Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005
Two Years...
We've completed two years since the beginning of the war. These last two years have felt like two decades, but I can remember the war itself like it was yesterday.

The sky was lit with flashes of red and white and the ground rocked with explosions on March 21, 2003. The bombing had actually begun on the dawn of the 20th of March, but it got really heavy on the 21st. I remember being caught upstairs when the heavier bombing first began. I was struggling to drag down a heavy cotton mattress from my room for an aunt who was spending a couple of weeks with us and I suddenly heard a faraway ‘whiiiiiiiiiiiiiz’ that sounded like it might be getting closer.

I began to rush then- pulling and pushing at the heavy mattress; trying to half throw, half haul it down stairs. I got stuck halfway down the staircase and, at that point, the whizzing sound had grown so loud, it felt like it was coming out of my head. I shoved again at the mattress and called E.’s name to help lug the thing downstairs but E. was outside with my cousin, trying to see where the missiles were going. I repositioned and began to kick the heavy mattress, not caring how it got downstairs, just wanting to be on the ground floor when the missile hit.

The mattress finally budged and began to slip and slide down the remaining 10 steps, finally landing in a big pile at the end of the staircase. I followed it in a hurry, taking two steps at a time, expecting to feel a big “BOOM” at any moment. I tripped on the last step in the mad dash for the ground floor and ended up in a heap on the cotton mass on the ground. The explosion came the same moment- followed by a series of larger explosions that didn’t sound like the ordinary missiles we had been experiencing the last 40 hours or so.

The house was chaotic that moment. The parents were running, dad trying to locate his battery-powered radio and mother making sure the stove was turned off. She was also yelling orders over her shoulder, commanding us to go into the “safe room” we had specially decorated with duct tape and soft cushions, or ‘bomb-proofed’ as my cousin liked to say. The aunt that was staying with us was running around, shrilly trying to find her two granddaughters (who were already in the safe room with their mother). The cousin was rushing around turning off kerosene heaters and opening windows so that they wouldn’t shatter with the impact. E. hurried in from outside, trying to keep his expression casual under the paleness of his face.

Through all of this, the bombing was getting louder and more frequent- the earth rumbling and shuddering with every explosion. E. was saying something about the sky but the whooshing sound coming from above was so loud, we couldn’t hear what he was saying. “The sky is full of red and white lights…” He yelled, helping me rise shakily from the mattress. “You want to go outside and see?” I looked at him like he was crazy and made him help me drag the mattress into the living room. We rushed back into the safe room and the bombs were still falling loud and fast, one after the other. Sometimes they felt like they were falling right next door, and other times, it felt like they were falling a few blocks away. We knew they were further than that.

The faces in the safe room were white with tension. My cousin’s wife sat in the corner, a daughter on either side, her arms around their shoulders, murmuring prayers softly. My cousin was pacing in front of the safe room door, looking grim and my father was trying to find a decent radio station on the small AM/FM radio he carried around wherever he went. My aunt was hyperventilating at this point and my mother sat next to her, trying to distract her with the voice of the guy on the radio talking about the rain of bombs on Baghdad.

A seemingly endless 40 minutes later, there was a slight lull in the bombing- it seemed to have gotten further away. I took advantage of the relative calm and went to find the telephone. The house was cold because the windows were open to keep them from shattering. I reached for the telephone, fully expecting to find it dead but I was amazed to find a dial tone. I began dialing numbers- friends and relatives. We contacted an aunt and an uncle in other parts of Baghdad and the voices on the other end were shaky and wary. “Are you OK? Is everyone OK?” Was all I could ask on the phone. They were ok… but the bombing was heavy all over Baghdad. Shock and awe had begun.

Two years ago this week.

What followed was almost a month of heavy bombing. That chaotic night became the intro to endless chaotic days and long, sleepless nights. You get to a point during extended air-raids where you lose track of the days. You lose track of time. The week stops being Friday, Saturday, Sunday, etc. The days stop being about hours. You begin to measure time with the number of bombs that fell, the number of minutes the terror lasted and the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire and explosions.

We try to put it out of our heads, but it comes back anyway. We sit around sometimes, when there’s no electricity, or when we’re gathered for lunch or dinner and someone will say, “Remember two years ago when…” Remember when they bombed Mansur, a residential area… When they started burning the cars in the streets with Apaches… When they hit the airport with that bomb that lit up half of the city… When the American tanks started rolling into Baghdad…?

Remember when the fear was still fresh- and the terror was relatively new- and it was possible to be shocked and awed in Iraq?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Chalabi for the Nobel Peace Prize...
We woke up this morning to a huge explosion. I was actually awake and just lying there, staring at the ceiling, trying to decide if today would be a good day to go shopping for some things we need in the house. Suddenly, there was a loud blast and the house shuddered momentarily. In a second I was standing in front of the window in my room, hands pressed to the cool glass. I couldn’t really see anything, but the sky seemed overcast.

I rushed downstairs to find E. and my mother standing in the kitchen doorway, trying to see beyond the houses immediately in front of our own. “Where did it happen?” I asked E. He shrugged his shoulders indicating he couldn’t tell either. We later learned it was a large garbage truck of explosives in front of Sadeer Hotel, a hotel famous for hosting foreign contractors- some of a dubious/mysterious reputation. It’s said that the foreign security contractors stay at the hotel, like former South African mercenaries, etc. Since the hotel is quite far from our home, we assume it was a very large explosion. Immediately afterwards, black plumes of smoke began to drift into the sky.

I got an interesting email today telling me about an internet petition to nominate Sistani, of all people, for the Nobel Peace Prize. That had me laughing and a little bit incredulous. Why should Sistani get the Nobel Peace Prize? Because he urged his followers to vote for a list that wants to implement an Iranian-styled government in Iraq? Is that what the Nobel Peace Prize has come to?

Someone once told me that they thought Sistani was responsible for the fact that civil war didn’t break out in Iraq. That’s garbage. Sistani has no influence over Sunnis and he also has little influence over many Shia. Civil war hasn’t broken out in Iraq because Iraqis are being tolerant and also because we’re very tired. It’s like we spent our lives in conflict with someone or another, and being in conflict with each other is not the most tempting option right now. Sistani is an Iranian cleric quietly pushing a frightening agenda and we're feeling the pressure of it every day.

If ANYONE should get the Nobel Peace Prize, it should be my favorite Puppet- Ahmed Chalabi. No, really- stop laughing. Ahmed Chalabi is the one Iraqi politician we can all agree on. Iraqi political debates were never pretty. Lately, they’ve been worse than ever. I think, to a certain degree, we don’t really know how to debate. Sometimes, a debate will begin over a subject both debating parties actually agree upon and then it will escalate into a full-blown yelling match. It never fails to happen with politics.

A debate will usually begin about two current parties or politicians- say Allawi and Jaffari. Someone will say something like, “Well it’s too bad Allawi didn’t win… Now we’re stuck with that Da’awachi Jaffari…” Someone else will answer with, “Oh please- Allawi is completely American. We’ll never have our independence if he gets power.” A few more words will be exchanged in a ‘debating’ tone of voice. The voices will get sharper and someone will drudge up accusations… In no time it turns into a full-scale political brawl with an underlying religious intonation. No one knows just how it happens- how that frightening thing that is an Iraqi political debate develops and escalates so quickly.

At some point there is silence. This is the point when both sides are convinced that the other one is completely inane and ridiculously intractable. It’s sort of a huffy silence, with rolling eyes and lips drawn into thin slits of scorn.

I’ve learned the best way to mediate these arguments is to let them develop into what they will. Let the yellers yell, the shouters shout and the name-calling and innuendos ensue. The important part is the end- how to allow the debating parties to part friends or relatives, or (at the very least) to make sure they do not part sworn enemies for life. It’s simple, no matter what their stand is, all you have to do is get a couple of words in towards the end. The huffy silence at the end of the debate must be subtly taken advantage of and the following words murmured as if the thought just occurred that moment:

“You know who’s really bad? Ahmed Chalabi. He’s such a lowlife and villain.”

Voila. Like magic the air clears, eyebrows are raised in agreement and all arguing parties suddenly unite to confirm this very valid opinion with nodding heads, somewhat strained laughter and charming anecdotes about his various press appearances and ridiculous sense of fasion. We’re all friends again, and family once more. We’re all lovey-dovey Iraqis who can agree nicely with each other. In short, we are at peace with each other and the world…

And that is why Ahmed Chalabi deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005
You want a rabbit?
We are relieved the Italian journalist was set free. I, personally, was very happy. Iraqis are getting abducted these days by the dozen, but it still says something else about the country when foreigners are abducted. Iraqis have a fierce sense of hospitality that can border on the obnoxious sometimes. When people come to our houses, we insist they have something to drink and then we insist they stay for whatever meal is coming- even if its four hours away. We cringe when journalists and aide workers are abducted because it gives us the sense that we’re bad hosts.

People are always wondering why they abduct journalists, and other innocents. I think its because the lines are all blurred right now. It’s difficult to tell who is who. Who is a journalist, for example, and who is foreign intelligence? Who is a mercenary and who is an aide worker? People are somewhat more reluctant to talk to foreigners than they were at the beginning.

The irony of the situation lay in the fact that Sgrena was probably safer with her abductors than she was with American troops. It didn’t come as a surprise to hear her car was fired at. Was it done on purpose? It’s hard to tell. I can’t think why they would want to execute Giuliana Sgrena and her entourage, but then on the other hand, I can’t think how it could have possibly happened that they managed to fire that many rounds at a car carrying Italian intelligence officers and a journalist (usually they save those rounds for Iraqi families in cars).

There really is no good excuse for what happened. I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out what the Pentagon will say short of an admission that it was either on purpose or that the soldiers who fired at the car were drunk or high on something…

I have a feeling it will be the usual excuse, “The soldiers who almost killed the journalist were really, really frightened. They’ve been under lots of pressure.” But see, Iraqis are frightened and under pressure too- we don’t go around accidentally killing people. We’re expected to be very level-headed and sane in the face of chaos.

I wager that this little incident will be shoved aside with one of those silly Pentagon apologies that don’t really sound like apologies, you know: “It was an unfortunate incident, but Sgrena shouldn’t have been in Iraq in the first place. Journalists should stay safely in their own countries and listen for our daily military statements telling them democracy is flourishing and Iraqis are happy.”

I don’t understand why Americans are so shocked with this incident. Where is the shock? That Sgrena’s car was under fire? That Americans killed an Italian security agent? After everything that occurred in Iraq- Abu Ghraib, beatings, torture, people detained for months and months, the stealing, the rape… is this latest so very shocking? Or is it shocking because the victims weren’t Iraqi?

I’m really glad she’s home safe but at the same time, the whole situation is somewhat painful. It hurts because thousands of Iraqis have died at American checkpoints or face to face with a tank or Apache and beyond the occasional subtitle on some obscure news channel, no one knows about it and no one cares. It just hurts a little bit.

The event of the week occurred last Wednesday and I was surprised it wasn’t covered by Western press. It’s not that big a deal, but it enraged people in Baghdad and it can also give a better picture of what has been going on with our *heroic* National Guard. There was an explosion on Wednesday in Baghdad and the wounded were all taken to Yarmuk Hospital, one of the larger hospitals in Baghdad. The number of wounded were around 30- most of them National Guard. In the hospital, it was chaos- patients wounded in this latest explosion, patients from other explosions and various patients from gunshot wounds, etc. The doctors were running around everywhere, trying to be in four different places at once.

Apparently, there weren’t enough beds. Many of the wounded were in the hallways and outside of the rooms. The stories vary. One doctor told me that some of the National Guard began screaming at the doctors, telling them to ignore the civilians and tend to the wounds of the Guard. A nurse said that the National Guard who weren’t wounded began pulling civilians out of the beds and replacing them with wounded National Guard. The gist of it is generally the same; the doctors refused the idea of not treating civilians and preferring the National Guard over them and suddenly a fight broke out. The doctors threatened a strike if the National Guard began pulling the civilians out of beds.

The National Guard decided the solution to the crisis would be the following- they’d gather up some of the doctors and nurses and beat them in front of the patients. So several doctors were rounded up and attacked by several National Guard (someone said there was liberal use of electric batons and the butts of some Klashnikovs).

The doctors decided to go on strike.

It’s difficult to consider National Guardsmen as heroes with the image of them beating doctors in white gowns in ones head. It’s difficult to see them as anything other than expendable Iraqis with their main mission being securing areas and cities for Americans.

It seems that Da’awa Party’s Jaffari is going to be the Prime Minister and Talbani is going to get the decorative position of president. It has been looking like this since the elections. There is talk of giving our token Sunni Ghazi Al Yawir some high-profile position like National Assembly spokesperson. The gesture is meant to appease the Sunni masses but it isn’t going to do that because it’s not about Sunnis and Shia. It’s about occupation and Vichy governments. They all look the same to us.

What it seems policy makers in America don’t get, and what I suspect many Americans themselves *do* get, is that millions of Iraqis feel completely detached from the current people in power. If you don’t have an alliance with one of the political parties (ie under their protection or on their payroll) then it’s difficult to feel any affinity with people like Jaffari, Allawi, Talbani, etc. We watch them on television, tight-lipped and shifty-eyed after a meeting where they quarreled about Kirkuk or Sharia in the constitution and it feels like what I imagine an out-of-body experience should feel like.

In spite of elections, they still feel like puppets. But now, they are high-tech puppets. They were upgraded from your ordinary string puppets to those life-like, battery-powered, talking puppets. It’s almost like we’re doing that whole rotating president thing Bremer did in 2003 all over again. The same faces are getting tedious. The old Iraqi saying sums it up nicely, “Tireed erneb- ukhuth erneb. Tireed ghazal- ukhuth erneb.” The translation for this is, “You want a rabbit? Take a rabbit. You want a deer? Take a rabbit.”

Except we didn’t get any rabbits- we just got an assortment of snakes, weasels and hyenas.

Check out Imad Khadduri's blog- he has some great links about the Italian journalist.

Powered by Blogger