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Baghdad on the Hudson

Ironically a few days ago in the afternoon I was with my friend Raissa buying a supply of batteries and flashlights to take with me to Baghdad. We parted at the Astor Place subway where Raissa got on the #6 train to make her way to Queens, and I walked the few blocks home. The weather was oppressively hot and humid, just a feather touch of a breeze if you stood still under a tree. It was a “normal” afternoon in New York city. Less than half an hour later the power went down, and the now already infamous “Black Out 2003” began to unfold.

From one moment to the next the traffic lights went out and cars, buses and trucks began to back up. People were stranded in elevators or caught (like Raissa) in darkened subways. Thousands of people suddenly faced the dilemma of getting home from, or to, their workplaces. And there was no air conditioning, not even a fan, to bring relief from the relentless heat.

I had an early dinner invitation with friends Sabra, Joe and their children a few blocks away, and I paused as I walked by a man sitting on a stoop with a battery-operated radio to listen to the news. We heard that a great part of the northeastern US and parts of Canada as well had lost power. The radio announcer reassured us that this was almost certainly NOT a terrorist attack. At my friends’ home, I watched Joe pack up his toothbrush and set out on foot to his workplace about an hour walk across town. Unable to get through by phone, he feared the evening staff at the adult residence where he works would not be able to get in, and so he was preparing to spend the night there.

Later Sabra walked me home with her youngest one-year old in the stroller. It was about 7:30pm. Many stores and restaurants had already closed down as they had no lights, the cash registers didn’t work and there was no air-conditioning or refrigeration. We thought of the countless people in the city especially the elderly and the very young who live in high story buildings dependent on elevators and A/C units. Then we thought about the countless people of Iraq and how they have lived under similar and yet much worse circumstances for almost 5 months now!

In our area of town the mood outside that evening could be described as festive. Together with everyone else we sat on our stoops “hanging out” as folks walked by. Some were playing instruments like a trombone or harmonica as they walked along, and the Hells Angels set off an occasional firecracker down the block. Inside we had candles stationed here and there to provide illumination in the dark halls, fearing folks might fall in the stairwells.

It was after midnight as I lay on my bed sweating and listening to reports on my own battery-operated radio, when my attention was caught by an announcer’s comment. “People are getting weary now,” she said, people are weary.” I couldn’t help counting the hours since the blackout began not even seven!

I thought back to endless nights in Baghdad when we were in the pitch dark with bombs exploding all around us. I remembered too vividly parents with small children in their arms desperately groping in dark stairwells trying to make their way down to the basement to escape the bombs! The words, “people are getting weary,” are not easy for me to hear when I think of the unspeakable hardships that the Iraqis have had to endure and are still having to suffer.

The terror of three weeks of bombing, violence, death and destruction. Unable to locate loved ones. Are they alive or dead? The foreign occupation of their beloved country. Tanks and machine guns pointed at them. Orders shouted at them in English. Raids on their homes, people being detained, handcuffed, arrested, searched. Men and women and children. No one is spared. Five months and electricity is still only sporadic. No traffic lights, no refrigeration. The temperature at 130 degrees and not even a fan to bring relief. No potable drinking water and people with gastrointestinal infections are beginning to crowd the hospitals. Parents so fearful for their children.

Last night I was walking around the neighborhood with a friend at about 9:00 or 9:30pm when suddenly the lights came on in our part of town, on of the last areas to have energy restored. There was cheering and a palpable feeling of relief from everyone around us. This morning on the radio we are already speaking about the “black out babies” and the courage of the people in New York city in surmounting this crisis. I heard president Bush on the radio say he feels that this black out is a “wake up call” to reassess and upgrade our power system so that this will never happen again.

I too believe that we would do well to look at this event as a wake up call. Here in New York city many of us had an almost 24 hour period of time where our TVs and computers were cut off, our lives were interrupted and where our attention was caught. How valuable an experience this could be for us as a country if it would make us aware that we are connected with other people around the world and therefore subject at times to the same hardships, sacrifices and deprivations. More importantly however at this time in history, it is critical that we recognize our responsibility for the tragic situation in Iraq and acknowledge the horrific consequences of the war we waged against them. Though we might insist that life for us goes on as usual, tragically the war continues. And deep within ourselves we sense that something is wrong. Something is very wrong. It can be very good when we let our lives be “interrupted.”

CATHY BREEN, who lives in New York City, recently returned from Iraq after living there during the war and the first 10 days of occupation.)

 

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Cathy Breen is a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

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