Breakfast in Iraq: Four Days from a Diary

July 28th, 2003 - by admin

by Jo Nickolls / Oxfam International –

June 2, 2003
We leave dusty Amman early, arriving in Baghdad at an airport much more organised than when I last flew here in early May. On the tarmac there is a DHL plane and then we walk through dark cargo warehouses full of desert-camouflaged soldiers drinking strawberry juice and eating salted Pringles. They are lazing amongst piles of Ericsson mobile phone boxes. A young female American soldier registers us efficiently at the “NGO reception centre”. While we are having our photographs taken – for identity purposes – we notice a children’s drawing on the wall. It’s an American flag with a picture of a US trooper and a poem, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, You risked your lives, for me and for You!” The poem’s final “You!” raises a question many Iraqi people are asking – who was the invasion of their country for?

Save the Children UK give us a lift into the centre of Baghdad. We slalom through a roadblock and past six truckloads of portaloos, while being told of recent attacks with rocket propelled grenades and mortars on coalition forces guarding the other Baghdad airfield. Later in the day another NGO describes how the coalition had failed to spot a poster that said “Long Live Saddam’, hung high in a bombed out building opposite their HQ in the Republican Palace, presumably, because it was in Arabic. Right outside the Palestine hotel, on the podium of the new statue erected to replace Saddam, is a piece of graffiti which has been erased and rewritten several times. It reads “All Donne, Go Home”.

In the afternoon we drive to the centre of today’s Baghdad – the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the Conference Centre by the Republican Palace. The procedures are well-oiled and far smoother than a month ago. The young, well-armed American soldiers at the dusty, sand-bagged gate have heard of our meeting and a female soldier is summoned to body-search me. At the NGO meeting we hear good news stories about the 7,000 policemen working in Baghdad and the schools in Karbala that have been cleared of explosive devices by the coalition. One grim message is that coalition analysts confidently predict increased attacks on the civilian part of the Authority and also on NGOs.

At the press briefing upstairs, Ambassador Bremer is telling journalists the top priority is to turn the economy around. The Authority wants to restart trade, start oil exports, create employment and reduce debt. It seems a strange list, when Iraqi people’s top worries are still kidnapping, rape and robbery. But perhaps there is a realisation that if parents haven’t been paid a salary for months, they won’t have enough money to buy food and the so-called looters might simply be poor and hungry.

June 3, 2003
We go to the UN compound for a briefing for dozens of NGOs about security and the humanitarian situation in Iraq. There’s a lot about security and the anti-coalition sentiment. In Bakuba, people are refusing to be paid by the Americans who, they think, should go home. In Baghdad yesterday there was a peaceful demonstration by a few thousand angry men – disbanded military demanding compensation for being sacked or a job. And in Basra, we hear, Christian shops are being ransacked and shooting continues.

Later, on the way to the UNICEF office we wind our way through congested noisy streets and past the slow, snaking fuel queues. At one junction which is always blocked, Haider, our translator, explains that of course, the official traffic police who returned to work voluntarily will have gone home by now as it is after midday. But there is a new system where local people manage their own roads. The motivated and well-placed wave of a volunteer’s hand seems sufficient to quell traffic tensions and get cars moving smoothly.

At the BBC office, we speak to an Arabic service correspondent who still sounds rather shaken as she recounts how she was car-jacked by four armed men in the late afternoon in central Baghdad a couple of days ago. They roughly yanked her out of the car and convinced the driver to surrender his personal car – his means of earning a living – by holding a gun to his head.

Outside the Palestine Hotel, the girl who a month ago was asking us for money to go to school tomorrow is nowhere to be seen – hopefully she is back at school rather than swelling the growing ranks of street children in post war Iraq.

Later that afternoon, Noaman and Hanaa from the Iraqi Al-Amal aid agency come to our hotel – Oxfam used to work with Iraqi Al-Amal in the 1990s in Kurdish northern Iraq. Today, they are returning to Baghdad from a temporary base in Damascus, Syria. Like many people, they are worried about the antiquated and dysfunctional health system in Iraq. In the villages around Najaf, it seems that better primary health care could make a big difference so a project to retrain staff is planned. Of course, these valuable changes would make most difference if the monolithic state structure that centralised power and decision-making under Saddam Hussein began to function again.

June 4, 2003
Today we got lost driving across the city. While we tried to find our way, we saw lots of graffiti telling Americans to leave Iraq now and go home. Squatting tanks block entire streets and young American soldiers with dark glasses and khaki bandanas point guns from the turrets of jeeps. Moving convoys of armoured personnel carriers gesture violently for all other vehicles to get out of their way. A strange-looking armoured vehicle with a box and two large guns perched on top passes us by. It is only when the box and the big guns swivel right around and rotate down to stare at us that we realise it is an anti-aircraft gun.

We go to buy take-away lunch – falafel, salad and chilli sauce sandwich from a “Spanish” restaurant. At today’s exchange rate of 1,300 dinar to the dollar, our lunch bill of 1,000 dinar or 50 pence is expensive compared with yesterday. But it is difficult to keep up: a fortnight ago, a dollar was only buying 850 dinar and a month ago about 2,500. Near our Spanish/Iraqi restaurant there are several gleaming red fire engines, complete with hoses and puddles of water. But we are reassured that there is no danger we are near a raging fire or a smouldering building – the firemen haven’t been paid for months – instead, they are spraying down dusty Baghdad houses and mosques for cold hard cash.

That afternoon we hear an upbeat speech from the coalition’s liaison officers who run the Iraqi Assistance Centre about Baghdad getting safer. There are more patrols, electricity is improving, people are being paid and more drugs are arriving for the warehouses. Some of it is true but it’s all happening far too slowly. It is also true that the princely sum of $1 million is being distributed daily to unpaid government workers. It sounds great – a million dollars is a fortune – but when the people getting the cash are trying to make it last an entire month and support the rest of Iraq as well, it works out at just over one dollar a month for every Iraqi. Where’s the oil money? Why isn’t Iraq rich? As many Iraqi people tell us, they are patient, they have already been patient for 35 years, but people can only be patient for so long.

Back in the hotel later that day, Haider gestures excitedly at the increasingly loud BBC World Service Hard Talk programme. A representative from Medecins Sans Frontieres is being interviewed. He and his team stayed in the Hotel Al Abraj for two months. During that time two of his staff were kidnapped. Someone thought they were spies so they were held for 10 days in three different prisons before being released. The interviewer gives him a hard time for working in Iraq – aren’t there bigger crises in the world? Sure, there are other countries in vast need but Iraq’s immediate problems do seem to have been caused by a foreign invasion so perhaps it is reasonable to expect the international community to help find solutions now.

June 5, 2003
An extravagant Iraqi breakfast at the home of an Iraqi friend starts the day. Fragrant black tea, potent thick coffee, early morning bakery bread and croissants, apricot jam and deliciously fresh tasting candied orange. Beautiful pastry delicacies are filled with dates – there are over 80 kinds of dates in Iraq. Before oil became the major export, and before Saddam Hussein chopped the date palms down in case snipers were hiding in the leaves, dates were a major export for Basra in Southern Iraq. Today, people in Baghdad won’t even eat the abundant tomatoes from Basra because they are worried about contamination from the depleted uranium the coalition artillery uses in its shells.

We are benefiting from the breath-taking hospitality of a generous relative of an England-based Iraqi colleague. Her family talk about life post-Saddam: it’s still dangerous so there is still no true freedom – anarchy is not to be mistaken for freedom. It’s impossible to find work, and the weather is getting hotter – maybe 60 degrees centigrade in August. No one in Iraq seems to understand why things aren’t getting better but people try to make the most of it, helping others out as much as possible. The gardener with his19 children and a big sparsely toothed smile still comes to the house grinning and reprimands us – we should stand in the shade not the sun. It’s midday after all.

14-year-old Mohammed asks if we like Shakira or Eminem? We listen to pop music on his walkman and look at daytime TV – unfortunately all channels are noisy grey fuzz until evening time. He enthusiastically shows me and 12-year-old Sama – her name means Sky – a toy cigarette lighter that looks like a small shiny gun and then dashes excitedly upstairs to find his grandfather’s dark heavy pistol in its worn leather holster, pointing out proudly the “Made in England”. After educating us authoritatively about the range of such guns he sheepishly admits he doesn’t really know how it works and hopes he’ll never have to figure it out.

Mohammed’s older brother Wahab drives us, in a squeaking car with dubious brakes, further into Karada in Southern Baghdad. We stop to talk to a lady called Ekram living with her husband and three children in a tiny box caravan. She sold her nearby house just before the war to pay for her son to get out of military service. Her two daughters, Dua and Isra smile as we read Dua’s paper declaration sellotaped to the wall, “Yes, yes, Mr Bush. No, no Saddam.” But they complain there is no security, no certainty and they still want freedom.

Mohammed and Wahab took us to see a friend who is having a hard time in the new Iraq. At Umm Maryam’s empty house she gives us cola and apologises for the lack of anywhere to sit: she sold the furniture five years ago to pay the rent. Her oldest daughter, Maryam, is diabetic but there is no insulin at the hospital. Her middle daughter, Nora, has rheumatism and they can’t afford the tests and analysis to find out what is causing the pain in her tummy. Umm Maryam works as a cleaner whenever and wherever she can but life is tough.

Last night, and for lunch today they ate only fried tomatoes. Before the war, the girls could cook lunch for Amir, their younger brother, but they can’t now. Cooking gas is hard to get hold of – Umm Maryam would have to skip work and join a four or five hour queue to buy some. There’s been no running water since before the war. A simple job such as washing clothes means carting heavy water bottles back around the block and then lugging them up two flights of stairs. Her hopes for the future don’t include much prospect for her. “I’m too old” – she’s only 38 – “but I hope my children have some hope for the future.” ‘In’sh’allah,’ she says – If God is Willing.

The day ends with a surreal meeting about human rights in Iraq. It is chaired by USAID – the US government’s foreign aid arm – in a tall, hot, windowless room. Human Rights Watch gamely announce they are investigating possible human rights abuses by the coalition forces during the war as well as alarming reports of post-war rapes and kidnappings of girls. Several Iraqi NGOs speak eloquently about the need for justice for the killings and torture of the past decades so that people can come to terms with the past and move on with their lives. Then, because the meeting is overrunning and we’re in danger of missing curfew, we decide to discuss the exhumation of hundreds of thousands of bodies in mass graves next week.