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Fourteen people live in Yasser’s house in Saddam City: his parents, his brothers and sisters, his aunt and several cousins, nieces and nephews and his grandmother. She is paralysed, and he gently lifted her, sitting on her bed, propped her on pillows and spoke with her. She says she’s not scared of the war.
Yasser shares a room with his cousin Mustapha, a student of physics at Baghdad University. The boys have two posters on their wall: one of Manchester United and one from the film Braveheart. “It’s about freedom,” Mustapha explained. There is an easy affection between them all: the younger children are cuddled and stroked and there is pride in their voices as they introduce one another. Yasser’s mum says they’ve been trying hard to make the kids feel safe and to reassure them.
Zainab and the baby played in the car while Yasser showed us the sacks of rice and flour they have stored for the war: the food ration for March to July, and the well at the front of the house in the chicken pen, a walled enclosure with about eight birds who mainly shuffle about in the hedges. They have a Kalashnikov in the house for defence. I asked who they expected to need to defend themselves against ? Americans, the Iraqi army or looters. A shrug. Anyone who threatens their home.
The boys say they will carry on studying, though Yasser’s school and Mustapha’s college are already closed. Yasser’s sister lives there with her husband, who is studying translation, and her daughter Zainab. The house is ramshackle from the outside, but within it is spacious and comfortable ? sofas occupy one corner and two walls, while rugs and cushions frame another wall. Filled with family members, it’s the warmest place I’ve ever seen. When we left they gave us gifts ? a handmade basket and a copper jug.
“Insha’Allah we will see you again soon, in a better circumstance,” Yasser’s mother said, through Faadi translating. They were gorgeous. I wanted to hold onto every one of them, store up every minute in their home and re run it a dozen times.
People living fourteen to a house in extended families is common in Saddam City, which is why its population is so dense. As well, Carel de Rooy from UNICEF said that people have been moving into the district from Shi’a villages all over the country, especially throughout the duration of the sanctions, when the rest of central and southern Iraq has been even poorer than Baghdad. Consequently no one knows how many people live here.
In Saddam City the shops were still open, unlike most of Baghdad, and the market was busy with horses and carts and people among the stalls with tattered raffia shades over the goods. Traffic was light in Baghdad and a 40-minute journey on an ordinary day took only 15 today.
Like Yasser, Thoraya wasn’t at school today. She’s 17, born in 1985, during the war with Iran. She was five years old in the last Gulf War. Her mum remembers both her and her brother Usama being terrified and crying during the bombing, and taking them into rooms with no windows ? sometimes sitting in the bathroom with them ? for fear of imploding glass. Thoraya’s friend’s family’s house collapsed in the bombing, killing everyone except the father. The buildings now are in a worse state than they were in 1991, Thoraya’s dad explained, because a lot have been weakened by bombings and most people haven’t had money to spare for maintenance in twelve and a half years under sanctions.
Thoraya loves Anthony Hopkins. Silence of the Lambs is one of her favourite films and she likes Charlotte Bronte as well, especially Jane Eyre. She writes poems and has posters of Princess Di on her wall. Her dad did a masters degree and PhD in chemistry at Essex University and her mum lived there for two years after marrying her dad, so the whole family speaks excellent English, maintained by watching English language films in the long years since they last met a native speaker. “My Fair Lady” they know off by heart. Her cousin is a translator at the airport, but as there are no flights any more she wasn’t at work.
Faroukh’s school was open, but only the teachers were inside, and Leila, the beautiful cleaner whose grey hair shows just at the front beneath her scarf. A crowd of his mates were at the gate clowning, hugging each other, singing football chants and declaring AC Milan to be the greatest. No, no, I assured them. Brighton and Hove Albion were far better, if a little less famous and wealthy. Then I stumbled over a mound of sand in the road and gave them something to laugh at.
“We don’t know when we will see each other again or if we will at all,” said Faroukh with a shrug.
Drinking tea with a Lebanese photographer friend we found ourselves the subject of attention from the usual men in suits. He and Julia started discussing the properties of his two cameras, the respective merits of Lika and Nikon cameras, and our companions got tired of us and went to look at the demonstration passing the door ? yet another on its way from the coach drop off to the UN building. I long for the time when the people can tear down those portraits, but my soul aches with the bitter knowledge of all that the US and UK have done to harm the people of Iraq over twenty-odd years.
As if it was the city of Baghdad that was the problem. As if it wasn’t the idea that you can support and fund and arm someone who you know minces his political opponents and destroys whole towns of people and that’s OK because he’s buying your weapons and selling you oil and starting wars with your enemies, with your help, not knowing you’re helping the other side as well, covertly. As if it wasn’t the idea that once that person is outside of your control you can besiege the people of the entire country, denying them adequate food, even despite a distribution system “second to none” (UNOHCI) and after twelve and a half years of suffering and death, because it didn’t work, you can flatten their country, “shock and awe” them into surrendering with Cruise missiles.
Jeremy phoned and said the bombers were on their way. It’s tonight. Some people didn’t believe it would be tonight. The 48 hour deadline ends at 4am. Ahmed came and knocked on the door of our apartment and told us the same thing: the bombers are coming for us. He told me he was sorry. He shook my hand, held my shoulder and told me he was sorry.
A siren sounded and my heart flipped, but then followed the familiar horn sound of a Red Crescent ambulance. Going where, I wondered. What accident, what illness could possibly befall you in the hour before the war? It’s 3:30 am.
The First Day
I hardly know whether it was real. In my head I know that bombing started around 5:30am. I know because I heard low thundering booms that drew me out onto the balcony, where I could feel the pulsation through the air and see the distant flashes and the occasional moving light of a Cruise missile, until the sky got too light to spot them any more. I know because I saw the feral dogs that live on the riverside running down the middle of the road, which was wiped clear of cars, trying to escape the noise, which was in stereo. I know because the phone’s been ringing all day with journalists asking what’s happening.
The streets are still empty. Nothing is open to travel to. There’s nothing in the shops and the metal or brick frontages are staying where they are till it’s all over. The war has started and yet not started. Bush says this morning was only an “opportunistic strike.” The full weight of “shock and awe” hasn’t yet begun.
This morning the manager of our hotel was arrested, seized by two men in uniforms and dragged, screaming and struggling in obvious panic, to a vehicle, apparently because some ignorant journalists were filming the bombing from the roof of the hotel, even though they’re all supposed to be staying in the Palestine Hotel across the road. They wouldn’t tell us where they were taking him and we couldn’t do a thing to help him. We hardly expected to see him back, but within the hour he was escorted through the door. The edifice isn’t crumbling just yet.
Those who are out are wandering around a little numbly. It’s kind of the war but it’s kind of not. There’s nothing to stop us going out and doing things but there’s not actually anything to do.
We’re still in limbo.
JO WILDING is a British peace activist from Bristol. She can be reached at: email@example.com