Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Viewpoint: Bad case of Baghdadophobia

Baghdad traffic jam
Every driver is probably thinking the same thing: Is there a suicide bomber in this jam?

Security has improved in Baghdad, but it remains one of the world's most dangerous cities. Daily bombings and drive-by shootings traumatise its residents. An Iraqi member of BBC's staff describes his daily journey to work - anything but a mundane affair. His identity has been protected for his own safety.


Here's an interesting new disorder for medical science to investigate: Baghdadophobia - an Iraqi's fear of his own capital city.

Other phobias are common enough - fear of flying, fear of spiders - but Baghdadophobia has reached pandemic proportions, afflicting virtually every Iraqi, including the writer of these lines. And I think my fear is justified.

I start my day by taking a bath and praying. I listen to the news while I have my breakfast, then I get dressed for work, and always kiss my wife and my children before leaving the house - everyone here does the same these days, because everyone knows when they leave home that they may not return.

Death lurks around every corner, and nobody is immune. Almost all the victims are innocent bystanders who wrongly think that because they aren't in the government or military their chances of survival are greater.

So we steer clear of areas that are out-of-bounds because of our ethnicity or religion. We don't express opinions in public beyond criticising our wives' cooking or the nosiness of our mothers-in-law.

Leaving the house, the first thing I do is check beneath my car and the inside, in case someone stuck a magnetic bomb underneath it - an easy-to-use weapon used frequently in Iraq lately.

I start the engine and drive off, and the whole road seems fraught with danger. Was that my neighbour's car that just set off behind me? No. Who does it belong to? Am I being followed? Maybe I should slow down or pull over, just in case.

Thank God, the driver passes by, continuing his journey until he's out of sight, probably as afraid of me as I was of him. I start driving again.


Immediate aftermath of Baghdad car bomb
Car bombs caused havoc and despite a relative lull they still create terror
The road is very busy, bumper to bumper. Suddenly, a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles - the kind used by Iraqi officials - swerves madly through the traffic, sirens blaring, and a voice from a loudspeaker telling drivers to get out of the way.

Automatic weapons bristle from the jeep windows. Everyone panics, the road is total chaos until the convoy disappears.

Before long, I'm stuck in a traffic jam stretching for more than a kilometre. It moves just a few metres at a time, backed up from the entrance to a bridge across the Tigris that I have to cross daily to get to work.

Iraqi soldiers scan the waiting vehicles with an explosives detection device that looks like a weapon used by aliens in low-budget sci-fi films.

I'm still in the back of the traffic jam. I'm trying to kill time by studying the faces of other drivers.

This driver beside me looks a lot like my mental image of a suicide bomber: long beard, nervous glances. But the truth is no-one knows what a suicide bomber looks like today - he could be an old man or a woman. Or he could be driving a wired-up car with a woman and a child on board just for camouflage.

The driver of that luxury car seems to be a government official. It may be safer to stay as far away as possible from him.

Someone might have put a bomb in his car which he is not aware of and it could explode at any minute. I recall that many government officials have been assassinated this way recently.

That truck over there, with "highly flammable material" written on itů What a disaster if it were to explode!

The driver behind me is becoming increasingly impatient; he's started blowing his car horn in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the traffic policemen who are only making things worse.


Car bomb wreckage
It could happen at any time, and the most likely to suffer are ordinary families

Sometimes we can't hide our feelings. But we've learned to hide our fear in public - we pretend to be braver than we are, so that people don't make fun of us.

But I am certain that everyone here, in this traffic jam from hell, is to some extent, afraid, just like me.

In just the blink of an eye, my whole life will have ended for nothing. Hot shrapnel will hit me, I suppose, and I wonder if I will even hear the explosion. I wonder what it would be like for bullets to tear through my body.

Every day this is how the living imagine the way in which they will die. And being blown up is only one of a long, long list.

Suddenly, my car shakes as there is a horrible blast somewhere else in the city. I wonder if the victims of that explosion had the same thoughts as mine. Did they imagine that they might die today? Did they have a chance to say goodbye to their families?


I think of the other threats to the commuter in downtown Baghdad. A box, a trash bin, an animal cart parked on the side of the road, a mentally ill person crossing the street, or even a stray dog, every one of these could have been wired with a bomb waiting to explode spontaneously or by a remote control.

Everything is unknown, everything is anonymous - the killer, the victim, and the means of the murder.

That broken-down car, why is it parked here? Where is the owner of that motorcycle? God knows how much I fear motorbikes, especially the fast ones, with two riders.

One of them drives the motorbike and the other one fires from a pistol equipped with a silencer.

The memory of the remains of the university professor assassinated by shots to the head in precisely this way will never leave me.

And it's not just our own killers we have to be careful of.

I fear that my children will be orphaned when a US military convoy passes by.

A US convoy is one of the most terrifying things you can run in to on the streets of Baghdad today.

The driver next to me acted selfishly, not allowing me to get out of the way of the convoy. The convoy guards have a reputation for not hesitating one second before shooting at anything in their way.

In peace time, my journey to work would take 15 minutes. Today, it takes an hour and a half. Once I'm at the office, I start the day with a cup of heavy black coffee. And two aspirin.

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