Invasion And Occupation Through Iraqi Eyes
(Swans - February 2, 2004) As a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States, the UK, and their "new European" allies, the people of Iraq have never had it so good. This, at least, is the view of Bill Markell, a retired businessman who divides his year between Florida and Maine, and recently posted a letter on the occupation to a fellow activist and friend. In his letter, he notes that, among other improvements, the Iraqi judiciary is now fully independent; all twenty-two universities are open and "Coalition forces have rehabbed over 1,500 schools;" all the hospitals are open; pharmaceutical distribution is up; and doctors' salaries are "at least eight times what they were under Saddam." In addition,
The wheels of commerce are turning. From bicycles to satellite dishes to cars and trucks, businesses are coming to life in all major cities and towns. . . . The Coalition has completed over 13,000 reconstruction projects, large and small. . . . Uday and Qusai are dead -- and no longer feeding innocent Iraqis to (their) zoo lions, raping the young daughters of local leaders to force cooperation. . . . murdering critics.
No doubt, there is truth in what Mr. Markell says. But the figures he quotes and the achievements he spotlights do not tell the whole story. I intend in this article not only to amend Mr. Markell's view, but to provide a more truthful and accurate picture of daily life in occupied Iraq as it is experienced by the Iraqi people.
The last time I visited Iraq was January 2003, only a few short months before the invasion. This was my ninth visit since 1997. As with several previous visits, I traveled as a delegate with Voices in the Wilderness, a leading anti-sanctions group and now a vital witness to the occupation. Much of what I have to say about the occupation derives from Iraqi citizens themselves, some of whom have become close friends and with whom I communicate regularly either by e-mail or telephone.
Though I cannot provide a first-hand account of life in an occupied country, I hope that what I do have to share will refocus the hearts and minds of my fellow citizens on the plight of their Iraqi brothers and sisters as they cope with continuing shortages, unemployment, and lack of security, among many other post-war problems.
In order to grasp something of the present trauma ordinary Iraqis are experiencing, it would perhaps be helpful to look back on their recent past. We could begin with the era of sanctions, which began in 1990 immediately following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and ended with the fall of Saddam's regime. Surprisingly, or rather not surprisingly, the effects of sanctions have all but vanished from public discourse concerning the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. Much to their dismay, we read in the press, US military commanders quickly discovered how shabby and degraded Iraq's civilian infrastructure had become. Of course, the sub-standard condition of the water and sewage treatment plants, the electrical power grid, the oil refineries, the health care system, etc., are invariably attributed to the malice and misrule of the Ba'ath Party.
Without question, the Ba'ath Party in Iraq and its leadership committed egregious human rights violations, were responsible for starting two major wars, wasted precious oil revenues on arms and militarization, and established one of the world's most brutal regimes. But the economic embargo put in place by the UN and enforced and maintained by the United States and its junior partner, the UK, cannot be simply crossed out of history or overlooked for what in fact it was -- a crippling blow to Iraq's economy, a tragic amplification of the destruction wrought during the first Gulf War by the former Coalition, and a serious, if unpunished violation of the UN's substantial body of human rights laws.
Largely because of comprehensive economic sanctions, Iraq's infant mortality rate doubled over the past decade according to a 1999 study by UNICEF. (1) This indicator alone speaks volumes about the state of Iraq's economy and in particular its health care system prior to the invasion/occupation. Even the crucially important Oil-for-Food program did not significantly improve the well being of the Iraqi people, who suffered immensely under the oppression of their own government and the international isolation created by the embargo.
The Iraqi people paid a high price for the hubris and arrogance of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, who conspired in waging a war of aggression against a largely defenseless country and an already stricken civilian population. In November 2003, Medact, an organization of health care professionals based in the UK, issued a report on the health of the Iraqi people. (2) This report, Continuing Collateral Damage, measures the actual costs of the war. Noting the difficulty of gathering data in the volatile and chaotic conditions of post-war Iraq, Medact professionals, nevertheless, estimate that the number of civilians killed since the beginning of the war and October 20, 2003 is in the range of 7,757 - 9,565. In other words, approximately three times the number of people who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. On top of this tragic and wholly unnecessary loss of life is the impact of the war on Iraq's already decrepit civilian infrastructure, in particular water and sanitation, health care, nutrition, and power supply. These areas, ravaged by years of sanctions, oppression, and previous wars, have been critically damaged by the 2003 invasion, the looting that followed, and the ongoing, escalating violence in occupied Iraq, the report concludes.
With Humvees and tanks in the streets of their cities and Black Hawk helicopters in their skies, the people of Iraq are finding a return to any kind of normalcy an elusive dream at best. In front of me, as I write, is a drawing by a twelve-year-old Shi'a Iraqi girl. Her name is Abeer. I have known her since she was six. She lives in central Baghdad with her parents and two brothers. Abeer's mother Amal Alwan is an artist and teacher. Prior to the invasion, Amal fled Iraq with her family and sought refuge in Damascus. When they returned in late spring, they discovered that their home had been entirely looted. What few possessions they had managed to acquire through the long years of sanctions were gone. Gone too was the relative security they had enjoyed before the much-touted fall of Baghdad.
The drawing clearly shows that Abeer has inherited her mother's talent. More importantly, perhaps, it shows what life is like in occupied Iraq through the eyes of a child. A soldier, with the American flag on the sleeve of his shirt, stands stiffly in the living room of an Iraqi home. He is pointing a rifle. The front door, smashed open, lays across the threshold. In a corner of the room, near the door, a boy is crying. In the center, a young girl bends over the body of a woman, possibly her mother, with blood weeping from her side. Another woman, nearby, attempts to comfort her infant child.
This is part of the reality of life under occupation. There are no flowers in Abeer's drawing, although as long as I have known her, she has loved drawing flowers and demure young ladies with blossoms entwined in their hair. In their place are fear and death, and a pervasive sense of helplessness in the presence of an armed and dangerous soldier. Has he broken into this house in search of a resistance fighter? Did he accidentally shoot the woman who lies wounded on the floor? Is he looking for hidden weapons? The drawing doesn't say. What it does tell me is that life for Abeer has drastically changed. It is a far cry from what her life had been like before the invasion/occupation, not only because the government of her country has been dismantled and replaced with a colonial administration and its hand-picked governing council but also because her present and foreseeable future have become so fraught with new dangers.
On the next street over from where Abeer lives is the former residence of her aunt Karima and her eight cousins. The house, though cherished by the family, appears to the outsider as little more than a hovel with two small rooms for mother and children. Karima was forced to leave her home in January of last year and has since relocated to an apartment. Her husband died several years ago in an auto accident in Baghdad. She has had to provide for her large family with only minimal help from her relatives, most of whom are as poor as she is. In December 2002, on a particularly cold and overcast Sunday afternoon, I dropped in for a visit. Karima's children were, as always, delighted to see me, their "Uncle George" from America. Her oldest son Ali, a teenage recruit, was stationed in Mosul to the north. Her daughters, who range in age from eleven to sixteen, were busy with homework and household tasks. Fatima, the eldest, served me tea. Mahmoud, her temperamental little brother, asked me to retell him one of his favorite stories, the one about Abu Kassem, a merchant of medieval Baghdad who won't give up his slippers no matter how old and smelly they have become.
As I launched into this story, using a combination of pantomime and very bad Arabic, some of Karima's friends showed up. Like Karima, they wore the traditional black abaya worn by many Shi'a Muslim women as an outer garment. We gathered around the heater in the center of the room and talked about what was, at that time, on everybody's mind -- the impending war. "Why does Bush want to bomb us?" one of the women asked me repeatedly. "What about our children?" another one wondered. "How can we protect them? They will be so scared when the bombs fall." Karima said nothing. I had never seen her look so distraught, so disconsolate.
When it was time to go, Karima walked with me to the street by her home. I would be leaving Iraq the next day. We didn't know when we would see each other again or under what circumstances. Although I am not Muslim, Karima allowed me to comfort her. I put my hands on her shoulders and said, "God willing, there will be peace. I will see you soon in the spring." She smiled a little and with her children by her side waved to me over and over again as I walked away.
Three-and-a-half months later the war began. One day during that miserable period, while skipping from one website to another seeking news about the humanitarian situation in Iraq, I came upon a photo recently taken in Baghdad. Against a backdrop of black smoke and burning buildings a young girl celebrates her fourteenth birthday outdoors. I recognized the curly hair and winsome smile at once. They belonged to one of Karima's daughters. Like her aunt, her name too is Amal. She appeared to be having the time of her life with her family and friends along with the requisite cake and balloons.
My fondest memory of Amal is the time I took her and her siblings to an amusement park in Baghdad. Ten years old at the time, she wanted so much to ride the Ferris wheel, a rickety contraption probably built in the seventies and in need of a major overhaul. We handed our tickets to the attendant and took our seat. Amal snuggled up to me as we rose and fell and rose again over a view of the Tigris, the Monument to the Martyrs, and a golden September moon.
Introspective and, I think, more politically savvy than her sisters, Amal kept a journal during the invasion. Thanks to a reporter stationed in Baghdad, her journal was published in an issue of The Christian Science Monitor. (3) Her words give us an intimate look into what it was like on the receiving end of "shock and awe," the terror tactics employed by the US military in its attack on Baghdad. As I re-read Amal's journal, I am struck by the fact that those who unleashed such turmoil and bloodshed now expect us to believe that they truly care about the welfare of the Iraqi people.
Thursday, March 20: . . . Why is Bush bombing us? Don't you have any mercy in your heart for children? . . . The electricity was out, so we went to our mother's friend Um Jalal. On the way back to our house, the siren sounded again and we were very frightened and tried to run as fast as we can back home saying, "God save us!" At 9:15 p.m., the bombing was intense, close to our home. . . . then it turns quiet again. . . . and we don't know when Bush's storm hits again. Fatima thinks that we are living and dying at the same time, but how long will it be like this?
Friday, March 21: . . . It's now 9:35 p.m., and all the families in the house are terrified and crying for God to bring the morning. . . . I've never seen anything like this. I'm so afraid tears are running down my eyes, and I'm saying "Oh God, dear God."
Tuesday, March 25: At 3:50 p.m., we hear missile attacks. The wind is dusty, the wind is fast, and the water is red-colored. It truly is like the anger of the sky, as the war is against the will of God. He created man to be good, peaceful with love, not to choose war and kill people. At 7:50, the winds are very strong, the door of our apartment is banging. The sirens sound again. . . .
Wednesday, March 26: . . . The sky turned red-colored as if it were the blood of innocent people. . . . It's truly sad for the innocent Iraqis and the Americans dying without a cause, with the sky pouring dirt on the streets. . . .
Tuesday, April 1: . . . We see sad pictures of (a) dead infant, pictures that would make even a rock cry. . . . Where is justice?
Tuesday, April 8: The planes come and go, and fear and terror control us completely. These seem like our final moments, but God responds to our prayers.
God must have been listening. Amal and her family survived the invasion and, like most of the population, are struggling to rebuild their lives amid chaos and continuing carnage.
Amal's aunt Amal Alwan, in addition to being a first-rate artist and a former teacher, is also an extremely resourceful person and the mainstay of her family. We have kept in close touch with each other through her brief sojourn in Syria, during the invasion, and now in this time of occupation. Two years ago she studied computer programming in the hope of starting up a new career. Presently, as one of several business partners, she is trying to open an Internet café in Baghdad. She writes almost daily to me about the conditions of her life and those of her friends and neighbors. Amal was born in south Iraq. She is a devout Shi'a Muslim. Her husband is Sunni. Over the past five years, I have spent many long evenings in their company discussing just about everything under the sun, including the nature of the former regime. In the privacy of their home, with hushed voices, they shared with me their profound loathing for Saddam Hussein and his monstrous cruelty.
You would think that someone like Amal would have been first in line among those who welcomed American troops into Baghdad and celebrated the toppling of the regime. Her response to the invasion and occupation of her country, however, is far more complex. As her letters to me reveal, Amal lives in constant anguish not only over her fate, but over the fate of her people. (4)
In November 2003, Amal wrote at length about the violence that continues to plague the Iraqi people, especially in Baghdad:
Everything in Baghdad is horrible. I wish to leave. If you want to live here, you must be a fighter or a thief. . . . All day, 24 hours a day, we hear the sounds of bullets and bombing. You don't know when someone will kill you. On the roads there are tanks, army vehicles, soldiers. In the sky USA helicopters [are] patrolling like phantoms. It is like all the Iraqi people are living in a big camp. The soldiers look at us like we are the enemy. They insult the people by saying bad words. Sometimes they hit us or tie our hands. They can stop anyone on the road. When they are searching someone's home, some of the soldiers take the money of the families if they find it, and don't give any receipt. They say, "This money is for our food and soft drinks. . . ."
If we can, we stay away from the Americans. They are like a moving target. Maybe someone will shoot at them. If you don't die from the attack, you will die from the American bullets when they shoot randomly after the attack.
Despite eight months of "reconstruction," clean water is still difficult to come by and the electricity remains erratic:
The water is not good. Some places have no water and some have very little. We haven't had water for 2 days in my house. . . . As for the power, we have four hours on and 4 hours off. If you want petrol for your car, you must wait in a long line. . . . Vegetables cost less but overall the price of food has gone up. . . . Also, there are not enough adequate salaries in Iraq because so many people are out of work and everything is more expensive than before the war. . . . Apparently, Mr. Bush and Mr. Bremer don't have enough money to employ people. They are not ready to give us our money from the sale of our oil. This money is only for them. . . .
My country has been sold to thieves who don't let us benefit from anything. . . . One kilo of meat cost 7000 Iraqi Dinars, which is about three-and-a-half US dollars. . . . The World Food Program delivered 170,000 tons of food, but we get nothing. Many Iraqi merchants sell this food with the WFP mark on the bags. Nobody knows how they get this food. The Coalition Provisional Authority doesn't even bother to investigate. . . .
Even with the creation of a new Iraqi police force in the capitol, Amal maintains that a lack of security and safety remain a major problem for most people. Above all, she is deeply concerned not only about the present but about the future of her country:
We are worried about our future. We don't know when the Americans will leave. We are also worried about the people. . . . I had some close friends who died and were wounded in this war. . . . You will find more Iraqis killed from car bombings than American soldiers. . . . Our children ask us about the soldiers and the tanks, but we can't answer them because we don't know the answer. . . . This time is maybe the last opportunity we will have to create a good future for our children. . . .
Expressing a sentiment I suspect is shared by many Iraqis, Amal looks forward to the reconstruction of her country by the Iraqi people and not by multinational corporations:
We want to build our country with our own hands. We can do that. We don't want foreign companies to do this for us. We need their technology and expertise but we must be able to help ourselves.
Just before Christmas, Amal dropped off her children at school and then walked to the market to buy some fruit for them. As she was crossing the street, a bomb exploded:
I was far enough away to avoid being killed. But I saw two Iraqis dead and more than six badly wounded. The bomb exploded near the school. The teachers made the mistake of letting the children leave the classrooms. They saw the blood and the wounded. I took my kids as far from there as I could. They were very afraid and shaking. As I write this letter, I am still shaking from the sound of the bomb. . . .
On Christmas day, another bomb exploded in Amal's neighborhood. She and her children were on the street when the bomb went off and destroyed a fashionable restaurant, killing many customers:
It felt like an earthquake. We were on our way to my sister's house to celebrate Christmas but the explosion scared us so much we went back to our home and stayed there. . . . There is no way to avoid the bombs, even in our homes. The American tanks patrol the streets day and night. We can be walking or riding in a car or shopping and suddenly the soldiers pass by and they are a target, so when they are attacked, Iraqi people die too.
While the American media establishment continues to glorify the conquest of Iraq and to hail President Bush as a savior of the Iraqi people, life for ordinary Iraqis like Amal has yet to improve, much less return to its pre-war status, which was already far below the living standards of most Americans. Despite her resourcefulness, her faith, and her many talents, Amal has yet to find the golden key that will turn her people's newfound political freedom into a prosperous and joyful life. At the moment, her husband is planning on immigrating to Qatar to find work. Two of his friends, both Sunni, were murdered. He fears that he could be next. In one of her most recent letters, Amal said:
George, I don't know what I can do alone with three children. I can't think or decide. I am very sad and hopeless. My children do not go to school because it is too dangerous. . . . Since the fall of the regime till now, there is no work, no clean water, no safety. Iraq is like a wilderness. People are loosing hope that life will be better. . . . So many poor people need help. Like my brothers and sister, and the widow with four daughters, and the old man without legs and his three daughters, and the three Christian families, and Suham who has eight children and now is sick with breast cancer, and the medicine she needs is not available. . . .
Ahmed Kharrufa is a thirty-three-year-old software engineer who also lives in Baghdad. Unlike Amal, he is financially secure. Although he never got into trouble with the former regime, he says that "having the old regime gone is the only good thing that has happened." We have never met in person. However, a mutual friend introduced us via the Internet. He read the letter with which I began this article and agreed that there has been some positive change. After commenting on each of the points raised in Bill Markell's letter, Mr. Kharrufa offered me the following summary:
Yes, things are getting better, but very slowly. In fact, it is so slowly that we are not expecting things to get back to normal [for] months to come. We modified our hopes from few months to few years and we are very sad to have reached this conclusion. Till this moment, we are not even close to pre-war situation. Yes, we can have satellite dishes, and we have many newspapers, but put all such stuff in one side of a balance, and absence of electricity, security, and fuel on the other, and you tell me which side will go down.
I will let Mr. Kharrufa have the final word:
The bare truth, unfortunately, is an ugly one. Sometimes I have a feeling of optimism, but when I start writing, stating the facts, think about what I am writing, things change. . . . Iraq now is a complete mess.
© George Capaccio 2004. All rights reserved. Please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. See our reprint policy.
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4. I have taken some liberties in "translating" Nadia's written English, which tends to be rough. I have also re-arranged what I think are the most telling passages from over 40 pages of e-mail correspondence between her and me. (back)