Sophia's Peace Work

Friday, April 30, 2004

Living and Teaching in a War Zone

I’ve spent the last week bouncing back and forth between refugee camps and the University. With all the fighting in Fallujah, many families have fled the city and come to Baghdad. Most are housed in private homes, but the Red Crescent Society has set up a tent camp inside the city in an area called Ghadaa and there is also a bomb shelter housing many families that I was able to visit. We’ve gone several times to play games with the kids, interview the families, deliver toys and on one occasion, in the words of my British friend Jo Wilding, I came along for a “knickers” delivery to the woman at the shelter. Many told us stories of the kinds of “collateral damage” that are occurring inside Fallujah, with women, children, and the elderly being injured or killed. Anyone who ventured out of their home to look for food was at risk of being targeted. Two of the families at the shelter told us that ambulances were being shot at, which matched two different eye-witness accounts by human rights workers. They also told us that a private hospital had been bombed and the government hospital near the bridge was surrounded by Americans so no one could go near it. The only one bringing aid in, according to one family we talked to, was the Mujahedeen.

Over the past week, the fighting in Fallujah intensified and in one of the daily press conference held every afternoon (which some friends call the Five o’clock Follies) General Kimmitt was asked why didn’t the American troops just pull out of Fallujah? People have been asking this question for days and finally last night Kimmitt responded by saying that the only security being offered to the people of Fallujah is being provided by the Americans in the Coalition-controlled areas of the town. To pull back would be to give Fallujah back to the insurgents (and by this he means mostly Baathist and foreign fighters despite the fact that most of the evidence indicates that a large part of the resistance is indigenous and tribal ... these are local people fighting for their town). In this, is the root of the problem, to pull out is viewed as a humiliating defeat for the Americans and a win for the insurgents. That seems to be unconscionable to people the military minds that are running this campaign in Fallujah. So much of this war is wrapped up in a pathological desire to never lose face. Winning should not be about who is left standing at the end. It should be about who protects the most lives. These people, and I would include both the Americans and the insurgents in this statement, are operating at the level of the kindergarten sandbox.

In the midst of all this I’m still teaching English to students at the University of Baghdad and on April 21st I gave my students a written exam (incidentally my most interesting reason from a student about why he had missed the test was that he had been delayed at an American checkpoint. I toyed with the idea of telling him, “Oh yeah, right! I’ve heard that one before!”). I’m new to this teaching thing and so it didn’t occur to me how long it would take me to actually grade a test that was filled with mostly essay-type questions (somewhere in the range of 15 hours). Much of the time I spent complaining about how they don’t pay me enough for this job (they talk of giving me something in the range of 2000 Iraqi Dinars per lecture … I have four lectures per day, two days a week so I would, in theory, rakes in a whopping $11 each week … If I ever end up seeing any of this money I will probably just donate it to their book fund).

To make the test a little more interesting, I decided to ask the students questions about pictures that I had selected from their lives here in Iraq. I placed a picture of Paul Bremer, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and a picture of some Iraqi police on the test. Imagine my surprise after reading approximately 30 tests that stated that “Boll Bemir is the ruller of Iraq,” … I came upon two tests where the students added notes taking me to task for choosing to use such pictures.

“Why did you do this? I like you but this was wrong. Please don’t this again!”

I have approximately 120 students and only two actually complained about this but I decided to apologize for stepping on anyone’s toes and I explained my reasoning for using the pictures.

“First off,” I told them, “I wanted these pictures to mean something to you. It would be fine in American to include current events and prominent figures on school tests and exercises.”

“Secondly,” I said, “I also really wanted to know what you think about these pictures. I am here in Iraq to learn and though I am your teacher, I want to learn from you as well.”

“Finally,” I concluded, “I recognize that in the past, you would not have been able to speak freely about such subjects, but I want you to know that whatever you said about these pictures, whether it was good or bad, I don’t care. All I cared about is that you did so in complete and proper sentences!”

The students seemed to be reasonably satisfied with my explanation and after receiving their graded tests they still, despite the fact that I come from the occupying nation, seem to like and respect me. I wonder if any other teacher has had the pleasure and yet also the challenges of working in similar circumstances?

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Another pesky medicine question: I was approached today by an Iraqi man who has leukemia. His doctor prescribed for him the following medicines: Methotrexate (2.5 mg) tablets or (10 mg. injections) and Mercaptopurine (Puri-Nethol) 50 mg tablets. He tells me that he can't get this medicine in Iraq and do I know how or where he can get it?

First let me say that I hate questions like this. It's right up there with, "Can you find me a job?" All I can do is say that I'll ask around and put it on my weblog. So here it. Any ideas?

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I passed out the graded tests to the students today ... whew, what a load off my shoulders ... Then I counted up the number of classes before the end of the term (in which I have to give them an oral exam) ... I've only got two more classes before I must test them AGAIN!!! I have over 100 students. Anyone got an idea on how you do an oral exam when you over over 100 students (four classes of 25 to 30 students per class actually) when each class is only 40 minutes???

Anyway, I'm taking a little rest from blogging ... tomorrow I move to a new place. The womens' housing at the University of Baghdad (Jadriyia campus ... I actually teach at Bab Mouadhem across town) ... tonight I pack and this weekend I rack my brains about how to do an oral exam for all of these students.

Note: On my written test I had a picture of Paul Bremer and another picture of the Iraqi police. I asked the students to tell me who the person (or people) in picture was, what they are doing and what they think of the pictures. Most of the students seemed to have no problem with this but two of the students wrote on the test that I should not have used these pictures and that though they liked me they felt that I had made a big mistake by putting these two pictures on the test.

Very interesting! Today I apologized if I offended anyone and explained that there would be no problem in the U.S. for using these pictures on a test, that I was perfectly happy with anything they wrote about the pictures (good or bad) ... as long as it was written in a correct and complete sentance (which is what I was grading them on) and that I used the pictures because I just wanted to know what they felt about them (Generally they said good things about the Police but their views on Mr. Bremer, the American ambassador to Iraq, were a tad bit mixed).

Ok, so here are a few pictures to tide you over until I do my next post.

Um Ahmed and Ahmed in his spiffy new wheelchair!

Playing parachute games with the kids from the Fallujah refugee camp in Baghdad (two days ago there were over 60 families at the camp).

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Can you believe it! I'm still grading tests ... next time it will be multiple choice!

As for Ahmed's wheelchair ... well funny thing ... I went to the Missionary Sisters of Charity Orphanage (very close to where I live at present) to ask about where I might buy one and they said, "Oh we have one here we don't need right now." I tried to say, no, that I'm sure I can scrape the money together to buy one but they wouldn't take no for an answer ... So I asked them what they wanted and they told me that they are looking for small child-size stationary bikes so that the kids can get some exercise ... so the Wheelchair has morphed into Exercise Bikes for Tots!!! These may not be easy to come by but I figure I can get a few kid bikes and have a metal smith make a stand for them to turn them into stationary bikes. The orphanage, by the way, is for disabled children. I'll speak more on this place later.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

A few pictures ...

I've got over 120 tests to grade so I am still short on time to catch up on my writing. So here are a few pictures instead ...

Important Note: Voices in the Wilderness is going to help me buy a wheelchair for Ahmed, even though they are not really an aid organization. If you would like to make a contribution to the wheelchair, send it to: Voices in the Wilderness, 5315 N. Clark St., Box #634, Chicago, IL 60640.

On to the pictures ...

A Fatwa posted in the Baghdad University Campus ... calling for the people of Baghdad to help the people of Fallujah with aid and to resist the occupation.

A Billboard in Adamiya, a neighborhood in Baghdad. These billboards are around town letting people know what the qualifications are to join the Iraqi Police. This paticular sign has been torched, according to our interpreter, several times.

A family from Fallujah, newly arrived to the refugee camp set up by the Red Crescent Society in Baghdad.

Delivering aid supplies to Fallujah refugees. The Abu Hanifa mosque in Adamiya had assembled many canisters like this one full of basic hygiene supplies to be given out to Fallujah families.

Myself, Jo Wilding (Circus 2 Iraq), David Martinez (independent filmmaker), Red Crescent Society Air worker, and Donna Mulhearn (Our Home Iraq) at the Refugee Camp in Baghdad.

Jo making balloon animals for refugee kids.

Some of my Baghdad University English language students outside the Natural History Museum (located on the campus in Bab Mouadhem)

Friday, April 23, 2004

No time to do a proper post ...

First off we're all fine and dandy! At the moment eight of us are all staying in three ratty apartments in Karada Dakhil (Central Baghdad). Things have been very quiet for the last few days ... no bombings or gunfire that I've heard for awhile (but we did have a lighting and thunder storm last night!) ... atleast in the city. Outside Baghdad is another matter, as I'm sure you've seen from the news ... sporadic fighting in Fallujah and various other places, Najaf is still surrounded by Coalition Forces and the terrible bombings in Basrah. We did hear in Baghdad of the kidnapping of a Jordanian man and the killing of a Spanish Journalist within the last few days. I have actually met a Sheikh recently who has negotiated hostage releases in Najaf (a good man to know!).

Lately we've been interviewing Fallujah families ... I have so many notes to write up, it's crazy. Some friends are considering a trip into Najaf with the Red Crescent Society. Today, I was also able to visit with Ahmed, a young man who has MS. He is finally getting some treatment (yeah!). And tomorrow I give a test to my students at the University!

As far as the general situation goes ... Karrada has been quiet, everything looks normal. Iraqis still warn us to keep a low profile. I tell and encourage A, my translator, to quit anytime she wants, but she will not hear anything of it. I've had no problem and everyone is still very nice (most of the time Iraqis are warning me to watch out for other Iraqis!) but I also wear hijab all the time outside now.

General question #1: I would like to get a wheelchair for Ahmed. His mother has to get him from the house to the hospital and back several times a week. He can't walk and it's a real hardship for her. He is treated on the 10th floor of a building with elevators that hardly work and she had to beg to get a wheelchair at the hospital the last time she went. I've heard that it only costs about $80 to buy a wheelchair here. I'm going to ask Voices in the Wilderness if they would open up a fund for this purpose, so stay tuned if you'd like to help.

General Question #2: Does anyone know what Methylprednisolone sodium succinate is? Ahmed is getting injections of this stuff. He's had four injections so far and he told me today that one of his legs is getting a bit better.

Well that's all for now!

Monday, April 19, 2004

Wiping Fallujah off the Map

The scene is a small garden and pool surrounded by high walls and the incessant whine of a generator. The night is clear and even a little cool.

“They should just wipe Fallujah off the map,” the man said.

I am with several friends including N, my translator A and a woman named Donna Mulhearn who recently traveled into Fallujah to provide aid during the some of the worst fighting between the Coalition Forces and the Mujahadin. Donna was an eye-witness to the methods that the Coalition Forces are using to “wipe Fallujah off the map.”

“They are awful people!” the man continues, “I’m sorry, but I have no sympathy for them. They would take us back to the 13th Century. They would not allow us to sit in this garden together. They would force the women to wear veils.”

He pointed to my translator who is wearing pants and a t-shirt, her head uncovered, and said, “These fundamentalists would never allow you to dress this way or talk with men. They have no respect for the rights of women. These people are animals. Look what they did to those four Americans! Those people that they killed and burned and then mutilated and hung from a bridge! They would kill you. They would kill me. And these are the same people who were in charge under Saddam. Baathists who tortured and murdered people. No, I have no sympathy for Fallujahans. We should get rid of them forever.”

In the face of this stunning tirade, we were silent for a moment. What can you say to such statements?

Earlier I had pulled out my laptop to show everyone pictures from Donna’s trip to Fallujah. Pictures of the victims: the men, women and children with bloody faces being brought into the clinic in Fallujah (because the hospitals had been bombed or were impossible to get to because of U.S. snipers). This man had been uninterested in looking at them. He didn’t care to see what it actually means to wipe someone off the map. He didn’t want to see how messy it is. And of course he’ll never have to dirty his hands to do the job.

There is a certain amount of truth to the things he says. Fallujah is a small city, surrounded by farmlands. It is populated my mostly Sunni Arabs and there are probably former Baathist that are part of the resistance. Many of the people fighting are also religiously conservative, even fundamentalists. If these elements gain control in Iraq, life will be made very difficult for many people, especially for women and for anyone who is considered more moderate. All of this is true.

“But,” I asked him, “Do you really think that the methods that the U.S. Military are using will solve anything? Do you think a collective punishment for the death of four American security guards, which leads to the death of over 600 people and the wounding of over 1000 more is going to stop the rise of fundamentalism in Iraq?”

N pointed out that if the Americans really wanted to show people that democracy is better, then they should have allowed the Iraqi justice system to play out in the case of the four Americans who died. To find the culprits and put them on trial. “But they didn’t,” he said, “They responded militarily with retribution.”

“These people are defending their city from attack,” Donna said, “That is why they are fighting.”

As with all such discussions, I come up with my best arguments after the fact. As I lie in bed thinking about it all I understand that this man is completely caught up in the cycle of Violence. He sees violence and he wants to respond with violence. But to talk of wiping Fallujah off the map is foolish and the only harvest that the Americans will reap there is continued violence.”

Last night, the man scoffed, “What would you have the Americans do? Bomb them with flowers? Eau de Cologne?”

At the time, we laughed but now all I think is that it would be a vast improvement over current U.S. policy.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

We’re back from Fallujah. Could you get us some cold beer?

Our friends had been in Fallujah, Iraq for nearly 48 hours, so it was time to consider our options. Two of us had remained behind to act as support and to explain to everyone else why our friends had gone against all advice and traveled back into Fallujah to provide aid support in the city. Fallujah has become a bloody, flashpoint between the Coalition Forces and the Iraqi resistance. As support we decided that if we didn’t heard from the group by 3 pm, we would need to act.

We put a plan of action together and started making our calls. Then we split up and I went to INTERSOS, a humanitarian aid organization, in the hopes that they had contacts in Fallujah. They took our information but only promised to pass it along. With nothing else to do but wait, I decided to track down the status of Ahmed, the young man with MS who’s case I have been following (I can report some success … he’s been seen at the MS Clinic and we’ll try and talk to his doctor this weekend).

While I was at the hospital, one of the team members from Fallujah called. They were on the outskirts of Baghdad and heading home. Their only request?

“Could you get us some cold beer?”

I called everyone I knew to give them the good news and headed back with my interpreter, A, to the apartment to make a heaping fruit salad (A told me that, as women, we couldn’t buy any beer, so I gave that job my support partner). The team showed up with stories of how they had been shot at by both American soldiers and Mujahadeen and later kidnapped and then released by the latter.

“How did you get home?”

“Our kidnappers brought us back and dropped us off out front.”

Again, they indicated that they saw no effective ceasefire in Fallujah and that, when they were in Fallujah, they had tried to accompany an ambulance with supplies to a hospital but were fired upon by U.S. forces, even though they had clearly identified themselves as aid workers. They were kidnapped when they were trying to leave the city yesterday after a tense moment caught in the crossfire between U.S. forces and Mujahadin.

“They were mostly just surprised to see us,” one of the team members said, “They told us, ‘We are Muslim. You don’t need to worry. We won’t hurt you.’” The team was detained and once their captors realized that they were aid workers they were treated well and the next day escorted home.

Thus ended two days of nail-biting for me!

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

We have friends that have traveled back into Fallujah to try and provide aid, so again, I sit by the phone waiting for their call. Upon their return we plan on leaving Baghdad until things calm down. I've heard that the U.S. news is full of talk of ceasefire. But that is not what we are seeing. Still I continue to be surrounded by good, helpful and protective friends (Iraqi and otherwise) ... I hear all your messages telling me to leave but I will not leave until my friends return. Period.

Monday, April 12, 2004

First off, I'm fine.

But I did have trouble getting to an Internet Cafe on Saturday to post this ... many shops were closed ... perhaps for Easter ... perhaps because of the current situation. I was supposed to teach at the University but upon arrival I found that it was completely shut down (not even the professors showed up). The traffic is lighter along Karrada but other than this and a few explosions in the distance now and than, it surprising how normal it feels here. The juice bar is open for business, the bread makers are at work, and just down the street the men are playing backgammon on the sidewalk just like they always do. Of course there are plenty of signs that things are not normal. Last night the American were blasting notices from loudspeakers in Firdos Square (near the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels) that people should not approach the square. On Saturday, if you walked up to the rooftop, you’d see three or four plumes of smoke in different locations about the city that wouldn’t normally be there.

Also late Friday night a British reporter and his fixer (half translator/half tour guide with good connections) showed up at our apartment building. They had been in and out of Fallujah all day and told us that there were very few independent journalist and almost no human-rights workers in Fallujah documenting what was going on.

There are several human-rights/humanitarian aid workers living in our apartment building and he made an appeal to them to join a bus that was being organized for Saturday. They intended to fill it will aid supplies and take it in to a hospital in Fallujah. The road to Fallujah is very dangerous now and apparently many people are on the road trying to get out. The hope was that we could take aid supplies in and then fill the bus with people trying to get out and bring them back to Baghdad. Several people decided to go, some against their better judgment (since I'm here writing this, you can be assured that I decided to stay here ... I didn't know all the people involved very well and decided that the whole thing felt somewhat sketchy).

On Saturday morning (after my failed attempt to teach English at the University), I came back to the apartment and quickly got involved in helping the group get ready for their trip into Fallujah. We went over to the house of an Italian NGO where we met the other members of the team and started to load the bus with aid supplies that had been collected at the house. Of course, nothing goes as planned and there was one delay after another before the bus finally left at 2:30 pm. But before they left I got the names and contact information for everyone on the bus. On their way out of town, they stopped to call me with their passport number.

"Where are you?" I asked, knowing they would soon be out of the range of my cell phone, which only works in Baghdad.

"We're near the airport, picking up some kebabs," I was told. I laughed at the image of a big bus full of internationals and humanitarian aid stopped by a roadside take-out stand.

But we’re heard now word for several hours and all I can do is wait and hope they make it back tonight in one piece.


That night (Saturday) around midnight we got the word that the team in Fallujah was OK. We went to bed with a feeling of relief but the next morning at 6 am we woke up to a quick series of bombs that shook the windows. I remember thinking, “That’s close. Maybe I should get up and see where that was.” But I must have fallen back asleep because the next thing I realized my alarm was going off. It was 7:30 and time to head out for my Arabic class. I had tried to cancel it the day before but was unable to contact my teacher. Several people have warned me that I shouldn’t go out on the streets, but my class is close by and so I decided to risk it. It is so odd. Is the atmosphere on the streets more tense or is it only these warnings that make it feel that way? I just don’t know anymore. The city is even quieter than yesturday … but that could just be due to Easter and the religious holiday marking the end of Ashura. Feeling ridiculous and self-conscious as always, I donned my hijab and headed off to class, only to find that the office of my teacher was closed and she was nowhere insight. I headed home and walked down to the office of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT). I found them embroiled in a discussion about getting out of the country.

Apparently NCCI, the NGO Coordinating Council of Iraq, is recommending that NGO’s leave the country until things calm down. It may be possible to get flights out and CPT has a visiting delegation which they must get out soon. They are still debating if their core team will leave or not. I returned to my apartment building to give this disturbing news to my roommate and neighbors and then not long afterwards I got a call from Dahr, one of the men on the team into Fallujah. They were on the outskirts of Baghdad heading in with a number of wounded people and (defying many a prediction) they were all safe and sound.

Within the hour they had returned to the apartment dirty and tired. They told stories of a hospital made off-limits by American snipers on roof-tops, doctors in a small clinic that are working beyond exhaustion, Iraqi fighters brandishing guns in their faces, U.S. soldiers shooting at least one unarmed man in the back and then later firing upon them as they rode through the streets in an ambulance trying to retrieve a pregnant woman. We told them the news was full of talk of a ceasefire. They laughed.

“There was no ceasefire that we could see. And the Americans were shooting at everyone.”

I can’t speak to the accuracy of their stories. I wasn’t there. These were freelance journalists, peace activists and human-rights workers. Their international status allowed them some freedom of movement in the city and the Americans did allow them, in some cases, passage to help remove the wounded and the dead. They had hoped to stay longer, as some of the soldiers told them that there would soon be an escalation in the fighting, but there was mistrust by one of the Iraqis who could have guaranteed their safety so they had to return.

Was it wise for them to have gone? Most people told me that these people were crazy to travel to Fallujah. But upon their return they all felt it had been the right thing to do. They saw no other internationals documenting what was going on inside Fallujah and the story they told was different from what we were able to gather from the news. They brought translators with them, something the American soldiers didn’t even have, and this allowed them to get many people to safety.

Today the news is still filled with talks of cease-fire, of aid supplies getting in and people being able to leave the city. I hope this is true but we have no way of knowing for certain.

Friday, April 09, 2004

It's a Jubba & Hijab Day

I had to go out this morning for a meeting I could not reschedule. Alaa was nervous about it but I put on a Jubba (a long coat) and Hijab (head scarf) and off we went with her nephew for the meeting. Alaa has been lobbying me to come stay with her at her father's house and so we thought Friday might be a good day since westerners are trying to stay out of sight. I kept asking Alaa if she was sure it was alright with her father since I know they don't approve of her work as a translator for westerner. She assured me that it was fine, so swathed from head to toe, we went over to her parents home. But a half hour into the visit, Alaa leaned over to tell me, "Well, maybe you won't be able to stay tonight." Apparently Dad is not pleased ... though he remains polite. I don't blame him at all ... but it looks like it's back to the hotel for me!

Thursday, April 08, 2004

So it has gotten a little dicey of late for westerners to be out and about. I first realized this directly when I went to teach at the University on Wednesday ... none of the students showed up for class ... the campus was dead. Apparently Al Sadr said stay home and the students said, "Yeah!"

Today I spent the day cleaning and moving into my new flat (just above my old flat), so I was mostly insulated from the news but by evening I had heard of the kidnappings in the south (three Japanese) and on the road from Amman (Korean Christians) and also the British Contractor. The next few days we will try to keep a low profile (but I don't know how much lower we can go!).

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

All things Radioactive

Visiting the local tank dump

Just after my arrival in Iraq several weeks ago, I located the new Iraqi Ministry of Environment and talked to Dr. Ali Azziz, the Ministry Advisor. I spoke to him about my interest in looking at the issues of Depleted Uranium and radiation exposure at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility just south of Baghdad (this facility was looted after the war because the U.S. Military failed to secure it. Many barrels of yellow cake uranium and other materials were dumped at the site and the barrels removed to be used by community members for things like water and food storage).

Dr. Azziz told me that if I was interested in Radiation issues and Tuwaitha, I should talk to Dr. Bushra at the Radiation Center in Jadryia neighborhood of Baghdad. I have since visited Dr. Bushra and her facility about a half a dozen times and each visit opens up completely new questions.

Imagine, if you will, the upscale neighborhood of Jadryia filled with large, comfortable homes of brick and stone, here you will find the Radiation Center located right next to a small community hospital. When you walk into the facility there is a sign in Arabic that includes the English letters, "W.H.O." The World Health Organization is funding the rebuilding of the Center. As you pass the sign you walk into a construction site filled with bricks, cement, and paint spattered workers.

"This is the Radiation Center?" I ask.

Apparently so. We are ushered into a small, unfinished room for a search of our belongings and a quick pat down (my translator calls this her daily "massage"), then we are led through the unfinished building, dodging workers carrying fresh cement, up some stairs covered in dirt and brick dust to the roof. There is a roof-top structure that contain a few rooms with desks, a computer and several men and woman professionally-dressed. These are the staff of the Radiation Center.

We are introduced to Dr. Bushra, a plumb, pleasant looking woman wearing hijab (head scarf) who speaks reasonably good English.

And so begin the odyssey of pleasant discussions on the unpleasant topic of radiation and Depleted Uranium that stretched over the course of the next six weeks. The Radiation Center was started in 1971 and is in charge of all sources of radioactivity in the country of Iraq. This includes any radioactive materials in hospitals, universities and industry as well as all radioactive waste. They are responsible for routine and emergency environmental monitoring for radiation.

Dr. Bushra, like many on the staff, is a physicist and has been with the Center for many years. She was on the original World Health Organization survey team that did an assessment of the community around the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility after the war and the looting. This original survey lasted three months (May - June) and included sampling of soil, food, vegetation and water. It also included, Bushra says, a health assessment for 4,000 community members.

And I'm in luck, she tells me, they are just about to start a follow-up survey and I'm more than welcome to tag along. I can't believe my luck or how open Dr. Bushra is to talking to me. But it turns out that it is not quite that simple. The promised survey trip invite takes several weeks to materialize and when it finally occurs it is more like a guided tour than an actual survey.

"And here on your right we have the earthen walls of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility. Oh, on on your left is the impoverished village of Jeser-Diyala."

We stop at a small school where a Ministry of Health team is taking blood samples from the children. We ask one of the team members if they are seeing any health effects from the radiation that this community was exposed to. We are told that there are a lot of health problems in the community made only more complicated by the problems of poverty, poor nutrient, hygiene and sanitation. But with radiation exposure there are more long-term effects. Within two years, we are told, we can expect to see a rise in Leukemia in these villages.

But Dr. Bushra's rhetoric is always positive. "There is no problem," she assures us, "It's all taken care of." So persistent is this line of Dr. Bushra's I try to ask her more detailed questions on the issue of Depleted Uranium.

Here is a typical conversation:

Sophia: "I understand that the Coalition Forces used Depleted Uranium-tipped munitions in Baghdad. Have you found evidence of this?"

Bushra: "No, no evidence. There is no problem."

Sophia: "But I have a report here that the former Ministry of Planning was struck by Depleted Uranium."

Bushra: "Oh, well, I guess we'll have to take a look at that."

Several weeks later, when I ask her this question again, her response is, "Oh, we can not go there. Security. We can not get permission to enter."

Sophia: "But you should be able to get permission. Who do you need to go to to get this permission?"

Bushra: "Hmmm. I don't know."

You don't know?! This is the person who says that she is in charge of investigating Depleted Uranium contamination in all of Iraq and she doesn't know where to go to get permission to enter a site potentially loaded with this material?

Sophia: "Well, I do know of one place that you can go without permission. I've been there twice. It's a huge dump yard on the outskirts of Baghdad where they put lots of Iraqi military equipment after the war. There are a lot of tanks there and many were potentially struck with Depleted Uranium. It's very easy to find. Lots of people know about it. It's right off the highway."

Bushra: "Oh? Really? Where is it?"

So we gave her directions and were left wondering what this Radiation Center really does. I've spoken to many people here in Iraq about this apparent openness that masks an apparent deeper reluctance to speak the truth. Dr. Bushra seems to be a master of nodding her head 'Yes,' when what she is really saying is 'No." In many way, I'm amazed she is willing to talk to me at all. There are a lot of tight lips on the issue of radiation at Tuwaitha and Depleted Uranium. She could always have said, "I can't speak to you. You'll have to leave." But she remains as ever, always polite and accommodating.

One man working with an Iraqi environmental non-governmental organization explained to me, "It was dangerous to share information under the former regime. Iraqis have been living with this oppression for so many years, it has become a part of our bones."

On April 10th, the construction of the Radiation Center will be complete and there will be a grand opening ceremony. I plan to attend but I feel that it will take more than a ribbon cutting ceremony to begin a more open era of looking at the difficult questions of radiation in Iraq. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, with a radioactive half-life numbering in the millions of years, they will have plenty of time to grapple with these issues.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

There has been alot of violence over the past few days. The coalition has closed down a newspapers and they detained one of Muqtada Al Sadr's (a prominant shia cleric and firebrand) associates ... Last week, I was actually stuck inside the Green Zone trying to get out when there was a protest going on at one of the main entrances.

"I wouldn't go out that way, Miss," said the soldier at the checkpoint. I was with a young Iraqi gentleman when this happened. We decided to part company. He went out the gate and past the mass of protestors. I hopped the Green Zone bus and drove with several other people trying to leave the Zone to look for another gate that wasn't blocked by protesters (apparently several were).

Today, there were more protest (and I heard many deaths ... mostly in Najaf). Shots were fired down at the Baghdad Hotel ... I don't know if any were hurt. I was across town when it happened and only found out when a friend called to alert us. I live in Karada, just a few miles from the Baghdad Hotel. When I returned home, people in my apartment building said they had heard a long burst of sustained gunfire.

"And it didn't sound like they were celebrating a wedding," one neighbor said.

But walking through the streets of Karada, you wouldn't have noticed much of a change. People pause and wonder what might be going on but then they shrug it off and go about their business. They have grown used to this. I walked down to the Baghdad Hotel about two hours after the incident. Some American tanks drove in behind it's huge cement barracades but nothing else seemed different. There were the same armed guards lounging around the entrance. The excitement, if you could call it that, had long worn off.

Friday, April 02, 2004

More logistical problems ... We need to move by the end of next week. Our hotel, comfortable, grungy dump that it is, isn't working out ... the landlord has tried to jack up the price (apparently he is notorious for doing this every month).

He thinks he'll have no trouble getting westerners to move in. But we know we can do better and since I'm here for several more months, I have to be careful with the money I have left. So I'm housing/apartment hunting for the day. What a pain! There is so much to do here and I'm stuck looking at bathrooms and negotiating rents (they are going up with talk of westerners coming in ... my current two bedroom flat is $425 ... everyone says that is overpriced for what we are getting ... and the landlord wanted to raise the rent to $500!).