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Shattered lives on a Baghdad street

Vivian Odishu's face bears no resemblance to the portrait of a glowing young bride on the wall, taken just 18 months ago. Her left eye is a crooked slit, her cheek is stitched and swollen. Her shattered jaw has been rebuilt with artificial plates, requiring her to speak through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist.
Massive Car Bomb Destroys Hotel In Baghdad
There was chaos after the massive March 17 blast that targeted the lightly-guarded Mount Lebanon Hotel.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Vivian Odishu's face bears no resemblance to the portrait of a glowing young bride on the wall, taken just 18 months ago. Her left eye is a crooked slit, her cheek is stitched and swollen. Her shattered jaw has been rebuilt with artificial plates, requiring her to speak through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist.

"My life is finished. My heart is broken. Everything in me is broken. I feel like a dead person with open eyes," she said, sitting limply on her parents' couch. "I don't know who to blame; I just pray to God that no one else should ever have to see what I have seen."

On the night of March 17, Odishu was pulled barely alive from the rubble of her cement house in a quiet Baghdad neighborhood after a powerful car bomb exploded outside. Her husband and three of his relatives perished inside the collapsed building, leaving Odishu a widow at 23.

In the past year, suicide bombings have occurred with increasing frequency in Baghdad and other cities. Most have been aimed at foreign facilities or symbols, such as the U.N. compound that was rammed by a truck bomb last Aug. 19, killing at least 22 people, and the U.S. occupation headquarters, where a car detonated at the front gate Jan. 18, leaving 20 people dead.

The target of the March 17 bombing was apparently the Mount Lebanon Hotel, a lightly guarded, five-story building on a narrow side street where a number of international contractors and U.N. employees had been staying. But like Odishu, most of the victims were Iraqis, and the explosion resonated far beyond a single building associated with foreigners.

The bomb left 10 people dead and dozens injured, including hotel employees and neighbors. It destroyed the homes of five families living in an adjacent apartment building, tore the facade off a community hospital, cracked open the walls and roofs of three houses and incinerated an antique shop. It vaporized wardrobes and mattresses, smashed fish aquariums and windows, melted cooking pots and silverware, and burned carpets and family portraits to ashes.

Beyond the immediate physical damage, there were other, more lasting repercussions, some of which became evident only in the weeks of recovery and recrimination that have followed. The explosion cost men their jobs and savings, led to quarrels over rent and fruitless searches for financial compensation.

It destroyed the secure, familiar spirit of a street where people from a variety of ethnic and religious groups -- Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Turkmens and Assyrian Christians -- had lived as neighbors for a generation. And it turned feelings of gratitude and tolerance toward the U.S. presence into disillusionment and resentment.

"We went to the Iraqi authorities for help, and they say there is no government. We went to the Americans for help, and they say they can do nothing because the damage was not caused by them," said Khadim Neama Uraybi, 50, an antiques dealer who estimates he lost $265,000 worth of property in the explosion, including 48 Persian carpets and his '97 Opel sedan.

'No citizen feels safe'
"They said this is a war of liberation, but now no citizen feels safe, even at home. The Americans occupied our country and they are responsible," Uraybi said, poking disgustedly last week at a jumble of melted glass chandeliers in his scorched shop next to the hotel lobby. "I survived with my life, but I lost everything I have. Where am I supposed to turn?"

When the explosion occurred, Uraybi was cooking stew for two friends in the apartment above his shop. The blast knocked him unconscious, but a neighbor smashed the locked kitchen door with a pipe and dragged him to safety. He was uninjured, but one of his guests was badly burned on both legs and the other lost an eye.

Everyone in the modest, five-story apartment building managed to escape alive, though many were singed or cut by shattered glass. Last week, the families described how they had raced up a narrow stairwell in the dark, parents carrying small children to the building's flat roof and leaping onto the next one. A bloody handprint was left on a brick ledge someone had grabbed for balance.

When the fire cooled and it was safe to return, half the families found their apartments roasted black, with lumps of former furniture congealed on the floors. The 10 tenants were poor; the husbands mostly worked as laborers, and two were employed as guards at the Mount Lebanon, which is now bricked shut. They had no savings and no insurance.

"The children's clothes are gone, so I can't send them to school. The mattresses are wrecked, so we have no place to sleep. I have been cleaning for 18 days, and it still smells awful," said Huda Abdul Qadr, 28, a pregnant mother of four. "On the first day lots of people came, officials asked questions and journalists took pictures. Now, no one comes to see how we are doing. No one comes at all."

The devastation was just as dramatic on the other side of the street, where the blast shook a cluster of old cement houses to their foundations. All but Odishu's home remained standing, but the explosion left gaping holes in roofs and jagged cracks in walls. Several inhabitants told of chance escapes that came close to the miraculous.

Jamal Baban, 51, a Kurdish man who works in a coffee shop, said that just minutes before the explosion, he happened to rouse his 13-year-old son from a nap in a first-floor bedroom. Suddenly the roof collapsed, raining jagged chunks of tin and cement down on the spot where the boy had been sleeping.

"I still don't know what made me wake him up," said Baban, who has spent the past month shoring up his weakened house and replacing the roof. The family of seven lost many belongings, from an heirloom mirror to a brand new TV set, but Baban shrugged off the material loss.

'Good moral people, and they died'
"We saved a long time for that television, but let it go. Let it all go," he said, glancing across his garden wall to the empty lot, strewn with broken bricks, where Odishu's husband and his family, members of the minority Assyrian Christian community, had always lived. "They were our neighbors for 30 years," Baban said. "They were good moral people, and they died."

Despite the natural sympathy the explosion created among its victims, it also generated controversy and disputes that still color many neighborhood conversations. The main issue has been whether the blast was caused by an insurgent bomb or an American rocket, because U.S. officials compensate victims for damage caused by American military forces but not for harm done by insurgents.

After the explosion, numerous U.S. military teams visited the area, first to give medical assistance and later to assess damage and collect witness accounts. Some residents insisted that a rocket had landed in the street, and they still claim they were cheated out of benefits when U.S. officials ruled the explosion had been caused by a car bomb.

To make matters worse, residents said, the financial aid they were offered turned out to be virtually inaccessible. At an American facility, each family was informed it could apply to a nonprofit agency for help and was given a brochure in English. The brochure gave an international phone number and e-mail address for a reconstruction organization in Maryland, which turned out to provide not cash, but low-interest loans. No one in the neighborhood has applied.

"What are we supposed to do with these pieces of paper? How can we afford to call these people?" demanded Ahlam Zainab, a stout mother of five who stood in her cracked living room with a trowel last week while her teenage son mixed mortar with his hands in a plastic bucket. "Do we have to throw stones at the White House until someone listens?"

For Vivian Odishu, the idea of receiving financial compensation seems like a monstrous joke. For weeks she lay semi-conscious in a Baghdad hospital for nerve and brain surgery, unaware that her husband, Farid, an optometrist's assistant, was dead. Last Saturday would have been his 40th birthday, and she marked the occasion by visiting his grave with her family and leaving a bouquet.

"We were a hopeful couple with a simple life. My husband went to work and came home. But then it all vanished in a minute, and he died for no reason," Odishu said. Her voice was a flat, angry buzz through motionless jaws. "I don't want to accuse anyone, and I don't want money from anyone. My gold is gone, and no one can bring him back."