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Life in Baghdad is 'constant fear'

By Arwa Damon, CNN
  • Two years in Australia gives Iraqi man unique insight into life back home
  • Karrar Hassan says you can't dream, you live in constant fear
  • Before going to Australia on education scholarship he saw his uncle killed
  • Now, after seven years of war, he says he would like to stay but is scared he will be killed

Editor's note: Watch Arwa Damon's special "A Tale of Two Families" on CNN International Friday March 26 at 5:30 p.m., Saturday at 3:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m. and Sunday 8 a.m. (All times GMT)

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- As one young man returns to Iraq after two years away, he finds that the war on the streets and his own internal battle are far from over.

Although the day-to-day violence has been dramatically reduced, seven years into the war life is still a struggle for Iraqis and Karrar Hassan can now compare Baghdad life with life in Australia.

"Reality is kind of coming back and it bites" said Karrar as he leaves the capital's Zawraa park.

The 20-year-old's piercing green eyes and Australian accent seem like they belong a world away from Baghdad.

He has to be careful speaking English in Baghdad as it is considered a traitor's language by various insurgent groups.

Even the laughter, the shrieks of excitement sparked by spinning around a multitude of rides at the city's recently reopened amusement park dissipate within moments.

"It's a pinch back to reality, leaving this protected bubble of the fun and excitement, of being in a safe zone" Karrar explains "Now we are back to being terrorized and frightened of being blown to pieces again."

Gallery: Iraq timeline

Karrar was 13 when the war began. "I lost my grandfather, I lost my cousin and I lost an aunt and I lost an uncle, all during the first couple of years of the war. And also a grandmother." Karrar steadily rattles off the dead.

Life, he says became unbearable. The worst moment was in late 2004 when his uncle, who he looked on as an older brother, was killed.

It was a time when the violence was becoming increasingly brutal. Karrar's uncle was gunned down in cold blood. He had taken off on his Harley to drop off a friend when suddenly the family heard gunshots.

"We saw my uncle basically drilled with 16 bullets. It was as though when taking a fish out of the water and waiting for it to die slowly and he was just flip flopping," said Karrar remembering the horrific moment in graphic detail.

"I could never ever get that image out of my mind seeing him just bleeding and dying so slowly and his arms and his legs just going up and down, up and down."

"It seems like it was only yesterday that he was talking to us, running around and pulling on his hair and riding his bike and you know him just being such a flirt with all the girls on the street," Karrar added.

He says his uncle was the glue that kept the family together and with his death everyone just drifted apart. Karrar couldn't take it anymore and says he lost the will to live.

One day at the end of 2005 he walked into the middle of one of Baghdad's busiest highways, sat down and waited for a truck to hit him. The truck stopped at the last moment. His family put him on suicide watch.

He said: "All the things that we saw, I mean being so young, no one should experience seeing decapitated bodies and legs and arms all over the place without the rest of the body. It was just too much.

"I remember one of our relatives we could not find anything of him, just his arm and you can not just live with that. It just became too much and we started wondering what we are living for, just living to wait to be exploded like that."

His family realized that to save him they had to get him out of Iraq. One of his uncles managed to get him a scholarship to Australia for his last two years of high school.

Sydney was an entirely new world, one that Karrar could not have even dreamed of. A world filled with life lessons in complete contrast to the brutality that Iraq was breeding.

"I learned a lot about myself. I learnt about honor and integrity, about working with different kinds of people, and I learned about sympathy and compassion," he said.

And he realized just how deeply he'd been scarred by the brutality of Iraq's streets and the sectarian warfare.

"Australians run their own country and they are from so many different backgrounds and so many different countries and yet they all could manage to cope and cooperate with each other and work together for a bright future," he said.

"It's quite disappointing to come back home and see that our future is still a mystery, when we here are all Iraqis and we are all from this land yet we cannot cooperate together to build a sense of somewhat of a future.

And Sydney had something still elusive in Iraqi society -- trust.

"[In Sydney] You could actually trust people without thinking they were going to murder you in the end. You could be a friend with anybody." Karrar says as we chat on his university campus.

In Baghdad it is a different story.

He said: "We were talking about that a while back at the cafeteria. We were saying that there are certain people that you just can't trust because of how they look at you, or because of the way they walk, the way they talk. So you don't know who to trust only because times have been so bad here. It came to a point where your best friend would sell you out for a couple of bucks."

The university campus these days is bustling with activity, seemingly almost normal were it not for the fact that each student is methodically searched for guns and explosives before entering, and that each student, like Karrar, is haunted by a story of trauma and survival.

From 2005 to 2007 the campus and many others were almost deserted as once "safe" neighborhoods became sectarian battlefields, bringing education to a near standstill.

These days it's a surreal blend of "normal" college worries pierced with the reality of violence.

"It's a constant fashion show" Karrar explained. "You have to be the best looking and the greatest haircut and the nicest clothes and the hottest shoes."

At the same time, there is no glass in the windows.

Karrar wants to get a PhD and become an English literature professor. But he's not sure if he sees any future in Iraq.

He said: "I am very torn about this issue. On the one hand, I would like to stay here and give back to my country.

"In Australia their talents are harvested at home -- they graduate and they become something in their country and I thought why can't we be the same?"

"I guess this country deserves maybe some of our time, you know, to be devoted to teach generations to be civilized, to teach them how to live.

"But I am also afraid for my life. What I am living right now is constant fear. Our only purpose here in Baghdad is to make it out alive for a day and then the next.

"And you cannot even have dreams because at any moment those dreams could fade away, at any moment your ambitions could be wiped out."