Republic of the Green Zone

The cousin, his wife S. and their two daughters have been houseguests these last three days. They drove up to the house a couple of days ago with several bags of laundry.

"There hasn't been water in our area for three days..." The cousin’s wife huffed as she dragged along a black plastic bag of dirty clothes. "The water came late last night and disappeared three hours later... what about you?"

Our water had not been cut off completely, but it came and went during the day.

Water has been a big problem in many areas all over Baghdad. Houses without electric water pumps don't always have access to water. Today it was the same situation in most of the areas. They say the water came for a couple of hours and then disappeared again. We're filling up plastic containers and pots just to be on the safe side. It is not a good idea to be caught without water in the June heat in Iraq.

"I need to bathe the children and wash all these clothes," S. called to me as the older of the little girls and I hauled out their overnight bag. "And the sheets -- you know nothing has been washed since last weeks ajaja..."

We call a dust storm an "ajaja" in Iraq. I don't think there's a proper translation for that word. Last week, a few large ajajas kept Baghdad in a sort of pale yellow haze. What happens when an ajaja settles on the city is that within a couple of hours, the air becomes heavy and thick with beige powdery sand. Visibility decreases during these dust storms and it often becomes difficult to drive or see out the window.

On such occasions, we rush about the house shutting windows tightly in a largely futile attempt to keep dust out of the house. For people with allergies or asthma, it's a nightmare. The only thing that alleviates the situation somewhat is air conditioning. The air feels a little less dusty when there's an air conditioner pumping cool air into the room.

One dust storm last week was so heavy, E. slept for a couple of hours during its peak and woke up with little beige-tipped lashes from the dust that had settled on his face while he was dozing. You can even taste the dust in the food sometimes. These storms can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

After the ajaja is over and the air has cleared somewhat, we begin the cleaning process. By this time, the furniture is all covered with a light film of orangish dirt, the windows are grimy, and the garden, driveway and trees all look like they have recently emerged from a sea of dust. We spend the days after such storms washing, wiping, polishing and beating dust out of the house.

"I've been dying to wash the curtains and sheets since the ajaja..." S. breathed, pulling out dusty curtains from the plastic bag. She paused suddenly, a horrific idea occurring to her, "You have water, right? Right?"

We had water, I assured her. I didn't mention, however, that there had been no electricity for the better part of the morning and the generator was providing only enough for the refrigerator, television and a few lights. The standard washing machine consumed too much water and electricity -- we would have to use the little 'National' washing tub, or 'diaper machine' as my mother called it.

The pale yellow plastic washing tub is a simple device that is designed to hold a few liters of water and to swish around said water with a few articles of clothing tossed in and some detergent. Next, the clothes have to be removed from the soapy water and rinsed separately in clean water, then hung to dry. While it conveniently uses less water than the standard washing machine, there is also a risk factor involved -- a sock or undershirt is often sacrificed to the little plastic blade that swishes around the water and clothes.

We spent some of yesterday and a good portion of today washing clothes, rinsing them and speculating on how our ancestors fared without washing machines and water pumps.

The electrical situation differs from area to area. On some days, the electricity schedule is two hours of electricity, and then four hours of no electricity. On other days, it's four hours of electricity to four or six hours of no electricity. The problem is that the last couple of weeks, we don't have electricity in the mornings for some reason. Our local generator is off until almost 11am, and the house generator allows for ceiling fans (or "pankas"), the refrigerator, television and a few other appliances. Air conditioners cannot be turned on and the heat is oppressive by 8am these days.

Detentions and assassinations, along with intermittent electricity, have also been contributing to sleepless nights. We're hearing about raids in many areas in the Karkh half of Baghdad in particular. On the television, they talk about 'terrorists' being arrested, but there are dozens of people being rounded up for no particular reason. Almost every Iraqi family can give the name of a friend or relative who is in one of the many American prisons for no particular reason. They aren't allowed to see lawyers or have visitors and stories of torture have become commonplace. Both Sunni and Shia clerics who are in opposition to the occupation are particularly prone to attacks by "Liwa il Theeb" or the special Iraqi forces Wolf Brigade. They are often tortured during interrogation and some of them are found dead.

There were also several explosions and road blocks today. It took the cousin an hour to get to work, which was only twenty minutes away before the war. Now, he has to navigate between closed streets, check points, and those delightful concrete barriers rising up everywhere. It is especially difficult to be caught in traffic and that happens a lot lately. Baghdad has been cut up into sections and several of them may be found to be off limits immediately after an explosion or before a Puppet meeting. The least pleasant situation is to be caught in mid-day traffic, on a crowded road, in the heat -- waiting for the next bomb to go off.

What people find particularly frustrating is the fact that while Baghdad seems to be falling apart in so many ways with roads broken and pitted, buildings blasted and burnt out and residential areas often swimming in sewage, the Green Zone is flourishing. The walls surrounding restricted areas housing Americans and Puppets have gotten higher -- as if vying with the tallest of date palms for height.

The concrete reinforcements and road blocks designed to slow and impede traffic are now a part of everyday scenery -- the road, the trees, the shops, the earth, the sky... and the ugly concrete slabs sometimes wound insidiously with barbed wire.

The price of building materials has gone up unbelievably, in spite of the fact that major reconstruction has not yet begun. I assumed it was because so much of the concrete and other building materials was going to reinforce the restricted areas. A friend who recently got involved working with an Iraqi subcontractor who takes projects inside of the Green Zone explained that it was more than that.

The Green Zone, he told us, is a city in itself. He came back awed, and more than a little bit upset. He talked of designs and plans being made for everything from the future US Embassy and the housing complex that will surround it, to restaurants, shops, fitness centers, gasoline stations, constant electricity and water -- a virtual country inside of a country with its own rules, regulations and government. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of the Green Zone, also known as the Green Republic.

"The Americans won't be out in less than ten years," is how the argument often begins with the friend who has entered the Green Republic. "How can you say that?" is usually my answer -- and I begin to throw around numbers — 2007, 2008 maximum... Could they possibly want to be here longer? Can they afford to be here longer? At this, T. shakes his head -- if you could see the bases they are planning to build -- if you could see what already has been built -- you'd know that they are going to be here for quite a while.

The Green Zone is a source of consternation and aggravation for the typical Iraqi. It makes us anxious because it symbolizes the heart of the occupation and if fortifications and barricades are any indicator, the occupation is going to be here for a long time. It is a provocation, because no matter how anyone tries to explain or justify it, it is like a slap in the face. It tells us that while we are citizens in our own country, our comings and goings are restricted because portions of the country no longer belong to its people. They belong to the people living in the Green Republic.

Baghdad Burning

Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt from "Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq" by Riverbend, published by The Feminist Press. The book is a collection of blog entries that rougly span the first year of U.S. occupation, from August 2003 through September, 2004.

Saturday, September 06, 2003: Bad, Bad, Bad Day

Bad #1: Mosque shooting.
Bad #2: No water.
Bad #3: Rumsfeld.

Today in Al-Sha’ab area, a highly populated area of Baghdad, armed men pulled up to a mosque during morning prayer and opened fire on the people. It was horrific and chilling. Someone said three people died, but someone else said it was more . . . no one knows who they are or where they’re from, but it’s said that they were using semiautomatic machine-guns (not a part of the army arsenal, as far as I know). And these were just ordinary people. It’s incomprehensible and nightmarish . . . if you are no longer safe in a shrine or a mosque, where *are* you safe?

No running water all day today. Horrible. Usually there are at least a few hours of running water, today there’s none. E. went out and asked if there was perhaps a pipe broken? The neighbors have no idea. Everyone is annoyed beyond reason. A word of advice: never take water for granted. Every time you wash your hands in cold, clean, clear water -- say a prayer of thanks to whatever deity you revere. Every time you drink fresh, odorless water -- say the same prayer. Never throw out the clean water remaining in your glass -- water a plant, give it to the cat, throw it out into the garden . . . whatever. Never take it for granted.

Luckily, yesterday I filled all the water bottles. We have dozens of water bottles, both glass and plastic. Every time there’s even a semblance of running water, we put something under the faucet to catch the precious drops. We fill bottles, pots, thermoses, buckets -- anything that will hold water. Some days are better than others.

The problem is this: when the electricity is off, the municipal water pumps don’t work -- the water pressure is so low, the water won’t go up the faucet. When there *is* electricity, everyone starts up their own, personal water pumps to fill the water tanks on the roof and the water pressure drops again.

Washing clothes is a trial. Automatic washers are obsolete -- useless. The best washers to use are those little “National” washers. They look like small garbage bins. You fill them with water and detergent and throw the clothes in. The clothes rotate and swish for about 10 minutes (there has to be electricity). We pull them out, rinse them in clean water, and wring out the excess water. The excess water goes back into the washer. After the washing is done, the dirty soap water is used to wash the tiled driveway.

Washing dishes is another problem. We try to limit the use of dishes to what is absolutely necessary. Most of the water we store in buckets and tubs is used to wash people. We wash using the old-fashioned way -- a smallish tub full of water, a ladle, a loofah, soap, and shampoo. The problem is that because of the heat, everyone wants to wash at least twice a day. The best time to wash is right before going to bed because for a few heavenly minutes after you wash, you feel cool enough to try to sleep. I have forgotten the delights of a shower . . .

To make matters worse, Rumsfeld is in Iraq. It’s awful to see him strutting all over the place. I hate the hard, smug look that seems plastered on his face . . . some people just have cruel features. The reaction to seeing him on TV differs from the reaction to seeing Bremer or one of the puppets. The latter are greeted with jeers and scorn. Seeing Rumsfeld is something else -- there’s resentment and disgust. It feels like he’s here to add insult to injury . . . you know, just in case anyone forgets we’re an occupied country.

And now he’s going to go back to America and give a speech about how he doesn’t know what anyone is talking about when they say “chaos” (*he* was safe in the middle of all his bodyguards) . . . how electricity and water are functioning (after all, his air-conditioner was working *fine*) . . . how the people are gloriously happy and traffic is frequently at a stand-still because the Iraqis are dancing in the streets . . . how the “armed forces” are cheerful and *grateful* to be on this heroic, historical mission . . . how kids wave at him, troops cheer him, dogs wag their tails in welcome and doves hover above his head . . .

To hell with him.

And no. I’m not whining -- I’m ranting. You can’t see me right now, but I’m shaking my fist at the computer screen, shaking my fist at the television, and heaping colorful, bilingual insults on Rumsfeld’s head (hope the doves crap on him) . . . I’m angry.

posted by river @ 12:07 AM

Friday, September 19, 2003: Terrorists

Everyone is worried about raids lately. We hear about them from friends and relatives, we watch them on TV, outraged, and try to guess where the next set of raids are going to occur. Anything can happen. Some raids are no more than seemingly standard weapons checks. Three or four troops knock on the door and march in. One of them keeps an eye of the “family” while the rest take a look around the house. They check bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. They look under beds, behind curtains, inside closets and cupboards. All you have to do is stifle your feelings of humiliation, anger, and resentment at having foreign troops from an occupying army search your home.

Some raids are, quite simply, raids. The door is broken down in the middle of the night, troops swarm in by the dozens. Families are marched outside, hands behind their backs and bags upon their heads. Fathers and sons are pushed down on to the ground, a booted foot on their head or back.

Other raids go horribly wrong. We constantly hear about families who are raided in the small hours of the morning. The father, or son, picks up a weapon -- thinking they are being attacked by looters -- and all hell breaks loose. Family members are shot, others are detained, and often women and children are left behind wailing.

I first witnessed a raid back in May. The heat was just starting to become unbearable and we were spending the whole night without electricity. I remember lying in my bed, falling in and out of a light sleep. We still weren’t sleeping on the roof because the whole night you could hear gunshots and machine-gun fire not very far away -- the looters still hadn’t organized themselves into gangs and mafias.

At around 3 am, I distinctly heard the sound of helicopters hovering not far above the area. I ran out of the room and into the kitchen and found E. pressing his face to the kitchen window, trying to get a glimpse of the black sky. “What’s going on?!” I asked, running to stand next to him.

“I don’t know . . . a raid? But it’s not an ordinary raid . . . there are helicopters and cars, I think . . .”

I stopped focusing on the helicopters long enough to listen to the cars. No, not cars -- big, heavy vehicles that made a humming, whining sound. E. and I looked at one another, speechless -- tanks?! E. turned on his heel and ran upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. I followed him clumsily, feeling for the banister all the way up, my mind a jumble of thoughts and conjectures.

Out on the roof, the sky was black streaked with light. Helicopters were hovering above, circling the area. E. was leaning over the railing, trying to see into the street below. I approached tentatively and he turned back to me, “It’s a raid . . . on Abu A.’s house!” He pointed three houses down the road.

Abu A. was an old, respected army general who had retired in the mid ‘80s. He lived a quiet life in his two-storey house on our street. All I knew about him was that he had four kids -- two daughters and two sons. The daughters were both married. One of them was living in London with her husband and the other one was somewhere in Baghdad. The one in Baghdad had a 3-year-old son we’ll call L. I know this because, without fail, ever since L. was six months old, Abu A. would proudly parade him up and down our street in a blue and white striped stroller.

E. and I went back downstairs. My mother stood anxiously by the open kitchen door, looking out at my father who was standing at the gate. E. and I ran outside to join him and watch the scene unfolding only three houses away. There was shouting and screaming -- the deep, angry tones of the troops mixed with the shriller voices of the family and neighbors -- the whole symphony boding of calamity and fear.

“What are they doing? Who are they taking?!” I asked no one in particular, gripping the warm, iron gate and searching the street for some clue. The area was awash with the glaring white of headlights and spotlights and dozens of troops stood in front of the house, weapons pointed -- tense and ready. It wasn’t long before they started coming out: first it was his son, the 20-year-old translation student. His hands were behind his back and he was gripped by two troops, one on either side. His head kept twisting back anxiously as they marched him out of the house, barefoot. Next, Umm A., Abu A.’s wife, was brought out, sobbing, begging them not to hurt anyone, pleading for an answer . . . I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I saw her looking left and right in confusion and I said the words instead of her, “What’s going on? Why are they doing this?! Who are they here for?”

Abu A. was out next. He stood tall and erect, looking around him in anger. His voice resonated in the street, above all the other sounds. He was barking out questions -- demanding answers from the troops, and the bystanders. His oldest son A. followed behind with some more escorts. The last family member out of the house was Reem, A.’s wife of only four months. She was being led firmly out into the street by two troops, one gripping each thin arm.

I’ll never forget that scene. She stood, 22 years old, shivering in the warm, black night. The sleeveless nightgown that hung just below her knees exposed trembling limbs -- you got the sense that the troops were holding her by the arms because if they let go for just a moment, she would fall senseless to the ground. I couldn’t see her face because her head was bent and her hair fell down around it. It was the first time I had seen her hair . . . under normal circumstances, she wore a hijab. That moment I wanted to cry . . . to scream . . . to throw something at the chaos down the street. I could feel Reem’s humiliation as she stood there, head hanging with shame -- exposed to the world, in the middle of the night.

One of the neighbors, closer to the scene, moved forward timidly and tried to communicate with one of the soldiers. The soldier immediately pointed his gun at the man and yelled at him to keep back. The man held up an “abaya,” a black cloak-like garment some females choose to wear, and pointed at the shivering girl. The soldier nodded curtly and told him to, “Move back!.” “Please,” came the tentative reply, “Cover her . . .” He gently put the abaya on the ground and went back to stand at his gate. The soldier, looking unsure, walked over, picked it up, and awkwardly put it on the girl’s shoulders.

I gripped at the gate as my knees weakened, crying . . . trying to make sense of the mess. I could see many of the neighbors, standing around, looking on in dismay. Abu A.’s neighbor, Abu Ali, was trying to communicate with one of the troops. He was waving his arm at Umm A. and Reem, and pointing to his own house, obviously trying to allow them to take the women inside his home. The troop waved over another soldier who, apparently, was a translator. During raids, a translator hovers in the background inconspicuously -- they don’t bring him forward right away to communicate with terrified people because they are hoping someone will accidentally say something vital, in Arabic, thinking the troops won’t understand, like, “Honey, did you bury the nuclear bomb in the garden like I told you?!”

The house was ransacked . . . searched thoroughly for no one knows what -- vases were broken, tables overturned, clothes emptied from closets . . . By 6 am the last cars had pulled out. The area was once more calm and quiet. I didn’t sleep that night, that day, or the night after. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Abu A. and his grandson L. and Reem . . . I saw Umm A., crying with terror, begging for an explanation. Abu A. hasn’t come back yet. The Red Cross facilitates communication between him and his family . . . L. no longer walks down our street on Fridays, covered in chocolate, and I’m wondering how old he will be before he ever sees his grandfather again . . .

posted by river @ 2:09 AM

Thursday, November 13, 2003: Iraqi Governing Council

I have to post this fast. The electrical situation has been hellish today. There’s no schedule . . . in our area the electricity is on 30 minutes for every two hours of no electricity. People suspect it’s a sort of punishment for what happened in Nassiryah this morning and the bombings in Baghdad this last week. There were also some huge explosions today -- the troops got hit by mortars, I think, and retaliated by bombing something.

Also, Mohammed Bahr Ul-Iloom was shot at today. Bahr UlIloom is one of the Sh’ia clerics (a “rotating president”) and the father of the Minister of Oil. He was unharmed, it seems, but his driver is wounded. While I’m sure Bahr Ul-Iloom would love to blame it on loyalists, Ba’athists and Al-Qaeda, the shots actually came from American troops -- it was a “mistake.” Oops.

Bremer is currently in Washington, explaining why the Governing Council are completely useless. The Washington Post article on the diminishing popularity of the Governing Council came as no surprise: "The United States is deeply frustrated with its hand-picked council members because they have spent more time on their own political or economic interests than in planning for Iraq’s political future, especially selecting a committee to write a new constitution, the officials added."

I think it’s safe to say that when you put a bunch of power-hungry people together on a single council (some who have been at war with each other), they’re going to try to promote their own interests. They are going to push forward their party members, militias and relatives in an attempt to root themselves in Iraq’s future.

"Bremer noted that at least half the council is out of the country at any given time and that at some meetings, only four or five members showed up."

Of course they’re outside of the country -- many of them don’t have ties in it. They have to visit their families and businesses in Europe and North America. For some of them, it sometimes seems like the “Governing Council” is something of an interesting hobby -- a nice little diversion in the monthly routine: golf on Saturdays, a movie with the family in London on Fridays, a massage at the spa on Tuesdays, and, oh yes -- nation-building for 5 minutes with Bremer on the Xth of each month. People here never see them. Most live in guarded compounds and one never knows what country they are currently in.

I can imagine Bremer preparing for a meeting with the pioneers of Iraqi democracy, the pillars of liberty . . . the Iraqi Puppet Council. He strides in with his chic suit, flowing hair and polished shoes (the yellow nation-building boots are only for press conferences and photo shoots in Iraqi provinces). He is all anticipation and eagerness: today will be the day. *This* meeting will be the productive meeting which will make headlines. He strides into the lavish room, Italian heels clicking on the marble floor -- there will be 25 faces today. Twenty-five pairs of adoring eyes will follow him around the room. Twenty-five pairs of eager ears will strain to hear his words of wisdom. Twenty-five faces will light up with . . . but where are the 25? He stops in the middle of the room, heart sinking, ire rising in leaps and bounds. Why are there only 5 unsure faces? Did he have the schedule wrong? Was this the wrong conference room?! And Bremer roars and rages -- where are the puppets? Where are the marionettes?! How dare they miss yet another meeting! But they all have their reasons, Mr.Bremer: Talbani is suffering from indigestion after an ample meal last night; Iyad Allawi is scheduled for a pedicure in Switzerland this afternoon; Al-Hakim is jetting around making covert threats to the Gulf countries, and Chalabi says he’s not attending meetings anymore. He’s left the country and will be back when it’s time for the elections . . .

People have been expecting this for some time now. There’s a complete and total lack of communication between the Council members and the people -- they are as inaccessible as Bremer or Bush. Their speeches are often in English and hardly ever to the Iraqi public. We hear about new decisions and political and economical maneuverings through the voice-overs of translators while the Council members are simpering at some meeting thousands of miles away.

We need *real* Iraqis -- and while many may argue that the Council members are actually real Iraqis, it is important to keep in mind that fine, old adage: not everyone born in a stable is a horse. We need people who aren’t just tied to Iraq by some hazy, political ambition. We need people who have histories inside of the country that the population can relate to. People who don’t have to be hidden behind cement barriers, barbed wire and an army.

Their failure has nothing to do with attacks on troops or terrorism. It has to do with the fact that many of them are only recommendable because they were apparently very good at running away from a difficult situation -- and running into the right arms. Another problem is the fact that decent, intelligent people with political ambition refuse to be a part of this fiasco because everyone senses that the Governing Council cannot do anything on its own. Bremer is the head and he’s only the tip of the iceberg -- he represents Washington.

Prominent, popular politicians and public figures don’t want to be tied to American apron strings -- this includes lawyers, political scientists, writers, and other well-known people. Not because they are American apron-strings per se, but because this is an occupation (by American admission, no less). No matter how much CNN and the rest try to dress it up as a liberation, the tanks, the troops, the raids, the shootings (accidental or otherwise), and the Puppet Council all scream occupation. If it were French, it’d get the same resistance . . . just as if it were a Saudi, Egyptian or Iranian occupation.

It is also vital that all interested political parties be allowed to be a part of the national conference. Any political conferences in the past have been limited to American-approved political and religious parties which have left a large number of political groups outside of the circle -- groups that have more popular support. Furthermore, the conference can’t be run and organized by occupation forces (troops and the CPA). If there’s one thing Iraqis are good at -- it’s organizing conferences. Why should vital political decisions critical to Iraq’s independence be made under the watchful eyeball of an American Lieutenant or General? Everyone wants a democratic Iraq, but that just isn’t going to happen if people constantly associate the government with occupation.

Why should any Iraqi government have to be christened and blessed by Bremer? He wasn’t Iraqi, last time I checked . . .

posted by river @ 2:35 AM

Friday, December 26, 2003: Christmas in Baghdad

Explosions and bombing almost all day yesterday and deep into the night. At some points it gets hard to tell who is bombing who? Resistance or Americans? Tanks or mortars? Cluster bombs or IEDs [improvised explosive devices]? Nothing on the news . . . to see the reports on CNN, Abu Dhabi, and Al-Arabia you’d think there was nothing going on in Baghdad beyond the usual thumps and thuds. Yesterday was *very* unusual. Embassies, mines, residential areas and the Green Zone . . . and the sirens. I hate the sirens. I can stand the explosions, the rattling windows, the slamming doors, the planes, the helicopters . . . but I feel like my heart is wailing when I hear the sirens.

The explosions haven’t really put anyone in a very festive spirit. The highlight of the last few days, for me, was when we went to our Christian friends’ home to keep them company on Christmas Eve. We live in a neighborhood with a number of Christian families and, under normal circumstances, the area would be quite festive this time of year -- little plastic Santas on green lawns, an occasional plastic wreath on a door and some colored, blinking lights on trees.

Our particular friends (Abu Josef’s family) specialized in the lights. Every year, a week before Christmas, they would not only decorate their own plastic tree (evergreens are hard to come by in Iraq), but they would decorate four different olive trees in the little garden in front of their home with long strings of red lights. Passing by their house, the scene of the green olive trees with branches tangled in little red lights always brought a smile . . . you couldn’t help but feel the “Christmas spirit” -- Christians and Muslims alike.

This year the trees weren’t decorated because, as their father put it, “We don’t want to attract too much attention . . . and it wouldn’t be right with the electricity shortage.” The tree inside of their house *was* decorated, however, and it was almost sagging with ornaments. The traditional tree ornaments were hanging, but the side of the tree was covered with not-so-traditional Pokemon toys. Their 8-year-old is an avid collector of those little Pokemon finger puppets and the bottom section of the tree was drooping with the weight of the little plastic figures which took Iraq by storm a couple of years ago.

Kids in Iraq also believe in Santa Claus, but people here call him “Baba Noel” which means “Father Noel.” I asked the children what he looked like and they generally agreed that he was fat, cheerful, decked in red and had white hair. (Their impertinent 11-year-old explains that he’s fat because of the dates, cheerful because of the alcohol and wears red because he’s a communist!) He doesn’t drop into Iraqi homes through the chimney, though, because very few Iraqi homes actually have chimneys. He also doesn’t drop in unexpectedly in the middle of the night because that’s just rude. He acts as more of an inspiration to parents when they are out buying Christmas gifts for the kids; a holiday muse, if you will. The reindeer are a foreign concept here.

The annual ritual around Christmas for many Christians in Baghdad used to be generally hanging out with family and friends on Christmas Eve, exchanging gifts and food (always food -- if you’re Iraqi, it’s going to be food) and receiving guests and well-wishers. At 12 am, many would attend a Christmas service at their local church and light candles to greet the Christmas spirit. Christmas day would be like our first day of Eid -- eating and drinking, receiving family, friends and neighbors and preparing for the inevitable Christmas party in the evening at either a friend’s house or in one of the various recreational clubs in Baghdad. The most famous for their Christmas parties were the Hindiya club and the Armenian club.

This year, the Christmas service was early and many people didn’t go because they either didn’t have gasoline, or just didn’t feel safe driving around Baghdad in the evening. Many of them also couldn’t join their families because of the security situation. Abu Josef’s family have aunts and uncles in a little village north of Mosul. Every year, the extended relatives come down and stay in their house for a week to celebrate Christmas and New Year. This year they’ve decided to stay in their village because it just isn’t safe to leave their home and head for Baghdad.

Sunday, April 11, 2004: One of Those Countries

The hostage situations are a mess. I watch television and it feels like I’m watching another country. All I can think is, “We’ve become one of *those* countries . . . “ You know -- the ones where hostages are taken on a daily basis and governments warn their civilians of visiting or entering the country. It’s especially sad because even during those long years during the blockade and in between wars and bombings, there were never any attacks on foreigners. Iraqis are hospitable, friendly people who always used to treat foreigners with care . . . now, everyone is treated like a potential enemy.

The case of the Japanese hostages is especially sad -- I’m so sorry for their families and friends specifically, and the Japanese people in general. We keep hearing conflicting reports about their situation. This morning I heard that the kidnappers agreed to free them but someone else told me that it was just a rumor . . . it’s so hard to tell. It’s heart-breaking to see them on television and I wish there was something that could be done. Will the Japanese government pull out the troops? Not likely . . . three people won’t matter to them. I hope they come out of this alive and well and I hope they don’t hold a grudge against Iraqis. There’s hostility towards Japan because of the fact that they sent soldiers . . . Japan became one of “them” when they decided to send over troops and these are the consequences. I’m so sorry . . . in spite of the fact that dozens of Iraqis are abducted and killed each day, I’m really sorry.

They say around 600 Iraqis were killed in Falloojeh -- 120 children and 200 women . . . it’s an atrocity and horribly sad. They have let one or two convoys in and the rest were sent back. The refugees from the area are flowing into Baghdad and it’s horrible to see them. Women and children with tear-stained faces, mostly in black, carrying bundles of clothes and bottles of water. The mosques are gathering food and clothes for them . . . one of the storage areas for the refugee stuff was hit by an American tank today in A’adhamiya and the scene is chaotic . . . scattered food, medication, bandages, blankets, etc.

posted by river @ 5:56 PM

Friday, May 07, 2004: Just Go

People are seething with anger -- the pictures of Abu Ghraib and the Brits in Basrah are everywhere. Every newspaper you pick up in Baghdad has pictures of some American or British atrocity or another. It’s like a nightmare that has come to life.

Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places . . . seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow. American and British politicians have the audacity to come on television with words like, “True the people in Abu Ghraib are criminals, but . . . ” Everyone here in Iraq knows that there are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained “under suspicion.” In the New Iraq, it’s “guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God.”

People are so angry. There’s no way to explain the reactions -- even pro-occupation Iraqis find themselves silenced by this latest horror. I can’t explain how people feel -- or even how I personally feel. Somehow, pictures of dead Iraqis are easier to bear than this grotesque show of American military technique. People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison.

There was a time when people here felt sorry for the troops. No matter what one’s attitude was towards the occupation, there were moments of pity towards the troops, regardless of their nationality. We would see them suffering the Iraqi sun, obviously wishing they were somewhere else and somehow, that vulnerability made them seem less monstrous and more human. That time has passed. People look at troops now and see the pictures of Abu Ghraib . . . and we burn with shame and anger and frustration at not being able to do something. Now that the world knows that the torture has been going on since the very beginning, do people finally understand what happened in Falloojeh?

I’m avoiding the internet because it feels like the pictures are somehow available on every site I visit. I’m torn between wishing they weren’t there and feeling, somehow, that it’s important that the whole world sees them. The thing, I guess, that bothers me most is that the children can see it all. How do you explain the face of the American soldier, leering over the faceless, naked bodies to a child? How do you explain the sick, twisted minds? How do you explain what is happening to a seven-year-old?

There have been demonstrations in Baghdad and other places. There was a large demonstration outside of the Abu Ghraib prison itself. The families of some of the inmates of the prison were out there protesting the detentions and the atrocities . . . faces streaked with tears of rage and brows furrowed with anxiety. Each and every one of those people was wondering what their loved ones had suffered inside the walls of the hell that makes Guantanamo look like a health spa.

And through all this, Bush gives his repulsive speeches. He makes an appearance on Arabic tv channels looking sheepish and attempting to look sincere, babbling on about how this “incident” wasn’t representative of the American people or even the army, regardless of the fact that it’s been going on for so long. He asks Iraqis to not let these pictures reflect on their attitude towards the American people . . . and yet when the bodies were dragged through the streets of Falloojeh, the American troops took it upon themselves to punish the whole city.

He’s claiming it’s a “stain on our country’s honor” . . . I think not. The stain on your country’s honor, Bush dear, was the one on the infamous blue dress that made headlines while Clinton was in the White House . . . this isn’t a “stain,” this is a catastrophe. Your credibility was gone the moment you stepped into Iraq and couldn’t find the WMD . . . your reputation never existed.

So are the atrocities being committed in Abu Ghraib really not characteristic of the American army? What about the atrocities committed by Americans in Guantanamo? And Afghanistan? I won’t bother bringing up the sordid past, let’s just focus on the present. It seems that torture and humiliation are common techniques used in countries blessed with the American presence. The most pathetic excuse I heard so far was that the American troops weren’t taught the fundamentals of human rights mentioned in the Geneva Convention . . . Right -- morals, values and compassion have to be taught.

All I can think about is the universal outrage when the former government showed pictures of American POWs on television, looking frightened and unsure about their fate. I remember the outcries from American citizens, claiming that Iraqis were animals for showing “America’s finest” fully clothed and unharmed. So what does this make Americans now?

We heard about it all . . . we heard stories since the very beginning of the occupation about prisoners being made to sit for several hours on their knees . . . being deprived of sleep for days at a time by being splashed with cold water or kicked or slapped . . . about the infamous “red rooms” where prisoners are kept for prolonged periods of time . . . about the rape, the degradations, the emotional and physical torture . . . and there were moments when I actually wanted to believe that what we heard was exaggerated. I realize now that it was only a small fragment of the truth. There is nothing that is going to make this “better.” Nothing.

Through all of this, where is the Governing Council? Under what rock are the Puppets hiding? Why is no one condemning this? What does Bremer have to say for himself and for the Americans? Why this unbearable silence?

I don’t understand the “shock” Americans claim to feel at the lurid pictures. You’ve seen the troops break down doors and terrify women and children . . . curse, scream, push, pull and throw people to the ground with a boot over their head. You’ve seen troops shoot civilians in cold blood. You’ve seen them bomb cities and towns. You’ve seen them burn cars and humans using tanks and helicopters. Is this latest debacle so very shocking or appalling?

The number of killings in the south has also risen. The Americans and British are saying that they are “insurgents” and people who are a part of Al-Sadir’s militia, but people from Najaf are claiming that innocent civilians are being killed on a daily basis. Today the troops entered Najaf and there was fighting in the streets. This is going to cause a commotion because Najaf is considered a holy city and is especially valuable to Shi’a all over the world. The current situation in the south makes one wonder who, now, is going to implement a no-fly zone over areas like Falloojeh and Najaf to “protect” the people this time around?

I sometimes get emails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill and get out while you can -- while it still looks like you have a choice . . . Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances -- just take your Puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

posted by river @ 1:49 PM