Seeing the Iraqi People

It would be impossible for me to overstate or exaggerate the devastation that has been imposed on Iraq, and the most troubling, consistent, and unacceptable reason for this devastation has been the failure of the international community, over long decades, to see the Iraqi people. International policy toward Iraq has never been made with the desires and interests of the Iraqi people at heart, and our advocacy today is just as blind.

Opposition slogans such as “End the Occupation Now!,” or “Bring Our Troops Home,” may be emotionally satisfying, but–like our governments’ policies–our protests at home reflect little on the reality of daily life in Iraq.

For 30 years, Iraqis suffered under one of the worst dictatorships this world has witnessed. Hundreds of thousands of human beings were arrested, tortured, disappeared, and often murdered. For 20 of those 30 years, despite this tyranny, Saddam Hussein was the world’s friend. Governments all across the world loaned him money, sold him weapons, and ignored how he used them. America, Russia, Europe and the Middle-East all enthusiastically supported his war with Iran–which resulted in the deaths of over 1 million people.

It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, and threatened oil supplies, that the world “discovered” how terrible he was. How did we respond? By dropping 88,000 tons of explosives, in six-short weeks, on Iraq. Military targets were bombed–but so were schools and hospitals, roads, bridges, and electrical plants. Iraq was devastated by the war. At least 150,000 human beings–most of them civilians–were killed. And, according to Marti Ahtisaari–the ex-Finnish president who led a UN mission to Iraq after the war–Desert Storm “wrought near-apocalyptic results,” and set the country back to “a pre-industrial age.”

When Iraqis rose up to overthrow Saddam Hussein, in the weeks after the 1991 war, we stood by–US troops were short kilometers away–and allowed Saddam to slaughter them by the tens-of-thousands. During the Uprising, helicopters were exempted from the so-called “no-fly-zones” which had been imposed supposedly to protect the Iraqi people, and the world quietly watched as Saddam used those helicopters to quell the rebellion and kill 30,000 human beings.

For 13 long years, the world imposed devastating economic sanctions on Iraq that prevented the country from being rebuilt, created critical shortages in food and medicines, and impoverished all Iraqis. Families sold everything they owned just to be able to buy food. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were killed as a direct result of the embargo. This was an act of genocide. I don’t use the world lightly.

After this most recent war, we saw US troops quickly move to protect oil fields and oil ministries, and stand by while looters tore down everything else. Hospitals were looted, schools were looted, UN buildings and the Red Cross were stripped of all their supplies. Under the 4th Geneva Convention, the US had a responsibility to provide law and order in Iraq after they overthrew the government. Instead they told the police not to come back to work, their tanks knocked down the gates of government buildings, encouraged the looting to begin, and stood by–for months–while organized mafias developed that today terrorize everyone in Baghdad.

It’s hard to explain to outsiders how fundamentally humiliating the looting of Iraq has been to the Iraqi people. Everywhere you go, Iraqis compare these days to the time of Halaka Khan–when the Mongols looted Baghdad and burned it to the ground. But today, despite the fact that the looters are a vanishingly small fraction of the population, the image the world has of Iraqis is of an out-of-control and rabid people destroying themselves. After 30 years of Saddam, to finally be free of his tyranny and humiliation, only to be drown in further humiliation, is almost unbearable. Grown men have cried in front of me, to see what’s become of their country.

During the power blackouts in the US this summer, President Bush told us that 6 hours without electricity were a “national emergency,” but 6 months without electricity in Iraq only elicits a shrug. While Paul Bremer and his staff hide behind the walls of Saddam’s palaces, US soldiers–frightened by the attacks against them–fire randomly in all directions every time they get spooked. Innocent Iraqis are being killed every day. You cannot visit one neighborhood in all of Baghdad without local residents telling you of some shooting incident that “accidentally” killed one of their neighbors. And, while we learn the names of every American soldier who gets killed in this conflict, what their dreams were, how their families are suffering–the Iraqis killed are nameless, faceless, storyless. No one is paying attention to their families’ suffering. No one is thinking about what their dreams might have been.

Gandhi once said that “poverty is the worst form of violence,” and the poverty and isolation deliberately created in Iraq by 20 years of war and sanctions has not ended. Unemployment is still over 60%, and Iraqis today are just as poor and just as cut off from the world as they were before the war. They remain, living in disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed by Saddam’s regime. Hundreds of thousands were killed during the war with Iran. Hundreds of thousands were killed during the war with the US in 1991. Hundreds of thousands more died under sanctions.

Where was the world when this happened? Where is the world today?

I can’t tell you what the political solution to this crisis should be. I doubt most Iraqis yet know for themselves. If US troops were to quickly leave, the power vacuum could result in civil war. If the Bush Administration is forced to hand over military or political control to the UN, while economic power remains in the hands of the US, I do believe that the resistance and insecurity would continue. A political solution in Iraq is not yet clear.

But I’m not a politician. And what I do know is that I have never seen a people as strong or as resourceful as Iraqis. There is hope. People are organizing on the ground, such as in the Union of the Unemployed or the Organization for Women’s Freedom, in order to struggle for their rights. Others are beginning to build Iraq’s civil society, forming groups to take care of orphans and the elderly, or start schools, or rebuild the country themselves.

There is hope. But hope takes action. We live in a pregnant time, and each of us in this world–through our action or our inaction–will have a say in what is born from the crisis of Iraq.

Some international activists have come together with Iraqis to help start an organization called “Occupation Watch,” keeping track of the violence of the Occupation, and putting pressure on governments to stop violating human rights in Iraq. We should support them.

For the last 5 months I’ve helped a group of young Iraqis to start a newspaper and independent media center called “Al-Muajaha: The Iraqi Witness.” These kids are amazing, and they need our continued support.

We’ve also helped a group of Iraqi artists and teachers start their own art school for children, teaching theater and music and painting to children suffering from years of poverty and violence. We can work wonders when we work together.

Iraq is unsafe. The UN has all but pulled out of the country, and many NGOs have left entirely. Those that remain have massively scaled back their operations. We cannot let this trend continue. We must not forget these people yet again. Iraq is unsafe–for the 25 million people who call it home.

If nothing else, Sept. 11th should have dramatically demonstrated the reality that for as long as any of us are unsafe in this world, all of us are unsafe. We have to realize, deeply realize, that our security cannot depend on the insecurity of everyone else.

After decades of violence, of humiliation piled upon humiliation, we must begin to work for peace and reconciliation. After long years of isolation, we must engage.

We cannot trust our governments. None of them have ever demonstrated a willingness to see the Iraqi people. We cannot trust George Bush. The man is a violent fool, and US policy toward Iraq has never been governed by anything other than contempt for Iraqis.

If we would believe in democracy, if we believe in peace, then we have to demonstrate it. These are not abstract ideals we can simply argue about, or protest for, and then go home to quietly forget.

Peace and freedom–true freedom–are tangible realities that we can only build if we decide to stand up and be present. They take struggle. They take risks. It starts with the connections we make, today, right now, with each other and with all our sisters and brothers around the world. It never ends.

It is dangerous to oppose our governments. It is dangerous to acknowledge our deep responsibility to people living in disaster. It is dangerous to risk our liberty and our lives in opposition to violence. It’s also dangerous not to, and if it weren’t so dangerous it wouldn’t be so necessary.

RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American peace activist and writer. He is currently doing public speaking in Europe after having lived a year in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness. Voices in the Wilderness is being fined $20,000 by the US government for illegally taking medicines to Iraq.