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The memories of the start of the U.S. war in Iraq remain alive for eyewitnesses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today marks two decades since the U.S. invasion and later occupation of Iraq. For the people who were there, the memories and the consequences of that action are alive 20 years on.

MOHAMMED DULAIMI: My name is Mohamed Dulaimi (ph). I was living in Fallujah. I was a engineering student. At the beginning of the war, with all the confusion that was happening, it was the first time in my life I made a lie, and I lied to a child. There is a shooting on the highway in Fallujah that resulted in many deaths of civilians, and I saw what I've never thought I would see in my life - so many cars shot, so many people lying on the side of the street. One of the cars was a pickup truck. Father was in driver seat. He was killed. The mother was in passenger seat. She was killed.

And the kid - I think he was 10 years old. They took him out of the car. They laid him on the side. His back was to the car. He cannot see his mom and dad. And his injury was severe, and he refused to go to hospital. He said, I don't want to live if my father and mother have died. He was holding my hand in such a force. It was amazing for me how a 10-year-old can do that. And he said, please, I don't want to be an orphan. If they are dead, let me die. And that was my first lie in my life. I was like, no, you're going to be OK, going to take you to hospital. And he said, swear by God they're alive. And I did. It changed my life in so many ways, and whenever someone is talking about life, I remember that kid who hold my hand and said, swear by God that my life will be OK, and I will not live an orphan.

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KAYLA WILLIAMS: My name is Kayla Williams, and I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division air assault as an Arabic linguist. When we were first there, the people who were willing to come up and talk to me as a woman in the U.S. Army - they all wanted to tell me how they had suffered under Saddam Hussein and their hopefulness for the future. And I was there when that started to turn and to curdle as we were unable to provide security, unable to keep the electricity on. Years later, some folks called it man-on-the-moon syndrome. You Americans could put a man on the moon, what do you mean you can't do X, Y or Z here in Iraq? You could see the anger starting to come. You could see the rage. You could see people losing their hope and getting more and more frustrated and shooting at us.

And at that point, when people I knew were getting hurt - I, at least, am not mature enough to have been able to not get angry. It's really hard to keep an open heart towards people who are trying to kill you. So, you know, I think that curdling was happening on both sides. And that took some time after coming home for that sense of empathy to return. And thinking back to how young everyone was and what we ask of people who are barely adults is kind of shocking today.

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ALI ADEEB ALNAEMI: Hi. My name is Ali Adeeb Alnaemi. When the war started, I was working as a translator in a contracting company. I had this perception that Americans were always ready - you know, the biggest country in the world, the superpower. And what shocked me, actually, was the lack of preparation. I remember how devastated I was as an Iraqi because of the looting of the National Museum. As you know, Iraq is the land of Mesopotamia, and we have antiquities. And we have a civilization that goes back 6,000, 7,000 years. The museum was without any kind of protection for days, while troops were protecting other facilities in Baghdad, buildings like the oil ministry. Imagine the Metropolitan in New York open for looters for two or three days. Imagine how devastated you would be as an American citizen.

On TV, I remember seeing Donald Rumsfeld saying that the American Army is not a police force. You know, it's not our job. To me, that was shocking. To just let it go in the hands of looters - to me, that was even more than painful, I would say. It's a disaster to the memory of a nation.

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CARLOS GOMEZ-PEREZ: My name is Carlos Gomez-Perez. I was in the Marine Corps, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. In 2003, I already had a son. So even though I was only 21, I was in Iraq. And I remember going to different houses, doing door-to-door checks, and, literally, they were handing me babies. Like, please, mister, mister, take her, take her. My child's back home, and you're giving me your kid so that I can take him to somewhere better.

Replaying in my mind is that, and no one prepared us for it. We didn't know how to deal with it, and no one discusses because it's not fun to talk about those experiences that you have to live with the rest of your life.

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KELLY: Those are the stories we heard when we called people and said, tell me about your war in Iraq. The U.S. invaded 20 years ago today. Mohammed Dulaimi is now an engineer in Virginia.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kayla Williams, the U.S. Army interpreter, is a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation.

KELLY: Interpreter Ali Alnaemi lives in New York City, where he teaches journalism at NYU.

CHANG: And Marine Lance Corporal Carlos Gomez-Perez was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. He now lives in San Diego and is currently unemployed.

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KELLY: NPR will continue to bring stories of the Iraq war throughout this week. On tomorrow's Morning Edition - Abu Ghraib Prison, where photos of the American military abusing detainees shocked the world. We'll meet one man who says he's only half human 20 years later. To hear that firsthand account, turn on your radio or ask your smart speaker to play NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.