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Wednesday, the day it started, I went around to some of the high schools that we’ve been working with to do letter exchanges and diaries. Schools were in session. About half the students weren’t there. Some were staying at home with their folks but a lot of families did leave Baghdad if they could.
I talked to the teachers, talked to some students. Everybody seemed to be in pretty good spirits. One of the English teachers did break down in front of me afterwards. She was really, really scared. She was scared about the U.S. possibly using chemical weapons here, she was scared about this new bomb she heard of –you know, ‘the mother of all bombs’. She really just wanted to vent with somebody. So I listened to what she had to say, tried to comfort her as much as I could.
The kids talked about how hard it had been the day before on Tuesday. That was the last official day of school even though some kids came in on Wednesday. On Tuesday everybody said good-bye to one another. They said it was a really emotional experience. They didn’t know whether they were going to see their friends again or how long it might be. Wednesday had a very strange feel to it. Sort of like a holiday. Not that people were joyous, but everything was very slow, very easy. Not too much traffic. It was slightly overcast. It was as if you know, you’re living somewhere in the United States and the weather reports are saying there’s about to be a hurricane and people are just going about their business preparing for the hurricane. No panic. But you saw people taping up their windows, getting supplies, just trying to get ready for what was about to happen.
Thank God we haven’t had saturation bombing here in Baghdad for the last couple days. The life here has been very normal. People are out on the street. The markets were open. I think though that its not going to stay like this. We hear there are several American armored divisions approaching Baghdad, the B–52s in Britain are being fueled up and are ready to go for saturation bombing, maybe tonight. And you know, there is an air of bravado among people here. They tell you that the United States has bombing them for the last 12 years and they’re still here. But I think underneath that everybody is very scared. I know I’m very scared.
Personally, I thought that the United States wasn’t going to begin bombing last night until after midnight, wait until people had settled in, in order to minimize civilian casualties. That was the time frame that I was going on. And I went upstairs to my room to take a shower and I heard the air raid sirens. And then the sirens cut off after a minute. I brushed my teeth and waited a little bit –nothing happened for about 10 minutes so I figured that it was a false alarm. Then I got into the shower. I was all lathered up and then BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM! they started bombing. I very quickly rinsed, put on my clothes and went downstairs. Everybody had gathered in the tea room here at the Al Fanar, and I think I was the most nervous of everybody here. The team seemed fine. They were playing chess, people were drinking tea, journaling. The Iraqis here were all talking and laughing. They hit a couple buildings across the river. We’ve heard conflicting reports. Two buildings behind the Ministry of Planning, some people have said it was the old National Assembly, others said it was the building that housed Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz’s office.
There’s a little bit more military out on the street than you usually see here, but there is in no way an overwhelming presence. In fact when I was in Lebanon, 3 or 4 years ago, I saw much, much more military on the streets there. Its really kind of eerie. To look at Baghdad it does not seem to be a nation that is at war. But I do know that things are much worse in other parts of the country.
Were talking about the possibility of doing several things if there is a real heavy bombing. One is to do war crimes monitoring. Curtis Doebbler, who is an international lawyer has been in touch with us and he has a sheet that he prepared for the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] in Bosnia to do monitoring of violations of humanitarian law. So were going to see if were going to be able to go to hospital emergency rooms and to bombing sites to interview people in order to provide that information to groups that are going to be looking at what the United States does here. We’ve also been talking to relief agencies and if its at all possible were going to try and volunteer with them to provide direct assistance to people. And of course to do journaling and writing and to be a presence in the city to visit with the people that we’ve come to love –to be a voice in the wilderness for them.
The group mourns what is happening to Iraq and what has been happening the last 13 years. Its really horrendous. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country have been killed because of greed and short-sightedness on the part of politicians on all sides. Millions of people now are risk. And who knows what’s going to happen in this war. If they do saturation bombing here thousands of people are going to die. I don’t know how many have died already in the campaign. And I think the long-term consequences really could be horrendous.
So we mourn. We really do mourn for what’s happening to this country. I think at the same time though, were trying to not let George Bush or Tony Blair or Saddam Hussein depress us. You hear the phrase: life is a joy. It should be a joy. The reason that we work so hard here in Iraq is because that choice for life to be a joy has been taken away from so many people. Violently taken away from them. And I don’t think we can let that happen to us.
RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American activist and writer currently living in Baghdad. He works with the Voices in the Wilderness Iraq Peace Team http://www.iraqpeaceteam.org, a group of American and international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq throughout a conflict, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the U.S.