On 19 August 2003, almost five months to the day that the US army led the invasion into Iraq, a man drove his truck into the UN headquarters in Baghdad intent on killing.
The UN’s chief envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, died in the suicide bomb blast, along with 22 others.
Iraqi sisters Soodad and Suhad Al-Naib were at work at the UN headquarters that day.
Suhad had spotted a truck out of the ground floor window of Soodad’s office, moving very fast and in their direction. The next thing she heard was the explosion.
300 people were injured in the destructive blast.
Suhad had lost an eye (she now wears a glass one), while Soodad took the brunt of the explosion, having been struck while standing by a big window. The sisters were flown to the UK for treatment, which involved 13 operations for Soodad and 11 for Suhad.
Ten years on, I’m now sitting with the sisters in Suhad’s London home where, until Soodad married, they lived together.
Eschewing their cream leather sofa, the two sisters sit side by side on cushioned stools, their backs leaning against a warm radiator. Even after 10 years, they can’t stand England’s cold weather.
Suhad laughs: “50 something is proper summer, here it’s 24 degrees and people die and don’t use the trains.”
Soodad’s rich earth coloured paintings, made up of red, terracotta and orange swirls, are displayed on the walls. They seem to depict trauma. Sensing my intrigue, Soodad explains: “I’m trying to get out of this phase.”
An example of Soodad's artwork
Art is not only Soodad’s passion, but also part of her rehabilitation since she joined an art therapy group.
Her vivid paintings are also displayed in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s office at City Hall, she says proudly.
Small Iraqi pottery is placed in front of a large TV, which plays a Channel 5 drama. On a round wooden table, Soodad lays out an impressive array of biscuits, a box of chocolates and coffee. They haven’t forgotten their Iraqi hospitality.
“We grew up with art, all of our families are artists. Baghdad was a city of culture, you could not see a corner in Baghdad without art on it... now it’s all mosques,” she says.
In 2003, Suhad was 28 and Soodad was 26. They’d spent their whole lives in central Baghdad, brought up by their mother and father (a university professor) and were, even then, incredibly close.
“We both wanted to study English Literature and Art so we went to the same university and department,” says Suhad.
“We shared the same friends, we shared the same bedroom... we’re not twins but we lived more like twins,” adds Soodad.
Suhad and Soodad (middle) with their childhood friends in Iraq before the invasion
Remembering their life before the invasion, she recalls: “It was a very private life, if we wanted to see friends we had private parties. We always entertained.
“And we had a driver who took us from one place to another.”
Soodad says fondly: “The safety situation before the war was heaven, nobody could touch us.”
The sisters relished the protection they were given under Saddam Hussein’s government.
“Oh Saddam’s time, we could go out like this,” Suhad says wistfully, while wearing a fitted purple and grey jumper dress, grey tights and lipstick.
“Nowadays - even if you’re covered up - if you are a woman it’s a complete disaster, you are a shame on the world if you are a woman,” she bemoans.
Soodad and Suhad are happy with their freedom in the UK
I ask Suhad if life for women in Baghdad is worse, 10 years on?
“Oh definitely, in every aspect. I sometimes think, ‘how do they manage living there?’
“Maybe because we’ve been Westernised since being here, but I say to mum as a woman ‘how do you go out shopping?’ She says ‘I don’t go out, I send the driver’... you don’t have a life.”
For Suhad, the positive side of living under Saddam’s 24-year rule was how safe she felt: “If somebody harassed you, their entire family would be thrown in jail.”
Saddam Hussein in 1999. He was hanged in 2006 after being found guilty and convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal
But she admits: “As a government they didn’t want us to hear what was going on outside, it was all controlled.”
The sisters remember their joy when the Hollywood blockbuster 'Titanic' was finally shown on one of the two TV channels.
Suhad laughs: “Even now, if we tell a joke about Saddam we still whisper it.
"We wanted something different. Liberation? Democracy? We didn’t know much about that, but we wanted something different. We felt suffocated."
“When the war happened, overnight the whole country turned upside down.
“For a few months it was good, but then this upside down took the best of us as well,” Soodad recalls.
As we sit in their warm flat on a dark Saturday afternoon we don’t talk specifically about the bomb blast that brought them to a new life in England. But when I ask if they’ve been back to Iraq since 2003, it becomes clear they’ve had a lot more to contend with since.
The UN headquarters after the bomb attack
The sisters spent 18 months hospitalised in England before their mother called – unaware of the extent of their injuries - to tell them that their father had suffered his third heart attack.
“They wanted to see us so we put ourselves on a plane back home. But the plane we took from Jordan was a private plane for the army and when we landed in Baghdad we crashed and landed with lots of bruises and cuts again.
“The moment our parents saw us we were in an even worse condition,” Suhad says, remarkably lightly for someone describing a plane crash.
Soodad continues: “They brought us back to London and we were hospitalised again and then in 2006 my mum called and said ‘dad wants to see you - this may be the final time.’”
When embarking on their second trip back to Iraq, the sisters decided not to tell the UN or Red Cross about their plans. Their private trip soon left them wishing they had…
“We stayed for two days and then they attacked us at our home,” says Soodad bluntly.
She remembers: “They shot at us and the surrounding flats too, my little brother was in the Special Forces and he took a bullet for us, it was really difficult. We had weapons at home so my brothers were shooting back.”
Suhad recalls: “A car passed by and there was a rush of bullets everywhere.”
The Red Cross helped the sisters leave Iraq
The next day the sisters were taken to relative safety in Northern Iraq. They went to the UN for help, but because they hadn’t told them about the trip, they were instructed to go to the Red Cross instead.
The sisters suspect, if it weren’t for their brothers being well equipped with guns, they would have been kidnapped during the 5am attack.
That was to be their last experience of life in Iraq.
“The UN bombing in 2003 was the scariest experience, the plane crash and the shooting wasn’t as bad - maybe because we’d gotten used to it?" Suhad says, compiling their terrifying experiences.
“Looking back at it, do we miss it? I miss the excitement but I miss the kind of life we had before, not what it’s like now.”
Their two brothers were also forced to seek refuge and now both live in America. One works as a civil engineer and the other in security.
Here in London, Suhad works as a translator at a hospital and Soodad has a full time role with the Red Cross, the humanitarian organisation to which they owe their safety.
For Soodad the difficult thing is not being allowed to go back home if anything happens to their parents: “The Home Office took our passports.”
Looking back, the sisters say they grew up with war in Iraq, they were almost used to it. But when Saddam was captured and they began to watch soldiers parachute into their city, they knew life was about to change.
“That was the war that felt like it was the end... we used to hear on the radio there were huge armies from different countries on the borders... we thought ‘is it going to be a battlefield and we all die?’” says Suhad.
US troops on the move in Iraq
But when it came time for the final US troops to pull out of Iraq in 2011, they didn’t want to see them go.
“We wanted them to stay for longer... they messed it up and just ran away.
“The English, Italian, French left too early, at a critical time,” Soodad explains.
For these two brave, resilient, warm and intelligent sisters - whose lives have repeatedly come under threat since 2003 - the war wasn’t worth it.
“We have no local government, no authority or someone to fear. Back then Saddam ruled us with an iron fist. Yes he’s gone, but we want someone just as strong. The army was fine but now they’ve pulled out who’s going to rule it?”
The sisters say they no longer recognise the country they grew up in, a place where women must now cover their heads. They blame religion for the current conflict and blame the war for opening up Iraq’s borders to jihadis and extremists.
“Now if you want to prove your point, you want to be Jihadi, you go to Iraq,” says Suhad.
Iraqi Shiite Muslim women attend the Eid al-Adha prayer, outside the party headquarters of the Supreme Islamic Council, in Baghdad
Are there at least some lessons that can be learned from the war?
“Democracy is not for us. There is nothing learned. We’re not religious, thank God we’re not religious, it’s messed up everything in our lives. If any of my fellow people hear me say that it’s ‘infidel kill her’ but that’s my opinion...
“Everything that is bad has surfaced.”
Although US and UK troops are now out of Iraq, following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the insurgency continues and peace, security and democracy seem a long way off.
I ask the Al-Naib sisters what their hopes for the future of Iraq are, ten years on from the invasion?
Suhad sighs: “If only we could go back to the same old ways we used to have. If only. It doesn’t matter if Saddam’s there or not, just the way of life. If only we had the same security and safety we had back then.”
Thinking of her elderly parents, she adds: “Please somebody do something about providing basics, water and electricity… I feel sorry for mum carrying buckets and my dad trying to find petrol for the generator.”
She is adamant she doesn’t want to go back, but her sister Soodad is hopeful for the city of culture that she loved.
“I would like to go back, not now, ten years maybe? For now, we’re still going backwards. I would like to go and take George [her British husband] with me and show him the desert that he says I come from.”
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