Preview: Once Upon a Time in Iraq

Once Upon a Time in Iraq - Um Qusay

The Iraq War is the defining conflict of our age and set in motion a calamitous chain of unforeseen events that are still playing out to this day.

The politicians and decision makers involved have already had their say. In this new series, directed by multi-award winning director James Bluemel, the story of the Iraq war is told instead by civilians, journalists, and soldiers – ordinary people from both sides of the conflict who lived through the 2003 invasion and the 17 years of chaos that followed.

Told with hope, humanity and humour, and illustrated with extraordinary and never before seen personal archive, this series takes us closer to the realities of the invasion, occupation, civil war and life under ISIS than has ever been possible before. Through their eyes we see how events in Iraq have changed the world forever.

Waleed Nesyif was 18 when George Bush gave Saddam Hussein just 48 hours to leave Iraq. He was, like many Iraqi teenagers at that time, infatuated by the West. But while many of his generation grew up enjoying songs by The Back Street Boys, Waleed formed Iraq’s first heavy metal band. By comparison to the American movies he and his friends enjoyed, life under Saddam was oppressive, fuelled by fear and paranoia. If war meant life would eventually be more like the way it was in the movies, then in Waleed’s words, “let’s get this shit done”.

For others it was more complicated. Um Qusay (pictured), a farmer’s wife from a small village near Tikrit, was under no illusions about cruelty of Saddam’s regime. That did not mean however that she wanted a foreign army to invade her country to dispose of him. There were benefits to living in a police state. The streets were very safe and if you did not oppose the government directly, you were free to live how you wished. Life might not have been perfect, but many felt that a war with America would be something that Iraq would not survive.

Sally was just eight years old when American troops entered Baghdad. She had been told to be fearful of them, but when a soldier offered her a sweet, she decided that the stories she had been taught at school about the foreign imperialist devils were wrong, as only good people could be this kind.

As the statue to their former dictator fell in Firdos Square, there was a real sense of hope felt by many Iraqis. Maybe, just maybe, Iraq would emerge a better country, perhaps even as one of the best countries in the world. That was the very real hope of Ahmed Al Bashir. Now Iraq’s most famous comedian, as a teenager in 2003, Ahmed was excited by the opportunity to speak English with real Americans, waving at the invading troops and inviting them into his house.

Watching from his hotel room in Northern Iraq, photographer Ashley Gilbertson watched, along with the rest of the world, as Saddam’s statue was torn down. “I’ve missed the war,” was his initial thought. What he and many others did not realise at the time was that this was not the war. The war was still to come.

The initial hope, felt by many Iraqis, would be tragically short lived once the realities of occupation with no post-war plan hit the streets of Baghdad.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq – Monday at 9.00pm on BBC One.