Sophia's Peace Work

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Correspondence from a Concerned Relative (upon hearing the news that after leaving Iraq in July, I will go to volunteer with a Peace group in the West Bank, Isreal/Palestine)

Hi -

In one of your notes you say that you are going to Israel. I wish that you would not.

I have always been anti-Zionist. One can not accomodate one injustice (the Holocaust) by creating another injustice(the invasion & disenfranchising of another people who already exist in their 'supposed' "Promised Land"). I am glad that the f*#!ing Bible did not say that my state was the "Promised Land". I am told that being anti-Zionist is to be antisemitic - a curious use of inexact language. Everyone in the Near East, for the large part, are Semites, and I am not particularly against them - though I have negative views
of all the 'religions of the Book'. Not all the Jews that I
knew or grew up were necessarily pro-Zionist - incl. my roommate in college (he was a Viennese refugee). But I guess that is no longer the case - even the ones on the Left.

Well, if that is what the Jews these days think of my views, then I guess that that's the way it must be. But stay away from Palestine.

Not much else is doing here other then the continual decline of our country.

Well, that's it from the "Evil Empire" where 'Bullshit' is our
No. 1 product.

With love, from your Concerned Relative.


Dear Concerned Relative!

I found the following line particularly inspired:

"Not much else is doing here other then the continual decline of our country."

Yep, I'm headin' to the West Bank ... out of the frying pan and into the fire ... rather it might be out of the fire and into the frying pan ... I'm just not sure. In this case, I'll be working with a well established organization. I want to experience the situation in Isreal. I think it's important to see this stuff with my own eyes. Afterall, it's American tanks and helicopters that are being used by Israel. Our tax dollars help to fund the settlements. Americans should have to face this to see what it really means for people on the ground instead of turning their eyes away and shaking their head.


A Night at the Arasat

Every now and then, when I grow tired of having no hot water and air conditioning at the University dorm, I go and hang out with my friends Dahr and David at the Arasat Hotel. They have all of the above plus internet access (intermittent though it is) and satellite T.V. I can check my email while I watch CNN, BBC World News or Channel 2, the movie channel that features American TV sit coms and movies with Arabic subtitles. Tonight's movie is The Thin Red Line ... a beautifully filmed movie about WWII and the battle to take some anonymous strip of land that few had ever heard of before (Guadalcanal) from the Japanese in the Pacific.

We hear that Allawi has been chosen by the Governing Council is the new Prime Minister. The UN Envoy seems to have accepted him, though I've read that he's a nephew of Chalabi and seemed to play his counterpart as an informant to the British. Some Iraqis are celebrating his nomination. One young man stopped me today in Khadamiyah to ask what I thought about it.

"I don't know much about the man," I said, "but I wonder if the fact that he was selected by the Governing Council will taint him in some way." As a rule, the GC is generally despised as puppets of the Americans.

I spent the morning interviewing an Iraqi Environmental NGO and the afternoon meeting with an Iraqi doctor working on a study of victims of Tuwaitha radiation exposure. My experience with both had given me the impression that there is a general inability or unwillingness to work and coordinate activities with other Iraqis. In the case of the NGO's it appears to come down to a fear that the other group might get funding and yours wont. When I asked the director of the NGO about why he was unwilling to collaborate with another organization, he simply attempted to downplay the importance and effectiveness of the other group. (Incidentally, this other group acts the same way).

In the case of the Iraqi doctor, he told me that he had to be extremely careful in his collaborations. He said that he worked extremely hard and that there were many "parasites" in Iraq. People who talk big and do nothing, stealing the work of others when they can.

These sentiments indicate to me that Iraqis have a long way to go to recover from the years of Saddam. "Many of the Iraqis I have met," I told the doctor, "Seem to act as if Saddam had never left. And yet, the problems of the country are so severe that people will have to speak about them honestly and work together jointly to solve them."

Tonight as I review the day, David sits nearby tallying the results of his survey for the Men's Journal. He's given the survey to 200 soldiers asking questions like, "If it were up to you, would you go home now or stay here until the job is done?" and "Who would you vote for if the presidential election were held today?" When I arrived he looked up at me in frustration, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and said, "A lot of these guys don't even intend to vote!" (You'll have to check out the Men's Journal to get the full results of the survey)

Dahr also works quietly on his computer next to me, trying to document torture cases from U.S. Military prisons in Iraq for an attorney in the U.S. who is trying to put together a case against the government. Everyday, for the last several days, he's been crying out, "No more torture cases! It's too depressing!"

I'll stop here ... the movie continues, some forgotten hill has been taken, but I'm too tired to watch the end.

Friday, May 28, 2004

I'd like to know what western doctors have to say about Ahmed's case (also see the next post). I saw Ahmed and his mother yesturday. Admittedly, they are poor, uneducated people without alot of coping skills ... Um Ahmed flies off the handle quickly and she says some pretty, shall we say, colorful things. Having a son with MS and no money to deal with the problem means that she's usually pretty angry when she's dealing with the doctors.

When I saw them, both she and her son said that they were treated very callously when they went to the hospital. The panel review that Dr. M spoke of ended up as follows: they handed Um Ahmed her son's file and told her to go find each of the doctors on the panel to get their signature. She ran all over the hospital looking for doctors and only found two on the list. One wasn't even at that hospital but was in another hospital in Khadamiyia. She hasn't the money to be running around in taxi's dealing with this. She was reduced to going from person to person asking, "Are you Dr. So and So?"

One doctor took the documents and handed them back to her without comment. When she went onto the next person, this 2nd person indicated that the man she was looking for had been the one she had just shown the document too!

It was only after she had a trantrum outside of one doctor's office that he even agreed to see Ahmed ... briefly. He made Ahmed try to walk across the room (which unfortunately he couldn't) and that was the extent of his "review of the case."

Essentially Um Ahmed is poor, she's uneducated, she's powerless and these doctors are reaming her because they can (and also probably because in her anger, she becomes quarrelsome). Most likely there just aren't enough drugs and they don't plan wasting the drugs they have on someone like Ahmed. When you see situations like this you start to understand the deep level of resentment and frustration that people have when they see that nothing seems to be improving.

By the way, this is a woman, who (upon my handing her a fact sheet on MS written in Arabic ... she can read but Ahmed can't) denied that this could be the problem that he has. She believe that he needs one shot and that will make him better. The doctors have not even bothered to properly explain this disease to her (though honestly, she is sooooo superstitious that it would be difficult).

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Prognosis is Not Good

I went to see Dr. M, Ahmed's Doctor (for those of you that have just joined us ... Ahmed is a 17 year old boy living with his mother in the Mukhabarat Squatter camp in Baghdad. He has Multiple sclerosis) at the MS Clinic here in Baghdad. I wanted to check on Ahmed's status and learn from the doctor what his prognosis is. I've made several trips to the Medical City, a maze of buildings that house the public hospital, lab facilities, a College of Medicine and the Italian Hospital. The MS Clinic is in the public hospital and it's a huge, drab and depressing place.

The one working elevator is staffed with a worker that has to pack his human cargo in like cattle. We have been told more than once on the ground floor that Dr. M is on the tenth floor. After facing the elevators once, we now walk the eleven flights (The first floor is always the Ground floor!) even though my translator claims that she will kill me herself if I ask her to do it again. I just laugh and tell her she should stop smoking.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find Dr. M, I finally tracked him down during a busy Saturday morning at the hospital. He is a thin man in his 30's and he seemed more than happy to talk to us.

"Basically there are three components to the treatment of MS patients," he said, "Steroids, Beta-interferon, and physical therapy. Even abroad the treatment would be the same."

He then proceeded to tell us that there were approximately 900 patients being treated for MS at the hospital and that two thirds of the patients who needed these medications, particularly the Beta-interferon, were not getting them.

When we asked about the prognosis for Ahmed, Dr. M said, "It is not good. He can expect many relapses."

I asked, "How much Beta-interferon would Ahmed need to treat his disease?"

"Up to fifteen injections per month," Dr. M said.

I pointed out to Dr. M that there was a CPA-sponsored program to take patients out of Iraq for treatment outside of the country if they could not get proper treatment inside the country. All Ahmed needed was a written letter from his doctor stating that proper treatment for his disease was not available inside Iraq and he might be able to seek better treatment elsewhere.

Whether this last part is true is debatable. I know this program exists but I have no idea how effective it is. Still it is an option that Ahmed could potentially pursue if his doctors would agree to write such a letter.

But then something strange occurred. When I mentioned the CPA program, suddenly Dr. M's story changed. He kept insisting that MS could be treated inside Iraq.

"But you just told me," I said, "that you don't have enough Beta-interferon to treat two thirds of your patients. You just told me that Ahmed's prognosis is not good. Is this not true?"

Dr. M appeared flustered. He told me that I had misunderstood. He said that MS is a serious disease, which is not clearly understood and that is why he indicated that Ahmed's prognosis was not good. And no, there was no major problem with having the medicine. They have enough Beta-interferon ... the only problem was that the supply was not stable. Sometimes the supply they have on hand fluctuates. He even took me to where they stored the medicine and I was shown a refrigerator with approximately two to three hundred boxes of Beta-interferon (three injections per box).

Assuming there were even 600 boxes of this medicine in that refrigerator, that would mean a total of 1800 injections. Two shots for each MS patient and your finished! But Ahmed alone would need fifteen shots a month! But then I was assured that this was only part of their store of Beta-interferon. There was more somewhere else.

I was also told that not all patients in the MS Clinic need Beta-interferon. Some respond well on just the steroids and therapy. Ahmed must go before a panel of doctors in the next two weeks to determine if he is a candidate for Beta-interferon.

Admittedly, perhaps there was a misunderstanding here. Dr. M spoke excellent English and my interpreter jumped in to smooth any gaps. But the conversation had a strange feeling about it, as if Dr. M was trying to convince me that there was no problem at all at the MS Clinic. Though I thought pretty clearly that, at the beginning, he had said there was a very big problem at the Clinic. And this change occurred when I mentioned the CPA-sponsored program.

In a few days, I'll be going to visit Ahmed again and I'd like to go to the Ministry of Health and the man who runs the CPA program. There are many unanswered questions here.

Not Your Typical English Conversation Oral Exams

1) This conversation took place between two students for their Oral Exam. One played the role of an American and one an Iraqi. (The English has been corrected)

Iraqi – In you opinions, why did the Americans come to Iraq? Was it really to free the Iraqi people?
American – No. I think, and the whole world knows, that they came for oil.
Iraqi – Do you think they treat the Iraqi people well?
American – No, I don’t think so. How did you feel and how did Iraqis feel when you saw the corpses of the four contractors who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah?
Iraqi – Islam prevents this even in animals but it is not fair to kill seven hundred people because of the killing of four men. Why? Are Americans expensive and Iraqis cheap? What was your feeling when you saw the torture in the prisons?
American – We all feel sorry …. My last question to you is what do you want to say to the American people?
Iraqi – Leave my country. I will only remember you as an invader. This is my homeland. There is no state without independence. And Islam forbids this injustice and the aggression. We are Muslims believing in God and God will be with us and your end in life will be hard … like the crack of doom.

…. And please don’t say “I’m sorry” to any of the things that have been done because you don’t feel it and it is not enough. I really hate these words when you say them.

Most of my students chose fairly innocuous topics for their final oral exam in my English Conversation test. But three in particular stand out for me. The one above featured Maarb who when I started teaching the class told me very politely that although she liked me very much, she didn’t want me to teach her.

Another conversation test involved some of the best and brightest students in my class. It featured one student who drew a depressing picture of Iraq with a big “X” across it. This is what she thought of the future of Iraq. Four other students came along and drew pretty pictures depicting love, hope, peace and happiness and tried to convince the first student that if people were filled with these feelings and ideas that a New Iraq was possible.

Another student did her oral exam alone. She was the last student I tested and I’ll always remember her. Her eyes are large and luminous and there was always a look of sadness on her face. Her oral exam was the recounting of the kidnapping of her six-year old brother who had been snatched several weeks earlier (a not uncommon occurrence in the New Iraq). She told of the long and difficult journey that she and her family travel to eventually secure his release (which involved the family paying out several million Iraqi dinars to the kidnappers).

I asked her if they went to the police. “Yes, we told them,” she said, “But all they did was tell us that if they caught any suspicious people, they would let us know.”

To make sure the family paid quickly, the kidnappers told them that the boy had become gravely ill and if they wanted him back alive, they better pay up soon. Once the money was handed over … late at night in one of the more dicey parts of the city… they waited until finally they received a call from across town that the boy had been found wandering barefoot, crying for his mother. He didn’t know where he was and couldn’t remember where he lived. All he had was the phone number to his parent’s house. Fortunately, the kidnappers had lied. He was perfectly healthy.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Dijla "Tigris" is Amazing

Today, I went out for a river trip with the NADEC (Nat'l Association for the Defense of the Environment and Child) folks. We traveled the river between the 14 Ramadan Bridge and the Jameriya Bridge (after which the Green Zone begins). Shawqi, Hassam, Riadh, A my translator and myself with our boatman zipped about looking at outfall pipes, trash, swimming kids, fishermen and lots of green slime.

There are plenty of problems ... probably the worst according to Ustadh (Mr.) Shawqi being the outfall pipes from the Medical City. A complex of hospitals and medical labs that pour their combined, untreated effluent into the river. Still rivers are always amazing and, as A squealed when the boat hit top speed, I felt that the Tigris truely deserves it's old Sumerian name of Digtna ... "Great River."

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I really want to connect with river-related organizations that might have any interest in providing help, guidance, etc. to Iraqi NGO's that are working on River clean-up projects. I googled two international river groups and emailed them but never heard a peep. These guys don't have any contact with the outside world as yet and I'm trying to set them up. If you know anyone who can help ... I'd be in your debt! Here is a short list of Enviro-related Iraqi NGO's

The National Association for Iraqi Environment. Contact: Eng. Marwan Ali Muhammed 555-5421

Iraqi Green Peace Organization. Contact: Sameer Ibraheem Al_Badrawy. 00821651159685

Between Two Rivers Country Association. Contact: Ameer Ibraheem Al Zahawy. 07 901 302764 Also: Latifa Muhammed Khidir 4446884 or 4440305

Iraqi Green Movement. Contact: Ali Abdul Zahra

Iraqi National Association for Human Rights. Contact: Sa'adia Flaih Hasson

National Association for the Defense of the Environment and Child. Contact: Shawqi Karim Hassan 07 901 405118 (This is the group I'm working on the Tigris River Boat Project with)

Environmental Protection Association in Najaf. Contact: Ali Hussain Abood 033362118

Green Democratic Party. Contact: Dr. Rassol Sabah Al Quraishi 00667225013

Iraqi Environmental Organization. Contact: Sa'adi Salim 5553684

Volunteers of Green Peace. Contact: Qassim Yihia Alawy 5567189 or 4442845 or 7712243

Healthy Environment Association Contact: Qassim Yihia Alawy 5567189 or 4442845

Iraqi Environmental Protection Association. Contact: Atheer Saib Naji Also: Ihssan Dhia

This info is a bit dated and so I can't vouch for it's complete accuracy (nor for the ability of any of the contacts to speak anything but Arabic!)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

First off, no one was hurt.

We got a call late monday night from a translator who often goes down to the Al Fanar Hotel that the U.S. Military raided the hotel on Monday night at 9:15 pm (approx.). My friend Michael and I had been down there earlier in the day and after I heard about the raid, I went down again today. The Fanar is a small hotel on Abu Nuwas Street (which borders the Tigris River) right across the street from the big Palestine and Sheraton Hotels that are filled with journalists and Coalition contractors. The Fanar is close to the hearts of many because this was the hotel where many peace groups stayed before and during the war.

This is, apparently, what happened. French T.V. reporters, who live on the 4th floor of the Fanar, were playing back some footage of a Pro-Sadr demonstration. Apparently it was loud enough to be heard from the American checkpoint on the street below. The desk manager told me that the soldiers thought there was some Pro-Sadr demo happening inside the Fanar and so they raided it. There are only western journalists and reporters staying at the Fanar now(though I don't believe there are any or very many American journalists there) and many of them were gathered in the lobby and had to wait at gun point while the soldiers searched the hotel. I guess they figured out pretty quickly that there wasn't really a demo going on in the Fanar but they decided to search the place anyway. And apparently they were unwilling to wait for someone with a master key to open all of the doors. Something like 35 to 40 doors were busted open by the soldiers, though they appear to have done no further damage.

Such is the heavy hand of the Americans these days. Security has tightened even more around the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels. There is more barbed wire, more roads around them are closed (half of Firdos square is cut off to traffic ... it should be called the Firdos Semi-Circle at this point - you can't even begin to imagine the traffic!, and they are now asking for ID's to even go into the area where before it was just a bag search and a pat down.

People are starting to worry about the transition and everyone is expecting it to be bad.

Monday, May 17, 2004

The "Transition"

People keep asking me what I think the transition will be like on June 30th when the U.S. hands over power to the Interim Iraqi Government. Well, expect alot of fireworks ... Fallujah times 4. But then I thought the fighting in Najaf and Karbala would be bad ... but in terms of the feel on the street it doesn't seem quite as intense. Regardless I really don't think it will be much of a transition.

I recently found out (though it appears to be common knowledge around here) that the U.S. intends to keep the Presidential Palace as it's embassy in Iraq. It is one of the largest and grandest buildings in the City. I can't imagine that Iraqis would view this as anything but a slap in the face. In the U.S. it would be as if an foreign power had decided that it would just turn the White House into their embassy. It is hard to believe that the people running the show here could be that short-sighted.

Last night I spoke with of foreign diplomat from a European embassy here in Baghdad. He told me that publically he could not speak freely about the performance of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. But privately he was amazed at their stupidity.

"Take their constant patrols through the city," he said, "What real purpose do they serve other than to humiliate Iraqis on a daily basis? They snarl the traffic and they have absolutely no effect on the rising crime in the city. If I were them, I'd stay on the base and only come out when there is some specific reason or problem."

The CPA here often bemoans the terrible security situation in Iraq. But I would put forward the following notion to consider ... Is it possible that one of the main reasons for the poor security situation in Iraq is the behavior of the Coalition forces in their daily dealings with Iraqis? Could it be that their very presence, when they sit behind their fortified walls and razor wire in the Presidential Palace, decreases the security in Iraq?

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Catching up on some old posts ... May 13th through May 16th

May 13th

Today I went to visit the National Association on the Iraqi Environment. I thought I was simply interviewing a member of the group, but upon arrival, I found that there was a two hour workshop on the Environment in Iraq about to start and I was the opening speaker. I stammered through a short introduction and gave them some background on my interest in environmental issues and my plan to boat down the Tigris River in Baghdad and look at some of the problems of the river. Afterwards, several speakers came forward to address the host of environmental disasters that the Iraqi people have inherited from decades of war and sanctions. The Minister of the Environment though invited, never came but sent a few representatives from his P.R. department. They were quickly at the center of a storm of indignation as many members of the audience rose to take the Ministry to task for not doing enough. One man passed me a note that said (in Arabic) that the Ministry of Environment was useless and should be dissolved.

At one point I received a question from a man in the audience. He welcomed me and asked, "What can the Americans do to help the Iraqi Environment?"

"I think," I began, "that Americans and many western countries need to take some responsibility for the role that they played in harming the environment of Iraq because of wars and sanctions. But if Iraqis are hoping that America will freely provide the help that is needed, I am afraid they will be waiting a very long time."

"Iraqis need to speak up and demand that the West take responsibility for the mess it has created," I continued, "And although I have met many Iraqis who are courageous enough to speak out, I have also found many who are unwilling to speak or even tell me their name for fear of losing their jobs or making the Americans angry."

"But in the end," I concluded, "It will only be when Iraqis, from Ministry workers down to ordinary citizens, are willing to speak clearly and honestly about their problems, that they will actually be able to solve them."

After the meeting, we went over to the River Police Headquarters near Al Adamiyia and the Abu Hanifa mosque. We had heard that in March of 2003 a police boat went out with two officers and four staff (3 men and 1 woman) from the Ministry of Environment’s Baghdad Environmental Office. During the course of their survey, they passed by the Qasr Al Adamiyia – a former presidential palace turned U.S. Military base. They were doing a survey of the river and measuring various chemical and physical properties of the water to locate pollution sources and hotspots. After they had just past the base on their return trip they stopped mid-river to document their work by taking some pictures. Shots were fired by personnel working at the base (no one was injured) and the team was taken into custody … the men were hooded with black plastic bags and their hands were bound behind them. The one woman in the group was separated from her colleagues and all were questioned. The whole ordeal took a little over 2 hours to sort out before the Americans questioning them finally believe their stories and released them … minus their camera film with three day’s worth of survey information on it, despite the offer to have the CPA develop the film for verification. In a letter from the Ministry to the CPA reporting the incident, they asked that the ministry’s environmental survey teams be given special I.D’s in order to execute their duties without "collision with the CPA." They also asked for a formal apology to be forwarded to the Ministry as this incident "had a very negative effect on the survey team whose only concern is to fulfill their duties and serve their country." To date, the Ministry has received no response.

On another note:

Tonight, A came to visit me in my dorm room. She told me that a few days before when she was leaving my dorm room a girl had approached her.

"Is that American woman a soldier?" the girl asked her.

"No," A replied, "she’s a teacher."

"I heard that Muqtada Al Sadr has a reward out," the girl continued, "One kilo of gold for the kidnapping of a female American soldier."

"Yes, this is true," said A, "But the reward is not a kilo of gold. It’s 200,000 Iraqi Dinars (about $150 US)."

"Oh," the girl said, laughing, "That’s not really worth it."

Thank goodness that Sadr doesn’t have a lot of pocket change and I had the good sense to stay out of the army.

May 14th, 2003

Spent the morning looking for a representative from the Iraqi Association on the Environment and Child at Mutanabi street (Booksellers’ Row … a great place to buy books in Baghdad with a nice café at the end … if you want to brave it as a woman alone). The man never showed up so we went and took a ride on the river boats. Very nice. Got loads of pictures of trash. The boat men were cool and showed us around … problem is that they can offer only two options for our Tigris River Boat Project. The small boats that zip across the river and a huge barge (which would take at least 11 hours to haul down the river … but boy, we could really party on that thing!).

May 15th, 2003

Test today. The first series sucked … I had to kick all the students out of the classroom because they couldn’t keep quiet when each group came up to do their presentations … “group” is a rather euphemistic term … since the groups splintered apart into bit-size pieces of two or three people half the time. Most of the students didn’t take the full 5 minutes and so I had to judge them on the simple performance of the line, “Yes, I’m sad about the situation in Iraq,” which was more often rendered as, “Yes, I sad about situation here … yanni … in Iraq.” Ah well, such are the trials and tribulations of an English Conversation teacher in a foreign land.

May 16th

More tests today, which quickly degenerated to a point at which I had to reschedule the second set of tests for tomorrow. ~sigh~ Later I did have a productive meeting with the National Association for Protection of the Environment and Child about the Boat Project. They are willing to handle getting the boats and inform the various Sheikh's, Imams, and Municipalities along the river. My job is to work on the CPA to get the permissions (and hence promises that they won't shoot at us as we float by). This may be a tall order but I have to try. I asked the representatives from the group where they thought the greatest problems would come from. Where they worried about terrorists? Mujahedin? No, their biggest worry was about what the Americans would do.

Lastly a few pictures ...

Jo Wilding's guest lecture on Human Rights to Iraqi University Students.

Trash at a Tigris River boat landing

Iraqi River boats

Derelict Dredge

Saturday, May 15, 2004

The New, Diminuative Exercise Bike of the Missionary Sisters of Charity Orphanage

After the Orphanage gave me a wheelchair for Ahmed, a young man I have been working with who has MS, they asked me to look for a small, child-sized exercise bike for the kids. They get little exercise at the Orphanage and they don't have much room for regular kid's bikes to move around in. Alaa and I had been looking for such a bike for a few weeks when we came across one for sale at a shop on Karada Outside. We dickered with the owner of the store and purchased it for $65. Then we threw it into the back of a taxi and dashed off to the Orphanage to deliver it. I hope it works for them. The children have pretty severe disabilities and it will take them time to get strong enough and used to the motion of the pedals. I'll check with them in a few weeks to see how things are going.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Checkin' In

I know I haven't posted in a few days but I'm in the midst of Final Exams at the University. For the next three days I have tests, tests, TESTS! Then there will be another series next weekend. I have been keeping busy with my other projects as well ... Tigris River Boat Project being top of the list at the moment. There is so much to write about. And now fighting in Najaf and Karbala too. I promise to give a good, long and extensive post soon!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The following is a short article that I sent to my old job to be included in their next newsletter ... The Octopress (Ok, it's a strange name but it's a Marine and Natural Science Museum and they have an Octopus as their mascot!).

Marhaba (Hello) from Baghdad! Sophia here. Remember me! I know that the Spring Season at the Center is in full swing now and the volunteers and staff are probably busy with school programs and running the exhibits. I've heard that you are having a warm and dry spring. Well, I'm having a very hot spring here in Baghdad (it's already hotter than the hottest day of summer in the Northwest and I'm told that the heat is only beginning). I hope you have been able to follow my activities on my weblog ( via the Internet. I've certainly been keeping busy! I've been teaching English Conversation at the University of Baghdad; helping a young man with MS get medical attention; helping to support aid workers that traveled into Fallujah during the worst of the fighting; researching and reporting on issues such as depleted uranium, pollution and homelessness in Iraq. My latest plan is to start a Tigres River project, which includes boating down the river through the city of Baghdad to look at all the pollution problems along the river and to allow Iraqis, who for many years could not even access large sections of the river, an opportunity to see that the river belongs to them. Let's hope the Americans and the Mujaheddin don't shoot at me!

Monday, May 10, 2004

Everyone is Kurdish

"This is something very interesting," my translator whispered to me as we walked the halls of the Iraqi Ministry of Environment.

Whenever my translator says this my ears prick up because what usually follows is a useful and instructive observation about Iraq that I may not have noticed.

"Everyone in here," she continued, "from the five secretaries of the Senior Advisor to the Minister himself is Kurdish."

Ah, yes, I had heard that this Ministry is Kurdish, just as I have heard that other Ministries are controlled exclusively by different parties ... Da'wa, SCIRI, etc .... But whether this ministry is PUK- (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) or KDP- (Kurdish Democratic Party) controlled, I have no idea.

The Ministry of Environment has one of the smallest budgets of all the Iraqi Ministries, but some of the biggest problems. We went there to attend a meeting of Iraqi Environmental NGO's and also to discuss a potential Tigres River Project that would involve boating the river to visit all of the hotspots on the Tigres.

After a long update on what the Ministry of Environment has done over the last four months ... (I have to admit that it was a bit hard to tell which were actual accomplishments and which were simply plans or proposals for future projects to be done at a later date when there is some money to do them). Much of the report was dedicated to restating the need for better support and better security.

There were few Iraqi NGO's in the audience even though the meeting was for NGO's. When the host of the meeting asked why this was, a man from an Iraqi NGO, the National Association for Protection of the Environment and Child, said, "NGO's get nothing from these meetings."

Friday, May 07, 2004

Conspiracy Theories Abound

Noor is a Iraqi guard at the gate of the University of Baghdad. She helps search the ladies and check their purses for explosives and other nasty objects they might be carrying. I've only spoken to her a few times (luckily I usually come onto the campus by car but when I walk in or out, she nabs me). Today she told me, as best as I could understand from her broken English, that members of the school administration were out to get her.

"Please don't tell them I spoke to you," she said pulling me away from the other guards, "Just tell them I asked you about America."

She apparently loves America and Americans. She then told me that the pictures of tortured and abused Iraqi prisoners from the prison at Abu Ghraib were a big hoax. They were made by an Iraqi nurse that must have worked at the prison.

When I pointed out that is was an American soldier that had come forward with the pictures and information about the problems at the prison, she denied it.

"No, no, believe me," she insisted, "The pictures are fake!"

Noor seems set in her conspiracy theories. Jo told me of another conspiracy theory she got from someone via email. The killing and mutilation of the four American contractors was simply a conspiracy by the Mujaheden to force the American to come into Fallujah with a heavy hand and that they had somehow forced the Americans to shoot at women, unarmed old men, children and ambulances in a sinister plot to make the Americans look bad.

I know there is another theory going around now (based on some reporting by an Iranian news service) that the U.S. is secretly shipping in weapons of mass destruction to be planted in Iraq and conveniently found prior to the U.S. election. I know many people who believe in or at least consider this last theory plausible. Personally I'm sitting on the fence on this one.

My philosophy on conspiracies is that if they really are conspiracies there is no way for me to know one way or the other until the truth finally comes out, so I really don't put much effort into espousing them until that happens. I also feel that vast conspiracies and sinister plots are a bit tough to pull off because at some point someone is going to spill the beans ... it's just human nature when you have a big juicy secret like that. So even though I think Noor and Jo's email friend are more than a little off the mark with their theories, I wouldn't bother to argue with them. Time will usually prove them wrong (or right, I suppose).

And if the Americans suddenly turn up some WMD's a few months before the election? Well, I'll be taking a good, hard look at the investigative reporting and evidence that comes out before I make up my mind about it.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Hangin' at the Girls' Dorm

I had a series of visitations last night by the Girls from the dorm. First it was a four person delegation from the Iraqi Student Union. They wanted to know who I was, what I was doing living in the dorms and what aid or assistance I could provide. I explained that I was with a group called Voices in the Wilderness but that I was doing independent work on a variety of issues related to radiation problems and environmental issues, squatter camps and, of course, teaching English at Baghdad University. They seems satisfied but there was this sticking point of what direct help I can provide. As westerners we get this all the time. I spoke to a British friend earlier who had come to Iraq to participate in a circus troupe called Circus 2 Iraq, which was touring schools, shelters, and refugee camps throughout Iraq until April.

"At the squatter camp there was a woman who needed some kind of operation," she told me, "And she kept asking for my help and saying that her life was in my hands." She shook her head and cried out, "I'm a clown, for God's sake! What on earth can I do?"

I asked the representative from the Student Union (through a student from the School for Computer Science who acted as the translator) who she was looking for help for. It was a child from Fallujah with a serious congenital heart problem, which the doctors here say that they can't treat. Since I've gone through the process of seeking medical attention for Ahmed, the young man with MS, I outlined the process, as I understood it, for seeking special medical attention. I told them that in Ahmed's case, he was able to get treatment inside the country (though I'm still trying to determine the nature and quality of his treatment). But I just don't know whether it would be easy to follow the process through to the conclusion of getting treatment outside the country.

During this whole discussions, some girls left and other girls came. Most just wanted to have a look at me. Some participated in the discussion which ranged from the topic of aid for this young child, to the recent fighting in Fallujah, to the role of Western Human Rights workers in Iraq (building trust being the key issue). Sometime after 10 p.m. the girls left and I had a few minutes reprieve before the next contingent arrived at my door. This time it was two Engineering students, Ibtihal from Ramadi (a Sunni who spoke no English) and Areeg from Diwaniyah near Najaf (a Shia who spoke English quite well). They were best friends and after the first pleasantries were past, Areeg lit into a tirade about how the Jews were controlling the U.S. and would soon try and take over Iraq and more of the Arab world.

I listened respectfully and quietly voiced a different opinion. I knew that I would not get very far with Areeg as she continued to insist the the Jews were the masterminds behind pretty much every bad thing that had happened to Iraq. I asked her if she had ever met a Jew before and she said, "Oh, they used to be in Iraq before they were forced out."

After Areeg and Ibtihal left, I was reminded of a previous conversation I had had with one of the students about Native Americans. A friend had given me a Native American Medicine pouch with a crystal in it and I had shown it to her.

She wrinkled her nose in disgust and said, "Oh, but they are savages." I was a little taken aback by this as our understanding of Native Americans has advanced a bit further than this. After a few questions, I realized that her information about Native Americans comes from U.S. Cowboy and Indian movies. This woman had never met a Native American in her life but she still presumed to pass judgment on them based on something as flimsy as the racism of antiquated films that don't even originate out of her own culture.

Areeg believes that the Jews have pulled the wool over America's eyes and pull all the strings, but in essence she is expressing the same kind of view that Americans do when they think of Arab's as being all about Jihad and Terrorism.

When cultures exist in such isolation from one another this type of foolishness is bound to be the end result. It seems to me that this is often the crux of all our problems. We sit behind our national borders (these are simply lines drawn in the sand) and we don't want to grant any kind of humanity to the people on the other side.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Lies and Fear in a free Iraq

There is a woman who is the Director of an important Iraqi scientific establishment focused on the control and prevention of radiological hazards for the entire country. She has a brand new facility rebuilt and equipped by an international health organization. Her staff is conducting surveys of the communities impacted by the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility, the primary location of Saddam’s nuclear program, which was looted in the days after the war. They are looking for areas of depleted uranium contamination caused by U.S. bombardments from both the 1991 war and the latest conflict in 2003. According to this woman, there are no problems. Everything has been cleaned up and no one needs to worry. She is a very nice lady. She even took me on a tour.

The problem is that she appears to be lying through her teeth. Her statements don’t make sense. When I tell her of a building that is rumored to be contaminated by D.U., she says to me, “Oh really, we’ll have to check on that.” When I ask her later if her staff was able to do so, her shoulders touch her ears and she opens her hands.

“We can’t go there,” she says, almost apologetic, “We can’t get permission.”

When I check with the U.S. soldiers who staff the checkpoint next to the building in question, they shrug their shoulders too. “If they are part of a government ministry (they are),” they tell me, “They shouldn’t have any problem getting permission to go there.”

During our tour of the communities around Tuwaitha, where she assures me that everything has been cleaned up and there is no problem, we meet a doctor taking blood samples of children at a local school and he tells us that the there are likely to be big problems in the communities. On top of the grinding poverty they can expect to see a big rise in childhood leukemia in about two years.

When we alert our guide that this doesn’t really fit with her “no problem” refrain, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, I’m a physicist, not a doctor.”

Then there was the little issue of the tank dump. I’d visited it twice already. A huge stretch of wasteland piled with wrecked and pulverized Iraqi military equipment. When we told her about the place and asked her if anyone from her staff had ever visited the site to look for depleted uranium, she acted like she had never heard of the place before (we actually gave her our directions to the site). But a week later, we talked to a staff person from the Center that told us that he had been to the site, and several others like it, several months before.

As nice and accommodating as the Director is, I knew that her story was incomplete. But I couldn’t really understand why she wanted to waste both her time and mine by telling me half-truths and lies. Why not just give me the brush off and say she can’t or doesn’t want to speak with me.

Then I tracked down Saif, an Iraqi man who had worked for the Center in the past and had been pushed out apparently for asking too many questions. He told me of an investigation of high-level radioactive materials found in Baghdad. The material was some metal contaminated with radiation. Proper containment wasn’t possible and the material was simply put into a steel container. A written report was handed into the Director, which she gave to the Coalition. Now both the report and the contaminated material have disappeared.

“This was only one of a number of cases,” Saif told me in his sparse and dingy Baghdad office, “When I tried to speak up about things like this, I was removed from my position. The Director has her Coalition-issued phone. They tell her what to do.”

“And this,” he said, pointing at the bare ceiling that didn’t even boast a fan to relieve the growing heat, “is all they give me now.”

But Saif is afraid of losing even this. I’m allowed no pictures and he won’t even give me his full name. “I’ve got family,” he says, “I’ve got children. I can’t risk it.”

I’m left wondering about what to do next, faced with lies on one said and a reluctance to talk on another. “What can someone like me do?” I ask him.

“Say the truth.”

But I don’t know if it’s possible to get to the truth past the all of the lies and fear in this free Iraq.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Every time I think I’ve gotten over some crisis with my students the Americans go off and do something stupid again … like torture Iraqi prisoners.

I moved into the women’s dorm room at the University of Baghdad’s Jadriya campus about the same time that the pictures were released showing Americans torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. For the first night, I crept around the empty hall (I’m the only one living on the first floor of the building) hoping that no one would notice me, but I knew that every girl in the complex of dorm buildings was bursting at the seams with curiosity (and, in my imagination, animosity) about me. I skipped out early the next day but I knew I would have to face them eventually. The second night of my stay came a sharp knock at my window. With a sigh (I’ll have to face the music sometime, I thought), I pulled the blinds aside and opened the window on a crowd of at least 30 girls.

I knew they were excited to see me. For over a decade or more, Iraqis were too afraid to talk to foreigners for fear of getting into serious trouble with their government. But now, here was one living in their midst. As one girl would tell me later, “Iraqis are very, very curious people.”

That’s all well and good, but with the revelation that Americans have been torturing Iraqis in Saddam’s most notorious prison of torture, I wondered if they might also want take out their anger and frustration on me. I needn’t have worried. Once that they were assured that I wasn’t an American spy or soldier, I was quickly taken into their hearts, compared in beauty to Julia Roberts and Kate Winslet (a gross overstatement if there ever was one) and offered any form of assistance to make my stay pleasant.

The girls asked me the usual questions, “Was I married and did I have any children? Where did I live? How old was I?” And they asked me some not so usual questions, “Did I hate Saddam?” “What did I think about the behavior of the American soldiers?”
“How could the Americans torture Iraqis like that?”

“I hate the American soldiers,” said one of the girls vehemently and then seconds later she tried to assure me that she didn’t blame me and hoped that I didn’t take her comments personally. I asked the students if they thought the Americans should leave Iraq as soon as possible. Before, when I have heard Iraqis criticize the Americans, they usually hesitate over this question and say “No, the Americans should stay.” Tonight, there is no hesitation. “Yes, the Americans should go.”

One young girl held up a small picture of Saddam Hussain and said, “I love Saddam.”

So it seems we’ve made Iraq a free country and now they can choose whether they want to love Saddam or not. I don’t bother to say, “But Saddam tortured people.” Coming from an American these days, that doesn’t mean very much.

I teach at the University on Wednesday. I’m supposed to cover Past Tense verbs, but there is already talk of fighting in Najaf. We haven't even gotten past Abu Ghraib yet and now my students and I will have to deal with death and destruction on the holiest city of the Shia.

A few additional pictures:

A burning military tanker on the way to Fallujah

Sophia at the Fallujah Refugee camp

A Fallujah Family at the camp

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Zipped out to Fallujah today ... well, just as far as the check point into the city. The Americans are letting in about 200 families a day ... at this rate, since about two thirds of the city fled during the bombing, it will take some time for everyone to return. The soldiers we talked to were somewhat new to the area and didn't have any opinion that they wanted to share on what the felt about the settlement that had been reached in Fallujah.

We also talked to some people leaving the city (in fact the line going out was longer than the line coming in). Some where people who had come to visit relatives in Fallujah. One was a man who had volunteered the use of his van to bring families back in (he had no idea there was a limitation set on the number of families per day. It had taken him about four or five hours to bring two families in and he was heading out for more). We also talked to a man named Nizar who was leaving to go to the hospital in Baghdad to visit family members injured during the fighting. His mother and nephew had been killed and five family members had been injured by the Americans when they were trying to leave Fallujah.

"Is he sure they were American soldiers that fired upon the family?" my friend Jo asked through our interpreter.

He told us that is was a missile attack from the air. "Tiiara," he was the word he used, which I've heard used for both planes and helicopters.

Soon after we had to leave the checkpoint for an appointment back in Baghdad. In the distance we heard four deep booms in a row.

"Don't worry," said a U.S. soldier, "Those are controlled detonations. You only have to worry if you hear a high pitched whistle first."