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Iraqi-American photojournalist returns to homeland after more than two decades

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Photojournalist Salwan Georges has a memory of what he calls the grandest firework display he'd ever seen. It was the late '90s. He was a kid living in Baghdad. But before he could finish marveling at the night sky all lit up, his dad pulled him away from their apartment window. Georges would later learn those lights were an air defense system firing at American military planes, a prelude to the U.S.-led invasion that would forever change Iraq and his family. Well, Georges recently had a chance to return to Baghdad for the first time in more than 20 years. He documented the journey in a photo essay for The Washington Post, and he joins us now to talk about it. Salwan Georges, welcome.

SALWAN GEORGES: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So this week, of course, marks a big anniversary - 20 years since the war in Iraq began. But your family fled before the 2003 invasion. Tell me why.

GEORGES: I was born in the Iraq-Kuwait war, and then, you know, lived through the U.S.-imposed sanctions, which were very difficult. I remember as a kid we would get electricity maybe, like, three hours a day. By mid-'90s, you know, life kept getting harder. My grandparents left. Everybody started leaving, and we were kind of one of the last people from my family to leave.

KELLY: So you make up your mind you're going to go back to this country that you were born in that you haven't seen since you were 8 years old. Were you excited, nervous, a little bit of both?

GEORGES: U.S. is my home, but my homeland - I never had a chance to remember what it feel like to be in my country. What is it like to go down the street and hear everybody that talks like you? - because I only felt that at home with my parents. So walking down the street in Iraq had really made me happy just to be able to not question if you fit in or not.

KELLY: I'm thinking of you on the plane that's coming into Baghdad and just that first glimpse as maybe the city beneath you came into view. What went through your mind?

GEORGES: I was listening to a song by a friend of mine. A lyric says, I heard Baghdad is calling for me. So as I'm landing and all the emotion building up, my eyes started tearing up. I just couldn't believe that it's finally happening.

KELLY: Yeah. What was the first place you went? Where'd you go?

GEORGES: So I got picked up by my colleagues, our awesome colleagues in Baghdad, and then we went and got some amazing Iraqi food.

KELLY: (Laughter) Perfect.

GEORGES: Very proud of my food.

KELLY: What did you eat?

GEORGES: I'm big on local restaurants, so we went to a local restaurant that serves, like, Iraqi stews, some lamb. And, you know, the food tastes, over there, so much better.

KELLY: Yeah. So you got some great Iraqi food. And then I know that parts of this trip must have been really hard. You documented going to visit your grandfather's grave, his tomb, and finding it torn apart. What had happened?

GEORGES: I mean, the whole cemetery looked like something happened there. It looked like there was, like, you know - maybe it was shelled, or it was like a bomb went off there. And I see his casket destroyed. So I was standing there, like, unable to move, not knowing what to say or what to think. And this is not how I wanted to go see my grandpa. And I'm sure this is not what he wanted me to see.

KELLY: No. Did you find out what had happened?

GEORGES: So I asked Abu Muhammad (ph), and Abu Muhammad is, like, a cemetery caretaker. And he told me this area in the cemetery has seen a lot of violence. And one of them was the U.S. soldiers went in the cemetery breaking those tombs looking for weapons because they believed the Mahdi Army were hiding them there.

KELLY: Were you able to verify that? Do we know if it was U.S. troops?

GEORGES: I mean, I probably would never know what happened exactly because that area have seen so many violence. But it's been documented that a lot of battles took place in cemeteries in that area as well as Najaf south of Iraq. But according to people who have been there 30 years or 20 years, they said that's what happened. And I'm sure, like, I know - terrorist groups or who knows?

KELLY: Wow. And that must raise so many complicated emotions for you as an Iraqi American, one foot in each country, knowing that perhaps people from your adopted country where you grew up did something like that and many other things in the country where you were born. I'm sorry.

GEORGES: Yeah, I mean, you just don't know what to feel, what to think. Then my colleagues, of course, who have been like brothers to me, who are Iraqis, lived through the war, have been working for us for 14 years - they were like, don't worry. We'll see what we can do. So the following days, I just bought fresh sand. I restored it. I filled the tomb with sand. With the help of Muhammad, we bought cement. So now when my family - if they can make it back, if they think they can come back, they could see it the way I wanted to see it, not what I saw.

KELLY: I want to finish by circling back to where we began - this idea of going home after so many years - because you write in your piece for the Post that one of the things you realized when you actually went and did it was you can't go home because the Iraq that you were born in no longer exists. That feels like such a huge thing to try to wrap your arms around.

GEORGES: Yeah. I mean, sadly to say, growing up in the '90s, the streets were cleaner. The air was cleaner. It's so polluted right now. There's barely any palm trees. And the remaining palm trees are all covered in dark dust. So there is a lot of things changed. And also that Iraq that I remember - it was my family as well. And I don't have any family left in Iraq. I made a new family when I went back. And for me, it was just to turn a page on that Iraq that I grew up in and, you know, hopefully go back and create new memories and live - hopefully live and tell stories in the new Iraq.

KELLY: Salwan, thank you.

GEORGES: Thank you.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Salwan Georges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for The Washington Post, about his latest photo essay, "The Iraq I Never Knew." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.