Eyewitness in Baghdad

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

While millions of Americans watched the air campaign on TV, Seamus Conlan, a photo journalist for World Picture News on assignment for PEOPLE, experienced the bombing from the streets of Baghdad. An Irishman now living in New York City, Conlan, 36, has covered conflicts in Rwanda, the Balkans and Afghanistan. His impressions:

They sound like lone cars racing down a deserted street at night. Then you hear something like a loud door slamming with a thud. And then the ground trembles. Those are the bombs or cruise missiles—it's hard to tell which—off in the distance. The ones closer by are different. When the first big bomb landed near our hotel on the night of March 21, it felt like a lightning bolt from God. The sound of cracking thunder shakes you down to your soul. It strikes fear in your whole body as the building around you quakes. This is a terrorizing display of force.

"Fear will kill you," my mother always told me. "Don't you be frightened of nothing, young man." Over the last week that has been difficult. Towering black clouds of smoke circle overhead but for now are fortunately blowing downwind.

I wonder: When Saddam finally is gone, will the men here all shave off their mustaches the same way they shaved off their beards in Afghanistan?

The people of Baghdad are trying to go on with their lives as much as they can. Shops and businesses are closed, but the street sellers are out. People still need to buy food. For the Iraqis this is just one more ordeal. The majority of them have been drained of everything over the years—their livelihoods, their liberties—and don't know why or really care anymore. They are always looking for a better day. And now this. You can see the hurt in their eyes as you stand in the elevator with them, or when they serve you food or drive you around town. There are no more friendly smiles or greetings. Why should there be? Iraqis haven't gotten the other side of the story. All you see on TV, even now, is Saddam. They believe the United States is to blame for the past 20 years of misery in their country. After one attack, our government handlers take us to a hospital to show us civilian wounded. We decide they were more likely hurt by tracer rounds fired by the Iraqis. The victims live too far away from each other and the wounds are too superficial to be from bombing.

As terrifying as the air assault has been, in some ways the worst part was waiting for it to begin. Hida, the clerk at my hotel, the Palestine, asked me day after day when the big strikes would come. He wanted to know when to bring his family there for safety, the assumption being that the U.S. wouldn't hit Western reporters. Many journalists, including me, had been staying at the Al Rasheed Hotel in downtown Baghdad. We left there because we knew—and we knew the Pentagon knew—that the Iraqis had placed a military command center in the basement, which made the building a likely target. Most of us moved to the Palestine, just across the Tigris River from many government buildings. To prepare themselves, the journalists line the walls of their rooms with hundreds of bottles of drinking water and stock the cupboards with tinned food. When I first checked in, the pleasant little porter in an old uniform cheerily informed me, "It's safe here, we've been bombed three times and the elevator always works. Good generators!"—apparently referring to the baptism of fire during the first Gulf War.

Outside the air raid sirens are cranking up again. In my youth I might have enjoyed the spectacular show of fireworks. I've covered wars for a long time—it's all I do. I normally see some beauty in all the destruction. But I can't see it here. All I can do is watch in disbelief.

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