Merry Christmas from Baghdad

January 7th, 2004 - by admin

by David Enders –

Merry Christmas from Baghdad

(December 25, 2003) — Christmas only comes once a year, even in Baghdad, so I thought I’d post something… It’s sort of a non-holiday here, though my friend Hamoudi got the present he wanted — a few more grenade attacks at the Sheraton. They even managed to get the eighth floor (that’s where Kellog, Brown and Root people stay). Now they won’t even have to leave their hotel rooms to do reconstruction work.

There’s no snow, but it’s been raining and the occasional bomb has fallen as well. It’s really sort of absurd now when the American military decides to bomb stuff — they do it as a show of force thing and usually just strafe an open field or some palm groves.

Bombing Cows and Refugees
It sounds impressive, but the last time they did it, we went out to the site to find they had bombed an abandoned military base. There were some homeless families squatting there (they were all kindly asked to leave before the bombing commenced) and the sum damage was a couple empty bunkers and one cow — a bovine Baathist.

Someone check how many of your tax dollars it costs each time they drop one of those bunker busters. Moooo. (I’m sure there’s a related mad cow joke in there somewhere. I later received a categorical denial from Brigadier General Kimmet that the US military does not bomb refugees, (whether or not they’ve asked them to leave.)

Things in Baghdad are pretty much the same as they have been as the New Year approaches — the petrol queues are kilometers-long, there’s no hot water in my hotel because of the gas/electricity shortages, and the US military continues to piss people off… not least of all me.

I’ve been added to the list of personas non grata for my NGO work. I was thrown out of the house where they found Saddam last week, but not before my driver managed to pick a few dozen oranges from the garden of the house. That’ll show ‘em.

Of course, don’t believe everything you read. There’s absolutely nothing that proves he was in that house. Not really sure what difference it would make, the real blunder was showing troops giving him a medical exam on TV.

Local Response to Saddam’s Arrest
Most people here (and this was even coming out of people who had been put in prison by Saddam) were appalled — it’s humiliating.

“He’s our president,” one guy said to me. “How would you feel if that were Bush?”

If it were Bush? Well, uh… okay, I know what he meant.

I’m not saying I feel particularly bad for the guy, but there’s not much reason to celebrate when one war criminal captures another war criminal. We gave him the weapons. And encouraged him to use them. We didn’t really have to twist his arm, but we wouldn’t have any use for preemptive war if we had a preemptive policy of not giving weapons to crazy people.

My apologies if I’m wrecking anyone’s holiday. I really tried to celebrate, I swear, but it’s hard to ignore your surroundings…

I was watching BBC with my friend Rana a couple days ago and the top story was the death of the queen’s dog. And when you’re sitting in a place like this, seeing that sort of stuff on the news is sort of like a personal insult. And I’m not even Iraqi.

So instead of finding a church today, I went to the one of the mosques with Isam to shoot the bull with the guys there and see the shaheed (martyr’s) cemetery… All you have to do to end up there is get shot by a soldier (you don’t have to be fighting) so it’s filling up right quick…

Writing Restaurant Reviews while Schoolkids Are being Arrested
I’ve been trying to freelance a bit now that my work with Occupation Watch is sort of winding down, but it’s tough. I’ve been pitching stuff like the fact the army arrests kids in class. That’s apparently not news. However, John F. Burns of the New York Times managed to write an entire story about his lunch in Tikrit a few days ago:

“…when a reporter and a photographer for The New York Times walked into The Inn, apprehensively, it was a relief to be invited to sit down.”

I was walking around by myself on the streets of Tikrit a day or two before. I also had lunch, but hey, I thought it was just lunch. I was hungry. Wish I had known that was news. But that’s the way it goes here. Merry Christmas.


“Losing the Plot”

I noticed when I was visiting on the Military Police offices (they had a little countdown calendar and a plastic tree) the other day that it’s getting close to Christmas, so I figured I should check in…

Of course, visiting the MP offices at the local women’s (think: hostages) prison brought even more useful pearls than that… One of the officers was explaining to me that one of the biggest problems they have is the women switching their numbered ID bracelets…

First MP (former trucker from Ohio):
“It would be great if we could just tattoo a number on them when they come into the prison. What was that movie where they did that, tattooed numbers on the prisoners when they came in? there was a really good science fiction movie where they did that.”

Second MP:
“You mean Schindler’s List?’”

First MP:

Not to say they’re not running an excellent prison. Should be up to American standards in no time.

In fact, there’s no legal representation available for anyone suspected of committing a crime against the coalition. That includes anyone suspected of ‘attempting to assassinate Tony Blair.’ (I’m not kidding. One of our friends has been locked up for months, and that’s what he’s suspected of. Is he alive? Is he dead? We don’t know, but fortunately, someone’s been smuggling messages out of the camp, so as of a week or two ago, he was alive.)

Losing the plot is what we say here when someone’s gone nuts… It only applies to foreigners because, in a sense, every Iraqi has lost it, and going crazy here isn’t really going crazy, it’s just the logical reaction to having lived here for two decades under the leadership of a man whose primary objective was making war and having pictures of himself commissioned and getting as your prize for surviving all that an occupying army staffed by guys who never thought very highly of traveling abroad anyway and most of whom will never leave the states again, if they can help it.

Iraqis can’t really go crazy, because this place is already nuts. If Bush wins another term you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

There is a guy about three blocks down from my hotel selling the saddest looking Christmas trees I’ve ever seen… he’s wearing a red kuffiyeh, which I guess is rather festive…

The Arrival of the Adrenaline Junkies
But back to losing the plot. I bring this up because there are a bunch of westerners showing up these days who have, well, really lost the plot… I’m told the same thing happens in Palestine and Chiapas (they call them Zapatourists): people who don’t really have a clue about what to do with themselves but come out to ‘help’…

Some of them are adrenaline junkies, some of them are looking for self-aggrandizement, some of them have death wishes… They show up on the doorsteps of NGOs or just sort of hang about, complicating things far more than they need to be complicated…

This place doesn’t need any more lost people, and Iraqis don’t need foreign advocates, they need a little bit of direct help.

Just as there are engineers perfectly capable of putting things back together so long as they have the funds, there are plenty of local activists and intellectuals who just need a little support and they can go ahead and take it from there…

That said, I’m slowly crashing in Baghdad. Hired as a journalist for an NGO, I’ve found that I’m not really a journalist or an activist… (it’s a shitty middle ground to be stuck in…) The problem seems to be that Iraqi culture simply doesn’t work for western journalists, and I have trouble being rude and not staying for that last cup of tea or the inevitably proffered meals…

It’s the difference, I suppose, between making a real connection with people and simply getting the story… It makes it hard to finish anything on time, when you know the story doesn’t really end on the page… hence, I’ve lost my funding because I didn’t file anything for a month… The longer I’m here, the less conclusively I can say anything about the place…

Assassinations in Ramadi Marked by Blood and Bullet Holes in the Sand
My colleagues and I are increasingly sinking into a sort of despair… Out in Ramadi a few days ago, we saw the bulletholes in the ground and the circles of blood around them, the heads of two families that had been executed (in front of their families) while they lay face down on the ground…

The house was destroyed by tank and rocket fire after that, and the official autopsy reports (done under American auspices) say the men died from shrapnel wounds.

There is quite a bit of evidence of troops coming into hospitals and intimidating doctors and patients, in fact, when people are wounded by soldiers, they often leave the hospital after receiving treatment, so afraid they are that soldiers will come back to ‘finish the job…’ or arrest them.

There are other frightening developments, but will any newspaper pick up a story about them? (Rhetorical question. No they won’t, I’ve been pitching this stuff.)

Three months ago, there were very few people who would say they wanted Saddam back, you could crack jokes like “Saddam, Bush, the same,” and most people were quite convinced Saddam was a CIA agent who had simply been recalled to Washington…

Those jokes and theories don’t really fly anymore, disparaging Saddam is some places will get you whacked now… That’s who they’re losing the battle of hearts and minds to — a deposed dictator who no one could find until today…

What you probably won’t see on TV are the pro-Saddam demos that took place today — the people in the streets who weren’t firing their guns in exultation but were carrying grenade launchers in a very menacing fashion and crying — even those who willingly admit Saddam is a bastard are still dismayed to see one more Iraqi in US custody.

So what takes the place of real progress? Stage-managed attempts to spin things the right way.

Washington Stages Pro-US Rallies in Baghdad
Bush shows up with a turkey for the troops (it was a prop used for photo ops), Rumsfeld flies in and out, talking about how good things look (from the window of the helicopter) and the occupation government even organized a pro-American demo this week, complete with schoolchildren carrying pictures of Ahmed Chalabi and protection from helicopters and sharpshooters.

The demo coincided with the countrywide launch of the Armed Forces Network (TV and radio) and based on the other stuff I’ve seen, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to argue that the thing was put on just as an attempt to boost troop morale.

All of the governing council members have adopted the language of fighting ‘terrorism’, and it’s a veritable Vichy here in Baghdad. The US troops no longer trust the cops because they won’t turn in members of the resistance who live in their neighborhoods and the members of the Iraqi army have begun resigning. They’re not stupid. Sixty dollars a month isn’t enough to stand in front of US troops and be surrogate targets.

I flip the helicopters the bird every time they fly low over the roofs.

I was with a recently-arrived journo the other day at the American base (former Saddam palace) in Ramadi when they put the base on lockdown (leave it to us to walk up about the same time a suicide bomber showed up at the other end of town, at the other US base.) The troops pointed their guns at us before we were in talking distance, and Dahr, the new guy, began to shake.

“Are you used to this? Having guns pointed at you?”

“Yeah. You get used to it.”

Anyway, interesting note about the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra — it’s good to know they are as inaccessible to Americans as they are to Iraqis. I attended the first post-invasion concert they put on and most of the crowd around me were bored-looking, heavily armed soldiers. The only Iraqis they were letting in were the families of the musicians. (And the media, of course. The ISO is one of the showpieces for ‘how well’ things are going).

The oilworkers union in the south has kicked out all of the KBR [Kellog, Brown & Root] employees. But you probably won’t hear that one either.

So go Christmas shopping and enjoy. If anyone wants to buy me a watch, I could use one. I’ve lost all track of time in any meaningful sense of the word. I’m headed to Tikrit in the morning.