Four Iraqis on Searching For Hope 17 Years After the Iraq War

Clockwise from top left: Sally Mars, Ahmed Albasheer, Tahany Saleh and Um Qusay.

Clockwise from top left: Sally Mars, Ahmed Albasheer, Tahany Saleh and Um Qusay.

July 14, 2020

For the people of Iraq, the fallout from the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 continues to this day, sometimes in unexpected — and violent — ways. That is the message that the Iraqis featured in FRONTLINE’s Once Upon a Time in Iraq emphasize time and again. The documentary recounts their stories of life under Saddam Hussein, the war, the occupation, and the years of chaos that followed — from sudden explosions during the days of sectarian violence, to mass killing under the brutal reign of ISIS.

Some of them shared what has happened in their lives and in Iraq since they filmed with FRONTLINE.  


In the documentary:

Sally Mars was six years old when the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. In the documentary, she recalled hearing shooting and explosions. “I remember that a missile hit very close to our house,” she said. “And my mom, she threw herself on top of us, me and my brothers. The house was shaking, we thought it would come down on us.”

What’s happened since?

“I really feel like I’ve changed since we filmed the interview,” Mars said. “I feel like I’m 50 years older now.”

In October 2019, mass demonstrations erupted in Iraq as people rallied against corruption, lack of services, and high unemployment rates. It was a “main turning point,” she said.

The protests were met with a violent response. “Bodies were dropping on the streets… and the firing just continued with smoke everywhere, while blood flowed from the victims like waterfalls.”

Angry and resolved, Mars joined the protests on Oct. 26. “Everything inside me changed as I walked on my own through the demonstrations,” she said. People she didn’t know gave her water and a mask for tear gas. She saw people cooking food for the protesters and helping the injured. From that point, she said: “I learned what it meant to be someone that loves their country, and what it means to fight for your rights, and for your freedom in the face of death.”

The Iraq war “changed the entirety of our society for the worse” and “destroyed Iraqis as individuals,” Mars said. “Our generation started rebuilding the strength in personality of the Iraqi individual by reclaiming our original roots and culture.”


In the documentary:

When Ahmed Albasheer first saw American soldiers in Iraq, he said he felt hope. “I had this dream that my country is becoming one of the good countries in the Middle East, or maybe in the world.” But as the occupation continued, he saw the rise of sectarian division, with people carrying two pieces of identification — one for Sunni checkpoints and one for Shia checkpoints. In the documentary, Albasheer said America did two “major bad things” in Iraq: the first was the invasion, and the second was withdrawing before Iraq was ready.

What’s happened since?

Albasheer said he felt the height of hope last October when massive anti-government protests began. “The young men took to the streets to challenge the government and to demand a homeland — I would say that my hopes were very high at that point,” he said. “I believed that everything was possible then.”

Since then, he fears that the militias have grown even more politically influential, and it’s become dangerous and nearly impossible for young people who want to change the system. Protesters, he said, are not only facing a corrupt political system but “super powers.”

“I can’t see a clear future for Iraq at the moment,” Albasheer said, noting that hundreds of protesters have been killed.

“Anyone who wants to express their opinion will either be killed, bribed, or get death threats, escape the country, and speak from exile like me and many others do,” he said.


In the documentary:

In Once Upon a Time in Iraq, Um Qusay recalled that life in her town under Saddam Hussein meant hunger and war. “We used to eat chicken feed,” she said. “There was no rest, we were always at war. Wars that were not even necessary.” Um Qusay also lived through the bloody and brutal reign of ISIS. She told the story of how she and fellow townspeople helped hide Iraqi army cadets who were being targeted by ISIS. When asked why she risked her life to protect those men, she said, “The reason was that first of all, they are Iraqi.”

What’s happened since?

Since she filmed the interview, Um Qusay said that Iraq is “getting worse and worse by the day.” She said, “There’s a lot of pressure on regular civilians — murder, massacres, demonstrations… I don’t know how to explain this, but we have no hope.”

Um Qusay added: “There needs to be complete oversight on those governing Iraq, so that it’s made sure that they’re doing what’s right for the country.”


In the documentary:

Tahany Saleh was a university student when ISIS took over the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. Then, her life came to a standstill. “I stopped going to university. We stopped going into the street,” she said. As the Iraq army and the anti-ISIS coalition fought ISIS, Saleh was among the civilians caught in the cross fire. “The army was bombing and ISIS was bombing. And we were right in the middle.”

What’s happened since?

Saleh was interviewed for Once Upon a Time in Iraq shortly after the war to retake Mosul from ISIS. “I perceived life in an indescribably intense way,” she recalled. “I had an overwhelming sense of survival. I had a lot of hope for change. There was a sense of possibility that we were going to revive the country, bring the city back, be safe, be stable.”

Since that time, she has found herself disappointed. “Things are very difficult now, very difficult, because we feel extremely let down as Iraqis,” she said. Violence has increased, along with the power and influence of militias. Those who call for change are targeted for assassination, she said.  “I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like my family and friends are safe,” she said. “I fear looking at my phone because I can’t handle finding out that another person has been assassinated for speaking out, for trying to improve the country.”

Ultimately, Saleh wishes for a better future and for Americans to better understand Iraqis. “I hope that things change and that we can go back to dreaming again,” she said. “I just want to be able to hope.”

— Vanessa Bowles contributed reporting.


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Digital Reporter & Producer, FRONTLINE



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