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A Taste of Reality from Baghdad Ali's Story

Ali’s Story

by HELEN WILLIAMS

Baghdad.

I am furious. Ali, one of the boys, just came to visit and have some lunch with us. He is 18 and had problems in the ‘Big Boys’ House in Adhimaya and left there and ended up back on the streets. When he was back on the streets he used to come and see us most days–sometimes twice a day for some food, a shower etc. He often leaves his sack of cans with us which he collects from off the streets–he gets 500 dinar (20 pence) a kilo. He leaves them with us so that they do not get stolen when he is sleeping–usually up on Karamana roundabout in Kerrada. He is a really nice boy–shy, mild mannered and polite and totally honest about his use of drugs.

We encourage this honesty by telling the boys that we are not judging them or that we are not going to think they are bad just because they sniff some thinner. In this way we can monitor how much they are using–if we do not shout at them or judge, they tell us. Ali was using thinner about twice a week (when he become depressed) and arten tablets about once a week. When he told us, about, 10 days ago that he wanted to move back with his mother and 8 year old little brother to a new home in Shula, Bagdad, we were overjoyed for him. His parents are divorced and were living separately in Sadr City -he found getting on with either side difficult and this is how he originally ended up on the streets.

He came to see us the morning he left to go to his mum. He had a shower, some nice new clothes (we washed his old ones so he could take them with him), breakfast and we gave him a package of food items to take to his mum–things like tins of beans, fruit, nuts, bread and crisps for his little brother. And we made sure that he had no thinner on him to take to his mum’s.

Today Ali came to visit us. He is looking fantastic–clean, happy, off thinner and said he was pleased to be living with his mum and young brother. His brother is going to school, Ali is still collecting cans, but now in Shula, to raise some money and his mother sews for a living. They are renting a small house with one bedroom, a sitting room, kitchen and bathroom. Doesn’t this sound like a beautiful success story–well, it is–even if it only lasts for a month or two it is something, a chance for a better life.

But all is not well. Ali wanted to leave us before 3 pm. Why? Shula is coming under attack from the Americans. Last night no one slept in Shula as the Mahdi Army resisted an onslaught from American rockets and helicopter gunships. Ali told us how two minibuses and one 25 seater bus (like the ones we have here in Kerrada) were hit yesterday by American rockets–luckily none of the buses had passengers, but all three drivers died–these were separate incidents. Ali reported that there were many casualties–mainly civilian, though there were 5 or 6 definite dead from the Mahdi Army. He said his mum was okay, but his little brother was so scared and cried and cried all night. He knows of three American soldiers being killed. The Mahdi Army have set up checkpoints into Shula and will close down the area at 4 pm. This is when they expect to receive reinforcements and more weapons and it is also the time when the Americans do their ‘shift change’. Ali is expecting a big battle, lots of death and destruction and lots of problems. He wanted to get home by 4 pm, otherwise the Mahdi Army won’t let him in and he needs to be with his mum and brother to look after them. We asked Ali about the Shula, which is situated past Khadimaya to the north-west of Bagdad. He said it was a big district with a mixture of Shia and Sunni Muslims, but mainly Shia. At first it was just the Shia fighting, but now the Sunni men have joined in. There is staunch support for Moqtada Al Sadr–his photos are everywhere.

Have you heard about Shula in the news? No.

And here is our poor Ali trying to make a new life, while the Americans terrorise the area–but it is not big enough news for TV–you just need to know the big things that go on.

And did you know that the Public Security (secret service) Centre near New Bagdad was bombed–No? And did you know that yesterday, the Ministries of Oil, Sport and Youth came under attack form the Resistance–No.

Over the past few days, since the church bombings, there have been many many more bombs in Bagdad. Many of them have been closer and louder than before. We had one a few nights ago at around midnight, followed by a gun battle (we could hear reply fire). Then five mortars were heard, probably towards the Green Zone. Then two mornings running there were huge explosions at around 6.45 am–the ‘morning bombs’ don’t usually go off that early, they are usually between 7.45 am and 9.30 am. Then last night, at about 11 pm, there was a big bomb not far away and this was followed by the definite sound of a rocket attack, also close by–we didn’t know what was being hit though. At midnight there were 3 more explosions. One was huge and extremely close. I have told you before how Iraqis don’t even look around if there are bombs going off, unless they are close. Well, all of these, initiated a response–people looking and stopping what they were doing. The last one in particular got our whole street up and about. People were on their roofs and balconies looking out. The Baker Boys went to see, one of them went off on his push bike. Wassim, opposite us, went on the roof and told us it was in the next street. And indeed it was. We don’t know why, but a bomb hit an air-conditioning unit shop in that street. Maybe it went off there by mistake. Maybe it was just to drive more terror into the mainly Christian community in that street. As so often is the case–we just don’t know. The felafel shop in that street lost its glass front in the blast. The brothers who run it are really nice men, Christians, who used to do all the felafel sandwiches for us when we first started to feed the boys when they were on the street, back in November 2003. These bombs were not reported on TV–not on BBC, Al Jazeera or Al Arabia–although Al Jazeera did report that the rocket we heard had hit the Sheraton Hotel–about 800 metres away. Al Jazeera were also the only station to report that the recent upsurge in resistance has also been occurring in Kut (the Ukranian army base was hit by 28 rockets!), Amara, Nasyriah and Samawa. But you have been told about an Irish woman winning $32 million on lottery and the Russian film industry taking off. There seems to be a concerted effort to take Iraq off the news. Indeed, I heard an American Republican Party woman on the radio the other day saying that Iraq was old news, that is it not headlines anymore. Well, while Moqtada and his men make that virtually impossible and churches coming under attack have to be reported, there is still a huge swathe of goings on, deaths, bombs and so on that are not being reported. I know that, to me, Iraq is the centre of the world, but can you imagine a bomb or a gun going off not being reported on if it happened in America or Britain. No–well that’s what’s going on here.

You have all heard that it has been ‘kicking off’ in Basra, Nagaf and Sadr City. I went to Sadr City on Monday with 3 of my translator’s friends–all guards at the Sheraton/Palestine Hotel complex and all supporters, in name at least, of Moqtada Al Sadr. In the taxi on the way, the driver was playing a music tape of a woman singing for Saddam. In the song she was asking Saddam why he left ‘us’ and who did he leave ‘us’ to? She was imploring Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, to help Iraq. And she was detailing the mess that Bagdad and Iraq has beome in the melancholic lyrics. I donned my chadoor for the outing, just to be on the safe side–little wonder, but Westerners are not entirely trusted in Sadr City. I felt safe enough though, after all, I was with 4 young men, 3 of whom lived there. Only one car bothered me a bit as it slowed down and stopped for a better look. Moqtada Al Sadr picures adorned EVERY home. Children played in the streets in a scene of peace and tranquility–in safety and in great numbers. Sadr City is a place of children and little ones at that. There are far far more children than adults living in this poor neighbourhood–I am sure that they beat the Iraqi average of 46% of the population being aged 15 years and younger. Here it seemed as though at least 50% were under 10 years. And it is this scene of peace, tranquility and little children playing in the streets that America is now pulverising. These are the people that welcomed the ‘liberation’ brought to them by America–these were the people most glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein. And now these are the people that resist the most fiercely–they want an end to the occupation and they want America out of their neighbourhood. There is no question of who is to blame for the recent fighting in these areas–let’s face it, if the Americans were not around, who would the Mahdi Army attack and fire their RPGs at? Anyway, in Sadr City, we visited the family home of one of Wejdy’s friends, Ali. This home also had plenty of snaps of Moqtada. I met two of Ali’s tiny little neices and then I met his new, two month old, nephew–his name was Moqtada. We discussed many things over our meal of rice and beans–from music to the current situation in Iraq. We were talking about how children are being effected by the occupation and we mentioned the 11 year old Mujahdeen fighter we had met in Fallujah. Ali said "That’s nothing, a few streets away from here is an 8 year old boy. During the last attack from the Americans, he got an RPG and fired it at a humvee and blew it up, then he was shot at and injured, but he is still alive". Then we left Ali’s home and once again walked through the peaceful dusty streets full of children playing to get our taxi home.

Incidentally, I heard a report about the 11 year old Mujahdeen fighter in Fallujah from a man who actually witnessed the boy’s bravery and skill. there were two American snipers placed one each end of the road on which the hospital/clinic we visited was situated. In the darkness, this child rolled his body across the road from one kerb to the other. He called out to a man on the side of the road, under the cover of a building, to throw something white out into the middle of the road. This was done and the American sniper shot at it revealing his position to the boy who then shot at him and in the same movement he rolled back across the street to the other side, just in case the sniper fired at him. No return fire came and our 11 year old then took night vision binoculars into the middle of the street and could see the American’s snipers body slumped over a wall–dead. My friend told me that the boy then left and went down the road–he heard that he used the same procedure there and attacked and shot at another American sniper. What future is there for these poor children, whether fighting or not? I hear, time and time again, how children are frightened now, were frightened in the war and how some are not going to school and how others now have temper tantrums, suffer from nightmares or how they have become withdrawn and silent. This is a country where almost half the popluation are under 16 years of age. I attended a lecture about this at around Christmas time. The lecturer estimated that half of the children in this country are suffering from PTSD, and there are no trained child psychiatrists or counsellors to deal with this enormous problem. Add to this the high levels of unemployment, the continuing security problems, the ongoing violence and the lack of electricity, clean water and petrol and you have a country that is not years, but decades from recovery.

And all this goes unreported in the news. What is actually happening here is simply not as important as what MIGHT happen in Britain. Heathrow MIGHT come under attack, but it has not happened yet and no one has been killed by a ‘terrorist’ there. But people are being killed and people are suffering daily here. But do you need to know about things that are actually happening? No.

In the days following the bomb attacks on the churches, I have spoken with many Christians in the neighbourhood. At least 3 families we know, who usually attend church on a Sunday, had had something else to do on this day and, thankfully, they had not gone to church. One shopkeeper told me that the Christians will be too afraid to worship now and that many will want to leave Iraq. We heard how one vicar, on hearing about the attacks, got his congregation out of the church and to safety in great haste–although his church did not then come under attack. And another vicar in another church which was bombed, tried to keep the panicking worshippers inside in relative safety, but away from the glass windows. The day after the bombs, rumours were rife in Kerrada–5 more bombs had been discovered and diffused in churches in the area, and also a roadside bomb had been found and diffused in Kerrada. And we consider this a safe area!

BAD ATTITUDES

I can give you two first hand accounts of why the occupation is detested and why the Coalition Forces and the Western Companies are despised.

One day last week, we were returning from Allawi bus station in a taxi when we passed the Ministry of Interior next to Assassins Gate. We ended up behind two white Land Cruisers as we crossed over the Republic Bridge over the beautiful Tigris River. The second Land Cruiser, that is the one in front of us, had its hatchback door open. A pivate security mercenary was sitting in the back pointing his gun out ready for attack. Likewise a mercenary sitting in the passenger seat–pointing his gun sideways. On Saduun Street we came a little too close to them and the gun man in the back indicated to our taxi dirver to slow down and back off. This our taxi driver did and the gun man stuck his thumb up in thanks. I commented on how these people behaved towards the local population when it was not even their country. The taxi dirver said "What can we do, we have no authority?" Mind you,when the Land Cruisers turned off to go down to Abu Newas Street and the Palestine Hotel, he hooted cheekily at them and we made signs to them. The mercenary looked stunned!

Last night my translator and I were walking down Kerrada main street when a humvee passed us going the other way. My translator made his usual cheeky, rude gesture at them and we carried on our way. A minute or so later he was roughly grabbed on his shoulder and pulled around by a mad little jumped-up American soldier who obviously could not control his temper. I intervened and shouted at the soldier to stop and get away right now. He released his grip, but carried on shouting. I explained to him that since America had ‘freed’ this country, Iraqis were entiltled to make their feelings known towards their occupiers in a peaceful manner. After all, isn’t that what democracy and free speech are all about? Well, not according to this idiot. Free speech is only allowed if you are saying nice things! His friend turned up then–the first soldier had literally got the humvee driver to stop and had jumped out in temper and had run over to us. Then along came his sergeant. Now, he was nice. A huge towering, 6’6” black guy with a very pleasant way about him. He was furious with the crazy soldier, who still could not control himself, and he was also angry with their Iraqi translator. Their translator was busy lip servicing the Americans saying that they got rid of Saddam and Iraqis owe them–no wonder so many translators working with Americans are targetted! Anyway, the nice sergeant explained that they couldn’t have Iraqis making cheeky signs at them–if they let one do it, next time there will be ten!! I said that it was better to have rude gestures than bullets and he agreed. He really started on the idiot soldier then, who had still not calmed down and we had a nice chat in all them mayhem!! I said that the actions of this soldier did nothing to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis and I explained that he had put all of them in great danger by jumping out of the humvee in this way and coming down onto the street where they were now surrounded by Iraqis. I mentioned Abu Gharib and the sergeant tutted and said "Look Americans put up with this shit in our prisons in America all the time". I pointed out that America was supposed to be the shining example of democracy, freedom and fairness–and things like this just showed the USA Army’s true colours. He agreed. In fact, he agreed with most of what I said and I with him–in the end I actually took a big risk and shook his hand in front of the assembled onlookers. I wished him safety and I wished the idiot soldier a long stay in Iraq. I think I shook his hand because he admitted to me tht he had not agreed with the war and certainly did not agree with the way things were going in Iraq right now. He had such a kind face and dealt with the situation so well, that I really felt for him. But in the idiot soldier, I could see all the reasons why the American Army are hated here. His was the face of the abusive soldiers in Abu Gharib, his was the face of the lost temper which fires at a car load of civilains and his was the face of the soldier that murdered Shafaq’s dad and blew away Abdul Azziz’s leg, and his was the face of the murdering snipers that kill 10 year old boys in Fallujah. I saw the hatred and temper in his eyes–the hatred and temper that exists in so many soldiers here. During this exchange a big crowd of onllookers had gathered. AbuWalid (a man I was going to rent an appartment off, but didn’t in the end) joined in with us and was shouting at the soldiers’ translator. After it was all over, we turned and walked away through the crowd to grins and ‘thumbs up’ signs–coy and secret signs of appreciation–many Iraqis are as frightened of American soldiers as they were of Saddam’s secret police.

We all know the reasons why America doesn’t pull out of the disaster that is Iraq. But if they did, there would be no roadside bombs, no Mahdi Army Resistance in Nagaf, Sadr City, Basra etc and probably no kidnappings. I wish they would go and give it a try–after all things can’t get much worse than they are now. Or can they?

* * *

I wrote the above report on Saturday afternoon. That evening we had lots of visitors–one of them was a poor lady accompanied by her 2 children from further up our street. She was asking me for help to pay her rent and to buy food (more about this in a future report). We promised to visit her tomorrow as it was now around 10 pm. She thanked us and left. As she went down our appartment stairs, there was a huge bang, which echoed through the sky, followed by another. Mustafa, her 8 year old son, clung to her chadoor, keeping in behind her, crying out "Come on, let’s hurry, we’re coming under attack!" He was absolutely terrified. I knew children were frightened by the bombs and bangs, but here I actually witnessed it–Mustafa was actually trying to hide in his mum’s chadoor and biting his fingers while he did so. (When we viisited her the next day, we found he small living quarters within a big house without glass in the windows–her home is further up the street than our appartment ie nearer the church and it also faces the church–so there was no chance that the windows would keep their glass in the blast from the church bomb–I wondered how poor little Mustafa coped when that bomb went off.) 5 minutes later, Qusay, one of the Baker Boys, called around. We talked about his family in Nasyria–who he sees for 10 days every 20 days, as I explained before. We also discussed how he felt about the Mahdi Army. He, like Hasan across the street, said he backed the resistance, but would noly fight if Sistani gave the call. And he felt that there were better ways for the government to deal with Nagaf, other than getting the US military to attack the resistance and population of Nagaf. He, like me, is also angry at the lack of press coverage about the truth in Iraq. He told us how a small earthquake had occurred in Nasyria at 1 am last night. Although no one died, there were many injuries and many ruined and damaged houses. It is believed that the earthquake happened because of natural gas created by the oil underground. He had spoken to his wife earlier today on the telephone. His family were fine after the earthquake and after the recent resistance from the Mahdi Army which took place in the city. We were about to sit on our balcony with him, as there was no electricity to run the fans and the appartment was so hot, when there was yet another loud bang, followed by another, then another. Qusay decided that he was too scared to sit out there–the Baker Boys sleep on the roof of the bakery and, after the church bomb, they had discovered shrapnel on the roof–shrapnel had travelled that far.

Indeed, the man in the exchange/telephone shop opposite us and next to the fruit and veg shop, found a cross shaped wheel spanner in the yard of his house after the bomb. He lives on our street up nearer the church. One of the crosses of the spanner had become embedded in one of the tiles in the floor of his yard. I dread to think of the injuries if that had hit a person.

Anyway, about 12 of these really loud bangs occurred and people were looking out and fussing. We heard the air raid sirens go off in the Green Zone and saw plumes of smoke up in the night sky above Kerrada. And then we realised what the loud bangs were. They were from mortars or rockets being fired at the Green Zone across the river from the top of the taller buildings around us in Kerrada. This was why the bangs were so loud–the booms from each one fired were terrific. Later Al Jazeera, banned but not silenced from reporting the truth from within Iraq (so they must be doing something right), said that 10 rockets had hit the Green Zone. The next day, a friend visiting us, told us how he had seen lorry loads of rubble being removed from the Green Zone. And again that night, another 10 or 11 rockets or mortars were fired from Kerrada and the sirens went off again in the Green Zone. We went out on the street, as did many of our neighbours, to listen and watch. Everyone seemed pretty happy and were saying ‘ba’ad’, meaning ‘more’, as we waited for more to go off. The Baker Boys, Wassim, the cleaning lady–it seemed as if everyone was out. We heard reports of how rockets had hit Saduun Street and how others had hit the checkpoints at the Palestine Hotel–thankfully no injuries–we have many friends living and working in that area. Talk was of Mahdi Army fighters climbing the stairs of tall buildings, such as the appartment blocks around here, in the darkness. From the roof of the building, the fighter would fire off as many as he could and then slip away into the night, possibly to another building. This seems feasible, the bangs were coming from all around us, and, although not an expert in such matters, I would estimate that all were launched within a kilometre or so from us.

Last night, with another appartment full of visitors, another 6 or 7 mortars or rockets took off and the sirens went off again. We decided that it was a clever tactic of the Mahdi Army. There are no ‘on the ground’ fighters in Kerrada, so the military cannot really attack the area. By day Kerrada continues as always–you would never guess that at night the area has been used a a launchpad for attacks on the Green Zone. And the BBC is busy report that ‘lawless’ Sadr City is where the attacks are being launched from. Popycock!! The Mahdi Army could never hit the Green Zone from Sadr City and they would not even try–what utter rubbish! And we certainly would not hear the bangs or see plumes of smoke from here–Sadr City is around 10 kilometres away. Each night we have heard much more gun fire and more gun battles with return fire than usual–although it is very difficult to say exactly where it is coming from.

Yesterday Ali (with the smile) visited us. We were so happy. We had not seen him for 3 or 4 weeks and we have been so worried about him. We did go looking for him, but to no avail. Tha day after we last saw him, he was due to come back and get some new clothes. He did not come. Instead, he had bumped into some old friends who were living in the House of Mercy Childrens’ Home in Al Rashad in Bagdad and he went there with them and stayed there. He has his own room, cupboards and lots of clothes and is being fed well. This we can see for ourselves–he has honestly grown taller and, apart from a nice big black eye he had got from crashing into the goalpost while playing football, he looked wonderful. He now worked collecting scarp aluminium by day and the sheikh at the Chidrens’ Home collects and saves the money he earns for him and any other child that works. There seems to be more freedom, trust and responsibility for their own actions given to the children here than in Al Wazerya and it seems to suit our Ali well. He could not stop smiling and he wanted nothing, just to see us–he had been to see us several times before, but we had been out. It was fantastic to see him. We asked him how things were in Al Rashad. Ali told us how the House of Mercy was situated next to a US Army Base in Al Rashad. The Mahdi Army was attacking this base nightly with RPGs, mortars and AK47′s. Then the Americans would set off flares which stay in the sky lighting up the area for 5 minutes in order to be able to see the Mahdi Army fighters so that they could counter attack. When the flares die, the Mahdi Army attack again and so it goes on and on. Ali said that all the children in the House of Mercy were terrified and were unable to sleep at all. Howza (Islamic Pressure Group) run this childrens’ Home and in order to register to live there, a child must first go to Sadr’s (Moqtada’s deceased father’s) office in Sadr City. Ali had been to the office yesterday for something else and had seen 2 US tanks destroyed and burnt out from fighting with the Mahdi Army the night before.

When we heard about the curfew in Sadr City, my translator became very concerned about his friends who live there. Some of them work as guards at the Paelstine/Sheraton complex and we wondered how they would be able to leave and return from work if the area was under curfew. Indeed, many of the guards that protect US/coalition interests in Bagdad, are Shia and live in Sadr City. Would these places end up with no guards? So last night Wejdy rang Ali to check if he and other friends were okay. Yes, thankfully, they were–the fighting has not yet reached their area of Sadr City–the area we visited last Monday. And they had not experienced any trouble leaving Sadr City to get to work. As the boys spoke, there was a bang from Kerrada as a rocket was fired off. A second later, Wejdy could hear commotion and shouting from Ali’s end of the phone. The checkpoints at the Palestine/Sheraton had come under attack–the rocket we had heard leave had hit the first checkpoint on Abu Newas Street which protects the rear of the Bagdad Hotel–casualties so far unknown. We are very concerned about the safety and well-being of our friends during this trying time. Although they work as guards for the coaltion, they fully support Moqtada Al Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

And we are also concerned about the reports of Iraqi Police and ICDC (Iraq Civil Defence Corps) being used in the front line against the Resistance in Nagaf, Sadr City and other places. Is this America trying to create tension, strife and civil war–not between Sunni and Shia (that didn’t work), but between the Resistance and government/coalition employees?

Today we bought some fruit and vegetables, and in yet another example of how the ordinary Iraqi suffers, we found that the recent upsurge in Resistance has caused prices to rise. Tomatoes, eggplants, onions, grapes and water melons had all gone up in price (and that’s just what we checked). Tomatoes and water melons had almost doubled in price from 10 p a kilo to nearly 20 p a kilo. This is because ‘Jamila’, the main wholesaler for all the food in Bagdad, situated in Sadr City, has had to shut down due to the fighting. The shopkeepers are now having to travel out of Bagdad to Mahmoudya or Yusefia for example (30 and 40 kilometres away respectively) to obtain their wares. The travel and time costs are then passed onto the customer, just as the taxi drivers have to charge more when they end up sitting in a petrol queue for one day a week instead of earning money working.

Where will all this end, I don’t know? But I feel certain that if America pulled out and went home, the situation would be sure to improve. A Muslim peacekeeping force may work here, but NOT if it works under or with the Americans. If they do this they will become America’s canon fodder–just as the Iraqi men in the Iraqi Police and ICDC are now.

And how much of this do you get in the news? You tell me!

HELEN WILLIAMS, of Newport, South Wales, now lives in Baghdad.