As the sky turns black and rumour mingles seemlessly with fact, Jo Wilding sent this dispatch from inside the beseiged Iraqi capital.
23rd March 2003
We started with the birthday cake, because there were explosions in the distance in all directions and, if we were going to be forced to abandon the party, we weren't going to risk having to abandon the cake. Mohammed was grinning broadly, crumbs and sugar all over his moustache. Ulam was 13 and sat at the head of the table, queen of the garden behind the tea shop beside the river.
The twins, Hebe and Dua, posed for photos, fiddling with their headscarves before presenting dazzling smiles, heads on an angle to make sure you got their best sides. Anyone tall enough to reach was co-opted to shake the tree in the garden to make the little fruits fall off that the kids here love. They ran back from the tree to the table as explosions shook the sky, then carried on as soon as the burst turned out to be anywhere but in our party.
The twins made us all spin them around till the ground was strewn with dizzy people, exhausted after too many games involving chasing one another round tables, headscarves hanging round the girls' necks. Fadma and Majdi galloped about the garden in ballroom style and Mahmoud clambered on everyone until his ticklishness was discovered and then he had to hide.
The sky was black with smoke all around, looking ready to roar with a huge storm, but above it was bright blue. We hugged and kissed goodbye at least four times each, especially the twins, and shoehorned them into a taxi, three in the front passenger seat and half a dozen in the back.
The explosions happen all day now, though not frequently. Though in the middle class areas everything is still closed, in the poorer parts of town the streets look the same as ever.
The Iraqi authorities are announcing planes shot down over Baghdad. Yesterday as we drove onto Jumeriya (Republic) Bridge it was clogged with traffic and a crowd was hanging over the side. Boats were darting up and down hunting in the reeds for pilots of a plane which was said to have crashed. Something was burning on the far side of the river, too small to be a whole plane - maybe a piece of wreckage, maybe an attempt to flush out anyone hiding.
The accounts conflict as to whether two pilots were captured then or only one, but around 11pm there was gunfire on Abu Nawas Street, sirens, screeching brakes and everyone running down to the river. Some said a plane had come down, others said a parachute, though I couldn't find anyone who claimed to have actually seen either. One said he'd seen a man running and then everyone else chasing him. Fires were lit again in the reeds, guns were loaded and cocked and bystanders were ushered off the street.
There was an explosion and when I looked from my balcony, there was a huge fire in the exact direction of the oil refinery. I told myself it must be closer or further than the refinery, or even if it was the refinery, the people I've met who live there are probably fine, but part of me didn't believe it till I finally got them on the phone. What must it be like for someone who lives here, with a network of family and friends all over the city?
Close to buildings which have been hit, a lot of houses have lost windows. In some, where the upper parts jut out above the ground floor, the top parts are collapsing, hanging loosely from the main structure. Trenches of oil are burning furiously, the black clouds enveloping clusters of houses and turning the road to night as you pass through. As I write, the sky is still rumbling, the windows shaking. It's strange how quickly it becomes normal. But then, I'm fortunate enough to be in a structurally sound building.