Sophia's Peace Work

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

I've begun teaching English Conversation Classes with Baghdad University. I passed around a sheet of paper and asked each of them to write down a question they would like to ask me. Here is a sample:

Are you glad for coming to Iraq? Why?

I'm asking about your opinion in U.S. Occupation.

What is your opinion about our society and the way we live in Iraq?

What do you think about short people?

Are there any army in America's colleges like our colleges because they always inter in our college.

I want some stories to read.

Can U teach us alog of expressions and slang words especially American Slan and expressions

You welcome here but I don't like [you] to teach us.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Man of Mystery

As you drive through the city of Baghdad, you will occasionally come upon the high walls of concrete and concertina wire that grace various hotels and official buildings around town. One such place is the Sadeer Hotel in Andalous Square. Entering the Sadeer through this impressive security blanket and swarm of gun-toting guards, you are first greeted by a parking lot full of shiny, new cars and rows upon rows of SUV's. Once into the marbled and paneled lobby of this five-star hotel, you have arrived in DynCorp Central. The place is packed with westerner in tan fatigues … ex-military and police men … hired to do “security work” in Iraq by DynCorp, a multi-million dollar defense contractor with something of a checkered past (See my article "Nosh to Iraq"). Dan, a photojournalist I’ve invited along for this excursion into the high-rolling world of big-money contractors and government officials, has to scrape his jaw off the floor as we walk out into the immaculate pool and patio area where I’ve been invited to meet some "important people" for a dinner party.

The hotel buildings around us are lousy with armed guards. They are on the roof-tops and they ring the patio areas where the guests have assembled. One tall fellow named Louis mingles with the crowd slung with a submachine gun and a kifeyah, the well-known checkered scarf of Arab men. There is live music, drinks, and incredible food. I know that outside this well-protected oasis is a city filled with strife, sewage and desperation, but here … aside from all the armed men encircling the party, I could anywhere in the West.

As promised there are lots of "Important People" … senior advisors and staff to the Ministry of Sports, Ministry of Housing, Several press officials and Nina Bonino, a Minister from the European Union, come to Iraq for quick briefings and a CPA-hosted tour. There are also men of mystery here as well. I spoke to one named Robert. That was all he would tell me. Our host introduced him to me and I started telling him of a boy in one of the squatter camps that can not walk and of how I have been trying to get him some assistance. Here is a summary of our ensuing conversation.

Robert: What is his name?

Me: Ahmed

Robert: What is his problem?

Me: Well, I’m no doctor. He can’t walk and he has seen many doctors that can’t seem to help. His mother believes that he needs help outside the country.

Robert: Where is he?

Me: Well, as of yesterday, he was at Yarmouk Hospital. But why are you asking me all of this. Is there anything you can do to help him?

Robert: I think so. Write down the information on the boy. I’ll make a few calls.

Me: Oh really? Who do you work for?

Robert: I can’t tell you that.

Me: Can you tell me your last name?

Robert: No.

Me: How about an email address or a phone number?

Robert: Sorry, I can’t tell you that.

Me: (to myself) ARRRGH!

The whole conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. To make matters worse, a few minutes later, I saw the host of the party and I asked him, "Who was that man named Robert that I was talking to? What does he do?"

"What man?" was all he replied as he fluttered off to talk to another guest.

"But you introduced me to him!" I called in exasperation to his back.

I have no right to refuse help for Ahmed but this is just not how it is supposed to work! There are thousands of kids like him. Who is going to parachute them out of Iraq? If this man does pull some strings for the boy, I'll never be able to show my face again at the Mukhabarat camp where he lives. The people there will assume I am some kind of "Important Person" myself. It’s bad enough as it is now … my visits have built up expectations for the family and as much as I try to remind them that I cannot promise them anything, I can see that they are starting to pin their hopes on me.

But in some ways, I'm not that different from the mysterious Robert. He can pull strings because he knows the "Important People" to call. In my case, as Alaa my translator reminds me, it is just my white face and my American passport that pulls strings and opens doors. Either way, it's a lousy way to operate.

Note: To date, Robert, my Man of Mystery, was all talk. Ahmed hasn’t heard a word from him.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Today my interpreter, Alaa, showed me the small handgun that her husband bought for her. "He went to the countryside to get it," she told me. Apparently you have to go out of town to buy a gun these days. It is disturbing to me that she has it but I certainly can't tell her not to do so. She takes as much risk (if not more) by being seen with me as I do by coming to the country. Many interpreters have been killed.

Today, I went to a vigil in Tharir Square with the Christian Peacemaker Team. They had a tent, banner and signs talking about the security detainees being held at different prisons around the country. Many have been in prison for many months with little or no word about why they have been detained and held. I held a picture of Arras Hadi Hussain, a 20 year old student that was detained last April and is being held in Abu Ghraib prison.

I spent two hours in the hot sun talking in broken arabic and broken english about everything from detainees, to who would win the U.S. elections in the fall, to what my favorite sport was. We were mobbed by people the whole time ... all men and mostly young. Many people thanked us for our presense, some shook their heads saying it was useless and that we couldn't change anything. I just told them what I believe, "It is better to keep trying."

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Strangely enough, I think I just got a job. Baghdad University has asked me to help teach some English Conversation classes. I was thinking it would be some kind of informal thing ... but now I've gotten myself roped into teaching two days a week at the University until May. Yikes!

Monday, March 22, 2004

We were supposed to go on a monitoring trip with the Iraqi Radiation Center (part of the Ministry of Environment) today to the villages near the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility that was looted after the war but got the run around. They say, "Yes, no problem, you and come with us." Then we show up and it's, "Oh sorry, no trip today."

Yeesh ... so I spent the day getting the run around at Al Kindi hospital working on Ahmed's case (a young man in one of the squatter camps that has lost the ability to walk ... we're trying to get him medical attention). I was getting more and more upset ... as we went from on chaotic office to another. Then we went to the mother's house ... turns out Ahmed was taken to Yarmouk hospital because he was having trouble urinating. The mother's story is of course different from the hospital's story ... so I was getting even more upset. I really felt out of my depth ... everyone is talking in Arabic and I get a word here and there but not the meaning.

Ack, what is going on? I have no idea! Alaa only translates a subset of what is said and sometimes I don't get the complete meaning. At one point, in the hospital, she had me convinced we were in a ward for crazy people and then I come to find it was the Neurology department ... atleast I think it was ... I'm still not sure. In the mother's house I started crying because I just didn't know what to do or what was really going on.

Alaa assures me that, at the hospitals, my very presense gets her in the door. I remember a peace worker telling me about an Iraqi man who made up a poster as a joke with pictures of her and other western peace workers on it and the title "Rent a Whitey!" If that is the only way I can be of value to these people, then so be it but it is COMPLETELY FUCKED!

Friday, March 19, 2004

I recently had someone demand that I justify myself and my presence here in Iraq. They didn't think that I could do any good and that my presence was "a drain on the available resources" that Iraqis rely upon. The recent bombing had frightened them and they felt that the danger is just not worth it.

Whoa Nellie! First of all … you folks back home need to remember that you only hear the worst news ... if you were here, you would realize that bad news (bombings, shootings, terrorists attacks) is the only stuff that gets covered by the Media and that there are plenty of other things going on. Secondly, I'm tired of people telling me that my being in Iraq is not useful. Excuse me, but how do they know? I don't have to justify myself to anyone. How do they know what the Iraqi people need or want? I simply came to find out, to listen and to learn ... and if I could, to help. There is and can be no harm in this. Actually, I think it would be a very good idea if more people came. At the very least, the taxi drivers will benefit greatly by over-charging all the Westerners. Come on people! Expose yourself to another culture for a change. It will do you a world of good. Stop making a lot of assumptions from your cozy seat in the West.

I may not be able to do a lot of good (or even any good), but at least I'm giving it a go. I've been trying to get medical assistance to a boy here that can not walk. His mother is afraid, like many others, to approach the Americans for help and so I'm trying to do what I can to intercede for her, since it is the Americans that control the purse strings. If that is the only think I do here, that will be a huge accomplishment. I know that people are jumping all over me because they are worried ... but jeez lousie, give me a break!

Note: There is nothing worse than being in a dangerous situation ... than having people constantly remind you that you are in a dangerous situation and that what you are doing is pointless.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

There were seven of us, five Americans and two Iraqi translators, going for a send-off meal for one of the photojournalists (my travel partner Lorna!) at a nearby pizza joint. It was a busy night and the restaurant was full of Iraqis having a nice meal out. The remains of three pizzas were spread before us when a loud, thudding boom flexed the windows of the restaurant and made our hearts skip a beat. The Americans were out of there seats and out the door in seconds. I looked back and noticed that our two translators hadn’t budged. This was just more of the same to them.
Two of our party rushed off to get their cameras. But the rest of us went back to finish our meal. To me, the attention that these big bomb attacks receive by the press, when there are so many pressing problems here in Iraq that never get covered, is discouraging. This had been a big bomb though … one account suggested that 1000 pounds of plastic explosive had been used and it was only about five blocks from the Central Baghdad hotel where my friends were staying. When the rest of us returned home, we noticed as we drew closer that nearly all of the lower windows within a five to six block radius of the bomb had shattered.
We walked over to the site, the Mount Lebanon Hotel … a soft target since its clientele was mostly foreign Arab businessmen and westerners. I arrived on the scene after the American soldiers had cordoned off the area and pushed everyone back. We, Westerns and Iraqis together, stood in a vacant lot used as a trash dump, staring past the Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers at the smoking remains. One Iraqi arriving on the scene pleaded to be let in to see if family members were O.K. but was told to wait. Another man, one legged and on crutches, yelled, "Apache, Apache!" and claimed that the Americans had fired a missile at the hotel. The press pushed to be allowed in and a soldier lost his temper and threatened with his machine gun to scatter the crowd. Standing around, kicking at bits of refuse and sludge, we could only wait in the dark and flashing lights.
Come the light of day, I returned to the site and wondered at the terrible mess of it all. I walked through the flooded street with my translator and friend, Alaa Kamel, to the crater where the car bomb had exploded … now a pool of water surrounded by broken concrete, shattered buildings, clueless reporters, and disgusted Iraqis. Alaa just cried. "You see," she said sadly, "This is why some people say it was better under Saddam."

Monday, March 15, 2004

A few pictures from my day in Baghdad

"Americans talk your oil."

The earth off it's axis outside the Mukahabarat ... Former Iraqi Intelligence Agency

Saddam in the Green Zone

Sophia at Oday's (photo by Lorna Tychostup)

Just Another Day in Baghdad

Note: I posted about some of this stuff before but it deserved a more extensive re-telling.

Awakening on a lumpy bed in my dingy apartment building just off Karada Street I can hear the street sounds of cars and propane sellers tapping a clanging beat as their donkey carts roll by. I always have a fleeting moment of wistfulness for the comforts of my old bed in Happy Valley back in Port Townsend, Washington. But there is no time for that. I need to be up, squeezing out the laundry I left soaking last night and make a hasty breakfast of eggs and potatoes in the broken skillet in what passes for a kitchenette here. I long to live in a real house again but as I rush over to the Aghadeer Hotel only a few blocks away, I am greeted by Baha, the hotel clerk, with a terrible story.

A week ago, I was given a tour of Baha's lovely home and garden on a quiet side street in central Baghdad. Baha owned a shoe store before the war and lived comfortably with his family in an upper middleclass neighborhood. But with the war and the looting that followed, Baha lost everything but the house. Now struggling to make ends meet, Baha is thinking of renting out a few rooms in his big house. I am more than a little interested. But on this day, Baha tells me of a neighbor who had been inviting Americans soldiers to his home. Someone apparently did not approve and placed a grenade under the man’s car. "To teach him a lesson," Baha says shaking his head. I'm no soldier but I doubt that Baha will still consider the idea of renting out any rooms to me.

I leave Baha and the lobby behind and head up to my friends room. Lorna Tychostup, my travel partner here to Iraq and a freelance photojournalist, is on her last week here in Iraq. "I’ve been here over a month," she cries in frustration, "and I still don’t know what’s going on!" With her is Alaa, a lovely 28 year old Iraqi woman, who has been our translator. Alaa will take us to two refugee camps today, one nearby at a place called the Air Force Club where we will pick up a man named Abbas who lives there and then another near the Mukahabarat, the old Iraqi Intelligence Agency (which incidentally is across the street from the Zoo). Both areas were bombed by the U.S. last year, then looted, and then occupied by squatters. Most are simply poor people fleeing from worse situations that simply saw an opportunity to carve out something for themselves. Some were evicted from their old homes because landlords wanted more money than they could afford. Some just came because they wanted free rent. We even heard of one story of a family that decided to move to a refugee camp because they could earn more money by renting out their house.

It's hard, walking through these burned and blasted places, to understand that this was a better option for these people. And there is a definite hierarchy about these places. Abbas and his family have taken over a house, but there are others living in former offices, hallways, storage rooms … they use scrap wood, blankets, and bits of wire and refuse to delineate their space. Their children play among piles of broken glass, concrete and insulation. In one location, a single water pipe servers the needs of many families.

At the Mukahabarat camp, we meet a woman and her son who is suffering from some undiagnosed nerve dysfunction that has crippled his legs. Have they been to doctors? Yes, many, each says something different and the money has run out. They look to us to help them and we have no idea what to say. Lorna is in tears but I'm filled with just an impotent anger.

And yet it's hard to believe everything you hear. I ask if the children go to school. "No," said the spokesman of the Mukahabarat camp, "No school." But moments later, I see several children walking off together in school uniforms with book bags tossed over their shoulders. Over tea in this man’s house (the biggest and grandest building in the camp despite the gapping holes where windows and lighting fixtures have been ripped out) Alaa, our translator, whispers to us.

"I don’t think this man is honest. He is not like Abbas. Maybe he wants your help so that he can benefit the most.” We smile and caste sidelong looks at one another and finally make our escape.

It's past midday, so we grab a taxi and ask Alaa and Abbas to drop us off outside the Green Zone. Lorna needs to track someone down who works near the Palace. This will be my first entry into a huge swath of Baghdad territory that is controlled by the coalition forces. We see the soldiers making their patrols in the streets of Baghdad and we hear their helicopters flying low overhead from time to time but I've been here several weeks and I've never even talked to an American soldier. Early in the Occupation, we've been told, they could be seen everywhere, drinking tea in the shops and talking to people. But the mood is decidedly more business like these days. Entering the checkpoints, Lorna whispers too me, "Just look like you belong here." I had to laugh. This particular check point is a bit lax … we are searched but when they ask for ID, we just tell them we have none and they wave us on (there are other entry points in which you will be asked for ID and searched no less than three times).

Once inside, the crazy traffic of Baghdad (which has been made crazier by the fact that the coalition has locked up so much of the city within its protected zone) is left behind. The Green Zone is downright mellow. Here you can hear the bird songs and smell the blooming flowers of spring … without the acrid top note of diesel fumes. It really is another world in here and one that seems to be quite out of touch with the world we live in day by day (we’re told that Greenies call it the Red Zone). You’ll meet the darndest people in the Green Zone … on this day it is an Irish National recently transferred from the Hague to work on the Iraqi War Crimes Tribunals. We poked around a monstrous palace building (belonging to Oday or Qusay … I can never keep them straight), that had been hit by two bunker-busting bombs. Workers were inside pulling out doors, chandeliers, toilets … anything of value. We walked through the blasted building, crunching on Plaster of Paris and thousands of cut glass chandelier parts. In one room was a huge painting depicting some momentous occasion in Arabic history. Coalition soldiers had added their phallic graffiti to the story depicted there. As we wandered through we met two Americans strung with dangling badges and holstered weapons.

'Oh no,' I thought, remember days in my youth where I was caught loitering in forbidden places, 'they are going to throw us out.'

But when we draw close, Lorna asked them who they are and they tell us that they are Pentagon analysts.

"We’re doing exactly what you’re doing," the younger man laughed, "We’re poking around and taking pictures!" Later on, the older man approached us, excited as a school boy, to show us a prize find that he plans to hang in his Pentagon office … a large plaster plaque in arabesque curlicues bearing Saddam Hussein’s insignia. Finally, our fear of the depleted uranium that may be lurking in this building gets the better of us and we decide to go looking for food.

I don't know what other delights the Green Zone has to offer but it does include several internet cafes, a market selling a comprehensive selection of tourist goodies to tempt the boys in green and at least one Chinese Restaurant (my advice: avoid the egg rolls).

But now it's getting dark, the witching hour here in Iraq, so we start looking for an exit. We are only across the river from where we are living but the Green Zone is a completely self-contained world with a limited number of entrances and exits. We're confused and turned around but finally make it to a troop and tank-guarded gate. We smile at the boys in green as we pass through, hailing the first cab we see to take us home in the twilight-tinged smog of early evening.

After such a day, we usually head up to the rooms and download the day's events to our friends at the hotel, trying to make sense of it all. Then we’ll check email (we are one of few low-budget hotels that has internet … thanks to a grouchy Hungarian reporter living on the top floor) and plan the activities for the next day. Another refugee camp visit, a meeting with a women's activist group, or a trip to the Radiation Center to interview its Director? By the time it’s full dark, it’s time for me to return back home. I’ll have a few hours more of typing up notes, studying my Arabic or practicing some Tai Chi to the droning sound of the generator outside my window before crawling into bed and catching a few hours of fitful sleep.

It’s been just another day here in Baghdad. Each one adding both confusing and clarifying bits of information to the puzzle that makes up the place.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

The following is an exchange of emails between myself and an Israeli gentleman, I'll call E. I did ask for permission to share it with others but got no reply ... so I took that as a "yes." Note: I had to recreate my emails to him from memory since I didn't save them, but I think they are reasonably accurate. Anyway, I'm curious to know what people think ....

Hello E,

I was given your name by a mutual friend. He thought you might be able to help me. I will be traveling to Israel sometime this summer to do volunteer work with either the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron or the International Solidarity Movement. I have been told that the border crossing will be much easier for me if I have the name and contact information of an Israeli. It would need to be a person who understands what I would be doing in Palestine and would not have a problem with me using their contact information. They can learn more about what I would be doing from and

Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated. -Sophia


Dear Sophia,

I am not a Palestinian, and I have not heard of Palestine. If you want to go to Palestine I suggest you find a Palestinian who would be your contact, and direct you to Hebron - the city of the Forefathers. I hope your mission in Iraq goes well, and that you shall find your quest an easy one.

We shall meet one day … and share memories of our peace keeping efforts in the Middle East.

Shabbat Shalom - E


Dear E,

Hmmmm, I must have screwed up here and used the wrong language. Usually when I refer to Israel, I say Israel/Palestine. I did not mean to step on your toes. It is an Israeli contact I need, not a Palestinian contact.

- Sophia


Dearest Sophia didn't fuck up with your language, you were ignorantly single-siding with the oppressed exploited part of the mess. You were just joining the majority and that's your business. Now of course you need an Israeli contact in order to penetrate Palestine and side with them. I suggest a good old honest man called Yasser-The-Great as a contact. Hey...he might even give you a parcel to take into a bus or a super market or so.

Anyway – your friend... will connect you with the right guy. Deal ????? - E

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Hello All, I tried to send this email from the Green Zone ... but the over-priced internet there crapped out on me, so I'll try to recreate it here.

I spent most of this morning at two refugee camps (one down the road from my old hotel and one at the Mukahabarat ... I may be butchering the spelling but this was the site of the notorious Iraqi Intelligence Agency). We spent our time, walking through ruined, partially collapsed buildings and talking to the new residents that have taken over these areas (the first had about 4000 people living there and the 2nd had about 500). At the first place there is a clear line of ownership ... the buildings were part of a club and recreation center and included an area owned by own of Saddams cousins ... but the 2nd area was the Mukahabarat and government property ... and from what we could see, many people seems to be struggling for control of it. We spent some time with a woman and her son who has some kind of nerve dysfunction and can no longer walk. They look to us as if we can somehow solve their problems, but this boy needs a specialist and there is no money. We haven't a clue what to say them.

From there we traveled into the Green Zone ... another world really. We learned that we, living beyond the walls, were living in the Red Zone ... and several people were surprised to find this out. There are many people, it seems, who never leave the Green Zone. After traveling the overcrowded streets of Baghdad for four weeks the Green Zone seemed so quiet and in some places nearly deserted. It's an enormous area. Once inside the Zone, we needed to take a taxi to the Palace (we were looking for someone that Lorna knew). We went into an internet cafe which was in a beautifully decorated building frequented by soldiers of the 1st Division (I believe ... Old Ironside was on their shirt patches). It had pool and ping pong tables and TV with English language programs.

Afterwords we strolled through one of Oday (or was it Qusay's) palaces. There was a bunker beneath it and the U.S. hit it with two bunker busting bombs. Workers were inside pulling out chandeliers, doors, toilets ... anything of value. It was an amazing place and, despite our better judgment (bunker buster bombs, I've been told, are tipped with depleted uranium) we couldn't help poking around a bit ... we even came across two Pentagon analysts (they were the ones that told us about the hidden bunker and the bombing of the building) doing the same thing and picking up bits and pieces here and there as souvenirs.

So just another strange day in Iraq!

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

I've moved out of the hotel where I was staying into a cheaper place just off Karada. We can rent it by the month for $25 USD (I've rooming now with a Canadian woman). I call it the Clown House because a small circus troupe was staying there called "Circus 2 Iraq." It's a wreck of a place with a smell all it's own (I don't think it is fair to just blame the clowns for this).

Here are some if it's features: A tiny kitchen (tiny fridge, mismatched dishes, couple of burners), two bedrooms with old airconditioners and two lumpy beds in each room (one sheet, one ratty blanket per bed), a livingroom, access to a dingy balcony strung with wires and clotheslines, unreliable electricity and water, dark blue shag carpeting in which things seemed to have crawled into and died and an apartment manager who seems very nice but who everyone warns us might try to scam us. Ah there is no place like home.

Friday, March 05, 2004

He said, She Said

In coming to Iraq as an advocate for peace and human-rights, I have to admit that I come in with a set of preconceived notions. My own personal set of blinders if you like. There are some wonderful peace and justice groups working in Iraq, but as one member told us, "We have to admit that the reason why a lot of us are here is not because we love Iraqis. We’re here because we hate what our government is doing." This set of blinders makes it possible for one to see only what is bad about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Iraqis are the poor and helpless natives, while the U.S. military are the cruel and heartless invaders. But no situation is so black and white.

The following was reported to me by Lorna Tychostup, my travel partner and the editor of Chronogram Magazine, a Hudson Valley monthly, and Mike Ferner, an independent journalist. They went several times to the small farming village north of Baghdad, called Abu Hishma, famous for having been enclosed within a wall of concertina wire by the occupation forces. On their trip, they talked to members of the community and to the U.S. commander and various soldiers at the local base that is in charge of the area.

Not surprisingly, the villagers and the military have two different stories. Here is just one example:

The villagers’ story: An army patrol started firing at random, Aziz was wounded, Majida went to help him and in the process was shot and killed.

The U.S. Military’s story: An army patrol was trying to detain Aziz for questioning and in the process a sniper open up on them, wounding an American soldier. Aziz tried to escape and was wounded. Majida was killed in the exchange as well.

Whose version is the correct one? Both agree that Aziz was wounded and Majida was killed, but then the stories part company. There has to be much more to both versions. What would have made the soldiers fire at random? They have, when frightened, been known to do this. What information, if any, did the army have on Aziz? Was it accurate or, as we have heard happens, did it come from an enemy of Aziz who used the U.S. Army to get rid of him. If he did run from the soldiers, was it truly guilt that made him run or just the fear that many may have of long months of detention without hope of fair treatment.

When you come to a place like Iraq, with so many conflicting forces at work, it is sometimes hard to make definitive statements about anything. I have heard of soldiers making outrageously racists comments about the Iraqis. And then I heard Iraqis say virtually the same things about themselves. I talked to a young student at Baghdad University who says she sees no hope for her country and just wants to leave. "Anyplace is better than here," she told me. And I spoke to an official with the Communist Party, which has a deep and respected history in Iraq, who told me that his party was working diligently for the creation of a democratic, federal state in Iraq. And then today, horrific bombings in Karbala and Baghdad. And tonight, just now, the sound of gunfire, uncomfortably close.

A lot of good things, one has to admit, has probably come out of this war. A lot of bad things too. For me, as I work to remove my blinders or at least widen my field of view, I think that the issues of rightness or wrongness, good and evil, are relatively moot at this point (I would say they were never really the issue). But we have stepped into a hornet's nest here in Iraq and we've unleashed things for good or ill or in-between that we should admit we can never quite control.

I only hope that by the time I've left Iraq I can say that I came because I hated what my country has done and because I loved the Iraqi people.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Boys with Guns

It is strange how priorities can be so mixed up. A few days ago, I was over at the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and they showed me a long laundry list of unfunded projects throughout Iraq from assessment and clean-up of depleted uranium to stopping water, land and air pollution. Many of these projects are vital to the health of the devastated Iraqi environment as well as to that of the Iraqi people themselves. Yet the Ministry of Environment has very little funding. So where is all the money? Most people tell me that it’s going to security. There are massive reconstruction projects planned for Iraq but it would be interesting to find out how much of the money is dedicated to actual on-the-ground reconstruction and how much is being spent on security. Security seems to be where the money is. But as terrible as the security situation is here, it doesn’t seem to matter that the violence in Iraq will kill far fewer people then air pollution. Nor does it register that water pollution will hurt more people than Improvised Explosive Devices, Mortar attacks, and random street crime combined. But security is big business in Iraq and the boys with the guns, whether it is the U.S. Military, the party militias or the numerous security companies operating in Iraq seem to be the biggest game in town.

Even in the U.S. this reverse priority can be a problem. The U.S. has spent millions on security measures since 9/11. Nearly every other spending priority (environment, health, education, welfare, etc) has suffered from cuts, while military and security spending has gone through the roof. But the fact remains that you are far more likely to die of an environmentally-induced disease than you are from a terrorist attack.

Just how did we get ourselves into this pickle? Was it simple ignorance and fear? Is it because a car bomb is a flashier way to die than sliding slowly and painfully away from lung cancer in a hospital ward? Or can this disparity in our spending priorities be laid at the door of just who is at risk? There is no doubt that terrorism can and has harmed everyday people, but terrorist tend to target the power centers of our society where the elite hold sway. In the case of 9/11 – the Pentagon, the Whitehouse, and the World Trade Center.

Environmentally-caused diseases, though they do effect us all, tend to be focused on those who are too poor and powerless to change their circumstances … inner city kids and the elderly, workers in low paying and polluting industries, and people on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. These are not the people who decide where the funding goes.

But the decision-makers who have determined that security is our biggest problem are just hurting themselves in the end. You see, guns attract violence. This, in my humble opinion, is a general truism. I am living in Central Baghdad and it’s known to be a dangerous place – high crime, low security. Particularly for a Westerner who stands out like I do. I have had several people tell me, “Oh, you must get out of the city!” or “Oh, you should have a bodyguard.” And we do know of several friends who have been robbed or targeted in some way.

I know that this is a dangerous place and I do take some basic precautions. I generally only go out in the day time and if I travel at night it is by taxi. Also I never carry too much money. But I also have, if need be, a secret and surprisingly powerful weapon. It was a woman with the Christian Peacemaker Team that gave me this idea. It is called "salaam a'walekum." And it means, "Peace be upon you." The proper response to this statement is "a'walekum asalaam" … basically "And upon you, peace as well."

In the U.S., when you walk down a street in a strange city frequently the only acknowledgement that might be made to another passerby is a curt nod of the head. But here people often greet each other with "asalaam a'walekum!" "a'walekum asalaam!" When I say "Peace be upon you," I have found that even the sternest and most unfriendly look dissolves into a smile and a hand upon the heart as the person receives my wish for them and then returns it back. It truly is like magic.

I have written before about a former Kurdish minister who has befriended me of late. He appears to be a nice man but he is swathed in "Security." On several occasions when I have been with him, I have had to suffer through the presence of men bristling with guns. Interestingly enough, I have never felt more insecure than when I am around these armed men. He has told me numerous times that I need to be in a more secure location and has even offered to find me a place with proper security. I understand were he is coming from. He seems to be a very visible and outspoken personality in Iraq and perhaps he needs this level of security. But security has its own problems. It is expensive, provides no direct productive value, isolates the people it protects from the reality of their world, curtails freedom of movement, draws potentially unwanted attention and can only operate within a paradigm of fear.

For myself, I think I will stick to "salaam a'walekum!" Perhaps it isn't as effective as an armed guard ... but it's cheaper, allows me to move about relatively freely, and increases the possibility for dialogue and developing connections. It may be too much to ask of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the true law of the land here in Iraq, to re-examine its priorities. Perhaps if they could lighten up on focusing on their own security and give even more attention to fixing the problems that Iraqis faces, they would see an accompanying drop to violence directed towards them.