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Swimming pool a rare oasis for Baghdad's diverse elite

  • Story Highlights
  • Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds gather at a poolside social club in Baghdad
  • "I will not desert Iraq," one woman says
  • Club provides normalcy in a city that is anything but normal
  • Family memberships cost $400 a year
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By Arwa Damon
CNN
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Editor's note: CNN agreed to use only the first names of the two women profiled in this story due to concern for their safety.

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The swimming pool at this social club provides a break from the chaos of the rest of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Against the dust-colored, dreary Baghdad skyline, the bright colors of this social club glitter almost unnaturally. The turquoise water of the swimming pool jumps out at you along with the bright, rainbow-like colors of swimming trunks, towels and inner tubes.

It's an illusion of normalcy, carefully guarded from the horrors of the streets of Baghdad.

Here, boys cannonball into the water; young girls sit along the edge of the pool in tight jeans and fashionable flowing summer tops; and parents relax in their chairs. Video Watch kids splash in the pool »

It's a mix of Baghdad's remaining elite -- be it Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. Here, ethnicity doesn't matter. The club costs $400 a year for a family membership.

They seemingly don't have a care in the world. That is, until you listen to what they have to say.

Fatma -- an Iraqi woman wearing designer sunglasses, an elegant brown jacket and fancy gold jewelry on this day -- talked with her friend, Amal, about a recent car bombing that killed 15 people.

"I was arguing with myself yesterday and I was saying, 'I am going to the pool to have a good time, and they are dead. But if I stay at home, what can I do for them? Will it change anything for them?' "

She pauses. "I couldn't help it. I cried for them."

But moments later, the two women laugh, not at a joke, but at their lives -- or what has become of them. Photo See how children and their parents enjoy the pool »

"We wake up in the morning. There's no power, no water," Amal says. She catches Fatma's eye, and the two dissolve into giggles.

"Haven't you heard the expression it makes you laugh and cry?" Fatma says. "That's how we live. We deceive ourselves. But there's something inside crushing us."

Amal adds, "It's not like what we have seen is nothing -- all the killing, murder, the explosions."

Nearby, one of Amal's daughters, 7-year-old Golmaz, splashes happily around the pool in her inner tube, avoiding her brother, who has Sesame Street floaties on his arms and is trying to pester her.

"At home, I am bored and scared and lonely; it makes me sad," Golmaz says. "But when I come here, I am happy."

It takes her mind off the gruesome images of people dying in the war that surrounds them. "Once, there was a bomb close to the bridge. Lots of people died. I saw it from the window. I cried," the little girl says, then swims away.

Her words are piercing. Welcome to Iraq's grieving oasis.

Tears begin streaming down Fatma's face as she recalls how she hasn't been able to visit her parents at her childhood home for the last three years. "I wish, I wish, I wish I could just go and sit in my house. Go back to the old days," she says.

Here, everyone talks of the "old days." The club is a shadow of what it once was. Two of the pools lie empty, the gardens are deserted and no one is in the club's lounge.

Faris Abdul Rahman, the club's secretary-general, speaks wistfully of the past. "You [would] see so many, full of families here. ... They [were] happy, joking, playing cards."

It couldn't be further from the scene now. A broken piano stands against the back wall in the club's lounge. Half the piano's keys are missing, and its strings are snapped in a twisted mess.

"I thought that once the Americans came, life would be something else, life would somehow be brighter," Fatma says.

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Still, despite everything going on around her, she says she will never leave her homeland.

"I will not leave Iraq, I will not desert Iraq," she says. "If I die, I will die in my house -- no matter how many times my husband says, 'Let's go.'" E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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