Insight

Letter from Baghdad

Why is Baghdad suffering This question is on everybody's lips. Electricity, we have heard, has been restored in all other towns. Only Baghdad is being denied this basic life support. As the heat increases, so does the desperation and bitterness of the people.

There is a total incomprehension that America, the world's greatest superpower cannot provide in three months even basic services that the government under Saddam was able to restore within one month. This is worsened by the fact that expectations have been so much greater. People believed that, with the fall of the regime, the life-numbing deprivation of previous years would be over. Instead they have never had it so bad. As one taxi-driver asked of us, "What have the Americans come here for There is no electricity, no water, no petrol, the roads are blocked, there is no security anymore. Why have they come"

I am asked how I now find Baghdad. How has it changed It is perhaps best described as a city in trauma. Still reeling from the appalling bombardment, it is now experiencing the shock of occupation and anarchy. There is no law and order. No one is in charge. People are crying out for help with their personal tragedies but there is nowhere to turn. An elderly banker told me yesterday that he had approached the Americans for compensation for the bombing of his house and car, the death of his son and his daughter-in-law's miscarriage. He showed us his meticulously presented evidence, in the form of photographs, a CD and written documentation. He was told by the Americans that they had already received two million such claims and they assured him that every single one was relegated to the rubbish bin. Despite this, in his humbling generosity, he welcomed us to Iraq and invited us to his home. In this one aspect it seems that the people of Iraq have not changed. Their warmth and generosity of spirit is apparently indomitable.

During the day convoys of American tanks patrol the streets, manned by what can only be described as scared children. "Pathetic!" my friend exclaims. They would be if they were not so extremely dangerous. If they believe that they are winning the hearts and minds of the people, they could not be further from the truth. Now even those Iraqis, who initially welcomed them, are saying that if things continue as they are they will not hesitate to take up a gun and fight back. They are giving them another few weeks or months and then they assure us there will be organized resistance.

The nights are filled with sporadic gunfire. The Americans have imposed a curfew which starts at 11pm. The people however have their own self-imposed curfew. No one leaves their house after dark. From 8pm the streets are already beginning to clear. People are hurrying home whether on foot or by car. When I was in Baghdad a year ago, this was the time when families would be spilling out on to the streets to make the most of the cooler evening air, to shop, to eat and to socialize. Now there is only terror. Everyone is buying a gun for self protection. A Kalashnikov was recently selling for as little as one dollar! No one really seems to know who the looters and muggers are. Myths abound. Many speak of the thousands of criminals and psychopaths released from the prisons by Saddam Hussein. Others blame the recent open selling of alcohol and drugs on the streets - something, previously unheard of in a Muslim country. Some of the killings are undoubtedly the result of old feuds and quarrels. Whatever the truth, the greatest cry is for someone to take control.

To compound the sense of insecurity is the complete lack of communications in Baghdad. The destruction of the civilian telecommunication system is undoubtedly a denial of human rights. In my own case if I wish to contact anybody at all, I have to take a taxi to their home or workplace and hope that they will be there. It is too dangerous to travel anywhere on one's own, especially as a woman, so someone else has to accompany me. If the person I wish to see is not there, a whole new arrangement has to be made. It is easier and quicker to communicate with people abroad, than with those living within Baghdad. The taxi journeys themselves are exhausting. Many roads are blocked by the US troops and in the absence of any working traffic lights areas become completely jammed. For the first time in Baghdad, I have seen long queues at petrol stations. This is again because there is a lack of electricity to pump the petrol. Drivers are miraculously managing - creating a strange kind of order in chaos - and despite the extreme heat inside the cars, I have yet to see any sign of punch ups or angry words.

As temperatures reach the mid 40s centigrade, they greatest hardship is water shortage due to the minimal power generation. People arrive at work in the mornings saying "We are so tired. We haven't slept. The nights are so hot and our children have been crying from the pain of thirst. Is this the human rights Britain and America are promising us" It is this perhaps more than anything that is confusing and angering the people of Baghdad. It is unspeakable that they are being left in this condition. It is to their extraordinary credit that people turn up to work at all. There is very little absenteeism. Rubbish is being collected, deliveries are being made, teachers and doctors are carrying on their work. This despite absolutely no guarantee of salary.

There is no doubt that most people are glad to be rid of the terrors associated with the previous regime. But what they have now is a different form of terror and human rights abuse. The message has sunk in that the US has no interest in their welfare and that this is a blatant occupation. Rumour has it that the US troops have written on their tanks, "Our soldiers lives versus water and electricity!" Whether this is true or not many believe that this denial of the most essential services is a form of punishment exacted by Bremmer - or, as he is now called, Bremmer Hussein! No Iraqi I have met will accept this and if Britain and the US do not understand the implications of their current policy there will be extraordinarily difficult times ahead

Joanne Baker Pandora DU Research Project Baghdad June 30, 2003

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