I returned to Iraq and greeted all the staffers at the hotel. One of my friends works in the cafeteria. He's a rotund young man, with a kind face and a great sense of humor. On his downtime he would read the grounds of my coffee cup to tell my fortune and joke about the rich owners of the hotel who pay them barely anything.
But it's been hard to smile lately.
Two days ago he packed up his family in the northeast district of Sadr City. He took mattresses, rice, sugar and a few changes of clothes and left his home. He was tired of the fighting and scared for his children.
For weeks Sadr City has been plagued by a battle between the U.S. Military along with the Iraqi Security Forces and the Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. The district is the stronghold of the militia which is both a militant and social organization. They fight but also provide services and aid to poor Shiites.
His home is now scarred with bullet holes. A few days ago he saw the Mahdi Army plant a roadside bomb across the street. He worried that if it detonated, his family would be killed.
U.S. missiles targeting the miltia often hit just near his house. He took to sleeping in the kitchen, the only room in the house without windows. He, his two children and his wife huddled on the floor hoping no stray bullets or shrapnel would hit them.
"I had to leave for the children," he said. "This isn't the way they should live." He's angry at both the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army and feels helpless in his quest to protect his family.
Many people in Sadr City feel fear and anger towards the militia that once was a group that protected them. But no one will say anything.
"It is like the time of Saddam," he said. "People are afraid to talk."