BAGHDAD—The humvee swiveled around the concrete barriers, drove past an Iraqi Army checkpoint, and left Saidiyah.
At first the world outside the neighborhood did not look much different than Saidiyah, a section of Baghdad that US troops had surrounded by a 12-foot-high fence to keep militias out and entice former residents, who had fled sectarian fighting there last year, back in.
Just like in Saidiyah, everything lay covered in dust. Like in Saidiyah, drivers pulled over and stared straight ahead warily as the American convoy drove by. Like in Saidiyah, ripped black, pink, blue and white plastic bags flew from concertino wire that stretched along many cement fences.
But a minute later, this part of southwestern Baghdad did not look like Saidiyah at all.
Vast fields of trash—every kind of trash, food, empty paint cans, remnants of broken cars, a blue-and-white bus without a cabin or wheels—stretched out to our left and right. Much of the trash was decomposed, compressed and covered a layer of dust so thick it was impossible to discern what it was. On top of the trash, in dwellings made of mud and empty oil canisters, people lived: barefoot children, women who stared through glassless windows at the humvees, old men who sat in the dirt, smoking cigarettes. A boy ran out of a hut with a roof made of sheets of plywood and tarpaulin that was held on top of the walls by tires and rocks. “Mister!” he yelled, running alongside the truck and waving. “I love you!” Dirty dogs lay, panting, in the refuse.
Some of the people have always been living in the wasteland, and others have moved there to escape sectarian violence. But the trash is new. After the war began the area became a virtual landfill.
In the middle of the wasteland, the convoy came to a stop. The soldiers wanted to check out one of the houses, and we got out of the humvees, cautiously finding our way amid piles of garbage.
Soon, a group of men and a little barefoot boy hurried in our direction. As they were walking, a dog with matted fur the color of dirt ran toward them and pounced on the boy. The boy fell and began to cry. The men kicked the dog and laughed. The boy’s elbows were bleeding.
“Is this somebody’s dog, because otherwise I’ll shoot it?” yelled one of the soldiers. The military interpreter translated for the men and one of them replied:
“It’s my dog, but go ahead, shoot it. It doesn’t like my wife, either.”
Several soldiers followed the dog behind the house, where trash lay in heaps. Two shots rang out. Then we got back into the humvees and drove off, leaving the dead dog behind – presumably, to rot amid the trash.
“It was a public health concern,” 2nd Lieutenant Chris Allen explained later.
The American convoy drove out of the fields and into a side street. It was a little cleaner. Most of the storefronts were shuttered, and there were few people in the street. A sign that read, in Arabic, “I live for the Mahdi Army” – the Shiite militia of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – was spray-painted on a wall. Black Shiite flags flew from many houses. People stared at the convoy. Nobody waved.
“They hate us down there,” Allen explained. The Americans suspect that Shiite militias use the area to traffic weapons.
The Americans made a U-turn near a field where teenagers were playing soccer in the dirt, and drove back to Saidiyah. Inside the walls, on the neighborhood’s main street throngs of shoppers, sucking on fruit smoothies and eating ice cream, strolled down a dusty pavement. Not all the shops were open, and far from all of Saidiyah’s residents who had fled sectarian violence have returned to the neighborhood. Piles of garbage lay here and there, concrete fences stood pockmarked with shrapnel, electricity was down in most of the neighborhood, and the concrete guts of a house damaged by a car bomb spilled onto the sidewalk.
Even compared to my trip here in 2006, Saidiyah is a mess. But compared to the Baghdad that lies outside its walls, it is good. It is safe. It is prosperous.
And that is depressing.