Book Extracts
  • Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla
  • Baghdad Central |  Elliott Colla
Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla

April 2003

In the chaos of retreat, a few stand and fight. Some fall back, some take the fight to another time and place. Some remain at their stations to wait and listen.

We sip tea. We watch television. We check our weapons again. Then we change clothes and go home. Entire crowds of men vanish. Some will slip across lines, others across borders.

After days of battering, an eerie quiet begins to hold. They will arrive tomorrow at the latest. They are already here in the suburbs. There is fighting in al-Dora by now. Some say it has reached Firdos and Jihad.

No one is surprised by the men in trucks or by the order to evacuate. Everyone knew they would be coming on a day like today. The instructions are easy to follow. The men in the records office finished their job a week ago and never came back. These men begin unloading boxes from trucks, then drag them into the building. Only a handful of us are left, bewildered. We hang around outside. Then one by one we start to walk away, down the sidewalks and under the arcades on Khulafa Street until we disappear for good.

Behind thick concrete walls, the first explosions sound like thunder. There is a crack of glass as windows splinter in the morning sun. Then silence. Eventually, the silence retreats, though only softly at first. It grows into a roar. Fires burning deep, somewhere out of sight. Scorching winds whipping through empty hallways and offices, corridors and closets. Then from the empty windows, a storm of burning files, folders, and forms erupting into the sky. The flames eventually burn themselves out.

When the first American missiles hit, Baghdad Central Police Station is already an empty shell.



…Full members of the Baath Party holding the ranks of Regional Command Member, Branch Member, Section Member and Group Member are hereby removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector. These senior Party members shall be evaluated for criminal conduct or threat to the security of the Coalition. Those suspected of criminal conduct shall be investigated and, if deemed a threat to security or a flight risk, detained or placed under house arrest. Displays in government buildings or public spaces of the image or likeness of Saddam Hussein or other readily identifiable members of the former regime or of symbols of the Baath Party or the former regime are hereby prohibited. Rewards shall be made available for information leading to the capture of senior members of the Baath Party and individuals complicit in the crimes of the former regime. The Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority or his designees may grant exceptions to the above guidance on a case-by-case basis…

Coalition Provisional

Authority Order No. 1

16 May 2003



Sunday Evening

23 November 2003

“I’d like to, but I can’t. I’m not a detective.”

Nidal stares at his brother-in-law as if he’s never seen him before. “So what are you?”

“You know as well as anybody.”

“You work for the police and they call you Inspector – what else am I supposed to think?”

“Worked. Past tense. And it wasn’t like that. I sat at a desk. I did paperwork and filing. I read reports about investigations. Then I read the informers’ reports they were based on. Then I wrote my own reports and filed them alongside all the other reports.”

“Do I have to draft a report for you?”

“Look, sorry. Let me think about it.”

Nidal looks down into his teacup, then across the room at the place on the wall where the picture of the Great Leader used to hang. Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji waves the chaichi over and orders another tea. Around them, pairs of men sit at low wooden tables, sipping tea, smoking, and staying up late like they’d do on any other Ramadan night. Some roll dice and slap backgammon pieces back and forth. In one corner, old men play cards. Their faces show no emotion, just intensity.

Small piles of bills sit in the middle of one table.

Nidal watches the men playing their game. Khafaji watches Nidal’s stiff profile until the man begins to sob and heave. Khafaji claps a hand on his massive shoulder. After a while, Nidal leans back in his chair and wipes his eyes with a thick peasant hand. Only now does Khafaji notice that Nidal isn’t wearing his gold cross. They used to tease him about it all the time. Now it was gone. Khafaji was going to cry too if they didn’t change the subject.

“OK. I’ll help you. But tell me again from the beginning.”

“One night last week Sawsan didn’t come back from work, and now Maha sits at home and cries all the time. She’s going out of her mind. You hear stories and you imagine the worst. After everything that’s happened, we were thinking we would leave. But now we can’t.”

“Why didn’t you tell me when it happened?”

“Because we don’t know what happened and we still don’t.

She just hasn’t come home is all we know.”

“When was this?”


“Anyone call?”


“Anyone call asking for money? Telling you to meet them somewhere? Did you contact anyone else?”

Nidal grabs Khafaji’s arm and raises his voice. “Brother, who the hell are we going to call? You’re the only police we know.”

“I quit. And anyway, there’s no police now.”

“You’re the one with all the connections in the Party.”

“That was years ago. And there’s no Party now.”

“So all we’re left with is you, I guess.”

Khafaji struggles to look optimistic. He mumbles, “I can try to help.” He clears his throat and starts over. “Tell me the rest again.”

The third time he tells it, Nidal’s story is still threadbare. A few broken strands tied in a knot. Sawsan graduated in August from Mustansiriyya University. Institute of Management and Administration. Wanted to study programing but ended up studying finance. The family had met a few of her friends from the university but didn’t know much about who they were, or how to contact them. After graduation, Sawsan started working. As a consultant, she said. Helped out with the household expenses, especially since Nidal’s job vanished. She worked for a professor at the university.

“It is a good job. Sawsan even had a driver to pick her up every morning and drop her every evening.”

“Write down any of the names you know. Classmates. Teachers. Anything. I’ll see what I can find.” Nidal pulls out a piece of paper and starts to write.

An argument erupts at the card table in the back. The entire café goes silent. Cups are spilled. Glass splinters on the ground. Hands and fists lunge out at piles of bills. A scrappy old man with a week’s beard grabs the edge of his dishdasha and hobbles off toward the door, yelling something about mothers and cunts. The rest of the men call after him, taunting him and laughing at the mess. A waiter arrives with a broom and wet rag. Nidal and Khafaji look at one another again.

“How are things in the new apartment?” Khafaji asks. Like so many Palestinians, they’d been driven from their homes during the first weeks of the invasion.

“Baladiyat was our home. Our friends were there. Our life was there. Thank God we had Mikhail and the rest of the family. But Saadun will never be home.”

“You’re managing?”

“You’ll see how we’re managing Tuesday when you and Mrouj come over. We’re crammed – nine of us in two rooms. It’s bad enough when there’s water and electricity. But when there isn’t…” Nidal’s voice trails off. “But that’s not the issue any more,” he says. “It’s the attacks. They’re not random. They know who to go after and when. We’re lucky we left when we did. Remember the Jabrawis? They tried to stay on. The rest of us got the message.”

For a moment, Nidal tries to smile. Then his face collapses.

“Look, Muhsin. We lost everything and thought we could adapt. But this is different. As soon as Sawsan comes back, we’re leaving. Have you heard about what’s happening at the stadium? There are thousands of people living in tents there. Most of our building is there, I think. And then there are tens of thousands of others stuck on the border now. We’re getting out before that happens to us.”

  • Baghdad CentralElliott Colla