Recently, I stumbled into a photo book that I’ve been keeping for some years now. It contains photographs of people I never met, all shot in the same place in Baghdad, a few days before the 2003 war started. I was the one who brought them to Italy and arranged them in the book. The place was a restaurant and it was called (I use “was” because it no longer exists) Saddam International Tower.
I went there, together with my interpreter and friend Mohaned, some time after the U.S. Army had entered Baghdad, in March, 2003.
The tower was round and some 200 metres tall. On the top was a circular platform surrounded by a blue glass wall, like a ship’s. The tower was intact, but the building at the base had been torn apart by bombs and showed its skeleton of steel beams. A bronze Saddam Hussein raised his right hand towards the tower as if he was demanding an explanation for that disaster.
“I happened to be working here” Mohaned said while we walked through the rubble. “Sometimes we would also have dinner at the panoramic restaurant.” He pointed at the platform on top of the tower. “The view was stunning.”
We entered a room of the building at the base, and our feet were submerged in a mountain of undeveloped photographic rolls. We realized that it belonged to the restaurant’s official photographer.
I took a bunch of those rolls and stuffed them in my pockets. I do not know why I did it. I suppose it was one of the many irrational things you do when you’re in the chaos of a battlefield. When I returned to Italy, I had them developed and collected the prints in a book.
In the photographs you could see all the good Iraqi upper-middle class, the one that could afford a dinner at the panoramic restaurant.
Judging by the smiles of those people, by their relaxed expressions, the perspective of war was still far away. Yet, if the photographer had not had the time to develop the rolls, the first bombs had to have begun falling soon.
Looking at the photographs after many years, I wonder where those people might be now, how many chances there are that they smiled again after that day 16 years ago, how many of them may be under the ground.
How many among those still alive, one month, one year or ten years from now will be diagnosed a cancer caused by the two thousand tons of depleted uranium that the coalition forces poured over Iraq. How many of their kids will be born deformed for the same reason.
For how many of them, that merry moment documented by the photographer might have been the last supper out.