Sophia's Peace Work

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Can you believe it? Sick again. Some kind of cold. My voice, I'm told, has a new sultry quality. Finally had a substantial meeting with the Iraq Green Movement. Hamid, who appears to be one of their main guys, dropped by the hotel with his brother and whisked Lorna and myself off too a restaurant by the river. I asked them what were the biggest environmental problems that they faced in Iraq. Cleaning up pollution and raising the environmental consciousness of the people, they said. They had a laundry list of concerns ... the flood of consumer products, the rebuilding of the marshlands, protection of historical sites, reforestation, agricultural reforms, etc. Hamid would also like to start up a journal. But as always, lack of funding is the main problem. (Hamid, by the way, is an acupuncturist and gave me a little treatment for my cold ... too bad I have so little faith in such practices).

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Nosh to Iraq!

“Nosh! Nosh to ourselves! Nosh to our health! Nosh to love!” These Kurdish toasts seem to be the salutation of choice by our host, a dapper and energetic former Kurdish minister, Pesh merga and Iraqi media mogul. When in doubt, when energies lull, when a moment of silence arises, just cry out “Nosh!” and all will be well.

Just how I had ended up in the garden of this man’s comfortable home on a mild February evening in the affluent Jadiriya neighborhood of Baghdad, I am still not sure. For some reason, he has taken a liking to me … though he barely knows me. He had invited us over to his home for what I had thought would be a small evening repast, but it turned out to be a large dinner party of “Important People” involved in the Development and Reconstruction Effort (Capital letters are required here).

Our host appears to be a key figure in the Democracy movement in Iraq. He seems to know and be known by everyone. His party was attended by oil and reconstruction business executives, a university law professor, and a former government minister from Eastern Europe just to name a few. Wonderful food and some incredible conversations did ensue but, for me, there was something disturbing about the party too. Could it have been the not insignificant presence of armed guards at the gate? My host’s occasional inappropriate physical advances? Or was it the fact that there were also representatives from DynCorp and the Cato Institute in attendance? During the party, I had only a vague recollection about these two organizations … something like a bad taste in my mouth but I was uncertain of the reason why. A little searching around on the internet the next day cleared things up.

The man from the Cato Institute, a DC-based think tank, was in Iraq to attend a conference on “International Examples of Teaching Civics.” A school privatization proponent, he seemed to fit quite well, I later found, within the Cato “libertarian” paradigm. One source calls the Cato Institute a “quasi-academic think-tank which acts as a mouthpiece for the globalism, corporatism, and neoliberalism of its corporate and conservative funders …. There is no significant participation by the tiny libertarian minority. They do not fund it or affect its goals.” (Source: Critiques of Libertarianism site). According to Norman Soloman of the Institute for Public Accuracy, Cato "receives most of its financial support from entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express, and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation." Is this person a proper U.S. representative to help inform the new Iraqi educational system on civics?

Then there was the man from DynCorp, which is a multi-billion dollar defense contractor. It has provided police forces in Bosnia, security in Afghanistan, border control and operations of the Air Force One presidential fleet in the U.S., as well as providing planes and pilots for defoliation of coca crops for the “War on Drugs” (Remember that one?) in South America.

Despite this impressive background DynCorp has seen some significant controversy. In Ecuador there were allegations of misapplications of herbicides that have resulted in legitimate crop destruction, human and livestock illnesses and in some cases the death of children. There are also cases of DynCorp whistleblowers exposing problems with extensive government over billing, shoddy workmanship, sex trafficking, mafia connections and even slavery.

"DynCorp is just as immoral and elite as possible, and any rule they can break they do," whistleblower Ben Johnston, a DynCorp aircraft mechanic in Kosovo told Insight magazine. (Sources: Kelly Patricia O Meara, Insight Magazine, 03/02/04 & Pratap Chatterjee, CorpWatch, April 9, 2003). Will a similar philosophy inform DynCorps behavior in Iraq?

These men (and some women) represented a slice of life I don’t normally get to see and, aside from a philosophic difference in perspective, I enjoyed meeting and talking with them. It is entirely possible that these people are doing good work here in Iraq, despite the some cases the somewhat dubious reputations of their employers, but I am well aware of the fact that pleasing conversation and amiable demeanor can mask darker things. It can make some things that are unacceptable, perhaps immoral, appear normal and even enjoyable. But out there in the night, past the guards bristling with their guns and their tough demeanor, is a place that is truly suffering and in pain. Are these the people that can put things to right? Are these the people that can build tolerance and peace and prosperity for Iraq? I would like to hope so, but I am not yet convinced.

A hotdog stand on Karrada

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Got a question about how expensive it is to come to Iraq (i.e. how do all the freelance journalists and peacefolk afford it). Well it isn't as expensive as you would think ... Transportation is the big ticket. A round-trip ticket from the states can cost between $900 and $1800 US (ball park). Then you have to get into Iraq ($150 to $300 one way in a taxi) ... cheaper if you take the bus ($25, I was told ... but then you have to negotiate the boarder without knowing the language). Once here, we've noticed that the prices are higher than last year, but not by that much. A single hotel room at our hotel is $20/night. On top of that is food ... (breakfast is included with the hotel cost) ... maybe you are paying $5 or $6 US a day ... and that's eating pretty good. Internet access is 2000 Iraqi Dinars per hour ... and the exchange rate today was 1450 ID to 1 USD. So you can still be a poor, starving journalist or peacenik and live in Iraq ... (gunfire in the middle of the night and a high crime rate come free with all of the above).

I'll put up some pictures soon. We have a wonderful Hungarian TV reporter (aka The Hun) who lives on the top (penthouse) floor of our hotel. On his own he set up internet access to his room and he has ten additional email accounts which he has given out to various people in the hotel... by stringing ethernet cables off the roof! Lorna, my travel partner, and myself were lucky to get a cable but unfortunately there is some problem at the moment and The Hun is no where to be found (off covering some story no doubt ... we wonder about his priorities sometimes). So for the time being I've had to go back to using the internet cafe's (2000 ID an hour) ... not expensive ... but not very convenient either.

Al Jazeerah

The elderly woman dressed all in black with tattoos on both wrinkled cheeks sat down at our feet before the rubble of her destroyed house as we tried to explain our presence. She didn't look pleased and after awhile she got up and left. Her neighbor, a lawyer, was the spokesman for the neighborhood in a small farming village called Al Jazeerah not far from Ar-Ramadi, which is a part of the Sunni Triangle where resistance to the U.S. forces has been high. The lawyer didn't look pleased either.

He told us that it was potentially dangerous for him. All these people have come to talk and take pictures but nothing ever changes. Nothing is ever done to make up for what they have lost. People are starting to question him. Perhaps some of the westerners coming are spies. Who are we really? Have we come to take pictures of the men and hand them over to the U.S.? Why should they trust us at all?

The story we are told is that on the 22nd of November, 2003 at 5:30 pm in the evening a military raid occurred at the house. The men and woman were brought outside and a search of the house was conducted by the U.S. forces, some entering from the front and some from the rear. They told us that once inside the house, an incident occurred that resulted in the death by friendly fire of four American soldiers. Out of fear, shock, anger or a combination of all three, the soldiers spray the entire area with gun fire and execute the three men that were outside the house. Not far away, we are
told, the mosque was letting out after evening prayers. Five men were driving towards the house where the raid was taking place when a tank fired upon the vehicle, killing everyone inside.

The details of this story are a collective memory of everyone in the community. Everyone has their story to tell. It is written in the creased frowns on the old woman's face and in the wide eyes of a young child as he told us of what it was like to see a vehicle explode into fire. I can not vouch for the truth here. The Christian Peacemaker Team, with whom I had come, had been to the village before. All that they know for sure is that eight people were taken to the morgue, others were injured, one vehicle is a smashed heap sitting at the local police station, and one house lies virtually in ruin.

Who were we anyway? What would talking to us bring? If we couldn't bring back their men or bring some kind of compensation, what good were we? It was an uncomfortable moment because we could see the validity of their questions and we understood that this community needed to vent its frustrations. We had come to help them begin to rebuild. Nearby was the foundation of a new house and two large piles of rock that needed to be broken. One by one, we wandered over to the rock piles and began to break and sort the rocks for building.

It was an awkward start. For one thing there were at least forty children staring and giggling at us and a large number of adults with dubious looks upon their faces. But slowly as we started to work through the pile, there was a kind of a loosening that took place. The children and some of the adults lent a hand with the work. There were jokes and bits of broken English and Arabic traded back and forth. The old woman came back to sit nearby and I looked up at her once to find a smile upon her face. It wasn't much. It was only one day. But it felt good to be working with these people. By the time of our departure, they told us that we were welcome to visit anytime.

There has been a simmering debate amongst the freelance journalists and peace activists that are working here. If you side with the Iraqis in some of these villages, does that mean you side with the Resistance? We are aware that the possibility exists that some of these village and townsfolk that we meet could be telling us stories of the injustices they have suffered at the hands of the Americans and then later that evening could be firing mortar shells at the American bases in their midst. For myself, I tend to look at a house that has been destroyed and not think too much about who destroyed it. I can't do anything about what happened. I just know it is simply time to rebuild.

On our way home from Al Jezeerah, as we were passing the lights of Abu Ghraib prison where the U.S. forces holds many of its detainees, I saw my first mortar attack. I felt the pressure wave through the thin-skinned walls of our van as we were driving past. There is so much destruction going on in this country and not enough rebuilding.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Ok, it's been an eventful few days ... my stomach is still a bit off (which mostly means that in a land that puts Italian mothers to shame, I am constantly refusing food ... no easy task). Anyway, I've had my first two arabic classes with I. She's gonna be great. I sat in on an interview with a political cartoonist. I drove around town with a couple of crazy communists looking for the Iraqi Greenpeace Organization (we didn't find it) and when we offered them some money, they replied, "No, no. We are Communists!" I met an Iraqi man who proceeded to, effectively "chase me around the table" (No, he didn't catch me).... Last night we heard some sustained gunfire that sounded very close (Lorna asked the desk people about it the next day and they said, "Yes, Wild West!").

Then today I went out to Al Jazeera (the town not the TV network) just outside Ar-Ramadi and helped break stones for the building of a house (the owners' previous house was partially destroyed in a military raid ... more on this later). And coming home tonight, as we passed Abu Ghraib prison (One of Saddam's notorious prisons that is now were many coalition detainees are kept), I experienced my first mortar attack (boom, boom, Boom! Someone was attacking the prison). The driver swerved us off the road quickly but it was a blind alley and we had to get right back on it. Anyway, made it home safe and sound.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

I’ve been under the weather since Thursday night but I think I'm mostly recovered. I was wondering what it was that had caused my bout of food poisoning and my friend Mike said, "It's everything." There is no way around it ... I'm living in a very unhealthful environment. I have to be very careful what I eat and drink - no uncooked vegetables for me ... no matter how appetizing they look. And the air pollution is horrible ... there are times when I wish I could just stop breathing. I remember this from before the war but it seems much worse now. There are generators and more cars on the street. I hooked up with one of our old drivers, Mohammed. He proudly showed us his new car (a used Honda). We joked that we liked his old wreck of a car better ... it wouldn't look good for peaceniks to be seen driving around in his shiny new vehicle. There are loads of new (mostly used) cars on the street. Mohammed told us that he bought his car for $4,000 (I not sure of this ...his English on this point was a bit hard to understand) and that before the war the price would have been twice that.

As we drove into Iraq last week, we saw lots of cars driving into the country with no license plate ... they were used cars, we were told, coming into Iraq to be sold. As a result there are even more cars on the streets during the day and horrific traffic jams (I once saw 10 traffic cops at one intersection and they were barely keeping order). I have seen some pretty amazing stunts that get pulled as people try to bypass the worse snarls. Mohammed, driving us to visit his family on the outskirts of Baghdad, entered a crowded traffic circle going the wrong direction. You would expect all the other drivers to scream and shake their fists at him, but apparently they have seen it all before and slowly moved aside to accommodate him.

Now that I seem to be over the worse of my sickness (fingers firmly crossed), I can start to plan for new activities. A visit to Childhood Voices ... an appointment to see in Arabic instructor. A wedding on Monday (Lorna, my travel partner, will be the photographer for the wedding). And on Wednesday, we are heading with the Christian Peacemaker Team to a village just past Ar-Ramadi, to possibly help rebuild a home destroyed by the military.

Anyway, I'm happy just to be leaving my room today for the first time in over 24 hours!

Oh … and although I know you hear worse news about what is happening here in Iraq, I just wanted you to know that it has been relatively calm here in the Karrada district of central Baghdad. We see military patrols on occasion and hear helicopters now and then. We also hear sporadic bursts of gunfire (but it's hard to know if this just isn't another wedding) but I would say the biggest problem we have here is just crime and security. Everyone worries about that the most.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Probably the quietest walk in Baghdad these days is to walk along Abu Nuwas Street near the Sheraton and Palestine Hotels. Here, Lorna & M stroll along the security wall that separates the street from the park along the Tigris River. Going inside the wall entails a pat down search at Security ... I did it once off Saddoon Street. A pretty cursory event ... but then I probably don't fit the profile.

Ah, food poisoning sucks! I've been laid up in bed staring at the dirty green walls of my room and listening to the noise off the streets all day. I have reached the hump where the pain of lying in bed too long has become greater than the pain in my stomach. I wish I could know what it was that put me in this state. My friend M says, "It's everything."

Thursday, February 12, 2004

First impressions

We waited there for three days before our driver, an Iraqi named Sattar, was ready to take us in. An engineer by training, Sattar supports his family by driving the 12 to 15 hours each way from Amman to Baghdad and back several times a week. At 1 AM on the dot, he met us in the hotel lobby ready to drive us in. We had heard stories of drivers falling asleep at the wheel and Sattar couldn’t have had more than five hours of sleep, so we were determined to stay awake for the entire journey. Unfortunately, I was quickly out like a light. I had two travel partners. N, a student from Virginia who I had met briefly before the war in Baghdad and who had spent most of the last year studying Arabic in Syria, and Lorna, a journalist from the Hudson Valley of New York. N was soon splayed out on the seat in front of me but fortunately Lorna had more staying power and kept up a near constant banter with the soft-spoken Sattar.

Our journey into Iraq was punctuated by three events.

Before even arriving at the border, we made a pit stop at a small village in Jordan to use the bathrooms at an all-night restaurant. Ordinarily this would have been an inconsequential blip in a journey but after I had successfully navigated the WC (aka water closet aka bathroom), Lorna proceeded to get stuck inside. As I waited outside for her, wondering, ‘hoo humm, why is it taking Lorna so long?’ Lorna was calling for help and two restaurant workers were banging away at the door to the WC. Finally deciding to check on her, I arrived just as the two strapping fellows broke the door down. Lorna remains a bit traumatized by this event and I promised not to abandon her to the WC’s in the future.

One other noteworthy thing occurred at this rest stop … standing outside the restaurant were a group of westerners – all men, in spanking new Timberline boots. I approached and was told by one that he was from New Zealand, another from Florida, another from Moscow. Turns out they were all ex-military and were going into Iraq to do “security.” When they realized that Lorna was a journalist (my fault for introducing her) they were unwilling to tell us anymore than that. So we wished them luck and were on our way.

The second event was the border crossing itself, which we hit at about 5 AM. The Jordan side was pretty much the same. I had heard from a friend who had gone in a week before that his driver, once he was through the Jordan side of the border, had just gunned the engine. Spitting out a dismissive “Finished!” he sped through the Iraqi checkpoints without stopping. Sattar was not so daring … after a cursory check of our vehicle and a brief stop to get our passports stamped, we were in. It was a far cry from my entry experience of last year with the three hour wait in the VIP lounge sipping chai (tea) and staring back at an enormous Saddam Hussein painting, while the Iraqi’s rooted through my luggage. No Saddam’s this time … even his statue at the border was just a twisted heap.

The final event was a sad one … as the sun rose upon the dun-colored desert of western Iraq, we noticed electrical towers stretching on for miles, most bent over and destroyed their lines broken or simply removed (“Stolen,” Sattar told us). The road seemed fine for most of the trip in, aside from one detour we made around a bombed out section of road, but as we got closer and closer to Baghdad, we noticed more wrecked cars and twisted guardrails. In many places you could see clearly where tanks had crisscrossed the road, leaving, in some areas, large rectangular sections of metal railing bent perfectly over. But most disturbing, we came upon the scene of a recent accident. An SUV (the car of choice for carting people back and forth between Amman and Jordan) had rolled several times and laid upright but smashed on the side of the road. A crowd of about ten SUV’s had pulled over to the side of the road to give assistance (all these drivers tend to look out for one another) and our vehicle soon joined them.

We then found out that as soft-spoken as Sattar’s English is, his Arabic comes out strong and forthright. The driver of the wrecked car had been a friend and he and one of his passengers was dead. We stayed at the site for about two hours, while Sattar lended what help he could. Unfortunately, there was very little any could do.

As for Baghdad itself, in some areas the city looks the same – still a bustling jumble of cars and people. But then you will come upon buildings that were bombed, burned or looted … sometimes all three. Or you will see a convoy of U.S. soldiers drive by. There are also now more guns on the street, more armed guards around building and more barbed wire. The city quiets down after dark. Last year, before the war, it was relatively safe to walk the streets of Baghdad at night. Now few go out after sunset. It is far too risky.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

We leave in two hours ..... after sewing money into our clothing ... in my mind this is a little overly precautious and I thought it a bit silly but who knows what we'll come across on the way to Iraq? In approximately fifteen hours, inshallah, we should be in Baghdad.

A very nice animated slide show ... check it out!

Saturday, February 07, 2004

"They say 'Welcome to Jordan!' when you arrive in Amman," Hassan said, "But for me it was really 'Welcome to Hell.'"

Hassan was our waiter at a local restaurant. He stood out immediately because of his Brooklyn accent. Over the course of serving us a simple meal of hummos, tabouli, roasted chicken and flat bread, he told us his story.

Hassan came to the United States in 1974 ... he was 17 years old. Growing up in New York, he eventually started a family and later a small business with a partner. Then he made the mistake of obtaining a unregistered handgun for self-protection. In September 2002 he was arrested for carrying the weapon but was soon on probation for the offense. For most American citizens the probation would have run its course and that would, most likely, have been the end of it but Hassan's probation brought him under the eye of the Immigration Service.

In February 2003, Hassan showed up for his scheduled probation meeting and Immigration took him into custody. He was taken to various jails in New York, Ohio and Florida before being deported in May of 2003 to Jordan.

"America is my home ... I'm American ... I have a wife there and my children were all born in the states ... my youngest child, Nikki, is 14 years old," Hassan told us. But according to Hassan, he will not be allowed to return for 10 years.

By that time, Nikki will be 24.

Being forced to leave America was just part of Hassan's nightmare he told us. He had no family in Jordan, no one to help him get back on his feet. He spoke of having to bribe the Jordanian officials so that he could be released to work in the country. He spoke of working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with only two days off per month. He spoke of being barely able to survive on the wages he makes but being unwilling to ask for help from his family in the States.

"I live only in my memories now," he said.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

A visit to Maryhouse ... NYC, for a meeting with C.

I have a daunting path before me and I feel that I'm going on it quite alone. C spent most of last year (pre-war, war, & occupation) living in Iraq. She is a wealth of knowledge and contacts, but she wont be able to return for quite awhile. She spent the evening trying to download everything she knew into my small and quite overwhelmed brain. I spent part of this morning, after leaving her, walking down to the World Trade Center Site ... it looks like a hugh construction site with various buildings encircling it in different states of repair. I didn't get a feel for the place until I walked into St. Paul's chapel nearby. It's filled with memorials. I sat in one of the pews for just a brief moment and felt the full weight of what I was about to embark upon.

Upon returning to L's home north of the city, I read a passage in Chronogram (2/04) written by Frank Crocitto. "You have to begin to distrust the glue that holds us in place - it's made up of lies, self-deception, the false picture we have of ourselves." Crocitto goes on to say that to free ourselves, we need to become literally "unglued" and that once you reach this state "you'll feel uncomfortable, on shaky ground, unable to hold yourself up anymore."

I have become "unglued" ... I think of it more as "floating" ... listening to C ... sitting in the pew at St. Paul's ... I could almost float away. But soon I know I'll come down hard and fast and I simply must hit the ground running.

L's (my travel partner) Support Group in full swing

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Greetings from New York ... after lugging the "Backpack from Hell" to the airport for a red-eye flight, I made it, weary and bleary-eyed, to JFK Airport ... even managed to few brief moments of sleep (unheard of for me). L (my travel partner to Iraq) picked me up and drove me into the city (I can attest to the fact that she is a real New York driver).

We visited Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker house (which strangly enough is just down the road from a Hell's Angel's Club ... hmmmm). C, who I had met last year in Iraq and who spent much of the last year (during the War & Occupation) living in Iraq, lives at Maryhouse when she's in the States. I had hoped that she would be returning soon to Iraq, since her connections there would be invaluable, but she's not yet ready to return. She was preparing the lunch for the day for everyone who was due to stop by the house and so we had very little time to talk. I'll be returning on Monday to meet with her on my own.

Since then I've spent the last day or so at L's home about 100 miles north of the city. She has a lovely home surrounded in snow and light (and filled with amazing food!) ... a perfect jumping off point for the next leg of our journey!