September 15, 2007

Ramadan in Baghdad

It's the third day of Ramadan for Sunni Iraqis and the second for Shiites. Even the first day of Ramadan here is different for the two sects. From sun up to sun down Muslims abstain from food and water in an act of faith and discipline.

Tonight we sat down to break our fasts together over bowls of yellow lentil soup, potato dumplings stuffed with meat, chicken, meat, yoghurt, rice and stew. Everyone was happy to fill their empty stomachs. I looked at the staff around me, a group of the displaced, they looked tired from a days work and more than four years of war.

Next to me Suheib sat, the 22-year-old young man loves Arab female pop stars like Nancy Ajram (the Britney Spears of the Middle East.) He drives with one hand on the steering wheel and the other propped up on the window sill to show his youthful cool. His father was once our most trusted driver but he was recently displaced to Syria with his family, afraid that Shiite death squads would come after him. It was a miracle the elegant pilot survived this long. To be a pilot under Saddam Hussein's regime you had to join the now illegal Baath party. Suheib now works in his place and sends the money to his family.

Across from me Sahar sat, she is the mother of the office. Before Iftar dinner she heated the dishes and brought everyone together for the meal. Her son sat in front of the television with his soup, her daughter next to her. She lives in the hotel, the summer heat so stifling she had to leave her neighborhood. The roadside bomb that killed two young children sealed the deal, she's already lost one son to this violence. She's been living with us for about three months.

Omar, our office manager, also lives here, displaced from his neighborhood. He sent his family to Syria and shuttles himself back and forth between the two nations. He stays on in Iraq for the money, there are no jobs in Syria for an Iraqi and he has to support his young family. But now even the commute is complicated.

Iraqis never needed a visa to visit neighboring Syria. But now after about one million have been displaced to the neighboring nation, the Syrian government requires a visa. Omar worries it will be more difficult for him to see his wife and two young children.

We eat quietly and on the local station Sharqiya, Mat al Hakou, (someone is dead) plays. The title of the special Ramadan series is a play on words. The Arabic word Al Hakoumat means government. The show breaks the word a part, Al Hakou Mat or Mat al Hakou, someone is dead. The edgy political satire is shot outside Iraq to safeguard the comedians' lives. They sing about everyone fleeing Iraq, "the only ones left are the government and parliament." As we finished soup and moved on to the main meal, a woman in a sparkly blue dress did stand up comedy.

"I had an argument with an American woman," the woman said, " She told me look at us, we are free. I can stand in the middle of Washington D.C. and curse the President of America."

The woman in blue rebutted the comment. Iraq is free, she insisted.

"I can stand in the middle of Baghdad and," she paused. " uh. Curse the President of America."

The table bust into laughter. No one openly criticizes the Shiite militias or Sunni extremists that control their neighborhoods.  No one openly speaks about their political allegiances less there be someone in ear shot who will kill them for their beliefs.

Another comedian talked about the cinema, there are no movie theatres that people frequent in Iraq now. He asked the audience to join him at the cinema. The man takes two chairs to the roof and from there he watches the capital. It is a movie worth watching, every night it is "Horror," a true "Thriller," killing and bloodshed. Come up and watch, he invites the audience. "It's a movie worth watching."

September 09, 2007

Safety for some

The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, waited on a red carpet inside the foreign ministry for officials from neighboring countries, other Middle Eastern countries and the Group of Eight industrialized nations. It was the second meeting of its kind to bring together Iraq's neighbors to discuss the nations' security.

The minister chatted and joked with a New York Times reporter while the rest of the media was relegated to stand behind red ropes and watch him greet guests. Before each delegation entered the hall, they shed their body armor and helmet, shook hands with the minister and smiled for the cameras sans personal protection.

There was the large Iranian delegation in suits with no ties, the Kuwaiti, Saudi and Bahraini delegations in the flowing white traditional dishdashas, an Italian delegate in tortoise shell glasses, and the American delegation in business suits. Then there were all the guards; British, American and South African guards lined the walls of the sixth floor and flags of the diplomats they were protecting were pinned onto their body armor.

Politicians hailed this as a sign of progress in security. All these officials could come together safely in Baghdad. But outside the ministry, bridges across the capital were blocked off to safeguard the building, sending Iraqis into panic as they tried to make it to work and school on Sunday morning, the equivilant of a Monday in the United States.

We drove through the streets trying to make it to the foreign ministry. At the Jumhuriya Bridge in central Baghdad, one of the main bridges in the capital that connects the east bank of the river to the west, we were stopped. On the other side were the places I needed to be, the heavily fortified Green Zone, the Iranian embassy and the Foreign Ministry were out of reach. We begged the Iraqi soldiers to let us through.

"Not even generals can pass over this right now," he said. I called the Foreign Ministry but they’d made no efforts to ensure that the journalists they invited could make it through the maze of blocked roads. So with tens of other Iraqis we abandoned our cars and walked the 25-30 minutes to the ministry.

As we strolled over the bridge that connects the two banks of the river, young students scurried to make it to their exams on time, women and men dashed off to work and large U.S. convoys rolled through the street. We passed men waiting at kabob and shawarma vendors, the equivalent of hot dog stands in the states, waiting for hot meat sandwiches. Inside a barber shop an Iraqi man got his morning shave then the barber used thread to rip stubborn hairs from his face. I’m not sure if the curbs of the sidewalk were shattered into pieces because of abandoned reconstruction projects or violence.

We stepped over concertina wire and random police officers asked to search our bags. Finally we arrived at the ministry. We were patted down, our phones were taken and after checking us off the list we were allowed inside to watch officials hobnob in a town safe enough to hold such a meeting.

September 03, 2007

Open Your Eyes

Sometimes it is hard to get out of bed in the morning here. I have friends in the States who tell me they don't read the news.

"It just makes me so depressed," they say. It is a luxury of sorts to ignore Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan.

To skip over the news channels and discontinue the papers and flip through a couple hundred cable shows, watch the latest on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and laugh at their antics; it's a luxury of sorts.

A luxury I don't have and I know I don't want. But sometimes near the end of my rotations in Iraq, typically six weeks of early mornings of reporting and late nights of writing (this time I stay 12 weeks before my break) I dread opening my eyes. I am lucky enough to get quick breaks. Most Iraqis can't get tired and just take a quick break from the war for a massage, an evening out and a late night stroll. Luxuries replaced by curfews and fear.

But I have to wake up and I can't turn off the television, ignore the papers, stop reporting or stop writing. The bad news is at the doorstep: gunfire I told myself was construction last week, a bleeding man on the stairs, a dead colleague, another who can never leave the hotel, another who went to a wedding that looked more like a funeral, another afraid she will end up like her dead colleague, men getting death threats and every day the list of those killed on the violence report.

Some days, when the beeping of the alarm wakes me up, some days like today I just want to keep my eyes closed.

Of course I force my eyes open and the day is not so bad. No spectacular car bomb, thank God, and a surprise visit from President George Bush. My Iraqi colleagues and I watch him talk to the Marines in Anbar from Baghdad.

"If we let our enemies back us out of Iraq, we will more likely face them in America. If we don't want to hear their footsteps back home, we have to keep them on their heels over here," he told cheering young Marines on this Labor Day.

In the pit of my stomach I feel nauseous. Many will hear that to mean that life is cheap in Iraq, by some estimates hundreds of thousands have died here in this fight but "if we don't want to hear their footsteps back home, we have to keep them on their heels over here."

Four times he referred to keeping the "terrorists" and the "enemies" that plague Iraq here and not bringing them home. Al Qaida became an element to be reckoned with in Iraq after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion. It is a symbolic fight for many extremists against the American troops now. Many Iraqis believe that the U.S. created an atmosphere to bring their enemies here and fight them on Iraqi soil. They say it to me every day.

"Why do you assume that America wants to make it better here," a friend once asked me in frustration.

I grew embarrassed looking at the wonderful people I work with. I thought about the hundreds of Iraqis that were killed in one attack in two impoverished Yazidi villages, a minority religious community in the north. The families torn a part and the piece of a woman, they pulled from the rubble. She was probably a mother, she was someone's daughter, cousin and sister.

My American life is not worth more than an Iraqi life. An Iraqi life is not worth more than mine. Life is never cheap. 

Some days you dread opening your eyes. But closing your eyes doesn't make it stop. 

August 27, 2007

In memory of Anwar

Anwar Abbas
Anwar Abbas Lafta  (CBS/AP)
Anwar Abbas Lafta, a CBS translator and a friend, was killed by gunmen who stole him from his home. His body was found in the morgue last night among so many others.

I remember talking to him about fear. I asked him if he was ever scared that someone would come for him.

"No, everybody knows me here," he said. "Everybody knows what I do."

I was shocked when he told me he didn’t hide his job from his friends and his neighbors. Iraqis who work with foreign journalists are often accused of being spies. Sometimes they're just kidnapped for the money they make. He didn’t hide his job as a U.S. military translator prior to his position at CBS either, he said.

"They’ll find out anyway, why lie?" he once told me.

He had a way of convincing people that they needed to tell their story, he gained their respect easily. In his neighborhood he strutted around and everyone knew exactly who he was. He spoke fast and loud, in a way that made you think, this guy must know what he’s talking about. It’s probably why he was able to get people to talk on camera in Iraq, not a small feat in a nation rife with fear.

There was one time that a militia member confronted him in a coffee shop, he told me. But the man backed down when he saw Anwar's pistol. He carried it just in case they came for him, he said.

Earlier this week 'they' did. Armed gunmen in bulletproof vests knocked on his door. His brother answered and was greeted with a hit from the butt of a rifle and they went for Anwar, according to Lara Logan CBS News chief foreign correspondent.

He fought, Logan wrote, but they got him into the unmarked white land cruiser anyway. His brother ran after them shooting and the kidnappers shot his sister in the arm, Logan wrote.

"The group of about eight armed men wore body armor and went straight for Anwar. There was no doubt, his relatives have said, that he was the reason they came to that door, of that house, on that night.

But Anwar was not a man to go quietly. And like every Iraqi, he knows what it means when a death squad comes for you. So he reached for his weapon and tried to put up a fight, but in the delicate words used to mask a more brutal truth, 'they overwhelmed him,'" Logan wrote.

Jenan, my friend and Iraqi colleague, came to me the next morning. "Anwar was kidnapped," she said.

We went downstairs to get coffee and I tried to calm Jenan down. He was one of her closest friends and constantly called her and visited us when he could. She has such a beautiful innocence about her, but slowly with this job, her naiveté is leaving her.

"He's Anwar," she told me. "I know he'll be ok."

I nodded mutely. There was nothing I could say. Anwar always tried to protect Jenan. He softened the blows of this place, but he wasn't here to protect her from this.

Last night I called her at home to ask a question. But before the words came out of my mouth she blurted out, "Anwar is dead."

The last time they talked she told me how much they'd laughed. Anwar had a way of making light of the worst situations. He jokingly told her he wouldn't call again. It was the last time they spoke, somehow he knew.

"I was so happy," she cried. For a while all I heard were gasps and sobs on the other end of the phone. "Now he's in the morgue."

Earlier this year he guided Jenan and I through his neighborhood. He laughed at my hesitancy to speak English in the street.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked. "This is my neighborhood. I did a piece for CBS on the safest neighborhood in Baghdad right here."

His confidence put me at ease and I laughed. He had a way of making you feel safe.

But the sobs on the other end of the phone line told me this time he couldn’t save himself. First the kidnappers had asked for $150,000 from the family and then lowered the price to $60,000. Yesterday his cousin found his body in the morgue.

"He's just a number now," Jenan wailed into the phone. "I think they killed him right away."

Anwar was a single man who put every dollar of his earnings at CBS toward his family. He supported his four brothers, his sister and his mother. Jenan wondered if this is why he was taken. Maybe they thought he had money, she said.

She's still looking for an explanation. But she knows there isn't one. Every day Iraqis die here for no good reason, hundreds of thousands have already been killed; more will die tonight and tomorrow and the next day. So many we will never be able to name, so many we will not be able to grieve.

Today as I tried to comfort Jenan it seemed that all I had were clichés, he's in a better place now and God rest his soul. They seemed so hollow, nothing could fill the hole.

"Why?" she sobbed, putting her face in her hands. "Why only in Iraq we say he's lucky because he doesn’t have to see tomorrow. He was very kind and they deleted his story with one bullet."

I can't imagine the emptiness in the CBS bureau without him. Logan has a beautiful tribute to him here. All I can say to Anwar is thank you. Thank you for telling the story of your nation, for your honesty and courage. All I can say to Anwar is I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it cost you your life. I’m so sorry.

But it's too late. Anwar is gone.

August 23, 2007

The Changing Language of War

Dhia, works in the restaurant downstairs, he came up to talk to me today as he doled out meals to people on the floor.

"Do you think it's safe for me to report in your neighborhood," I asked. His eyes widened and he shook his head.

"Every day is worse than the one before," he said of his southeast Baghdad home. He lives in a Christian enclave in the Shiite dominated area.

Two days ago an entire Sunni family was killed. The next day the Mahdi Army came back to kill a Shiite witness, he said. His family was spared, they live outside Iraq.

"Enaalso," he said in Iraqi slang. It's a new Iraqi word, a phrase used to explain being turned in by an informant to a militia and then being killed. Literally it means he was "chewed up."

It's what Iraqis now repeatedly say to explain the killings of families by militias that control their neighborhoods with fear and weapons; a word to explain the corpses that show up in the streets.

The Shiites in the neighborhood have grown disdainful towards the Mahdi Army, the militant wing of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. They to are being killed for one errant word, he said. But no one will say anything.

He ran his finger across his neck, in a motion of a throat being slit. That's what happens, rah yaalsouch, they will chew you up.   

August 22, 2007

The Divide

Img_6505 On Sunday I spent the day in two Yazidi villages in west Ninewah province. Here they have nothing. Along the dusty roads, beige clay houses blend into the landscape. There is no running water or electricity. Now they have less than ever. More than 400 people were killed last week in four coordinated truck bombings. The stories were endless as the U.S. military that helped me get here rushed me from one bombing site to the next. The landscape was scarred and the women chanted, cried and fainted in grief in this ancient religion they will chant and mourn from sun up to sun down for a weImg_6475_2ek.

The U.S. Army captain who I rode with told me about the day of the bombing last week. He treated one child after the other all the while thinking of his own baby girl. I commented on how cute the children were as they followed us around and for a moment he broke away from the sadness.

“Some of these Yazidi women are real lookers,” he said as a graceful young woman passed us. Her eyes were piercing green, her hair a brownish blond and her skin a beautiful, deep brown from days in the hot sun.

Sadness hung low in the villages of Tal al Azizziyah and Sheikh Khadar, known in Arabic as Qahtaniya and Adnaniyah. The children who told me their father’s were dead didn’t weep. I don’t know if they Img_6497_2understood that these men would never come home, if their homes survived the blasts. As I pulled my camera out one boy, Salam, put his arm around his friend, smiled and posed for the shot. Moments before he'd told me that the bombing threw him into the air and killed his father.

In the center of Tal al Azizziyah the devastation was the worst, and I felt small among the destroyed remnants of people’s lives. It was a mangled green tricycle and the tiny flip flops that brought me to tears. Then the men began to shout as they pulled out a piece of a woman’s body from the rubble. The stink of the dead is something you never forget no matter how many times you smell the pungent odor.

A few hours laterImg_6452 I was back at the U.S. military base in Mosul about 75 miles east of the villages. The Black Hawk lifted us up and took us away from this misery. Suddenly we were in another world. Here I could pick up an espresso or an iced latte at the Java Hut while surfing the net for $2 an hour. Outside the cafe, people dipped Lipton tea bags into hot water and played chess in this gray oasis surrounded by towering walls. Gravel carpeted the ground. In the trailer, where I slept, a powerful air conditioner was a refuge from the 130 degree heat.

At the dining hall they served lobster and steak and posters advertised Salsa night and a fashion and talent show the next week. Albanian soldiers huddled together at their tables, U.S. soldiers at another and the Iraqi interpreters stuck together like cliques in a high school cafeteria. I chuckled at the name of a jewelry and carpet store, Pop’s and Omar’s. The Pop’s made me think of southern cooking, a sign I might see in Texas. Omar brought it back to Iraq.

As I ate baked chicken followed by Baskin Robbins ice cream (not a lobster fan) I felt a pang of guilt. Each house in the two villages would receive some wheat, sugar and rice. Soon that would run out and the dead would still be gone.

August 13, 2007

Fear of the Shiite

Adnan al Dulaimi, one of the leading members of the Iraqi Accordance Front, sent a plea to the Associated Press yesterday stoking the fear of Shiite Muslims in the Arab world. He told the wire service that the "Persian" militias would soon control Baghdad and eventually expand their influence to other Arab regimes, stoking sectarian fear already aroused throughout the region, with a minority of Shiite Arabs. He called the situation a "genocide."

In recent interviews the Shiites are also fearful as the neighboring Saudi government purchased advanced weapons from the U.S. In the Sunni nation, the home of the holiest Islamic site, the Shiite minority are treated as second class citizens. Their most recent gain was the building of their places of worship in basements.

"There are Sunni countries who have the same percentage of Shiites as there are Sunnis in Iraq, you will find not one is a minister, or a deputy minister or a high ranking officer in the police or anywhere else," said Amar Hakim, the son of the leader of the powerful Supreme Islamic iraqi Council, and the heir apparent to head the council. "There are anxieties in some of these countries that the prominence of Shiite here will provoke the Shiite in their countries… Let them ask themselves: Why shouldn't we have a role in managing our affairs in our countries?"

In neighboring Jordan, where some one million Iraqis have fled, many there worry about the influx of Shiite Arabs from Iraq. One man was convinced that the suicide bombings that blasted through three hotels in Jordan in 2005, which was claimed by the Sunni extremist group Al Qaida, was a Shiite plot. Although one of our Iraqi reporters located the Sunni family of at least one of the bombers in the Sunni Anbar province, the man was not convinced. The Shiites are dangerous, he told me, "We don't want them here."

Dulaimi, himself, is no stranger to displacement. Iraqis say he is responsible for much of the Shiite displacement in his neighborhood of Adil. But the Shiite expansion in Baghdad is undeniable. Sunnis continue to be displaced and killed in the capital and by some American estimates the capital has changed from a once 65 percent Sunni capital to a 75 percent Shiite capital.

This week the Prime Minister plans to hold a summit, comprising of himself, the Kurdish president and the Shiite and Sunni vice presidents a long with the head of the Kurdish Regional Government to deal with the political crisis. Nouri al Maliki's "national unity government" is dissolving. The Sunni ministers have pulled out, the followers of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr are also gone and the secular list of the one time U.S. golden boy Ayad Allawi are no longer attending cabinet meetings. A U.S. official said it would address "deep issues" but did not expand.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died in the four years of this invasion. First it was mostly Shiites killed by the hundreds in bloody car bombs, the Sunnis also died at the hands of Sunni extremist group, there were the assassination campaigns of former Baathists by the Badr Corp, a Shiite militia now absorbed into the security forces. Now there is the systematic elimination and displacement of Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods in the capital. Of course Shiites are also displaced from Sunni neighborhoods, you won't find any walking through the once upscale Ameriyah neighborhood of Baghdad.

People are fighting to be the bigger victim. Shiite politicians don't openly condemn the situation, instead they ask "who picked the fight?" and talk about the higher number of Shiites killed in Iraq. Shiite and Sunni groups compete for the anonymous bodies at the morgue. Each side wants to raise the body count of their population by burying them in their graveyards.

A question was raised to me during interviews this week. There is an assumption that the Shiite-led government will try to solve the crisis. But one official asked "What if the intent is to continue the purge?"

No American officials ever asks this question publicly. No one ever asks whether the true intentions of the current government may be to solidify power by ridding themselves of a restive minority. Are American officials banking on a government that was born under U.S. supervision but may not be the best thing for the future of Iraq?

Now Shiites are being displaced for going against the wishes of the local Shiite militants. In other neighborhoods they are displaced for being Shiites in a majority Sunni neighborhood.

But who will step forward and ask who will stop the fight, instead of who picked the fight. The blame game is a common theme in my interviews with Iraqi politicians, both Sunni and Shiite. 

Today Sahar, my Iraqi colleague, returned from a shopping trip where she picked up perfumes and lipsticks, visited her parents and revisited her neighborhood where she hasn't stayed for over a month. Her daughter's trusted Shiite driver who takes her to school every day was displaced by the Mahdi Army militia, followers of Sadr. He can no longer take her to dental school.

"When will it stop?" she asked. A question no one dares to try to answer.

August 08, 2007

lock down

Last night the Iraqi government announced a three-day-curfew it would begin at 10 p.m. on Wednesday. So I planned my day around it, I had to go through a nearby neighborhood and interview people for a story then head to the Green Zone for some interviews at the U.S. Embassy.


The Iraqi government changed the curfew at 1 a.m. and I woke up and we were on lock down. Most of the staff couldn't get to work and Kevin, our security advisor, looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if I could still make the quick trip to the Green Zone.

On Thursday Shiites will make the pilgrimage to the Imam Mousa Ibn Jaafar al Kadhim,  the seventh of the twelve revered Imams, descendants of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali. According to Shiite lore, the Sunni Caliph Harun Rashid was threatened by the spiritual authority that Kadhim had, due to his lineage. He imprisoned him for at least 15 years and according to Shiite lore, Kadhim was poisoned and dumped on a bridge in Baghdad. The story feeds into the history of 1400 years of oppression when Shiites say they clung to their beliefs under the more powerful Sunni sect. Every Imam, according to Shiite legend, were killed in battle or poisoned. The last, according to twelver Shiites, is the Mahdi, the hidden Imam who went into hiding and will return. They have kept their history and tradition alive through mourning the deaths annually. 

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq changed the role of Shiites. With democracy, one man and one vote, the Shiite majority rules. The role has reversed and Sunnis fear that they will be pushed out by the Shiite majority. Displacement campaigns in the last year and a half have pushed Sunnis out of swaths of the capital.

Car bombs, typically target Shiite neighborhoods, and hundreds of thousands of Shiites walking from outlying provinces and parts of Baghdad to mourn the death of the Imam pose a perfect opportunity for a tragic and spectacular attack.

To mourn a man who's name Kadhim, an arabic words that means to show restraint in the face of anger, the capital must be locked down. Here, as the government unravels, revenge and anger seem to rule.

But it is nice to tell my editors the staff and I have to take a government ordered break.

August 04, 2007

coffee grounds

I sat inside a jewelry shop inside Al Rashid hotel today. Outside were the remnants of celebration, empty pop cans and orange peels littered plastic tables and music played to celebrate the Iraqi National Soccer team who brought home the Asia Cup inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. The area is about five square miles cut off from the rest of Iraq. Everything outside is termed, "the Red Zone." This area is off limits to many Iraqis, but thousands came to celebrate.

"Who's picking up the cost for this," a couple of friends and I asked.

"The people, the poor people who are dieing from hunger," she said.

The shop owner is a pretty woman, with short light brown hair. Her two daughters run through the shop of antiques, gaudy gold jewelry and antique silver treasures. 

They were recently displaced from Dora, a restive mostly Sunni neighborhood, where they were threatened by Al Qaida, the Sunni extremist group. The group has been demanding Christians to pay a tax, marry their daughters to fighters, convert or leave with the clothes on their back. She fled from her home and left everything behind. Al Qaida also kills Sunnis who don't believe in their intolerant ideologies and Shiite Muslims, who they consider unbelievers.

"This is all because of America," the Chaldean woman said. "What did they bring us?"

She answered herself, "Destruction."

I asked her about the concern the pope expressed to President George Bush.

"Who helped us? Not the pope, not Bush, not the government? No one," she said.

Now she lives inside the hotel where she has a small shop. It is always brimming with Iraqi politicians and American military, embassy officials and contractors searching for an authentic Iraqi experience. It's easy to spend a year in the Green Zone and never taste Mazqouf, the salty carp split open and grilled, hot Iraqi flat bread, Iraqi stews and stuffed grapeleaves.

"Ask Bush to come here and spend one night in the 55 to 60 degree (celsius) summer heat," she said. "Would he do it? Could he do it? I don't think so."

It is to hot for mattresses and they lay on the tiles inside the home to cool their bodies. Her daughters have burns on their back and stomach from the heat, she said.

"All we want is electricity and some clean water," she said. "Do you think if you give Iraqis relief they won't pick themselves up and work so hard?"

Her rant was interrupted.

Two Kellog Brown and Root contractors with sunglasses propped on their heads, walked in and picked up an antique dagger.

"What is this?" they asked.

"It's from the Ottoman empire," she answered half in English, half in Arabic. She pointed to the silver inscriptions. "A dagger for the king."

One man pulled the dagger from its wooden sheath, his eyes glinting at the thought of showing what he'd bought from a war zone.

"How much?"

"$650," she said.

"It's something to think about," the second man answered in a southern drawl and left.

"I felt bad to tell him that I should sell that for more than $1,000. I got it for $500," she said. 

She offered us tiny cups of hot Turkish coffee. I drank it and dumped the grounds on the plate. Inside the tiny white cup the grounds snaked across the white ceramic to tell a story, she said.

"You are tired," she said. "You are tired of seeing pain, tired of moving. You want to stop."

She wouldn't let me pay her for the reading so I picked up some silver earings from the shop. In Arabic the inscription said, "Allah," God in English.

"God gives you relief," she said.  Her eyes twinkled, a displaced woman comforting a foreigner.

August 01, 2007

Where is the bread?

A reader wrote in criticizing me for writing about soccer and a National Anthem when OXFAM had released a report that chronicled the suffering of Iraqi people here, which has deteriorated since the U.S. led-invasion here in 2003. Watching Iraqis celebrate for the first time since I came here was enchanting. I've written so much about the misery I see every day it was an uplifting change to see a moment of fleeting happiness. Also, seeing the joyful reaction by some of my Iraqi friends when the Baathist National Anthem played in Dubai, seen as a direct snub against the Iraqi government set up during a deemed American occupation, is telling.

But he's right.  Here are some snippets from that report:

Four million Iraqis can't afford to eat enough

70 percent of Iraqis don't have clean water supplies, a 20 percent increase since 2003.

28 percent of children are malnourished, a nine percent increase since the invasion in March 2003.

92 percent of children have learning problems that stem from the constant fear they live here in Iraq.

More than two million people are internally displaced in Iraq.

Another two million have fled, most taking refuge in Jordan and Syria, both now unwelcoming.

We've written a lot about what I think can be termed a crisis in Iraq. But the numbers show that there is no question that life for Iraqis here has deteriorated since the March 2003 invasion. 

The signs of this crisis are in the streets. An Iraqi friend of mine has a two-year-old daughter, Dima. She is a funny child who sings a long with Barney. Her little lips, mouth the words, "I love you, you love me." When she sees candy she gets so excited she bites right into the wrapper to get to the treat inside.

She's a lot like her mom; she loves new dresses and pretty jewelry. My makeup is her toy box, she begs for lipstick and perfume. But she often breaks into fevers and has had such serious bouts of diarrhea because of the unwavering summer heat of Baghdad and tainted water. The capital has only one to two hours of government electricity a day. The rest of the time Iraqis sleep in more than 110 degree temperatures. They used to sleep on their roofs at night, to catch any cool breeze. But low flying U.S. helicopters that kick up dust are a hindrance and stray bullets from a nearby gun fight could injure or kill them. 

Here in central Baghdad, people are digging wells in their backyards for water, because water supplies are so limited.

I remember on my first trip here in 2005 the complaints were the same, no water, no electricity, no money and no jobs. Nothing has changed, in some cases its much worse.

Most doctors have fled the country and Iraqis end up in Iran or Syria for treatment, if they can get there in time.

One of my Iraqi colleagues, Sahar, a brave single mother, struggles to keep her children in school. She is now among the displaced. She moved into our bureau. She feared staying at home would cost her another child; she's already lost one to this war. Now her beautiful 22-year-old daughter and clever 13-year-old boy are staples here. Her daughter is studying to be a dentist, despite snipers on campus, threats to professors and the dangerous road to school. Sahar's son, who loves Linkin' Park, a mix of heavy metal and alternative rock, goes to a private school known for its good education system. But now she's considering pulling him out to put him somewhere safer, closer to home. She fears that securing him a good future with a solid education could also abruptly end his future in a nearby car bomb.

There is little she can do but try to protect him from the dangers outside: random gunfire, roadside bombs, kidnappings and sectarian killings. I can see her fear, she will never get over the pain of her loss and I know she couldn't bear another.

In the past the bureau has written stories about children growing up knowing more about war than anything else. At day cares four-year-olds draw pictures of severed limbs, American tanks and gunmen; images they've seen their entire lives. Among children's first words here is the word bullet, Talqa or Rasasa in Arabic.

I remember when Dima's mother told me about her baby girl crying in fear. She was too young to talk, but she used her thumb and index finger to make the shape of a gun and made the sounds "Ta, Ta" to mimic the sound of gunfire outside.

Today I spent the morning at the Deputy Prime Minister's house. Barham Saleh met with the provincial council from Ninewah, north of Baghdad. One thing on the agenda was oil. The governor refused to transport oil through the province, the central government was upset.

"They are targeted," he said, referring to the oil tankers. Then he moved on to a more pressing issue, the province could not get enough rice, tea or milk for the people. The Minister of Trade said the problem wasn't supply, it was transport. People weren't willing to drive the products to the province because of the danger. His suggestion to the council was this: provide your own security or hire private companies to bring in the food.

Today in Baghdad at least 76 people were killed in car bombs. Sometimes with all the horrific attacks that rip a part bodies and bloody the streets, we forget about the daily suffering that have nothing to do with a spectacular explosion. We forget about the young children who can't focus in school because they fear they might die. Many don't go to school at all, the roads are to dangerous.

We forget about the little girl who looks up at her penniless father and asks her baba for bread. We forget about the hundreds of thousands of women who are now widows and are forced to find a way to feed their family. We forget about the day when the four-year-old who grew up in this war can't get a job as an adult because it was to dangerous to go to school. We forget that not everything is Sunni vs. Shiite, Sunni vs. Sunni, Shiite vs. Shiite or Kurd vs Arab. We forget that not everything is about Al Qaida, a group that only formed in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and according to some reports is only responsible for 15 percent of the violence in Iraq. We forget that it's not just about U.S. government catch phrases like, "democracy is hard," or "If we don't fight them here, they will follow us home." We forget that this is more than labels, this is people. 

I have been criticized for writing to many "poor Iraqi stories" or being too critical of the situation here and today criticized for not being critical enough. But life according to this report  is not better for Iraqis since 2003


Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

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