a house that belongs to a widow and orphans.

Even still, I feel like someone who fell to the ground. What can I say? I am tired. My brother was helping the whole neighborhood and they killed him and my neighbors stole our whole house.

What happened to us?

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