20 years on: The Iraqis born the year the war began

Young Iraqis on how the 2003 US-led invasion shaped their lives.

20-year-old Iraqis
Clockwise from left: Sham Diyar, Nazar Dakhil, Mayaar Haitham Falih, Yassin Youssef, Ryan Manya, Laith Louay [Al Jazeera]
Clockwise from left: Sham Diyar, Nazar Dakhil, Mayaar Haitham Falih, Yassin Youssef, Ryan Manya, Laith Louay [Al Jazeera]

Twenty years ago this month, the US and several allies invaded Iraq, pledging to rid the country of its purported weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and topple the Saddam Hussein regime.

The US-led invasion plunged the country into war and sectarian violence. And the claims that Iraq harboured WMDs were found to be false. When coalition forces withdrew in 2011, they left behind a country scarred by conflict and political instability – one that would continue to face challenges, including from the armed group ISIL (ISIS). According to the Iraq Body Count Project, more than 200,000 civilians have been killed in war-related violence since 2003.

Although reliable data is hard to come by, roughly half of Iraq’s population of 42 million is estimated to have been born after 2003. About 60 percent of Iraqis are under the age of 25, and the most recent Iraq Labour Force Survey found that 36 percent of the country's 15 to 24-year-olds – many of whom took their first steps during the US occupation – are not in education, employment, or training.

While their recollections of the early period of the invasion are limited, the first memories of many young Iraqis include new homes, missing relatives, car bombs, confusion, and fear. Formative years were spent indoors, obeying curfews.

Today, political violence, unemployment, the climate crisis, increasing living costs – with nearly one-third of the country living in poverty – and dysfunctional public services are some of the challenges confronting young people in Iraq.

As a generation comes of age, Al Jazeera spoke to six Iraqis born in 2003 about how the invasion shaped their lives and their thoughts and hopes for the future. Some are determined to contribute to a better Iraq, some want to leave, and others just want peace.

‘My father was killed by US forces’

Laith Louay, volunteer and high school student

A photo of Lath carrying a table.
Laith volunteers in one of the schools in his town before young orphans arrive for activities [Photo courtesy of Laith Louay]
Laith volunteers in one of the schools in his town before young orphans arrive for activities [Photo courtesy of Laith Louay]

Born in May 2003 in Al-Qaim

In the town of Al-Qaim, on the border with Syria in Iraq’s western province of Anbar, Laith Louay sits in the same bedroom where his mother gave birth to him shortly after the US-led invasion began in 2003. As Laith speaks over a video call, his yellow cockatiel chirps loudly then settles on his cropped black hair.

“When I was six months old, my father was killed by US forces,” the soft-spoken teenager begins.

Laith’s father, Louay Qassem - a figure he cannot remember but whose absence shaped much of his life - drove taxis between the family’s hometown and Ramadi, both along the Euphrates River.

In November 2003, Louay set off with his mother-in-law for Baghdad, where she had an urgent medical appointment.

They never made it. “As his car passed through Fallujah, it was shot at, flipped, crashed and set on fire,” Laith explains. His father and his grandmother were killed along with two other passengers.

They had been driving on a highway with a US checkpoint. “My father didn’t know he wasn’t allowed to drive on this road,” he continues.

The situation after the invasion was chaotic, Laith says. “People did not dare to ask for an investigation or ask for compensation or accountability. We only received the death certificates, which said they were killed by US soldiers, but nothing else.”

Old pictures of Lath and his family.
Photographs of Laith and his family, including his father Louay, left, who was killed when Laith was six months old [Photo courtesy of Laith Louay]

Louay’s death brought financial and emotional struggles to the family. “My grandfather had a stroke at that time. We didn’t have enough money to buy food as my father was the only one who was working in the family,” he says. “People in the area helped us until we got back on our feet.”

When he was barely a toddler, US soldiers raided his house at least twice in 2005, looking for al-Qaeda fighters, who briefly captured the town that year.

While he doesn’t remember much from the US occupation, growing up without a father was very difficult. “It affects me a lot but I keep it inside me,” he says, looking at the ground.

“Our suffering increased,” he adds, with the rise of ISIL. As ISIL expanded their territory - taking control of Al-Qaim in June 2014 - about 6 million Iraqis were displaced.

His mother married one of Louay’s brothers to avoid being forced to marry an ISIL fighter. Laith was 11 when they fled with his two elder brothers to Baghdad, where they lived with some 25 other family members in a crowded house. “My education stopped, I sold corn in a food cart on the street, I worked in a restaurant,” he recalls.

When ISIL was defeated in Al-Qaim, the group’s last stronghold in Iraq, in 2017, Laith returned to his childhood home where he lives today with his paternal grandmother, two uncles and one of his brothers.

“As somebody who lost his father and became displaced, I began to feel the misery of others,” he says, explaining his decision to set up a small volunteer organisation, the Al-Khair Youth Team. The 50 volunteers work with orphaned children across Anbar, distributing food, organising activities like planting trees, and giving lessons. “Those who lost their parents during 2003 and the sectarian war are among our volunteers and we support those who lost their parents under ISIS,” he says.

“There are around 500 orphans in our area [Al-Qaim] alone,” he adds.

A photo of Laith pushing a wheelbarrow with people using shovels and digging all around him.
Laith works with his volunteer team to clean up public areas in Al-Qaim. Laith has little faith in the government, he believes that civil society organisations are crucial for addressing community needs [Courtesy of Laith Louay]

When Laith fled Al-Qaim, he was forced to drop out of school. He is now finishing high school. In the mornings, he heads to the community centre to distribute supplies and set up activities for the children. During the day, he studies, and in the evenings he works in his family’s small grocery store.

In February - on Valentine’s Day - Laith got engaged to another volunteer, Sara. The couple plans to marry after Eid. “I need to get resources and organise myself,” he laughs, smiling for the first time since we began talking.

Laith wants to finish school and get a job - “anything, honestly” - and start a family with Sara. Although the organisation’s resources are limited, Laith dreams of expanding and setting up a safe home and school for the children, as well as for his own family. “I don’t want people to live the same as I did,” he says.

Above all else, he says, “I want this country to be safe.”

‘Maybe I could change something too’

Mayaar Haitham Falih, university student

A photo of Mayar standing next to a tree.
Mayaar stands in the garden of her family home in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah area, where she spent the first year of her life in 2003 [Meethak Al-Khatib/Al Jazeera]
Mayaar stands in the garden of her family home in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah area, where she spent the first year of her life in 2003 [Meethak Al-Khatib/Al Jazeera]

Born in January 2003 in Baghdad

Mayaar Haitham Falih’s golden bracelets catch the early morning light as she rolls up her black sleeves and settles onto the sofa in her family home in Baghdad.

She laughs shyly when asked about her earliest memories. “It was challenging,” she says of her childhood.

Like millions of others, the US-led invasion uprooted Mayaar’s family, who moved to Amman, Jordan shortly after her first birthday as the war escalated.

The day before her family moved back to Baghdad a decade later, in 2014, Mayaar wrote in her diary that she was scared to return. "Watching the news, we only ever saw the bombings and death,” she reflects.

Back in Iraq, she felt like an outsider, having been at an English language international school and not knowing how to read and write in Arabic.

A photo of a table with old childhood photos of Mayar.
Photographs of a young Mayaar from an old family album [Courtesy of Mayaar Haitham Falih]

Around the time they moved back, ISIL pushed into swaths of Iraq. It never took the capital but at one stage came within 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) of Baghdad.

Then, in July 2016 towards the end of Ramadan, ISIL carried out a bombing in the popular Karada district.

More than 300 people were killed when an explosive-laden truck detonated outside a shopping mall as people were shopping and socialising after breaking their fast. It was the single deadliest event in the capital since 2003.

Mayaar had been in the area earlier that day. “Some of my friends thought I was dead – one of them even posted a photo of me saying I had died!” Mayaar recalls. “So when I returned home, we were emotional.”

The attack left her feeling unsafe. “It was clearer than ever to me that I could die at any moment in Iraq.”

In October 2019, the widespread Tishreen protest movement saw thousands of young Iraqis call for an end to the country’s endemic corruption, and a change to the political system.

“I hated Iraq at this time, but when I saw so many people protesting to change the system, I thought there was hope. I thought – for the first time – maybe I could change something too,” she says.

Today, Mayaar is an international studies student at the American University of Iraq, Sulaymani (AUIS) in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, where she feels more at home, and happy to be attending an international university. “Until now, I still don’t feel like I belong to Baghdad,” she says.

At times, however, she still feels like an outsider. As the only Arab in a course on the Kurdish diaspora, she says some classmates were against her joining.

As she got older, Mayaar says her parents told her about the censorship and brutality experienced by many under Saddam, but views are divided among many of her classmates about his regime. In the Kurdish region, the US-led invasion is often referred to as a liberation from the historic persecution and military campaign Kurds faced under Saddam.

Many of her classmates, Mayaar admits, want to leave the country as soon as they graduate, disillusioned by the lack of job opportunities. “They always say, who would want to stay here?”

Mayaar, who hopes to work in the humanitarian or diplomatic sectors, plans to stay put. “I think Iraq is going to get better,” she says. “It’s an amazing country, there is progress to be made, and it has strong people … There are people working hard to rebuild it.”

‘I want to finally live in peace’

Nazar Dakhil, high school student

A photo of Nazar sitting in his tent.
Nazar sitting in his tent, shared with his family, after school [Muhsen Nayef/Al Jazeera]
Nazar sitting in his tent, shared with his family, after school [Muhsen Nayef/Al Jazeera]

Born in June 2003 in Sinjar

Shortly after Nazar Dakhil turns 20 in June, he will have spent nearly half his life living in a canvas tent in a sprawling displacement camp in Iraq’s Kurdish region. He lives with his family in the Kabartu camp in Duhok province, just one out of 25 IDP camps in the Kurdish provinces.

The chaos and instability of the 2003 US-led invasion wreaked havoc across parts of Iraq and contributed to the emergence of ISIL, which changed the course of his life.

Nazar is a member of the ethnoreligious Yazidi minority, and was born in the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq.

“Yazidis were not persecuted under Saddam, not anything like ISIS,” he says, explaining that his family’s financial situation was better when the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein. He remembers US troops in the area during his childhood, but not as a threatening presence.

“When we lived in Sinjar before ISIS, we felt comfortable, psychologically good, and we had our friends around. I used to love playing football with the other children,” he says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the tent.

A photo of Nazar sitting in his tent.
Nazar in his tent with his family in Kabartu camp. The 25 IDP camps in the Kurdish region host some180,000 Yazidis [Muhsen Nayef/Al Jazeera]

Nazar, the second-oldest child, has four sisters and a brother. In August 2014, he was just 11 and his youngest sister, Eda, was a small baby when his family bundled their belongings and ran to the mountains, escaping ISIL’s genocidal campaign in his homeland.

“I will never forget it,” Nazar says. “ISIS attacked Sinjar at night and we had to flee.”

They were trapped for more than a week. “We didn’t have food or water. Many other children died of hunger and thirst,” he recalls. “After eight days, the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] opened an access route to the Kurdistan region.”

His family survived, he says, because of his parents.

They barely slept, fearful that ISIL fighters would come at any moment. His father risked his life to walk to a village in search of supplies, finding a water tank, which saved his family’s life.

A photo of Nazar standing in the camp holding his high school book.
Nazar in front of a small kitchen his family built after years of living in Kabartu [Muhsen Nayef/Al Jazeera]

His mother, Layla, and father, Dakhil – in their forties – sit quietly, close by. Dakhil used to work as a construction labourer, but his eyesight deteriorated, and he no longer works.

“Security-wise, we are safe – but financially we are struggling a lot. We are a family of eight people without any income,” Nazar stresses.

The family’s home in Sinjar was destroyed by the fighting to reclaim the area from ISIL, and they are unable to return. Successive Iraqi governments have not rebuilt Sinjar despite promises to do so, and the area remains marred in complex political power play, including competing mayors and a flood of multiple actors including Iraqi security forces, Kurdish separatist groups, and Turkish, Iranian-backed and Yazidi militias.

A photo of Nazar doing his homework next to his tent.
Nazar doing his homework next to the family tent. In the spring, some residents will try to get to Europe. But he wouldn't go, saying it is too dangerous, and that he must look after his family [Muhsen Nayef/Al Jazeera]

Nazar looks around his home. In Kabartu, he says, the health system is broken. A lack of clean water and a build-up of rubbish are persistent problems in the camp, and he worries they will get worse as management transitions from the UN to local authorities.

He is in his final year of high school in the camp but can’t afford to go to university in Duhok. “I might have to quit school next year to work to support my family,” he says, despondently.

As the eldest son, he feels responsible for taking care of his family. He doesn’t mind what work he does to support them, but he thinks he would make a good nurse. “I have always liked the health sector and the idea of helping one another.”

He hopes that Sinjar will be made safe.

“I want to finally live in peace,” he says.

‘I want to leave’

Yassin Youssef, filmmaking student

A photo of Yassin standing in Tahrir Square.
Yassin in Tahrir Square, previously dominated by months-long anti-government protests from October 2019, as thousands of young people protested against corruption and called for government reform [Meethak Al-Khatib/Al Jazeera]
Yassin in Tahrir Square, previously dominated by months-long anti-government protests from October 2019, as thousands of young people protested against corruption and called for government reform [Meethak Al-Khatib/Al Jazeera]

Born in April 2003 in Baqubah

Yassin Youssef was born in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala governorate in central Iraq, two days before the fall of Saddam.

His mother, like so many others, had fled to a neighbouring province to escape the US bombing of the capital. Two weeks after his birth, they rejoined his father in Baghdad.

For much of Yassin’s childhood, there was a constant fear of kidnappings, bombings and looting, and apart from school, he and his older sister mostly stayed at home.

“We lived under so much stress - people lived knowing that the Americans could break into their homes and kill them, or militias could kidnap you,” he recalls. “People today are still stressed, angry, on the edge.”

Yassin’s first memory of a US soldier was from when he was about three years old. He was outside with his mother and said “Hello,” to the soldier, who dropped to his knees and patted his head.

“At this time, I didn’t know that this soldier had invaded my country. I wasn’t questioning how many Iraqis he killed, or how many people he might have hurt,” he says. “But later in life, I came to the realisation of my father: How dare he be in my country.”

Yassin’s father used to have a shop selling nuts and sweets in front of their house. “For years, the Americans would come to help themselves to cans of Coke and 7up.”

When he was seven years old, US soldiers entered his family home, searching for weapons and asking about their neighbours. His mother, in broken English, tried to explain that the neighbours had left by saying “Go,” and gesturing.

“The Americans thought she was telling them to leave, they were shouting and abusing her,” he recalls. “I remember she went very quiet.”

Moments before they entered, he remembers her rushing to hide his father’s photograph of Saddam in a kitchen drawer.

Growing up, his father often told him about the better days under Saddam. But his mother was glad he was gone. “My parents had arguments about this all the time.”

“As a child, there were attacks and bombings all the time, and we were taught that none of this happened under Saddam,” he recalls.

As the security situation in Baghdad began to improve in late 2017, Yassin, aged 14, started working in a bazaar selling sweets and notebooks outside of school hours to help his family. His father had stopped working as his business struggled, and his mother, a teacher, was under immense pressure to provide for the family.

20-year-old Iraqis
Yassin at a protest in Baghdad [Courtesy of Yassin Youssef]

When Yassin was 16, the Tishreen protests kicked off in Baghdad. He was attracted by the movement, seeing a chance to demonstrate against the political class. He camped out in Tahrir Square with other protesters for months until March 2020.

“As somebody who grew up between two separated opinions, me and others left these protests with more knowledge and understanding of what was happening in our country,” he explains.

“Some people who came to these protests left supporting [Shia cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr, others became communists, others came and learned of democracy, others came just because they wanted to eat and sleep there.”

But the protesters paid a heavy price. At least 600 people were killed in the brutal crackdowns by security forces, including one of Yassin’s friends who was hit by a smoke grenade and fell to his death from Jamhuriya Bridge.

“So many people - probably everybody in Tishreen - lost people in front of their eyes,” he says bitterly.

The demonstrations forced the country’s prime minister to resign. Three years on, critics say little has changed and that the current government led by Mohammed Shia al-Sudani serves only the interests of the political elite.

“I wanted to change our life here, this feeling of danger, and the environment of danger we live in in the country, but Iraq is worse than before,” Yassin reflected, as he walked through an empty Tahrir Square in March.

Yassin says he is now focusing on completing his degree in filmmaking. His hopes of helping bring change to Iraq have faded. “I don’t want to protest again, I want to leave the country.”

‘Iraq will keep being unsafe for me’

Ryan Manya, Ahwari activist and writer

A photo of Ryan opening a door.
Ryan in his apartment in Beirut, Lebanon [Photo courtesy of Ryan Manya]
Ryan in his apartment in Beirut, Lebanon [Photo courtesy of Ryan Manya]

Born in June 2003 in Najaf

“The 2003 invasion destroyed Iraq, but it also protected my family,” says Ryan Manya, who is wide-eyed as he speaks over a video call from his apartment in Beirut.

Ryan is Ahwari, an ethnic community indigenous to the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq, who have historically relied on the wetlands for fishing, buffalo breeding, and crafting reed houses.

He was born in Najaf, a city in central Iraq, to which his family had fled in the 1990s to escape Saddam’s persecution.

Several thousand Ahwari people, also known as Marsh Arabs, were slaughtered after Saddam - accusing residents of disloyalty during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and in response to 1991 uprisings - ordered the draining of the marshes to flush out rebels. About 100,000 people were displaced, fleeing to Iran, or moving to cities across Iraq - including Najaf, where Ryan grew up “like a refugee” in his own country.

“If there was no invasion and Saddam was here still, there would have been another genocide and I would be dead by now, or more likely not born,” he says. “Ahwaris and Kurds can say that.”

After 2003, his family returned frequently to his ancestral village in the central marshes, so he was able to maintain a deep connection with his culture and heritage, staying in his family’s traditional homes made from reeds.

“Our culture is a way of life that goes back thousands of years since the time of the Sumerians, we're unique by our [connection to] nature,” he explains.

In Najaf, however, his Ahwari family were seen as second-class citizens and faced discrimination. “We are seen as lesser people,” he shrugs, seething quietly. He struggled to fit in at different schools and later, to find a job. “I was rejected from jobs immediately after they saw my ID card.”

The violence born of the US invasion and the resulting sectarian war was a constant threat during his early years in Najaf, a holy Shia city, and he remembers bombings as a child that left a lasting impact on him.

Two years ago, when his family moved to another neighbourhood, he says the local school made it difficult for him to enrol so he decided to continue his studies online. Despite a chaotic education, he speaks Farsi, Arabic, Ahwari, and English and is learning French.

He remains connected to his roots and founded the Ahwari Network in May 2021 to promote and fight for his community, which today is threatened by the climate crisis. A lethal combination of drought and rising, saltier sea water, is causing people to leave. His grandfather’s last buffalo recently died. “It was a huge moment for our family. They lost their income, food, and are in a very bad situation, under the poverty line.”

The issues will only get worse, he warns. “There will be more migration, forced displacement, and death,” says Ryan.

Ryan is also involved in Gala Iraq, an LGBT community. “Being a queer person in Iraq is difficult for me,” he says, his voice trailing off. When he was 17 he was arrested by police officers at a Baghdad checkpoint. He believes he was targeted because he had long hair. He was harassed, threatened with rape, and sexually assaulted.

His family was called to collect him. When he returned to Najaf, his father threatened to kill him if he was arrested again. His parents didn't let him leave home for a year.

Last year, Ryan crossed the border and went to Tehran, joining the widespread protests following the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody.

In January, he moved to Beirut. He is not sure how long he can stay in Lebanon, but he knows he will never go back to Iraq.

“It will keep being unsafe for me – as a queer person, an Ahwari activist, and a human being,” he says.

‘I feel comfortable here’

Sham Diyar, university student

A photo of Sham.
Sham, who was born in Germany, holds Iraqi and German passports [Noor Safaa/Al Jazeera]
Sham, who was born in Germany, holds Iraqi and German passports [Noor Safaa/Al Jazeera]

Born September 2003 in Germany

Sham Diyar considers herself predominantly Kurdish – definitely more so than Iraqi – and lives and studies software engineering in Sulaimaniyah, approximately 100km (62 miles) from the Iranian border.

But she was born in Cologne in September 2003, after her parents moved there to escape persecution under Saddam. They returned in December 2005, as the situation in the Kurdish region improved after the fall of his regime, in contrast to federal Iraq.

“According to my Dad, it was too tiring in Germany,” she says, explaining why her parents chose to return back to their homeland. Her father worked in a cafe and her mother at a Mcdonald's. Now, 20 years on, her mother works at Sulaimaniyah’s airport, and her father is a dean at the University of Sulaimani.

A photo of Sham looking through old photos.
Sham holding an old photo showing her with her parents [Noor Safaa/Al Jazeera]

The Kurdish region welcomed the US invasion, with its forces fighting alongside coalition troops, and its institutions were given the chance to grow in a way that other parts of the country could not, initially, especially since the region gained de facto independence in 1991. But today, while life is generally safer than in the rest of the country, the region suffers from entrenched economic inequality.

Sham is disappointed in the regional government.

“Lately, the prices of gas have been so high. The problems with this government are mostly financial,” she says. Sham also notes how her parents, both state employees, receive irregular salaries.

Unlike many of those her age in federal Iraq, Sham was taught about the Saddam regime in her school in Sulaimaniyah. “We were told bad things, but you know, sometimes even Kurds here say Saddam was better, they are fed up with the Kurdish government,” she shrugs, although she feels that social mobility is slowly getting better in the region.

Sham has considered spending time in Germany when she graduates, but she also wants to explore Iraq more – starting with Baghdad. “Lately, since my father’s travelled more frequently, he talks about the improved security situation – and the good coffee,” she laughs.

“If you asked younger Sham, I would say I want to live abroad. But now, I’ve come to love it here. I feel comfortable here, and you grow attached to a place,” she adds, the sun streaming through the window. “I would tell the [Kurdish] diaspora that they will feel at home here.”

Source: Al Jazeera