Published: June 2003 Baghdad before the bombs
Baghdad before the bombs
In the run-up to war, a photographer trains her camera on a city about to be changed forever.
By Alexandra Boulat
Palestine Hotel: March 19
The mood is so different today. People are scrambling to the shops to stock up on supplies. Families are packing, taping their windows, phoning overseas relatives one last time. Everyone in Baghdad knows war is about to crash down on them, but no one knows when. It's hard to sleep or think clearly. So you've got a city of five million people who are completely stressed out and sleep deprived. You can see it in their faces.

It's strange because even just last week, people were still trying to keep up a normal life, acting like nothing bad would happen. When I got here in January, I thought the Iraqis were in denial or maybe so hardened by past wars that they really weren't afraid. But after talking to people, I realized they thought the idea of foreigners invading their country was crazy. They simply couldn't believe it might really happen. So people carried on as if everything was fine. Just a few weeks ago I went to a wedding celebration that lasted two days and no one talked of war. It seemed as if everyone in Baghdad was getting married, fussing over food and clothes, and spending a fortune. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought Iraq was on holiday, with spring just around the corner.

Now suddenly soldiers are piling sandbags everywhere. Most journalists have pulled out, and who can blame them? But I've decided to stay. I've been traveling around Iraq for months looking for clues to what is real here in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It's been difficult to figure out what people truly think and feel, made harder by the guys from Iraq's Ministry of Information who've been assigned to watch my every move. But I've been here long enough, and kept my profile low enough, that occasionally people relax and let their guard down.

Even now, on the eve of war, most of the Iraqis I talk to believe they will survive. I spent the other evening with a well-to-do woman whose villa was filled with art and antiques. She has decided not to leave Baghdad. To protect her belongings against any damage, she had packed up most of her furniture. But the next morning she woke up in her empty house and felt so depressed that she unpacked everything. She says she's not worried about the war, but about what will happen afterward. Who will rule Iraq? Will there be a civil war? What will be left standing? Will Iraq survive as a country? These are the biggest questions of all, and no one here can answer them.