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Scholars do empirical work based on theories and hypotheses. Journalists profess to describe reality. Diplomats are supposed to know countries and policies by being present. Western embassies in Moscow were particularly important during the Cold War.
This has not been so with Iraq. Generally – a word that means that there are exceptions – Western scholars seem to think that they don’t have to go there to know or form their own opinions or influence those of others. Journalists and their editors don’t seem to think that they should go there before they write their articles and editorials. Governments are under-informed since many countries either have no representations, low-level representations or cover Baghdad by shuttling in and out from a neighbouring country from time to time.
This is not as it should be. Reports everywhere tell us that the Bush regime is relentless in its determination to start a major war against Iraq with the purpose of toppling Saddam Husseyn. If it happens, as I presently think it will, we face potentially unspeakable human suffering, mass killing, refugee catastrophe and famine – in short, total chaos – inside Iraq, incalculable regional consequences, Western conflicts, perhaps a splitting of coalitions and alliances, not to speak of soaring oil prices and global economic crisis.
Given the seriousness of the situation for us all, the extent to which Iraq belongs to a “zone of silence” is mind-boggling. Leading newspapers and websites may have small blurbs about it, the US media a bit more, but always about US planning of war and the US perspective, not that of the other side. Media in the Nordic countries have a comparatively large and qualified coverage of international affairs; but these weeks and months, Iraq is simply not an issue. And if it is, it is Iraq as seen from the West, the US perspective.
It’s not difficult to go there
TFF’s team simply contacted the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm and said we wanted to do an impartial fact-finding mission, talking with as many different people as we possibly could during a two-week stay. We explicitly said that we were neither a solidarity nor a humanitarian organisation, but a scholarly foundation with an interest in listening to the views as they exist in Iraq/Baghdad. We wanted to get an impression of the place and the living conditions. We also made it clear that our message, if any, is that non-violence is more intelligent and productive than violence.
This met no problems whatsoever. Neither before, during, nor after mission did anyone try to “use” TFF’s team for propaganda purposes. All NGOs seem to be received by the Iraqi Association of Peace, Friendship, Solidarity and, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Protocol Department, our team was assigned two people who were responsible to set up meetings with Iraqi individuals and organisations we had asked to meet with. The leader of the tiny Iraqi-Swedish Friendship Association, a former military turned successful businessman, rapidly became a friend who really catered to our wish to sleep as little and work as much as possible, took us around and tried to open doors.
The mode of operation was simple: meetings with Iraqi citizens were arranged by the mentioned association and the ministry; meetings with internationals were arranged by ourselves. We moved into a small private hotel after a rip-off at the Al-Rashid Hotel where everybody foreign seems to be housed. (On the card given to the guest, there is a dollar price and an Iraqi Dinar price. When you arrive you think that it is the same price given in the two currencies, but, alas, you have to add the two together. One sum goes to the state, the other to the hotel. This adds up to five star prices which TFF, as a principle, does not accept.
We could move anywhere we wanted freely, talk with people in the streets, go to religious places and take pictures; however, the latter is not without restrictions. Monuments, most palaces, military, semi-military as well as political buildings are prohibited, but without signs saying so. So, you have to ask. Even many of the thousands of pictures and monuments of the President are not to be pictured by foreigners. The country sees itself as being in war.
Getting over the border and into Baghdad
We drove in from Amman, Jordan. It is about 350 kilometres to the Iraqi border and then 550 or so to Baghdad. It took us a good hour to enter Iraq at the border. We knew we should not bring mobile phones in, so we had left them in Amman. We declared our currency, and a document was made for each of our computers and cameras. While waiting we were served tea; everybody is friendly and polite. Bags have to be opened, but neither books nor papers are investigated.
The officer in the little office where the items are declared, shook our hands and said “Peace be upon you” and “Welcome to Iraq”, his hand touching his heart. He has a Samsung computer on his desk, and while we wait we can see a young scantily clad woman dance on the screen accompanied by a small orchestra. We follow it while we wait for him to do the paper work when he suddenly looks up and says. “CD from Syria. Good, eh!?” A TV next to his simple iron bed that he presumably rests on when there are no immigrants coming, is on goggling without a picture. This is the first instance of what we would later experience repeatedly: goods do enter Iraq.
Outside stood 12 white Volvo trucks waiting to enter; there are oil spills everywhere and queues of old cars and road tankers. The duty free shop is like any other and has a wide selection of liquor and wine. While you can’t get wine, beer or liquor at restaurants in Iraq, you can buy it and consume it in private. Our driver fills the car with petrol – 200 litres for 4 dollars! We exchange some dollars with a young boy at the rate of 1900 Dinars to the dollar and off we go.
The sandy grey landscape, flat and stony, stretches as far as the eye can see into the heat-bubbling horizon. If you are searching for a few kilos of chemical substances, or small parts of weapons of mass destruction, it could be buried anywhere around without ever being found. The physical inspection project is an absurdity; the only inspection possible must be built on trust.
Here and there is a small box-shaped home, a flock of sheep, a small cafe. But there is certainly not much to see on this 2-3-laned straight road. We cruise at about 150 kilometres per hour, and it is a dangerous road due to animals on the road side, military transports, thousands of trucks and drivers who seemingly don’t even know what a driving license is. Very sadly, our excellent driver took a Swedish diplomat back to Amman by night, killed himself and his passenger the week after we had driven with him; he lost control after having hit a donkey at high speed.
However, military transports and thousands of oil trucks were directed to another road parallel to the main road. We see two types of trucks, those carrying oil from Iraq to Jordan and those carrying other goods, including a lot of hay. Over the days and months, the former must add up to quite a few barrels. You meet the truckers when they gather at small roadside restaurants lined with small stands selling fruits, vegetables, cigarettes and dates. The rest are private cars stuffed with goods, including medicine and other necessities, that may be difficult to find in Iraq because some country has demanded it be put on hold without even offering an argument.
We reach Baghdad around 9 p.m. to a great surprise! Compared with Amman it is a very lively place. Shops are open, there is lots of trade, and traffic is dense but police-regulated, new and old cars are mixed. Colourful neon lights all over and music mixing from all corners. Driving by huge boulevards, we immediately see that shops are filled with customers and goods, cars parked illegally are carried away by trucks. It’s a rather clean city and the atmosphere is relaxed. Baghdad is estimated to have about 5 million inhabitants, one-fifth of the population.
The city is modern, but one easily sees that is a shadow of what it must have been in terms of renovation and maintenance. There is considerable building activity here and there, not the least a gigantic mosque that will take ten years to finish, new palaces, apartment houses, and public buildings. One is struck by the hugeness of Baghdad and its endless high-speed boulevards. While not without charm here and there, particularly along the Tigris, it is not a city that reflects an impressive history or the fact that it has been a cradle of civilisation.
The countryside and its people
When you leave Baghdad, the scenery changes and is reminiscent of poor developing countries. On the highway toward Babylon, you see half-finished houses, water facilities out of order and fences with barbed wire where all the metal has been taken away and only the poles left naked behind. The typical village is a series of houses on both sides of the four-lane road with small shops selling cigarettes, groceries, and vegetables. People, sheep and a few cows here and there move around in sand, dust and filth. There is no end to the car repair shops, of course. There may be large plantations, some surprisingly green but there are also grey or light-brown agricultural fields that do not seem to have seen water for months.
Bedouin men and women in black or white dresses move slowly with their flock of sheep. Here a demolished bus, victim of the murderous traffic; there a Vauxhall station car from the 1950s; further along a Toyota with maize. Two men try to repair a water pump in the sticky heat, approaching 50fC (122fF).
Women, some completely covered in black with only their eyes visible, fetch water from a well while men drink tea and smoke under a tree. An over-filled Scania Bus has seen better days when it passes a type of arch at the entrance to a village on which a portrait of the great smiling leader has been hung. You wonder whether, back in his palace in Baghdad, he has ever been here or has a clue about the situation 50 kilometres away? Now and then, but by no means in surprising numbers, we see soldiers, checkpoints and (unmanned) watch towers.
We ask ourselves whether this is the type of rural area which hundreds of thousands of Baghdad citizens will flee to when and if their country is bombed and invaded? There is no way that they could survive out here. The whole environment smells of stagnation, de-development after years of domestic mismanagement and international sanctions.
Iraq is a very unique country, but in one sense it is like anywhere I have seen wars: it’s the ordinary, powerless people who pay the price of high politics. They have no chance to get out of the double cage of domestic and international politics.
Of course we see Babylon here; it’s being rebuilt to a certain extent. The huge walls and few original stones and reliefs are impressive. The attempts to rebuild Babylon and the small tiles inserted with a text stating that Saddam Husseyn is the builder and protector of it all, feels slightly pathetic given the misery we have just passed through.
Hopes among the disadvantaged
However, we are in Babylon not merely to see this but to visit some UNDP micro-credit programs. In Babylon town we meet a young energetic woman who speaks a few English words. She is in a wheelchair and tells us that she recently finished her education in computer science at the Babylon College. She then applied to the UNDP for a micro credit and got $750 US after having also been accepted by the Iraqi Ministry of Labour. She was trained by UNDP and she now runs courses with all types of students, local (older) citizens, even one in the shop who does not own a computer but hopes to one day. The walls in her little combined shop and classroom are filled with manuals and there are advanced programs on several of the computers in the room.
The local UNDP people also take us to an unmarried carpenter born without legs in 1964. He is repairing a rather large rococo chair with some gold paint on it when we arrive in his little shop. He has received $500 US and he pays back about $25 every month. The huge cupboards he builds by sitting and crawling low on the floor, cost about $80 US. He has a good chance to repay the loan within a few years as his business grows. He has just invested in a saw but his greatest wish in the future is to be able to buy a wheelchair that cost about $75 US. We leave with a sense of hope; he has a chance to prosper because he makes incredible things with his hands and works hard. It is impossible to miss the pride and the hope in his brown eyes.
We also visit a bazaar area where a young, round man has been helped to run a shoe shop. He buys Chinese and Syrian shoes and sandals in Baghdad for 7,500 Iraqi dinars a pair (about $3 US) and sells them for 9,000. We hastily enter all kinds of shops in the bazaar and ask for the prices. ($1 US = approx. 2000 Dinars) A piece of soap 250, make- up powder 2000, a blouse 16,000, hair conditioner 6,000, night gown 7,500, a kilo of olives 1,000, rice from Southern Iraq 200 per kilo, 100 grams of curry 500, flour 500 per kilo. The ordinary citizen who has a job will hardly have more than $5-10 US a month, 10,000-20,000 Dinars. Those who have a job, or a pension, must share it with family and relatives who don’t.
Here, like everywhere else and in Baghdad, we meet only kind, welcoming people. We would not have been surprised if someone thought we belonged to the West (we do!), were Americans or otherwise guilty for the sanctions, a major cause of their misery. Not one person did during 14 days; we felt safe everywhere. We took pictures, many asking us to do so, and the children of course indescribably happy to see themselves on the monitor of the digital camera. Shop owners invited us in, offered sweet tea, and showed us their neatly arranged produce and commodities. Here you may get a pen, here is something sweet to taste. “Welcome, welcome, wher’ you from?”
The classic Arab hospitality and welcoming attitude towards the stranger has certainly not been destroyed. Their gratitude and joy over the fact that somebody has come a long way to ask them about their lives is so touching.
These are the people we, who have been there, think of when we read about the Bush regime’s plans to bomb the country. Even if the peasants, Bedouin shepherds, the young handicapped computer woman and carpenter and our bazaar friends may not be killed, their dreams and hopes – like those of 25 million other innocent Iraqi civilians – will be brutally crushed.
There is no humanity without empathy
When you are here, and see with your own eyes, there are other pictures of Iraq than those you get sitting back home. One reason that so few scholars, journalists and diplomats go there is that it opens your eyes to another reality, a broader human reality, of this problem called Iraq. It becomes impossible not to sympathise with the 25 million people sitting for decades in a double cage.
It becomes difficult to accept that cold-blooded, emotionally numbed people in your own Western “civilisation” have nothing else to offer the Iraqi people than their present lives, where they live like animals in a zoo (the Oil for Food Program just keeps people alive on a minimum of calories) and a future of war. That war is bound to destroy their few simple belongings, homes, water supply and produce. It will be the climax of decades of dehumanisation and humiliation. How could it ever lead to peace and justice?
Only one conclusion is possible when you go there: the Iraqi people deserve the world’s sympathy, not our bombs. If you go there, you will hardly be able to advocate war. Not one international staff member or mission chief we met, most of whom have worked there for months and years, thought sanctions was an effective political tool or that an invasion would solve more problems than it would cause.
If TFF can go there, so can thousands of other citizens, NGOs, media people, scholars and diplomats. Please do, and find out about the other angles you never get here. Jan Oberg is director of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research based in Lund, Sweden.