Sophia's Peace Work

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.


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