Why are you here?
Mohammed, twenty-one years old, Baghdad, Iraq
BAGHDAD, IRAQ, SEPTEMBER 2003: In Firdos Square where the now famous statue of Saddam Hussein once stood, surrounded by tall white pillars, an Iraqi version of Lady Liberty has been erected, a sign of hope in an otherwise dismal landscape. But while hope may have risen from the ashes of war, so too has impatience risen from occupation. Protests are beginning to fill the streets and below Liberty's perch on her concrete pedestal, protest signs hang from the pillars, flapping in the occasional wind of the honking cars zooming by, trying desperately to get through the square without traffic lights or direction. Many of the signs are written in English and therefore obviously directed at American and British troops:
Iraq for Iraqis; American Colonialism: deconstructing democracy, reconstructing capitalism; Six months and the killing continues; When will Iraq be Iraq?
Every Iraqi I have met has told me that their biggest complaint about the occupation is the lack of security. The United States has 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Despite the U.S. presence, crime against civilians is still rampant. Prior to the war, Hussein opened the prisons, filling the streets with violent criminals. Add to that increased unemployment, frustration, and hunger and you have a recipe for chaos. After the invasion in March and defeat of the Iraqi Army in April, the U.S. forces appointed some local Iraqis as guards at the ministries and other important buildings, but the training of Iraqi police is at a trickle and they are no match for the increase in rapes, murders, and robbery. Those who accept Iraqi police jobs risk death at the hands of resistance fighters or others angry at the U.S. presence.
The change in security has been especially devastating for women. Women who had previously not worn even a simple hijab began covering themselves in ankle-length black abiahs for fear of being kidnapped or raped. Unable to leave home without a male escort, many women have been forced to drop out of school and quit their jobs.
At Baghdad's al-Mansour Hotel, inhabited these days mostly by foreign contractors and journalists, I meet Janan, a 22-year-old student here, to use the computer lab. The change in security has made Janan afraid to go out on the streets alone. She is almost afraid even to speak to me, talking in a very low voice across the table at the hotel dining area, glancing around the room before admitting, "The people in Baghdad are afraid. They are feeling fear, really."
She pauses for emphasis and then leans in closer. "I swear, they are feeling such fear and they want to one day have Saddam Hussein back because at least there was security. Even under Saddam Hussein we had security but nowadays" she shrugs her eyebrows and waves her hand towards the window overlooking the road outside, "there is none."
The window takes up the entire wall and we can see clearly another Baghdad morning playing out on the streets below. Janan points through the palm trees beyond the neighborhood. "My house is over there." She gestures in the opposite direction. "And my university is a long way away and the American armies cut up the all the streets with checkpoints. So how can I go?"
"So you are still in school?" I ask, surprised.
"No," she shakes her head sadly, "all the universities are closed now. But they say they will be open the first of October ... maybe" She sighs. "But even if my university opens, I have a problem when I go because there is not security in Baghdad! And it is a long way to go. I cannot go with my own car. I have to go in a very very cheap, broken down car now because of the thieves..." she stops, gazing in the direction of her home before continuing."
The girls in Baghdad are really not very happy right now. The boys too but especially the girls, because if they are walking in the streets the thieves are stealing them. All the time."
"So!" Janan sighs loudly and shrugs her shoulders. She turns to face me and asks, "What can we do?" Then, imploring, "What do we do?!"
She looks away again. Though she is gazing outside I know her thoughts are elsewhere. "This is the last year in my university" she says. "I want to study. I want to be a teacher. I want to live good and happy but I can't ..." she stops, searching for the right words. "I live I can't ... my life ... I can't live." Janan shakes her head as she looks at me and repeats, her voice lower, her eyes searching. "I can't live"
Beyond her, through the window, I watch two young boys interact with a journalist below. The boys are selling wooden flutes for one Saddam apiece. (The only dinar still used these days is the 250 bill, now referred to simply as a Saddam. "One Saddam. Two Saddam" Eight Saddams make a dollar.) Each flute is carved by hand and fitted with a reed sheath pierced by six holes. I know the craftswork and resulting sound aren't that bad but the journalist isn't interested in a flute. He waves them away but the boys persist, following him, entreating him to buy. From the hotel steps a security guard comes out onto the street and chases the young boys away. They run, barefoot, behind a row of shops that have all been looted, their windows smashed in.
Like many Iraqis, Janan blames such looting on the coalition forces which, though numbering in the thousands, stood by and did nothing to stop it. "I do not understand" she says. "What good is it to remove Saddam Hussein for this?" She gestures at the burned out buildings. "It is as if the looting was a part of the plan, to sit and let these people do these things. Maybe this is their plan."
It does seem odd that such destruction and vandalism was able to take place in a city filled with soldiers. The ensuing fear after the lootings has worked conveniently to U.S. interests by pitting Iraqi against Iraqi and putting any sense of cohesiveness under attack. A Baghdad native working with Occupation Watch witnessed a hospital being looted after the war broke out. "U.S. soldiers announced to the gathering crowd that the building was to be set on fire," she told us, "so if anyone wanted anything from it they had better get it out right away."
As people had then removed every last mattress, a young soldier sat watching from his tank, chewing gum. "He sat there like a child blowing big bubbles and popping them. And everything was gone. Everything."
Near Baath Square in the Kerada District of Baghdad, burned shells of former department stores and government buildings still stand like skeletons stripped of all clothing and essence. Outside the Ministry of Transportation and Communication we are beckoned in by a security guard named Haidir, who shows us where to climb under a break in the barbed wire and enter the destroyed building.
Inside, Haidir shows us his cot on the outdoor concrete balcony above where he sleeps between shifts. He then points to his own apartment blocks away from the window, where his wife and child live, and shrugs as if to say, "What can I do? It's work." Around Haidir's neck hangs a laminated identification card given him by the U.S. troops that designates him as trained in security and therefore qualified to carry a weapon. He displays the badge proudly, standing tall as he navigates us through the destruction back inside.
When the war started, this building along with so many others was completely stripped by looters of all interior objects, right down to the light sockets, before being set on fire. Once, long white corridors stretched row after row, floor after floor. A large staircase started at the center lobby on the first floor and circled upwards. Now all that remains are the blackened shells of former offices littered with a few broken chairs, ripped-out wires, shattered glass, a lady's shoe, and someone's typewriter. Piles of tattered, half-burnt papers line the floors and stairwells. A telephone dangles from the ceiling, its wires removed. A metal file cabinet has melted inward, twisting itself in to some bizarre art piece.
Other than these few items, I can find nothing larger than a scrap of paper the size of my hand. Nothing is left but paper and ash. Every computer, every document, every scrap of information that a country would need to rebuild its transportation and communication systems after such a war was utterly destroyed when this and other ministries went up in flames while the occupying power just stood by and did nothing. How can the Iraqi people now possibly recreate their own lives, their own civil structure, their own government when they have been deprived of every last paper that might have provided something at least to build upon?
Back outside we pass more buildings pitted by war and destruction. At one highrise, its entire western wall missing, we can see clearly a man hanging from a metal beam, stripping the wire from the ceilings of the otherwise empty building. Below him on the street, his donkey waits next to a wooden cart filled with odds and ends. Across the street an old man sits resting in the shade of a previously half-constructed building, now half-demolished before ever being finished. Another block down a group of workers stand in an alleyway between businesses, waist deep in piles of paper and plaster, using shovels and their hands to move the debris into carts. They wear long white kafiyahs over their faces, their only protection against the toxic dust.
Behind us, barbed wire surrounds a couple of banks but, at only knee-level, it is easily stepped over. At this point, however, there doesn't seem much left in the banks, stores, or businesses worth taking.
When the coalition forces arrived in Baghdad they didn't stop the looting. They didn't surround any of the museums or hospitals or government ministries except, of course, the Ministry of Oil. To a nation already doubtful of the real reason for this war, such a move proved to be extremely symbolic.
In the commercial district of Baghdad I stop to film a bombed-out shopping mall, whose destruction alone meant the loss of hundreds of civilian jobs. The front of the building has collapsed on one side so that the metal neon sign out front still hangs askew. There is no longer an inside to the building, just piles of debris surrounded by two-story concrete poles. As I contemplate this one example of so much loss in such a small space, two men walk by. Seeing my camera and guessing correctly that I am Western, they raise their fists and shout, "Amrikes Ali-Babas! Amrikes Oil Ali-Babas!"
Ali Baba, of Arabian Nights fame, was the thief to rob all thieves. The Americans too like this term, "Ali Baba" adopting it like "raghead" or "insurgent" to mean, in the simplest of terms, "bad guy" The fact that the Americans are calling the Iraqis Ali Babas and the Iraqis are calling the Americans Ali Babas is a perfect metaphor for the situation here. Everyone is a bad guy. Be afraid of everyone.
I try to videotape a checkpoint set up at an interstate on-ramp leading out of Baghdad but am stopped by a U.S. soldier who wants my camera. The checkpoint, he says, is a secure area and no cameras are allowed. I am able to keep my camera only when I agree to film over the footage and so I have no way to adequately portray the line that was queuing there. Around thirty cars had been waiting for at least an hour to get through. Perhaps this wouldn't be such an inconvenience if it weren't 110 degrees in the sun and gasoline wasn't at such a shortage.
Also off limits to filming are the gasoline queues, which stretch for blocks at each barbed-wire gas station. It is telling that, despite living atop one of the world's largest oil deposits, ordinary Iraqi civilians now must wait for hours and sometimes even days just to be able to get a little gasoline for their generators. When the station closes for the day drivers must decide: risk losing their space in line by going home and coming back the next day or sleep overnight in their vehicles. If they remain they put their own lives at risk as well as the lives of their family members, now home alone without the head of household and without any gas for the generator to light the darkness around them.
In response to growing demand, the black market for oil has flourished. Children now line the streets selling corroded tin cans full of gasoline, sometimes at fifteen times the market value. The traffic situation in Iraq is unstable at best and, as we drive south towards Nassariyah, we are of course held up many times. At each stop children flock to the windows with bananas or gas cans to sell us.
With such desperation present in these children's lives, the contents of these cans can be questionable. In some cases the "gasoline" is actually a mixture of gasoline and kerosene or even water. Eventually we do stop for gas, but at a petrol station where the tankers are still unloading their cargo of oil.
There are children working at the station too. The owner lives right next to the pumps in a tiny white plastered house surrounded by a small yard of sand and enclosed by a chest-high concrete wall. lust fifty feet away from the house, tankers chug noisily and civilian cars honk impatiently. On the other side, a main road teems with noisy cars and agitated traffic. The air is filled with dust and grime. As small as it is, the house is overflowing with men, women, girls, and boys all selling gasoline. Two women in their twenties walk by balancing cans of gasoline on top of their heads, their long black abiahs hanging limp in the heat. Beside the wall, several small boys sit atop plastic gas cans, waiting or resting momentarily before being sent back out to the streets.
Behind the wall, in the tiny, dusty courtyard, wait four young girls, ages ten to fourteen. No doubt because of their prime age for kidnappings and the growing sex trade, the girls are watched closely and they remain behind the concrete wall. Their job is to fill the cans, one after the other, without spilling any near the house. The girls wear faded, matching pink and white calico dresses that drag in the dirt, and all except the youngest wear headscarves. They are thus covered from their ankles to the tops of their heads on a day when even the lightest fabric feels heavy and burdensome in the heat. Around us the air is filled with exhaust fumes that seem to stick to our skin and then bead down our foreheads. The sun is terribly bright and reflects back off the sand everywhere, casting the entire scene in shades of white and yellow. As I chat with these girls I can't help but keep looking back and forth from the tiny house to the gas station to their ragged figures before me. I try to imagine how my views of the United States would have been shaped had I come of age in this tiny house next to a gas station surrounded by sweaty, shouting men and barbed wire.
The oldest has shining eyes and a beautiful smile that she tries to hide behind her scarf as she surveys me quizzically from behind the wall. Her sister next to her is more up front. She stoops in the sand at her feet and draws a line with her finger. On one side the line she places an X, points to herself, and says "Iraq." On the other side she places another X, says "Amrike," and points to me. Slowly, she traces her finger from me in America to her in Iraq. The she rises, looks at me with a quizzical smile, and shrugs her shoulders, her hands held out in question. Why are you here?
As I contemplate the question, and whether she means me or my country, and how on earth to begin explaining by way of signs in the sand, a man walks up. He has been watching our exchange and motions for me to look across the wall at the girls' feet, which I hadn't noticed until now are all barefoot. The man looks at me with an expression of anger, his eyes burning. He waves his arm again, emphasizing their feet without saying a word. Finally he speaks. "So! Amrike has the oil," he says, stretching his arms wide to take in the gas station before us. "Now what about Iraq? Now what about us?"
NEARLY THREE YEARS LATER, I am still pondering these questions. Rather than improve with time, the situation in Iraq has only deteriorated beyond belief. Around 30,000 Iraqi civilians have now been killed as a direct con sequence of the war and occupation. Suicide bombings have increased dramatically. Rapes have continued unhindered and women's rights and freedoms have essentially disappeared into the shadows.
The paradox of it all is that, if this was a war for safety from supposed terrorists, for oil, or for some other American interest, then we have failed on all fronts. Terrorist attacks inside Iraq are occurring at a rate of nine times what they were before 2003 and on an international scale have tripled in that time. Continuous fighting and a lack of infrastructure have prevented the pumping of Iraq's oil for both the Iraqis and for the United States. And the Iraqi people are now joined in their suffering by the families of more than 2,000 U.S. troops who have been killed fighting a war that increasingly begs for explanation.
What about Iraq, indeed. And what about us? Why are we there and when will we realize our mistake and come home?
Jessica Andersen is an activist, videographer, and writer from Seattle, Washington. In 2003 she traveled to Palestine and Iraq, and cofounded Another World Is Possible, a grassroots project that uses art and multimedia. For a copy of a video duo documenting AWIP's experiences, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||destruction of Iraq War|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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