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Iraq on My Mind: Thousands of Stories to Tell -- And No One to Listen
"In violence we forget who we are" --Mary McCarthy, novelist and critic
1. Statistically Speaking
Having spent a fair amount of time in occupied Iraq, I now find living in the United States nothing short of a schizophrenic experience. Life in Iraq was traumatizing. It was impossible to be there and not be affected by apocalyptic levels of violence and suffering, unimaginable in this country.
But here's the weird thing: One long, comfortable plane ride later and you're in Disneyland, or so it feels on returning to the United States. Sometimes it seems as if I'm in a bubble here that's only moments away from popping. I find myself perpetually amazed at the heights of consumerism and the vigorous pursuit of creature comforts that are the essence of everyday life in this country -- and once defined my own life as well.
Here, for most Americans, you can choose to ignore what our government is doing in Iraq. It's as simple as choosing to go to a website other than this one.
The longer the occupation of Iraq continues, the more conscious I grow of the disparity, the utter disjuncture, between our two worlds.
In January 2004, I traveled through villages and cities south of Baghdad investigating the Bechtel Corporation's performance in fulfilling contractual obligations to restore the water supply in the region. In one village outside of Najaf, I looked on in disbelief as women and children collected water from the bottom of a dirt hole. I was told that, during the daily two-hour period when the power supply was on, a broken pipe at the bottom of the hole brought in "water." This was, in fact, the primary water source for the whole village. Eight village children, I learned, had died trying to cross a nearby highway to obtain potable water from a local factory.
In Iraq things have grown exponentially worse since then. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that 70% of Iraqis do not have access to clean water and 80% "lack effective sanitation."
In the United States I step away from my desk, walk into the kitchen, turn on the tap, and watch as clear, cool water fills my glass. I drink it without once thinking about whether it contains a waterborne disease or will cause kidney stones, diarrhea, cholera, or nausea. But there's no way I can stop myself from thinking about what was -- and probably still is -- in that literal water hole near Najaf.
I open my pantry and then my refrigerator to make my lunch. I have enough food to last a family several days, and then I remember that there is a 21% rate of chronic malnutrition among children in Iraq, and that, according to UNICEF, about one in 10 Iraqi children under five years of age is underweight.
I have a checking account with money in it; 54% of Iraqis now live on less than $1 a day.
I can travel safely on my bicycle whenever I choose -- to the grocery store or a nearby city center. Many Iraqis can travel nowhere without fear of harm. Iraq now ranks as the planet's second most unstable country, according to the 2007 Failed States Index.
These are now my two worlds, my two simultaneous realities. They inhabit the same space inside my head in desperately uncomfortable fashion. Sometimes, I almost settle back into this bubble world of ours, but then another email arrives -- either directly from friends and contacts in Iraq or forwarded by friends who have spent time in Iraq -- and I remember that I'm an incurably schizophrenic journalist living on some kind of borrowed time in both America and Iraq all at once.
Here is a fairly typical example of the sorts of anguished letters that suddenly appear in my in-box. (With the exception of the odd comma, I've left the examples that follow just as they arrived. They reflect the stressful conditions under which they were written.) This one was sent to my friend Gerri Haynes from an Iraqi friend of hers:
No words can describe the real terror of what's happening and being committed against the population in Baghdad and other cities: the poor people with no money to leave the country, the disabled old men and women, the wives and children of tens of thousands of detainees who can't leave when their dad is getting tortured in the Democratic Prisons, senior years students who have been caught in a situation that forces them to take their finals to finish their degrees, parents of missing young men who got out and never came back, waiting patiently for someone to knock the door and say, "I am back." There are thousands and thousands of sad stories that need to be told but nobody is there to listen.
I called my cousin in the al-Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad to check if they are still alive. She is in her sixties and her husband is about seventy. She burst into tears, begging me to pray to God to take their lives away soon so they don't have to go through all this agony. She told me that, with no electricity, it is impossible to go to sleep when it is 40 degrees Celsius unless they get really tired after midnight. Her husband leaves the doors open because they are afraid that the American and Iraqi troops will bomb the doors if they don't respond from first door knock during searching raids. Leaving the doors open is another terror story after the attack of the troops' vicious dogs on a ten-month old baby, tearing him apart and eating him in the same neighborhood just a few days ago. The troops let the dogs attack civilians. The dogs bite them and terrify the kids with their angry red eyes in the middle of the night. So, as you can see my dear Gerri, we don't have only one Abu Ghraib with torturing dogs, we have thousands of Abu Ghraibs all over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
I was speechless. I couldn't say anything to comfort her. I felt ashamed to be alive and well. I thought I should be with them, supporting them, and give them some strength even if it costs me my life. I begged her to leave Baghdad. She told me that she can't because of her pregnant daughter and her grandkids. They are all with them in the house without their dad. I am hearing the same story and worse every single day. We keep asking ourselves what did we do to the Americans to deserve all this cruelness, killing, and brutishness? How can the troops do this to poor, hopeless civilians? And why?
Can anybody answer my cousin why she and her poor family are going through this?? Can you Gerri? Because I sure can't.
In recent weeks I had been attempting to get in touch with one of my friends, a journalist in Baghdad. I'll call him Aziz for his safety. Beginning to worry when I didn't receive his usual prompt response, I sent him a second email and this is what finally came back:
Dear old friend Dahr,
I am so sorry for my late reply. It is because my area of Baghdad was closed for six days and also because I lost my cousin. He was killed by a militia. They tortured and mutilated his body. I will try to send you his picture later.
Just remember me, friend, because I feel so tired these days and I live with this mess now.
With all my respect,
Conveying my sadness, I asked him if there was anything I could possibly do to ease his suffering. As a reporter in that besieged country, he is constantly exhausted and overworked. I hesitantly suggested that perhaps he should take a little time to rest. He promptly replied:
Dahr, my old friend,
I really appreciate your condolence message. Your words affected me very much and I feel that all my friends are around me in this hard time. I live with this mess and I do need some rest time as you advise before getting back to work again. BUT, really, I have to continue working because there are just very few journalists in Iraq now, and especially in my area. I have to cover more and more everyday.
Anyway friend, everything will be ok for me. And I wish we can make some change in our world towards peace.
With my respect to you friend, Aziz
I have also been corresponding with "H," who lives in the volatile Diyala province and has been a dear friend since my first trip to Iraq. He would visit me in Baghdad, bringing with him delicious home-cooked meals from his wife, insisting always that I be the one to eat the first morsel.
A deeply religious man, his unfailing greeting, accompanied by a big hug, would always be: "You are my brother."
He was concerned about the perception that there were vast differences between Islam and Christianity. "Islam and Christianity are not so different," he would say, "In fact they have many more similarities than differences." He would often discuss this with U.S. soldiers in his city.
Yet he was no admirer of imperialism. Last summer in Syria, he and I visited the sprawling Roman ruins of Palmyra. One evening, as we stood together overlooking the vast landscape of crumbling columns and sun-bleached walls in the setting sun, he turned to me and said, "Mr. Dahr, please do not be offended by what I want to say, but it makes me happy to see these ruins and remember that empires always fall because empires are never good for most people."
After several weeks when I received no reply to repeated emails, I wrote to "M," a mutual friend, and received the following response:
Habibi [My dear friend],
It has been very long since I have written to you. I'm sorry. I was terribly busy. I have some very bad news. [H] was kidnapped by the members of al-Qaeda in Diyala 25 days ago and there is no news about him up to this moment. It's a horrible situation. One cannot feel safe in this country.
When I pressed him for more information, he wrote me the details:
[H] was kidnapped as he was trying to get home. He was coming to Baquba to visit his parents, as he does every day. His oldest daughter who was with him told him that a car carrying several men was following them from the beginning of the street leading to his parents' home. So, when he stopped to get his car in the garage, they got out of their car covering their faces and asked him to come with them for questioning. People in Diyala definitely know that such a thing means either killing or arresting for few days. You may ask why I'm sure it is al-Qaeda. That is because no other group, including the U.S. military, dominates the whole city like they do.
We are the people of the city and we know the truth. They overwhelmingly dominate the streets and are even stronger than the government. So, there is no doubt about whether this was al-Qaeda or another group. You may ask how people stay away from these very bad people. People never go in places like the central market of Baquba. For this reason, all, and I mean all, the shops are closed; some people have left Diyala, some have been killed, while most are kept in their homes.
If someone wants to go the market, this means a bad adventure. He may be at last found in the morgue. Al-Qaeda fought every group that are called resistance who work against coalition [U.S.] forces or the government (policemen or Iraqi National Guards). Nowadays, there is fighting between al-Qaeda and other [Iraqi resistance] groups like Qataib who are known here as the honest resistance in the streets. By the way, I forgot, when al-Qaeda kidnaps someone, they also take his car in order that the car shall be used by them. So, they took his car, along with him. In case he is released, he comes without his car. I will tell you more later on.
I soon slipped into the frantic routine all too familiar by now to countless Iraqis -- scanning the horrible reports of daily violence in Iraq looking for the faintest clue to the whereabouts of my missing friend
3. Murderously Speaking
In McClatchy News' July 5th roundup of daily violence for Diyala, I read:
"A source in the morgue of Baquba general hospital said that the morgue received today a head of a civilian that was thrown near the iron bridge in Baquba Al Jadida neighborhood today morning.
"A medical source in Al Miqdadiyah town northeast [of] Baquba city said that 2 bodies of civilians were moved to the hospital of Miqdadiyah. The source said that the first body was of a man who was killed in an IED explosion near his house in Al Mu'alimeen neighborhood in downtown Baquba city while the second body was of a man who was shot dead near his house in Al Ballor neighborhood in downtown Baquba city."
The data for Baghdad that day read:
"24 anonymous bodies were found in Baghdad today. 16 bodies were found in Karkh, the western side of Baghdad in the following neighborhoods (7 bodies in Amil, 3 bodies in Doura, 2 bodies in Ghazaliyah, 1 body in Jihad, 1 body in Amiriyah, 1 body in Khadhraa and 1 body in Mahmoudiyah). 8 bodies were found in Rusafa, the eastern side of Baghdad in the following neighborhoods (6 bodies in Sadr city, 1 body in Husseiniyah and 1 body in Sleikh.)"
What could I possibly hope to find in nameless reports like these, especially when I know that most of the Iraqi dead never make it anywhere near these reports. That is the way it has been throughout the occupation.
On July 8th, M sent me this email:
Up to this moment, I heard that one of my neighbors saw [H's] photo in the morgue but I couldn't make sure yet. Traditionally, when a body is dropped in a street and found by police, they take it to the morgue. The first thing done is to take a photo for the dead person in the computer to let the families know them. This procedure is followed because the number of bodies is tremendously big. For this people cannot see every body to check for their sons or relatives. For this, people see the photos before going to the refrigerator. I will go to the morgue tomorrow.
The next day he wrote yet again:
Today I went to the morgue. I saw horrible things there. I didn't see [H's] photo among them. Some figures cannot be easily recognized because of the blood or the face is terribly deformed. I saw also only heads; those who were slayed, it's unbelievable. Tomorrow, we will have another visit to make sure again. In your country, when somebody wants to go to the morgue, he may naturally see two or, say, three or four bodies. For us, I saw hundreds today. Every month, the municipality buries those who are not recognized by their families because of the capacity of the morgue. Imagine!
In one of H's last emails to me sent soon after his return home from Syria earlier this summer, he described driving out of Baquba one afternoon. Ominously, he wrote:
We left Baquba, which was sinking in a sea of utter chaos, worries, and instability. People there in that small town were scared of being kidnapped, killed, murdered or expelled. The entire security situation over there was deteriorating; getting to the worse.
Now, that passage might be read as his epitaph.
4. Subjectively Speaking
The morning I receive the latest news from M, I crawl back into bed and lie staring at the ceiling, wondering what will become of H's wife and young children, if he is truly dead. Barring a miracle, I assume that will turn out to be the case.
Later, I go for a walk. It's California sunny and the air is pleasantly cool on my skin. I'm aware -- as I often am -- that I never even consider looking over my shoulder here. I'm also aware that those I pass on my walk don't know that they aren't even considering looking over their shoulders.
The American Heritage Dictionary's second definition of schizophrenia is:
A situation or condition that results from the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities, or activities: the national schizophrenia that results from carrying out an unpopular war [italics theirs].
That's what I'm experiencing -- a national schizophrenia that results from our government carrying out an unpopular war. It's what I continue to experience with never lessening sharpness two years after my last trip to Iraq. The hardest thing, in the California sun with that cool breeze on my face, is to know that two realities in two grimly linked countries coexist, and most people in my own country are barely conscious of this.
In Iraq, of course, there is nothing disparate, no disjuncture, only a constant, relentless grinding and suffering, a pervasive condition of tragic hopelessness and despair with no end in sight.