A massive bombing in Baghdad last July was the world's deadliest terror attack of 2016
Nearly 400 people died but little was said about who they were
It was a typical July night in Baghdad and even at midnight, the air radiated the day’s heat. Some people in the upscale Karrada neighborhoood were sitting at outdoor cafes, watching a nail-biter finish to a Germany-Italy soccer match.
Thousands more were shopping. The holy month of Ramadan was near its end, and Baghdadis were buying new clothes and gifts for the festival of Eid al-Fitr. The brightly lit Hadi Center mall was teeming with people, as were the myriad shops and eateries along the main avenue.
Fathers and mothers were out with their young children; teenagers and college students hung out with friends. On that Saturday night, Karrada was hopping. It was a time for joy and mirth; a time to celebrate with loved ones.
But all was shattered about 45 minutes after midnight when the sound of an explosion reverberated through the entire neighborhood.
Sajad Jiyad, a 33-year-old political analyst, was with friends at a nearby café discussing Italy’s defeat in the critical Euro Cup match when he felt the blast. The sound was one he and other Baghdad residents had grown used to over years of violence.
Baghdadis, he later wrote on his blog, have learned “to differentiate between a car bomb, a truck bomb, a Grad or Katyusha rocket, a mortar, a grenade, an improvised landmine or IED, a missile, or just a plain sound bomb.”
This one, he thought, sounded like a car bomb that could kill maybe 10 people.
He reached instinctively for his mobile phone to check initial reports on social media. He has known someone killed or injured every year since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion triggered a seemingly constant state of violence.
Jiyad learned the bombing was at the Hadi Center and his heart skipped a beat. He knew how crowded it was that night. Suddenly, the mood changed at the café. No one cared anymore about football. Phones started ringing. Fire trucks and ambulances began speeding past. On social media, Jiyad saw images of the mall engulfed in flames and the death toll creep past 15.
He tried to drive toward the blast site but turned back after he saw the chaos. He went home and fell asleep at 4 in the morning, thinking perhaps this latest act of terror had left maybe 30 people dead.
But by 7 a.m. on Sunday, Jiyad’s phone was buzzing and ringing constantly. The death toll had reached 65, and Jiyad began to understand the gravity of the incident.
‘He is dead, whoever it is you are looking for’
On his drive to work, Jiyad found the normally bustling streets eerily sedate, as though Baghdad were under another curfew. The acrid smell of fire hung over the city. The looks on people’s faces fell somewhere between shock and sadness.
Throughout the morning, the death toll kept rising: 100, 115, 140. It would be many weeks before the final count would be known: 382.
Among all the terrorist attacks of 2016 worldwide, the Karrada bombing on July 3 stood as the year’s deadliest.
And yet to Westerners accustomed to news reports about violence in Iraq, it would be just another bombing in which the numbers, not the victims, would be front and center. Media outlets would report what happened, who claimed responsibility and how many were killed and injured. And then the world would move on.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Jiyad reacted as he always does when he hears of senseless acts of violence in his hometown: He felt sadness and anger, tempered by a certain numbness.
That was, until he learned his friend Ahmed Dhiaa was among the missing. Dhiaa had gone shopping for Eid presents with two of his brothers-in-law. His phone was active until 12:55 a.m. After that, no one was able to reach him.
Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the charred ruins of buildings. It wasn’t a car bomb but a truck packed with explosives that had detonated; the fire that followed had burned people alive and possibly done more damage than the bomb itself. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Mohammed Al-Rubaye, deputy head of the security committee of the Baghdad Provincial Council, said he’d seen 30 years of fires and explosions but nothing like this. Many of the dead had to be identified by DNA.
Late Sunday afternoon, Jiyad drove to the site of the bombing with a heavy sense of dread, but he couldn’t get close enough to be of any use. Instead, he stared at the blackened sidewalks and the burned guts of the mall.
A man next to him who had been shoveling through ashes for hours looked at Jiyad and said: “He is dead, whoever it is you are looking for is dead. If he hasn’t showed up this morning then just accept it.”
Jiyad walked away because he felt there was no point looking at the scene. It was all death and destruction, a place where hope no longer existed.
By 6 p.m., Jiyad received the confirmation he had feared. His friend’s body had been pulled from the rubble. He didn’t know what to do or how to express what he felt. So he sat and stared at a wall for a while.
Jiyad saw Dhiaa as part of a new generation of younger, well-educated Iraqis who wanted to turn a devastated country around. Dhiaa worked at the Agriculture Commission and wrote about ways to enhance modern farming. He believed Iraq’s future would be better than its past. That kind of optimism made him a bright light among his family, friends and colleagues.
“I open Ahmad’s Facebook page, I want to see photos of him smiling, to remember him as a wonderful young man, not to think of his burned body,” Jiyad wrote on his blog. “I tear up as I flick through the photos, he was going to achieve so much, he should not be dead.”
They loved and were loved
So many of the dead had hopes and dreams erased by a single moment of extreme violence.
They were 5 years old. And 50. Sunni and Shiite. Muslim and non-Muslim.
They were lawyers, doctors, activists, artists, students, recent graduates, engineers and policemen. A husband and wife died together. A father and two sons.
Some were better known than others.
Adel Euro was a dancer inspired by Michael Jackson’s moves, especially the Moonwalk. He taught himself to dance secretly in his house. His parents warned him he would face trouble in conservative Iraq, where dancers can be seen as being gay, he told the BBC in 2015. The police confronted him once, telling him he had brought shame on himself.
But Euro believed he was born to be a dancer and he persevered, taking classes for the last two years of his life via Skype with New York City’s Battery Dance Company. One day, he said, he hoped to leave Iraq and “go to a place where people love dancing.”
Zulfiker Orabi was the young and handsome son of a former Iraqi football star, Ghanim Orabi, who played on the 1986 World Cup team.
Mohammed Badri was a young dentist and a father of a little girl who spent his spare time helping Iraqi orphans. His wife gave birth to their son on the day Badri was buried.
Iraqi filmmaker Mustafa Najafi, whose cousin knew Badri well, posted photos of Badri as well as many of the other victims on Twitter with the hashtag #NotJustANumber.
“With everything that is happening around the world, people have lost their humanity,” Najafi told CNN. “It’s all about religion, sex, where are you from, where are am I from?
“Having an image of that person and the slightest little detail about their life … helps people relate to them,” he said.
On Twitter, the world came to know, for instance, that Akram al-Bayati was planning for his wedding in just a few days. Mourners carried his wedding suit next to his coffin.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for Iraqis, but I want them to feel some sympathy,” Najafi said.
He wants Westerners to recognize that terror inflicted by Islamists doesn’t just strike in France, Belgium, Germany and America. It happens in Iraqi much too often.
2017 is only a few days old and already more than 140 people have been killed in Iraq’s violence. This, on top of the 6,878 civilians killed in 2016.
Again, the victims have become numbers in Western news reports. In recent days, deaths in Baghdad were once more overshadowed – this time by the nightclub attack in Istanbul – or reported only as statistics.
Rasha Al Aqeedi, an Iraqi fellow at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, said even though the Istanbul victims were overwhelmingly Muslim, they were seen as Westernized with liberal or Christian values.
“It is easier for a Westerner to identify with them than with the Iraqi,” Al Aqeedi said. “A Muslim terrorist killing ‘us’ will always be more concerning than a Muslim terrorist killing ‘other Muslims.’”
#NotJustANumber started trending after the Karrada bombing as Iraqis, disappointed by the world’s muted reaction to their tragedy, put up photographs of the friends and family they lost.
They wanted the world to know Baghdad’s victims were real people with real lives. People who loved and people who were loved. They were just like the people who had been killed in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Istanbul.
‘Please remember Iraq’
The night of the Karrada bombing, countless people in Baghdad waited to hear about their loved ones, gripped by the kind of uncertainty and fear that many Americans felt on September 11, 2001.
Nedal Wady Hassan, 42, was one of them. Her sons Abdalla and Ali Tawfeeq both worked in shops in Karrada. Abdalla, 22, had quit school when he was 8 so he could earn money for his family.
He left for work that day wearing brand new clothes – he liked style and owned several bottles of cologne. He kissed his mother before walking out the door.
A half hour later, the bomb went off. Hassan says she felt in her gut that something terrible had happened. “I just lost my son,” she thought.
Ali, who worked in a nearby shop, tried desperately to search for his brother. But a great wall of fire stood between them. He returned home bloodied and banged up and could not bear to answer his desperate mother’s questions.
Hasan put on clothes and her hijab and went down to the explosion site. She described it as “Judgment Day.”
“Nobody could talk or say anything,” she said. “Everything was destroyed.”
She told CNN that she could not recognize her son’s body. He had no clothes, no hands, no legs, no hair. He did not even have his eyes.
“Nothing at all,” she said.
Still, she was thankful to have retrieved a body to bury. She felt for the mothers whose sons were lying in the morgue, waiting to be identified. She felt for mothers like Shada Mohamed Ali, who lost two sons, Adnan and Ali, as well as her husband, Safaa.
Adnan was almost finished with a law degree at Al Mansour University. Ali had graduated from college and joined his father’s business.
“They were candles lighting our house and that got extinguished,” said Shada Ali. “I wish they could return and everything could be returned the way it was. However, this is what God wanted.”
Shada Ali said she used to worry about her sons when they left the house and got in their cars. “Be alert,” she would tell them, especially while stopped at intersections. She worried they might be abducted or shot. She told her husband not to take them to crowded places like Hadi Center.
“Don’t worry,” her husband told her. “Nothing will happen.”
He was wrong. At 45, Shada Ali was left a widow grieving for her husband and young sons.
The streets of Baghdad saw one funeral procession after another. Images of those who perished began appearing on the charred walls of the Hadi Center. Massive crowds gathered at the site for memorial vigils. Or to express their anger.
They were angry at Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS, which took responsibility for the attack. But they were also angry at their own government for failing to prevent it, and then for taking so long to identify all the bodies and figure out how it happened. Ultimately, they relied on their resiliency, toughened by relentless violence, to get through the Karrada tragedy.
Jiyad, the political analyst, told CNN that Iraqis have learned that suffering and sacrifice are necessary to survive difficult times.
“Violence is not normalized,” he said, “but they have adapted to cope with it and to maintain their dignity and … move on .”
Iraq’s response to the Karrada bombing should be to unite against the terrorists, he said. For the rest of the world, he had this message: “Please remember Iraq and its people in your prayers, your show of support means a great deal.”
He hoped Iraq’s dead would not be forgotten.
Journalist Aqeel Jajim reported from Baghdad and CNN’s Mohamed Tawfeeq reported from Erbil.