BAGHDAD (Reuters) - As a teenager, Mazin Tahir dreamt that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq would bring new freedoms and democracy with the fall of Saddam Hussein.
As a young adult, his hopes have been replaced by despair after five years of unremitting violence.
“It’s sad, or funny. The Iraqi dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Tahir, who was 15 when the Americans came.
“When I was young I dreamt of getting rid of the dictatorship and replacing it with democracy. Saddam has gone but Iraq is in worse shape. There are killings every day, politicians are like thieves ... it’s like a curse from God.”
Tahir had his life before him when the invasion started and his heart was full of hope. Now, like many others who grew from teens to adults during the occupation, he just wants to get out.
Fatma Abdul-Mahdi was 17 at the time of the invasion.
“When Saddam was ousted I thought the doors of happiness would be opened, I thought I could stop wearing second-hand clothes and I could be like the girls I was watching on TV,” the 22-year-old said.
Fatma now works as a teacher in the southern oil hub of Basra but, like so many of her peers, she says her life is worse and her family is poorer after five years of instability and hardship.
“I still wear second-hand clothes. If I could find a job, even in Sudan or Somalia, I would flee Iraq as soon as possible. I wish I had never been born in Iraq,” she said.
Psychiatrists fear that young Iraqis, so badly disillusioned after their teenage hopes and dreams were dashed, might turn to more drastic measures than just seeking to leave.
Haider Abdul-Muhsin, a psychiatrist at Baghdad’s Ibn Rushid hospital, said that disillusionment — and poverty — force many teenagers and young adults to leave school and university early.
Bitter and without direction, young people then become easy targets for exploitation by militants whose violence has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the invasion began.
“That is the start of their suffering. They leave because they think their studies will not guarantee them a bright future,” Abdul-Muhsin told Reuters.
“Some of them are then exploited by armed groups into conducting violent acts. Teenagers are an easy target,” he said.
Young Iraqi adults suffer in other ways, too, when they see the way their peers live in richer, more stable Arab states and in the West. Security fears mean it is hard to keep up social networks and there are few entertainment options.
While no statistics are available, he says he is seeing far more patients now than before 2003.
“Mostly their families come to my clinic complaining that they suffer from insomnia, or they are taking drugs or they have psychiatric problems,” Abdul-Muhsin said.
Of course, the pain is even more acute for the many thousands of Iraqis who have lost family members in the violence.
Sabreen Jawad, a 21-year-old Sunni Arab, left school after her father, a member of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard, was killed during the invasion.
“Can you imagine my feelings? A girl my age adores her father, he was always pampering me,” she said.
“From having a social life and luxury and servants we became a displaced family,” she said. Her family fled to Syria before returning to Baghdad recently.
Abdul-Muhsin said many young Iraqis have become reserved and introspective while the more resilient take a pragmatic approach to what has happened.
Nooreldin Ibrahim, from the ethnically and religiously mixed city of Baquba north of Baghdad, was also 15 and in high school when U.S.-led forces invaded.
He, too, had dreams of liberties unthinkable under Saddam, like mixing freely with girls. Those dreams started to fade after about a year when shops slowly began to close as Baquba became a hotbed of insurgent and sectarian fighting.
Now studying for an Arts degree in Baghdad, he says he has come to terms with the constant interruptions to his studies since universities became frequent targets for attacks.
“One day we’ll study and then we’ll have to stay home for 10 days. I love football so that means I am able to play my favorite sport,” he said.
“I don’t have any more dreams now, just finish my studies and become a civil servant,” he said.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile