Oral traditions eventually recorded in the Book of Exodus narrate the tales of the ancient Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt. A cruel Pharaoh was ruthless in his murderous demands. Already crushed by the work of building monuments to their oppressor, they were then ordered to also gather the straw to make the bricks that would be used for building. It was the last straw. The Israelites began to heed revolutionary calls for escape.
Today I visited the former Iraqi Air Defense Camp in Baghdad. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, now legendary for ruthless repression, military officers and their families were given decent housing. In this camp, they even had two swimming pools. Heavily bombed during Operation Shock and Awe, the compound’s main buildings are now massive heaps of rubble, with a few long, grey tubular US missiles scattered in the debris
Following the US led invasion of Iraq, at least 400 families moved into this camp. It’s one of several similar vacated and bombed areas that have been “squatted” by desperate families who prefer eking out an existence amid the wreckage to whatever misery they left behind. Before the Occupation, in poor neighborhoods such as the oft-cited Saddam city, renamed Sadr City, several families would inhabit one hovel.
I can well imagine the infighting over scarce resources that would inspire a young couple to pick up their meager belongings and move. What’s more, when local and absentee landlords realized that there was no government system to prevent them from evicting people and raising the rents, numerous families found themselves kicked out of their homes at gunpoint or unable to pay skyrocketing rents.
Under Saddam’s regime, landlords would face long drawn out court appeals in their efforts to evict people, perhaps because the regime couldn’t cope with greater numbers of homeless and displaced people.
In spite of appalling conditions, it’s clear that the people who are squatting in this camp have gambled on the possibility that enduring present hardships could lead to something better in the future.
The children in the camp are among the loveliest little ones I’ve ever met. They were shy, but smiling, friendly, and incredibly well behaved. The collapsed buildings and mounds of debris don’t seem to phase them. Several of them worked industriously atop hills of rubble, their little hands digging for intact bricks. They bring the bricks to their parents who use them to build new housing walls.
At least a dozen of the children have large red spots covering their faces. It could be that they’ve been bitten by midgets or fleas. But now visitors begin to wonder if they’re affected by contaminants from the bomb parts. A proper needs assessment of this new housing area ought to be undertaken right away. Clearly they will need a new ration distribution system. For now, parents return to the “old neighborhood” to pick up ration distributions, since they have no formal identification as residents in the squatted camp. The new “householders” need access to clean water, medical care, a clinic and a school. Yet it seems unlikely that their dismal situation will gain much attention in the near future.
Huddled over candles during the US war to liberate Iraq, while gut-wrenching explosions continued late into the night, my companions and I talked about how we must work, in the future, not only to help rebuild Iraq but, even more crucially, to rebuild ourselves, our way of life. We must find a way to share our resources, live more simply, prevent the US from going to war in order to exploit other people’s resources.
The Pentagon system has become the new Pharaoh. Our reliance on threat and force to resolve problems inspires other leaders and cultures to act similarly. The warmongers rob people of the resources needed to build a better world.
I think of the little ones digging for bricks, growing up in desperate conditions, and I wonder what sort of revolutions we can expect. The promised land that so many of us learned about as we listened to scripture stories will never be found by electing or following warmongers. We face a tall agenda. Rebuild Iraq. Rebuild ourselves. And insist on compassion for the little builders in Iraq who may be poisoned by their very efforts to build a sheltering wall.
KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. She is traveling to Iraq with a Voices team which will be in Baghdad for the next two weeks. She can be reached at: email@example.com