My War Away From War

By Ayub Nuri, a former reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/02/07):

I WILL always remember last Aug. 13 as one of the best days of my life. On that day, after 47 days of waiting, and just four days before classes were to begin at Columbia, where I had received a scholarship, I was granted an American visa. Not only would I be able to fulfill my dream of studying in the United States, but I would also find some peace.

I am an Iraqi, and although I love my country, I needed to get out. I thought the 13-hour flight and the oceans would distance me from the tragic reality of the war. But on my first day in New York, I realized that I had not left the war. Rather, it had followed me here, and I had to fight it every day.

Every time I talked to someone at a party, in a taxi or at the store, the same chain of questions would follow after I said I was from Iraq. Some people gaped. Others sat silent for a second, then shook my hand differently. “Wow, so interesting,” they would say. “So what do you think of the whole situation? What went wrong over there?” Finally, the inevitable: “Do you think we should pull out?”

At school happy hours, while everyone was socializing and enjoying their drinks, I found myself having to explain the insurgency, the sectarian violence and what I thought would happen if American troops withdrew from Iraq. That was the question that troubled me most.

To me, it sounded like a question that only the defense secretary should be contemplating. Did people here feel entitled to ask it because they had voted for this government, and they therefore felt responsible for their government’s policies? I decided to think this was the reason, and it consoled me.

Soon, there was another question that began to trouble me. It mostly came from Arabs or other Muslims I encountered. “Who is behind these killings?” they would ask.

“It is difficult to point to a specific group,” I would tell them. “But most of the killings are perpetrated by Iraqis themselves, Shiites and Sunnis. I have witnessed it with my own eyes.”

But they were never satisfied with my answers. Most of them blamed America for everything. I agree that the American army is part of the problem, but Iraqi militias are now responsible for most of the killings.

Explaining the complexity of the situation in Iraq to everyone I met made me tired, and after a while I did not enjoy meeting people anymore. I stopped going to happy hour. I wished I could have a conversation about a different subject — American history or the American electoral system — but it rarely happened.

I realize now that there simply is no way for me to escape the bitterness of this war. It has become part of my life. One night, after a dinner party with some classmates, I turned on my computer to read my e-mail messages. The first message I opened was from Iraq. It carried the news of the death of a dear friend of mine. He was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad. I cried most of the night. A few days later I erased his e-mail address from my address book.

A month later, my phone rang very early in the morning. The voice on the other end told me that another close friend — a reporter in Ramadi — was killed while covering a story in Baghdad. I mourned alone in my apartment.

I slept very well my first two nights in New York and had no dreams, but I think it was because of the jetlag. The rest of my nights have been full of dreams and nightmares.

In one dream I am stuck in Falluja and I can’t get out. I am on the ledge of a high wall that separates the American soldiers from insurgents. They both see me and are ready to shoot.

In another dream I am kidnapped by the Iraqi Army and thrown into a dungeon with a foreign reporter. In yet another, I go to Baghdad and find the streets empty. There are only roofless houses and ruined walls.

When I wake up, I remember that I am in New York City, and I feel at peace. But that little escape from the nightmare of the war does not last long. At some point during the day I will have to give another war lecture. No matter how I perceive the war, no matter how many more friends I lose, no matter who is killing whom, as long as there is a war, I have to live with its nightmares and fight them thousands of miles away.