(Baghdad) The thud of a car bomb exploding, then the blast of flames interrupting homework; the faint boom of a roadside bomb and, seconds later, the crashing of windows waking families with a start; an apartment door kicked open in the middle of the night and someone shouting in a foreign language; the “pop, pop, pop” of bullets streaking in a shootout and the crash of doors slamming as adults drag children inside.

For six years, during the war launched by the United States in 2003 and the sectarian conflict it spawned, this was the soundtrack of life in Iraq, especially for those under 26 – around 23 million people, nearly half of the population. The traumas were daily. Losses affected almost every family.

Today, especially in Baghdad, many young people want to move forward. The cities have recovered somewhat from the war years, and young, more affluent Iraqis frequent cafes, malls and concerts. Despite this, most conversations revolve around a relative who has been killed, family members who have been displaced, or lingering doubts about the future of Iraq.

Wars leave scars, even when people survive with their bodies intact. The metallic roar of helicopters, the glare of flares, the burning smell of bombs, the taste of fear, the pain of something lost, all this lingers long after the fighting is over.

“The war robbed us of our childhood,” said Noor Nabih, 26, whose mother was injured in the crossfire of a passing US convoy and then seriously injured by a bomb blast.

New York Times photographer Joao Silva and senior correspondent Alissa J. Rubin recently spoke to young Iraqis in Baghdad about their lives, their views on the US invasion and the state of their country. Here are some of their testimonials.

Mohammed was 5 years old at the time of the invasion. Every explosion frightened him. The first time he saw an American vehicle hit a roadside bomb, the explosion made him vibrate; then came a barrage of bullets.

“I was so scared that I lay down on the ground and pressed my face to the road,” he recalled.

Soon, American soldiers began knocking on the family’s door, looking for members of the Shia Muslim militia loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “I was afraid they would shoot,” he said.

With 17 sisters and brothers, and a father who barely managed to make a living working in a garage, Mohammed couldn’t concentrate in school and dropped out after second grade. “I had thoughts of death,” he said.

When he turned 21, his daughter Tabarak was born and he wanted to get a job in the civil service, but he had no connections with politicians who could help him. Outraged, he joined the 2019 youth protests against government corruption and the Iranian presence in Iraq, known in the Arab world as the “October Revolution”.

On the first day of the protests, a tear gas canister exploded in his face, ripping out one eye and damaging the other. His world darkened.

Today his daughter is 4 years old and he has a 1 year old son, Adam.

“My only wish is to get my sight back so I can see my children,” he said. Adam came into the world after I was hit, so I never saw him.

Dalia, 24, and Hussain, 26, met at the hospital where they were both pharmacists. It only took a month for Hussain to know he wanted to marry Dalia and for Dalia to feel the same about Hussain.

They had a lot in common. Both came from families that placed great importance on education; both had grown up with the sounds of war. Dalia remembers watching the Nickelodeon cartoon channel when the bombs started falling on Baghdad; Hussain remembers seeing windows blown out by a bomb blast.

Both of their families fled to Syria when the war got too close to home. Dalia’s school bus driver disappeared during the sectarian fighting and was later found dead, and so was Hussain’s brother’s school bus driver.

Their only difference – Dalia is a Sunni Muslim and Hussain a Shia Muslim – didn’t matter to them, even though they knew she might matter to others.

“The day I proposed to Dalia, my father insisted that I tell Dalia’s family that I was Shia, so that it would be clear and Dalia’s family would not be surprised one day. They said to me, ‘We don’t care what branch you belong to. What matters to us is that you love our daughter and that she loves you. “”

Even before their wedding day, February 18, the violence that is part of everyday life has affected them. Hussain was stabbed and shot in a burglary while working night shifts at a pharmacy.

“Everything was fine until Hussain got hit and the reality of Baghdad slammed into us,” Dalia said.

They are now hoping, Hussain said, for “health and safety.”

Hamza, 24, grew up with the army in his blood. His father was a colonel when Saddam Hussein was in power, and he rejoined the Iraqi army, initially disbanded by the Americans, after it was reconstituted. He bonded with the American soldiers he worked with and rose to the rank of general.

“My dream, my passion to become an officer started when I was 12 years old,” Hamza recalls.

But the family were viewed as traitors by some of her father’s former army colleagues, who had joined insurgents fighting the US military. A group of militants tried to kidnap Hamza’s older brother. Then, in 2014, Hamza’s father was killed while fighting in Anbar against the country’s new scourge, the Islamic State group.

From then on, he said, he wanted “[his] father to be proud of [him] in the afterlife and to feel that [he] was doing something for him, just like he lifted [him] up and supported him. »

Hamza graduated valedictorian from military school and became the youngest lieutenant in the history of the Iraqi army after 2003. His first mission: to fight the remnants of the Islamic State group, the same militants who killed his father.

Today, he is a security officer in the Joint Command, which includes the senior leadership of the Iraqi Armed Forces. His dream is to reach the same rank as his father.