By Hela Rahman
March 16, 2010 | UrukNet
Driving through the streets of Baghdad is a heartbreaking experience. Rubbish lies uncollected, roads bear the scars of exploded munitions and impoverished children play outside destroyed buildings, fires still smouldering amongst the rubble. There is no green now, only dust and sand. There are no ambitions for the people of Iraq bar one – to survive another day. This is the Iraq of today. This is my homeland.
When I look back it doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t seem like I actually went to a country almost half a world away, a country invaded and occupied since 2003 by Western forces, a place that has suffered over a million civilian casualties and that continues to suffer day after day. Not having been back to Iraq since 1999 I didn’t really know what to expect. A lot has happened in the past decade, a decade which I safely spent in New Zealand away from the violence. The closest I ever came to Baghdad was news reports and phone conversations with family still there. So when November 26th rolled around I still hadn’t realised that this would be a life defining trip, an experience more eye-opening than any news report.
The final leg of our journey to Baghdad was a flight from Amman, Jordan, care of 'Iraqi Airways.’ Flights to Iraq have been a rarity since the First Gulf War and have only recently resumed, with most travel previously done by road. Like most of Iraq’s infrastructure, Iraqi Airways is severely under resourced – our plane was rented from the Ukraine. All the announcements were in English as none of the hostesses spoke any Arabic, but the food tasted like a home cooked Iraqi meal. As the plane began its descent I could see patches of light amongst the night. Since sanctions were imposed upon Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, electricity has been very limited and supplies fluctuate depending on the situation. Each suburb receives eight hours of electricity a day, administered in two hour blocks. What I was seeing were suburbs receiving their two hour share.
My uncle had organised a driver to pick us up as only travellers, officials, workers and taxi drivers are allowed into the airport. This is a security measure designed to protect the area around the airport, which is now an American base. United States forces have occupied numerous properties once owned by Saddam Hussein, including 'The Republican Palace.’ This is now the United States Embassy and part of the 'Green Zone’ – a secluded area where US soldiers, overseas civilian workers and Iraqi parliamentary officials are based. This area enjoys electricity 24 hours a day. It is also relatively safe, with access to clean water, fresh food and all home comforts. The rest of the country makes do with almost nothing.
The very next day my uncle took us out for a drive around the streets. I had thought things were bad during my 1999 visit, but I had no idea back then that the worst was yet to come. We only drove around inside one 'area.’ Nowadays Baghdad is set up in an interesting yet frustrating way. Each 'area’ has only one road for entry and exit called the checkpoint, where Iraqi soldiers check each car that passes through for explosives. The rest of the roads to and from each area are blocked off with big concrete blocks, so if you’re travelling by car you are forced to use the checkpoints. This is meant to ensure security – although given past events this hasn’t seemed to have worked – but at the same time it just makes life really difficult as all the checkpoints become very congested. During critically dangerous periods, people in each area would open up shops and markets within their houses, so when it was too dangerous to pass through a checkpoint most of the things you might need would be available within the area.
Life in Baghdad is simple yet tough. People are down to earth, happy with what they have and try to get on with day to day life. Visitors stopped by all the time and one of my mum’s cousins would always pop by every now and then and give us homemade pickles and olives or goodies he picked up from the markets. Despite all they have endured, they still try to smile. However, it can be difficult to smile when necessities are expensive and sometimes impossible to obtain. Electricity constantly goes off. Food is expensive and water isn’t always clean – a couple of times when I was washing fruit and vegetables, mud started coming out of the tap. Due to the tremendous heat, water coolers are almost as essential as oxygen in most of the Middle East but because of the electrical cuts the water is tepid at best. Petrol is very expensive – ironic considering Iraq’s large oil reserves. Since the invasion, most oil produced is exported overseas. Infrastructure is poor – rubbish collectors will only take away rubbish for cash in hand. As no one has cash, rubbish lies on the footpaths and on the streets. Every day is a struggle.
Safety isn’t ideal in Baghdad. The explosions started one Tuesday while I was chatting to my grandmother over breakfast. The house suddenly shook and the windows trembled violently as though they were about to explode. I got a huge fright but my grandma just brushed it off with "Oh yeah, it’s just another explosion." It was saddening to hear her nonchalance. She, along with the rest of the country, has become numb to the violence that surrounds them. For people in Iraq, news of a friend’s passing due to natural causes is met not with grief, but with relief that it wasn’t because of another bomb.
That Tuesday there were four more explosions – several governmental buildings were targeted and there were over a hundred civilian casualties. One of my uncles was lucky to have survived. He was working near one of the places that were targeted and later that day we saw him on the news. There is a routine for whenever there is an explosion – we’d usually go up to the rooftop to see where the smoke was coming from in order get an idea of which area the attack was in, and if we knew any friends or family members near the area we would give them a call to see if everyone was alright. The news over there is real news, not the watered-down version we get in New Zealand. Baghdad news channels stream live immediately after an explosion. Footage of bloody bodies being pulled out of rubble or severed arms and legs are no stranger to Iraqi screens.
The next three weeks in Baghdad consisted of meeting relatives I had never met before and coming to understand my surroundings. Photos of me were all around my grandparents’ house. I never realised how hard it must have been for them when we had left for New Zealand. Many of my relatives that I hadn’t met before didn’t expect me to still speak Arabic properly, so when I was being introduced to them they started speaking to me in English and when I answered them in Arabic they were shocked.
When I was there I took the opportunity to talk to friends and family members about their thoughts on the US-led invasion and their experiences over the years. I wanted to hear what the people actually had to say in comparison to what Western media feeds us. I listened to many horrific stories, from explosions to people having their home taken away from them. A lot of the time if a house is seen empty or unoccupied for a period of time it is broken into and claimed by others. As some areas become more dangerous than others or houses are destroyed by the war people have no choice but to look for abandoned houses. My uncle said that between 2005 and 2007 they would sometimes wake up to find dead bodies dumped outside their house.
A story that was vividly explained to me described a shoot out between United States forces and whoever had claimed the house next door to my grandparents. An American helicopter landed on the rooftop and the soldiers jumped out and started shooting into the house. All the windows of my grandparents’ house were shattered in the firefight. Other stories told of family friends killed on their own doorsteps, of friends being killed outside by a stray bullet while talking on the phone and of other horrific bombings during the war. A friend told me that schools still opened during the war, and that between 2005 and 2007, when things were really dangerous, they would have to sometimes evacuate the room during exams due to bomb warnings. They would go outside, listen for the explosion and then go back inside and resume the exam.
The most dangerous period since the US-led invasion of March 2003 was mid 2005 to mid 2007. Violence during this time was at its peak, with insurgent groups active since 2003 in response to the invasion. The political instability caused by the US invasion has left the door open for intrusions from surrounding countries and has escalated insurgency and sectarian violence. The next two years were safer in general, but towards the end of 2009 violence increased. People assume that the elections to be held on the 7th of March are linked to the rise in violence – after the Tuesday bombings there was at least one explosion every day after that. People are scared to leave their cars unattended on the street as anyone can walk past and stick a timed bomb underneath them; advances in technology have unfortunately made it very easy to develop such devices. Checkpoints and market places are also typically targeted as they are heavily congested. More recently doctors, professionals and ex-generals have also been targeted. We were told that gunmen opened fire outside my cousin’s school a short while ago while all the children were outside waiting to get picked up. It was scary to know that I would pick my cousins up with my uncle every now and then.
People are fed up and just want safety and stability. A lot of people would say things like "At least Saddam kept the streets clean and didn’t kill millions of our people." Hundreds of thousands have been killed to date and over a million have left to start new lives outside of Iraq. As bad as Saddam’s dictatorship was, things back then were never as bad as they are now post the US invasion. Iraq will never be the same.
The experience was surreal. It completely changed me and my outlook on life. It was so great learning more about who I am and where I’m from. The hardest part was leaving, saying goodbye to everyone was almost impossible. It was not just tough emotionally to leave the country, it wasn’t physically easy either. On our way to the airport the driver warned us about abandoned cars along the way, advising us that they could be filled with explosives and could potentially go off at any time. Security at the airport was intense. This was, of course, to protect the American base beside the airport. Car checks, bag checks, personal checks, over and over again – I lost track how many times we were checked by the end of it. One thing I did not expect however was the attitude we got from an airport official when we arrived back in Auckland. Extensive questioning about our trip to Baghdad, what we did and why we went there as well as if we had helped our family leave Iraq to live in another place. As a New Zealand citizen, this seemed a little uncalled for.
I’ll never forget simple, everyday moments, like playing badminton in the front yard, having tea with my grandparents and waking up and simply being able to spend time with my family. These moments were so simple, yet unforgettable. I got to talk to my granddad about politics and the world, as well as try on his old robes for court. I saw photos of my grandma’s graduation attended by the late King Faisal II, back when Iraq was a monarchy. I got to drive around the streets with my uncle, who liked to crank up American hip-hop music while I was silently thankful that he didn’t understand what the words meant. I got to see the house where Saddam Hussein supposedly hid during the US invasion, as well as the house where his daughters hid. I got to walk the streets of my hometown, I got to pick oranges from the garden in the morning, I got to see my old house and my mum’s primary school and I got to see the Tigris river and listen to old Iraqi music. My grandma taught me how to sew and cook. I got to see a traditional Iraqi wedding zaffaa, where the groom’s family pick up the bride and dance and sing along the way, smiling and looking as happy as ever, as though this were not the same place where death and destruction continues the lurk the streets.
I hope that in the near future it will be safer to visit Iraq. Improvements in electricity and water supply are greatly anticipated. Maybe one day the people who were forced to flee, like my family and I, will be able to return and live there again. These words certainly do not do justice to my experience. What I experienced in Iraq could never be adequately conveyed through writing or by pictures. Iraq is where my heart is and I can’t wait to return.
Some more photographs from Hela's trip home to Baghdad follow:
Going Home: Returning to Iraq after 10 years