My 26th birthday party was perfect.
Stars glittered over the Baghdad hotel where I blew out the candles on a cake decorated by my four closest Iraqi friends. We stayed up until the dawn call to prayer rang from a nearby mosque, telling stories and debating the future of a country I'd grown to cherish.
A year later, only one of those friends is still alive. The poolside patio where they sang "Happy Birthday" in Arabic is empty most days, because foreign guests are afraid of snipers and mortars. The hotel has become a prison, and every foray outside its fortified gates is tinged with anxiety about returning in one piece.