Peace Porridge #35, 07/20/03: Iraq Diary: In Search Of Security - June/July 2003.  

Security, says the hospital director. At least under the old government we had security. Now we have nothing.

Abu Khaseeb, Basrah: The hospital director looks fatigued, as if he has barely slept in months. He hasn't. As British troops moved into Basrah, government services, including police protection, evaporated. I carry a gun myself, he explains. Every night we must protect our hospital from looters and thieves.

Aren't things better now? Basrah fell almost 3 months ago. No, he says, there has been no change. But I've seen police on the streets. Yes, some, he admits, but they are ineffectual. We must provide our own security and protection. As if to punctuate his statement, a man walks in carrying an AK47. After a brief conversation with the director he leaves.


Trebeel: My first visit to Iraq since the invasion. Crossing the border from Jordan, there are no Iraqis in sight, only an 18 year old kid in US military camouflage. He thumbs through our passports, trying to make pleasant conversation. I don't trust myself to speak. I glance at Amira. She's holding back tears.

The kid does a double take looking at Amira's Japanese passport, and then glances at Yasuko sitting next to her. We all laugh, and that breaks the ice. Amira who is native-born Iraqi married a Japanese. Yasuko is native-born Japanese. She married an American shortly after World War II and carries a US passport.

Open up the back please, the kid asks. The driver opens, and the kid glances at the pile of luggage. Have a nice trip, he says pleasantly, without so much as opening a bag or stamping a passport. I'm thinking with this kind of border security, Iraq must be lousy with guns and drugs. It is. A smugglers paradise.

I glance back at the kid. He's got the hood of a luxury car open. As we drive off he stands there admiring the shiny new engine.


Baghdad: On our arrival, we are greeted by Wadah who has been greeting delegations from the US for years. I had been worried about Wadah and was glad to see him again. We sit down and talk about our plans and what we hope to accomplish.

Wadah, I ask, what can we do to help? Not just here, back home too. Wadah explains, many government building were broken into. The only security they have against further looting is what the government workers can provide themselves. Because there is no functioning government and no budget, they cannot even buy locks to secure the buildings. Maybe you could bring us some locks.

I think of my baggage filled with over the counter medicines, pencils, notebooks, crayons. As usual, I'm out of step with reality.


Baghdad: I'm out for a morning walk. Surprise! There are two garbage trucks loading up in front of our hotel. This is a good sign I think. Then on to the intersection, traffic is snarled; but a man in the middle of the street is directing traffic, trying to bring order out of chaos.

Later I find out that many Iraqis are doing volunteer work trying to keep social services running. Many continue to do their jobs even though there is no government, and not even a promise of pay for their efforts.

Again, I marvel at the spirit of the Iraqi people.


Baghdad: Tell Mr. Bush that we love him for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a bad man, says the head of the English Department at Baghdad's School of Music and Ballet. But, he continues, you must tell Mr. Bush that he must deal strictly with the thieves. They stole our violins, and piccolos. They even stole our pianos and our electric fans. In our country we deal strictly with thieves. Mr. Bush must deal strictly with thieves. He looks at me pleadingly.

I nod thinking of all the unanswered letters I've written to Mr. Bush. Then a vision pops into my mind of a bewildered Kenny Lay with a stump where his right hand used to be.


Baghdad: We stop in a market outside the city. In front of us is some meat rotting in the intense heat. Garbage is strewn everywhere. There is a tank not far from us. A lone US soldier sits astride the tank. Its mid-morning, hot, and getting hotter. The mood is unsettled. These people have been without electricity for four days, and they are angry. Things could turn violent quickly. I glance at the lone soldier atop the tank.


Baghdad: I've spent a very pleasant evening with relatives of an Iraqi friend in Missouri. Time passes quickly when you are enjoying yourself. Its dark and way past time to return to my hotel. Bandits and snipers take possession of the streets at dark. 11PM begins curfew. After curfew soldiers will shoot at anything that moves.

The traffic is scarier than the soldiers. The roads are dark. No electricity, no street lights. We dodge cars with no headlights driving on the wrong side of the road. One lone traffic light, permanently red, is ignored by the onslaught of cars, rushing home before curfew, rushing home before the nightly violence begins.

We arrive at my hotel. I say goodbye, and a superfluous drive carefully. I think, I will call in an hour and see that my friends got home safely. Then, I remember. The telephones don't work.


Baghdad: The real estate broker explains that Hilla is quiet, We're cooperating with the Americans. We have electricity and water. Other cities don't. The broker explains that the US has set up headquarters in Hilla because it is cooperating. He is doing very well, renting houses to military personnel. He's even talked with a US general who has told him that he is the kind of Iraqi they want to work with.

The Americans are here so lets make the best of it, he advises. Enjoy yourself in Iraq. Find something fun to do. He offers to sell me a house in Hilla for $50,000 US - and to find me an Iraqi wife.

I think of the hundreds who died in the April cluster bombing of Hilla, and wonder how quiet or well-off Hilla really is. I'm sure not having much fun on this trip.


Hilla: We are visiting Amira's family in Hilla. They are wonderful, gracious people. This is my third visit, and I feel very comfortable here.

There are problems in Hilla too. The electricity goes out. Different then Baghdad, for sure. In Baghdad, when the electricity comes on, you smile and say now we have electricity, and hope it will not go out immediately. In Hilla when the electricity goes out, you shrug and hope it will be back soon.

I also see heavily armed US military patrols on the street. I hear talk of sniper attacks.

In the evening, Amira takes us to a neighborhood that was hit by US cluster bombs in April. 350 died. Kelly wants to get out and interview people. Amira says, No, we have to stay in the van. Kelly insists. There is an edge on Amira's voice, I've not heard before. No. Its dangerous. People here have lost family members. They are angry. And then she adds, I brought you here. I am responsible for your safety.

A discussion ensues. The rest of us side with Amira. We stay in the van.


Falujah: The Director of Water Services seems surprised when I tell her I'm American. She looks me in the eye and says in a matter of fact way, we will never accept your soldiers in our city. Later I find out our host has been telling people we are European - for our own safety, of course.

Falujah is lousy with soldiers, and military vehicles. One vehicle has "War Pig" written prominently on it. I wonder if the soldiers know that to Muslims, the pig is an unclean animal. Then I wonder if they would care, if they knew. One more instance of cultural insensitivity to go with the stories I've already heard: Male soldiers body searching Iraqi women, US soldiers giving drugs and alcohol to young children.

I feel the tension, and stay close to my hosts. This is one place I do not want to wonder off alone.


Umm Qasr: We're driving around the port city, when we run into a roadblock. Our driver starts to turn the van, when a jeep pulls in front of us. Soldiers fan out in a circle around us, weapons drawn.

Our driver shouts in Arabic that he has Americans in the vehicle. Where are you from? Kelly asks in a friendly voice. That's no concern of yours, ma'am, glowers the sergeant, leaving Kelly speechless.

Slowly I get out of the van, hands in plain sight. What's the problem? I ask. Stay right were you are, commands the sergeant. Our eyes meet and lock. I saw two flashes, he continues. Who took pictures?

I took picture, says Yasuko, getting out of the van with her camera. Yasuko's 75 years old and stands 5 foot 2. She hands over her camera, and a soldier tries unsuccessfully to remove the film. Please don't break my camera, she says. I won't break your camera, ma'am. The soldier yanks harder on the film. Here, let me do it. Yasuko deftly exposes the film, rewinds it, and hands the cartridge to the soldier.

I'll have to see your ID, the sergeant says to me. Slowly I reach into my money belt, take out my passport and hand it to the sergeant. He thumbs through it, looking at me. Born in New York City, he says. I nod.

Outwardly, his demeanor is unchanged, yet I feel the tension evaporate. He hands back my passport. I hope you understand why we are all a little spooked, he says. Yes, of course. I'm thinking that its spooky enough to have loaded weapons pointing at me, suppose they were shooting at me from the shadows.

He asks if we are tourists. No humanitarian, Veterans for Peace Iraq Water Project. He says something nasty about Iraqis overcharging for hauling water. I nod, thinking, well you knocked out the electric grid and the water distribution system, and wasn't the idea of all this to impose our economic system on Iraq anyway?

A little friendly banter, a hand shake, and we're on our way. Driving away, someone remarks that the sergeant checked only one camera, and only one ID.


Baghdad: Across the street is a lone soldier in front of a building. A score of young children stand around him. The soldier's spooked, uncomfortable, afraid. He holds his weapon stiffly away from the children, as if afraid a child will grab it.

I can't hear the children's voices, but I know what they are saying. I've heard it so many times myself. "Hello." "What's your name?" "Give me money." They are neither hostile nor friendly. Their demeanor is mocking, imitating the soldier, enjoying his fear. It is a dangerous game, but it may be the only game in town for these children. It could turn deadly.

A military patrol rounds the corner. A tank, followed by an armored jeep. Soldiers stand expressionless behind mounted weapons. The children back off, imperceptibly. The danger passes.


Baghdad: We have no security problem here, remarks Anna. We brought 30 Italian soldiers with us. They are not allowed to leave the hospital, she adds. Do the Americans provide your hospital any protection? No, and that is best. We don't want to be associated with the military.

The Italian Red Cross Hospital is almost self contained. They see 150 patients a day. They have 15 beds and keep only the most needy. They purify their own water, and even supply pure water to other Baghdad hospitals. What kind of diseases do you see? Typhoid, diarrhea, meningitis, typhus. And burns, I've never seen anything like it before, children with 90% of their skin burned. And congenital birth defects, we've never seen anything like these babies, anywhere.

Anna accepts the huge tub of medical supplies that George and Maura have brought from New York with a smile. The Italian Red Cross Hospital is one of two such hospitals in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia runs the other. How about the Americans? No, they have done nothing. Will there be other hospitals? Perhaps, she says. Other countries want to participate, but the Americans won't let them. Why not? Anna shrugs.


Missouri, USA: Back home, I'm asked, what's next for Iraq? Will there be a new government? Will the occupation end? Will the fighting continue? I say jokingly, I've lost my crystal ball.

But, this much seems clear. Providing security, police protection, and basic social services like electricity and water is the overriding issue. Freedom? Democracy? What's freedom and democracy when bandits rule the streets, electricity and water are shut off, and if you are lucky, you have a job, but no paycheck.

Can a government imposed by the US provide security? Unlikely, I think. Another Baathist style government? a Taliban style theocracy? Possibly. More lawlessness, continued occupation, further resistance, a downward spiral into chaos and anarchy? Possibly. I've lost my crystal ball.

In the months leading up to the invasion, I used to say, nothing good will come of a US invasion of Iraq. I think about the two weeks I've spent in Iraq. I think of all the misery and unhappiness. Was I right?

But didn't the US get rid of Saddam? I think of Jeremiah's prophesy, "Thou hast broken the yokes of wood; but thou shalt make for them yokes of iron." I suspect I was right. Nothing good has come from this invasion.


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