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Iraqis Traumatized by Bombings

The frequency with which Iraqis witness the carnage wreaked by explosions has psychologically scarred a high percentage of the country’s population.
A man looks at a car on fire at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad October 7, 2013. Bombs exploded across the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 22 people, police said. Five of the six blasts were in mainly Shi'ite Muslim districts, but there was also an explosion in the predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Doura.  REUTERS/Ahmed Saad (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX142ZK

Ahmad Saad al-Khazerji, 25, dreams of obtaining the necessary documents from the International Organization for Migration, which would allow him to travel out of the “land of explosive devices,” as he called it. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he acknowledged that he will be “overjoyed when the gates of Baghdad International Airport open to allow his departure, but not without a mix of some sadness about leaving the country.”

The part of Khazerji’s story worth noting is that his every move is dictated by a fear of bombs — the terms booby trap, explosion and suicide vest are a permanent fixture of all his conversations.

He finds no shame in covering his ears to protect them from an imaginary explosion, faintness and queasiness permeating his body so frequently that he is compelled to seek futile psychiatric treatment. He explained, “Intense fear grips me as I feel myself losing control over my actions,” unable to discern whether a real and imminent threat exists or not.

Khazerji’s mental breakdown, in fact, reflects a slowly progressing loss of confidence in himself and the future, as a result of the successive wave of bombings exchanged between Sunnis and Shiites. The latest of which involved consecutive explosions that occurred on Sept. 27 near two mosques located south and west of Baghdad.

Dr. Ali Saheb, a psychiatrist, told Al-Monitor that “booby trap” has become synonymous with a clinical phobia as opposed to a car rigged to explode, usually remotely detonated or driven by a suicide bomber.

This manic-depressive psychosis manifests itself when a lot of people fear approaching mass gatherings and vital squares in various cities, “because they are gripped with a fear of booby traps, which now involuntarily governs the behavior of many Iraqis,” Saheb said.

But explosives-rigged cars are nothing but vehicles, according to Baghdad traffic officer Alaa Hassan, who told Al-Monitor, “The authorities were resorting to a manifest prepared by the relevant authorities to uncover forged registrations, as a last resort aimed at reducing the tempo of bomb attacks.”

Also in Baghdad, university student Ahmad al-Yassiri told Al-Monitor that he did not lack courage, but avoided — as much as possible — funerals, mass gatherings and cars parked in places likely to be targeted.

This phobia, as described by Yassiri, has become “a natural feeling possessed by all Iraqis, entrenched in their psyche by a history filled with exploding traps and suicide bombs.”

This phobia is further exacerbated by the fact that explosives no longer target government ministries or fortified security installations as much as they target ordinary citizens in restaurants, popular markets and soccer stadiums.

The coordinated explosions that alternately rocked Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods have raised questions among Iraqis about the identity and goals of the people behind them.

Since the beginning of this year, close to 500 car bombs have exploded, half of them in the capital, Baghdad.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Moder al-Jenabi, a taxi driver, pointed to the carcasses of cars riddled with shrapnel that fire had transformed into molten black clumps of iron. He affirmed, “The hearts of Iraqis were now darker than these metal remains.”

His words filled with confused emotions, he continued, “I lost my best friend in a car bomb explosion in Latifiyah, south of Baghdad. Booby traps in Iraq have become a people-devouring beast that does not differentiate between citizens.”

While historically the first explosion in the Middle East occurred in 1905, such tactics are relatively new to Iraq and go back to the early 1970s. The first explosion of 2003, which targeted the Al-Qanat Hotel, succeeded in sowing the seeds of successive bombings that continue to this day.

At psychiatric clinics, one can find many of those afflicted by phobias and fear of explosions, despite the fact that Iraqis seldom resort to clinical care, and prefer to visit the tombs of holy figures to rid themselves of any fears and diseases.

In this regard, Saheb said, “One of my patients is racked by fear of dying and other negative thoughts after witnessing the explosion of a rigged motorcycle. As a result, he suffers from acute hysteria accompanied by an elevated heart and respiratory rate, his muscles contracting and rendering his body immobile like a corpse waiting for death.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, sociologist Ahmed al-Qaisy pointed out, “A rigged vehicle or suicide belt is most probably responsible for every black ‘in memoriam’ banner that flutters in Iraq.”

Uday al-Rabihi, 24, told Al-Monitor that his brother, who served in the country’s army, became a completely different man after he witnessed a suicide attacker detonate his explosive vest amid a group of soldiers manning a military checkpoint in Diyala, north of Baghdad.

Rabihi recounted that his brother now “yells hysterically and tries to escape from reality, despite knowing that he cannot do so. He tries to break down his locked bedroom door, causing a great ruckus.” Rabihi also noted, “Doctors have diagnosed him as suffering from a constant state of fear and phobia from objects and people alike.”

But, according to Saheb, “bomb phobia” — which has become a pathological social disease — cannot be cured by Khazerji’s attempts to emigrate. Saheb emphasized that the solution lay in behavioral treatment techniques that strengthen people and give them the courage needed to directly face their fears, instead of running away from them.

Adnan Abu Zeed is an Iraqi author and journalist. 

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