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Horrors rampant in city 'full of sorrow'

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN's Arwa Damon speaks to regular Iraqis about what life is like every day
  • Baghdad artist: "I only see it full of sorrow -- the city that had such a busy past"
  • 16-year-old girl: "There are no guarantees that you will be alive"
  • Man says he had 4 friends killed in matter of days; 2 were hanged from power poles
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By Arwa Damon
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Shaima, a 29-year-old artist, proudly displays her latest work in progress. White streaks stand out against a bright, burnt orange background -- an abstract painting that she says signifies the reality of life in Baghdad for the last five years.

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Shaima says this abstract painting of scattered body parts has been influenced by what she's seen in Baghdad.

"I am trying to show scattered body parts flying around," she says.

Dressed in a sleek gray shirt and spiked heels, Shaima looks like she belongs at an art gallery in Paris, not a run-down studio with no power in Baghdad.

Her art used to be as lively as her persona, but since the U.S.-led war began, she only expresses tragedy. It's the reality inside her, the death and destruction she has witnessed firsthand. Video Watch painting a bleak picture »

"Ruins of a city, a memory of a city only," the artist says as she describes what she sees when she looks at the streets of Baghdad. "I only see it full of sorrow -- the city that had such a busy past -- but now it's just a memory."

Shaima could have left Iraq, but she chose to stay out of love for her homeland. She's fighting to keep going, opening a small studio with two friends.

She says her paintings are not meant to be political -- just a reflection of the mood in Baghdad.

"We see the violence daily, the killing, the conflict among the people. It's affected me and my students, especially the students when they see their colleagues kidnapped or killed."

The increase in U.S. troops in Baghdad over the last year has sharply reduced such violence. But the effects of the war on ordinary Iraqis go on and on. They're still haunted by the violence of the past, and almost everyone knows someone -- a family member or friend -- who has been killed or kidnapped. Video Watch CNN's Arwa Damon offer insights on life in Baghdad »

Almost all of the Baghdad residents who spoke to CNN said the surge has reduced violence, but they also said their capital is barely recognizable. Baghdad is largely chopped into sectarian blocks, each guarded by its own armed force, most supported by the United States. And many Iraqis still don't dare cross sectarian lines.

The power across Baghdad in many neighborhoods only stays on for one to four hours a day, with many residents saying it's worse now than ever before.

At a home in central Baghdad, the mere mention of electricity angers a 65-year-old grandmother named Nawal.

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"Don't even get me started about the electricity," she says. "I went yesterday to get gas. I was freezing, shaking, and I hadn't slept. I went to the gas station, and I said just give me 5 liters of gas. They refused and yelled at me to get out." Video Watch this family's struggles »

She adds, "Why would they say this? I am an old woman. Respect me."

Nawal eventually bought gas from a person who was hawking it for triple the price.

Nearby, her 16-year-old granddaughter, Ahad, speaks with a maturity beyond her years. She has known nothing but war since elementary school.

"Here, there are no guarantees that you will be alive in the future, whether you are old or young," she says.

Huddled on the bed with her two older siblings and her little cousin, Ahad says the war has created a layer of nightmares, each different from the next.

"It's impacted our psychological state," she says. The children's room is kept warm by a space heater running off the family's generator; they only get city power for about an hour a day.

Another family member -- Mohammed, Nawal's son-in-law -- will never shake the memory of four friends who were killed in a two-week period in 2006. "Two, we found hanging from power poles. One was found with three bullets to his head. The other had his eyes gouged out."

Although Mohammed acknowledges that security is getting better, he has no faith that Iraq's current government can do anything to capitalize on the hard-earned military gains.

"This isn't a government," he says, his voice shaking with anger. "It's a mob that came to govern a palace called the Green Zone, and it can't even govern that."

The lack of basic services isn't just impacting Baghdad's households. At the capital's Yarmouk Hospital, Dr. Mohammed, a surgeon, says he has seen improvements in some areas, but he believes the government puts "us last on the list."

The bulk of Baghdad's casualties come through the doors of the hospital's emergency room. These days, he says, they aren't treating as many emergency cases, but the lull in violence hasn't translated into the basic equipment and medicine the hospital needs. Video Watch health care hopes in Iraq »

And, he adds, it's too soon for the hospital staff to begin to hope that the worst is behind them.

"We always tell our people that you must always be ready for a flare-up in the situation," says Dr. Hakki, the hospital director. He says the problems are being dealt with by the Ministry of Health, but he'd like to see improvements made more quickly.

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"I told my friends once that we must all go to heaven -- us Iraqis -- because we have already been to hell," Dr. Mohammed adds.

Back at the art studio, Shaima says she longs for the vibrancy of Baghdad's past, but knows that'll never happen. "Even if it does return, the spirit and the memories of the past have all changed." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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