BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — On a giant billboard in front of the Iraqi ministry of Youth in Baghdad, a sign reads: “Forgive and be merciful for a unified Iraq.”
The streets are busy with pedestrians and shoppers. We drive down Saadoon Street, a wide central artery with 20-foot blast walls cutting off one side of the street from another. Painted over the concrete, there are pink flowers, flying doves, as well as river and mountain scenes.
On Saadoon Street and everywhere else in Baghdad, most cars have bullet holes. I counted more than 20 on one vehicle as we stopped in heavy traffic.
Inside the car, looking out, I occasionally remember the threat of car bombs. It is a lottery. Is that man a suicide bomber, alone in his car? Would those four young men in another car kidnap me if they had a chance? If one of our regular Baghdad correspondents or producers heard me ask that question, my guess is they would laugh, call me naive and ask, “Are you kidding?”
In the distance, I think I hear a thud. An explosion. It didn’t happen on Saadoon Street today.
Life here rolls on, somehow uninterrupted. There is a market with stalls selling fruits and vegetables. If I focus only on the street vendors, the only reminder that I am in a war zone is the razor wire lining the gutter along the street, shrouding the salesmen and the shops in a thin layer of protection. It almost looks normal.
There is a shop called “Beirut Shoes” and, one after the other, three stores that sell wheelchairs and crutches.
The ministry of Health tells CNN the number of stores that sell medical equipment has more than doubled in the last four years in Baghdad. When bombs go off, many people die; thousands more are injured. They lose legs and arms and need wheelchairs. Five years ago, there were more shoe shops on this stretch of Saadoon Street. Today, the wheelchairs are taking over.
I play a game with CNN Baghdad producer Mohammed Tawfeeq: “If I walked in Sadr City alone, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, how long would I last?”
“In a t-shirt? 30 seconds. They would kidnap you.”
“How long would I last if I were dressed in full hijab?”
“Probably 20 minutes,” he answers. We laugh but we know it’s serious.
Our drive down Saadoon Street takes us to the Palestine Hotel. The building once favored by foreign journalists but now almost completely abandoned. The hotel was always a target, but a coordinated attack that involved a truck packed with explosives drove the remaining Western reporters and other organizations out for good almost two years ago. The hotel and several nearby buildings are now locked in by blast walls and the street in front of the hotel entrance is completely deserted. It feels like one of those uninhabited towns in a cowboy movie, an abandoned movie set with tumbleweeds flying in the hot summer wind.
I prepare to film the open to this month’s Inside the Middle East, with Firdos Square, where the Saddam Hussein statue famously came down soon after the invasion behind me. I remembered the jubilant scenes more than four years ago when even those who opposed this war had hope things could get better in Iraq.
Today, Saadoon Street and Firdos Square bear no resemblance to the Baghdad that fell to the Americans back then. The first, with its gouged out sidewalks, its razor wire, its blast walls, thinly disguised by colorful, amateurish paintings; the second, abandoned, left to age and degrade in the sun.
It’s my first trip to Baghdad and I’ve been struck as much by how calm it can be when bombs aren’t going off, as by how desperate and tragic it is, even at the best of times.
Ordinary Iraqis I speak with as I compile my stories don’t talk about their lives anymore. They tell me about their miseries. Their life has become a list of grievances and frustrations. It is difficult not to feel ashamed. I can leave; they cannot. I can spend hundreds of dollars on clothing; they don’t have that money for a simple operation. I leave my house because I choose to; they leave theirs because they will probably die if they don’t.
In the newsroom, a bigger explosion in the distance rattles the windows. How big was it? How close?
In a few days I will leave Iraq. I will have only peeked into what life is like here for Iraqis and Americans. A glimpse more valuable to understanding the country than I ever imagined it would be. Because after all, a quick glimpse is better than not looking at all.