Wednesday, May 18, 2005

LEAVING HOME, GOING HOME

My time in Iraq is coming to an end. I’ll be leaving to return to the U.S. and to wait for my husband to come home this summer.

I’m sad to go as I have made great friends here and forged wonderful memories. Despite the news from here, we have managed to have fun and do a bit of sightseeing. I’ve gone on boat rides and picnics, went hiking and swimming. Amidst the misery, there is joy.

Still, I leave feeling angry, disgusted, upset and totally disheartened by what has been happening. Since the new government was sworn in on April 28, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombers, car bombs, drive-by shootings, roadside bombs, assassinations. One of my co-workers’ cousin was killed a few days ago by masked gunmen because he worked for the Americans in the Green Zone. One associate who was visiting from Baghdad was talking to a co-worker about the situation in her city. “We like Americans but we don’t like the American soldiers because of the incidents that have happened. Instead of being friends, we are now enemies. I feel sorry for them when I see them patrolling and I think they look sad, maybe because they are missing their homes. And maybe they feel like they are unwanted here because they are foreign occupiers.”

A former colleague who recently went to Baghdad told me of narrowly missing death. He had just driven away from an area where a car bomb exploded a few minutes later. Then he went to an office and two hours after he left, two of the employees there were shot to death. “I think Iraq has a bad future. Nothing good can happen here,” he told me. He and another co-worker are thinking about leaving Iraq because “things will not get better.”

I desperately want to feel hope for this country and to see some good. And there are happy stories, but the tales of destruction and murder seem to outweigh them. Even my husband can’t take it anymore. He recently told me he can no longer endure the chaos and killings, and he is now drained of compassion, of any feeling at all for what is happening here.

And the answers I hoped to find in coming here are still elusive. Sometimes I think America’s invasion of Iraq and its handling of the post-war period have set off a chain of events that can’t be stopped. It seems the insurgents have an endless supply of people who want to do harm. And it only takes one person to kill 60 some people, as happened recently in Irbil. Of course, it is innocent Iraqis who end up paying the biggest price.

I know there are some who will say I’m not seeing all the good that has happened since America ousted Saddam. Or I’m ignoring the freedom and democracy that Iraqis now enjoy. But I have had the good fortune of living among the people. I work with Iraqis five days a week and we hang out socially nearly every day. I’m in their restaurants, markets and tea shops. When I leave here, I will feel like I am leaving my home.

And I will continue working for the organization that currently employs me so I will still have a deep connection to Iraq and its people. I’m also hoping to be back to Iraq for a visit within the next year. My wish is when I return, I will visit a completely different country from the one I left . But my heartache for what is happening here prevents me from being optimistic. I’ve talked to my Iraqi friends about this before: When will it be Iraq’s turn? When will its people find happiness?

I hope the answer is soon, very soon.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

It was a gorgeous summer night and a slight breeze provided the needed escape from the heat. We were out in the garden behind our office, waiting for dinner to be served. It was a special occasion, as one of my American colleagues wanted to bring a piece of home to Iraq. She is Jewish and as part of Passover, she decided to have a seder ceremony and included some of our Iraqi friends. She told ancient stories of oppression and liberation. We had roasted lamb and everyone’s glass of red wine was continually topped off. It was definitely a unique experience in Iraq and it made me feel hopeful that this kind of event could take place in an Arab, Muslim country.

Then I got a call from my husband. After a few minutes of catching up with each other, he told me the news. A good friend of his, his former squad leader, was shot in the neck by sniper fire on Sunday evening. He was stabilized enough that he could be flown to Germany for further treatment. My husband was with him when he was shot as they were all on patrol together. Just before the sniper fire, my husband’s friend was talking to him about his stepdaughter’s birthday party. He also has a small son, who is a toddler. His wife was told the news through a phone call and she was making arrangements to fly to Germany.

The last two weeks have not been good in all of Iraq: more than 50 bodies found floating in the Tigris River, 19 bodies found in a stadium in Haditha, 11 dead as a helicopter is shot down, explosions in Tikrit, Basra, Baghdad, an Associated Press cameraman killed in Mosul. One foreigner I know who has been working in Iraq for a long time keeps talking about the inevitable civil war.

My husband called me this morning before he went out on patrol because he knew I needed to hear from him, and I think he wanted to hear a friendly voice, too. But what also provided me with comfort was my Iraqi friends who, after hearing the news of my husband’s friend, told me they were there for me if I needed anything. They also expressed disgust at the recent violence and one of my Iraqi friends, who is not religious, said he would pray for my husband’s friend. I guess we all get by with a little help from our friends.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A NEW BEGINNING

Work has prevented me from updating the blog for a while. But I had to write today to talk about the celebration on the streets here. Today, Iraq has a new president and it is a Kurd. Jalal Talabani’s ascendancy from a freedom fighter whose people had been oppressed for decades to leader of a new, democratic Iraq is truly inspiring. On the streets here, the party began in the late morning with residents honking their car horns, displaying pictures of Mam Jalal and waving the Kurdish/Iraqi flags. After two months of political deadlock and negotiations, Iraq is finally moving forward with its democratic experiment. With a satisfactory grin, my co-workers this morning talked about how Saddam was allowed to watch the parliamentary proceedings today that anointed Talabani.

Despite the jovial mood, my Iraqi friends also warned me that the real fight is still ahead: the Constitution. Indeed, the formation over a government was held up by disagreements between the Kurds and Shias over the status of Kirkuk and other issues that will now have to be dealt with in the Constitution. There are also questions of whether Islamic law will be included in the Constitution and other possible contentious issues. And of course, the violence continues.

But tonight after work, I plan to join the celebration on the streets with my Iraqi friends. One of them said “We will tell our children about how we suffered under Saddam, the first Gulf War, the uprisings that followed, the fall of the Saddam regime and the democratic elections. And now we will tell them about the day a Kurd became president of an Arab country. Things are changing.”

Sunday, February 06, 2005

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic novel of a German soldier’s experience in World War I. It’s an amazing account of the foot soldier’s war, and what the knowledge of possibly being killed in the next second does to a man. As the main character says, “life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death.” The author, Erich Maria Remarque, was himself a soldier in World War I and was wounded five times.

I was particularly struck by the chapter in which the main character talks about his time being at home during leave and how he felt so awkward and out of place to return to the civilized world. I couldn’t help but reread that section because I will soon see my husband back in the U.S. for his R&R. It will be the first time we will be in the same room since he left for Kuwait in May 2004. And I wonder if he will have the same impressions described by Remarque.

In the book, he says: “There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us…I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me. For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that…They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend…I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches.”

I’ve talked to my husband about this, if it would be better if he didn’t come home, if it would be too hard then to face the patrols, the raids, the IEDs, the fighting. After he’s worn civilian clothing again and can eat a meal without a rifle by his side, will it be too much to put his desert boots back on? Or will it be a relief to go back to Iraq because that is the world he knows now, to return to the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, eating MREs and sleeping on top of an armored humvee. And of course, I wonder how he has changed, and if he will feel alone and isolated, even from me. He assures me that he wants to come home, even with the knowledge that the stay won’t be permanent.

Other army wives who have seen their husbands on R&R have told me how agonizing it was to say goodbye the second time. But it will be different for us, I know. Because when he goes back this time, I will also be leaving and the two of us will be returning to Iraq. So perhaps during this R&R, both of us will be feeling a bit removed from our American surroundings. And in that shared feeling of disconnect, we will find our way to each other again.

Monday, January 31, 2005

FINALLY

It’s over and the world hasn’t ended. Seriously, Iraq’s first democratic elections in decades went relatively smoothly, all considering, and it was inspiring to see. Despite the suicide bombers and attacks on polling stations, it looks like Iraq’s voter turnout will be about the same as that of the last U.S. presidential election. Before I went to work, I stopped by a polling station. It was early in the afternoon and hundreds of people had already shown up to vote. I saw one elderly woman who was helped to the ballot box by her daughter. And I heard stories of some Iraqis crying as they cast their vote. I also heard of one 85-year-old man in southern Iraq who left his home for the first time since the fall of the Saddam regime to go to the polls.

An Iraqi colleague, the one who I wrote about earlier who was treated badly at the U.S. embassy, was the first in line at his polling station. He arrived at 6:30 am, a half hour before the polls opened. And he still has the ink on his finger. We joke that he will never wash it off. When we arrived at work, I congratulated all my Iraqi colleagues for their participation in democracy. It was truly a historic moment and seeing them with their ink-stained fingers made me have faith in humanity.

Of course, there is still more work ahead. But I don't want to focus on that now as I'm sure that will be a subject for future postings. I just want to concentrate on the positive. Besides, whatever obstacles are presented in the future, Iraqis can take strength from what they witnessed on election day.

Friday, January 28, 2005

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

I have some positive news to report for once. For the last few days, I’ve been feeling increasingly depressed over Iraq’s prospects. It doesn’t help that lately, part of my job has been to keep track of all the election-related violence happening in Iraq. So it’s been about polling stations being hit by grenades or mortars, elections workers quitting en masse because of threats and dozens of Iraqis killed in the last few days.

So after another 12-hour day at work, I was heading home for some much needed sleep when we drove out to the main road and saw a commotion of a traffic jam and car horns honking. Hanging out windows and on the back of pickup trucks were ordinary people and political activists carrying banners for various political groups. There were also people standing along the streets, cheering everyone on. It was the last day for campaigning but it looked like a big block party, and the celebration lasted past midnight.

As I observed the scene, a few tears dropped from my eyes. I was just so happy to finally see a positive result from this so-called democracy we have brought to Iraqis. Of course, I was brought back to reality today as I heard of a car bomb killing four Iraqis in Baghdad. And who knows what the day after the elections will bring. But for that one moment, I felt a measure of hope.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

IN THE MIDDLE

I'm sorry it's been so long since I last updated this blog. I’ve been working nonstop for the last few weeks, leaving me too exhausted to do anything else but eat and sleep.

But despite the tiredness, my work has been rewarding. As with everyone else here, we are all gearing up for the elections and we expect to be working like madmen from now until the final results are in. My boss, an Iraqi expat, has bought two cases of Red Bull in preparation for the election bonanza. He also keeps joking about the civil war he thinks will erupt once the votes are counted. Soon Iraq will have a new government that is supposed to be representative of the people and there are Iraqis who feel quite hopeful that the post-election era will be an optimistic one. But there is talk of banning driving and the use of cell phones in the few days running up to the elections because of worries over suicide bombers and roadside bombs detonated by cell phones. I still feel lost as to a solution to it all but a recent incident provided some insight as to where misunderstandings and miscommunication can lead.

For work an American, a Brit and I had to travel to another Iraqi city and stay overnight at the U.S. embassy compound there. Our driver/fixer, who is an Iraqi, stayed in the compound with us. As soon as we arrived at the guarded gate, he was treated as a second class citizen. His security check took much longer than ours and he was given a red visitor's badge while we were given black badges. His red badge meant he could not walk around by himself and had to be accompanied by one of us. While we were allowed to bring our cell phones with us, he had to leave his in the car, even though he desperately needed his phone for work. The security precautions were understandable, especially given what had happened with the suicide bomber at the military base in Mosul. Still, aside from security issues, he was not treated as an equal. When we met people at the compound, some didn't bother to introduce his/herself to my Iraqi colleague and skipped over him during hand shakes. They treated him as if he wasn't even there. Others noticed him after they had been talking to us for a while and finally said hello after 15 minutes of conversation that didn't involve him, even though he speaks and understands English. The Americans staying at this compound were so removed from the local population because they weren't allowed to leave the embassy area, and their reaction to my colleague reflected this isolation. Their interaction with Iraqis seemed to be limited to the cleaning staff, guards and others, meaning they hardly talked to Iraqis throughout their day.

Things took a turn for the worse when my Iraqi colleague's red badge had fallen out of the plastic sleeve. While some security personnel went to search for it, another joked that they would put my Iraqi colleague in a cell for the night. My Iraqi colleague didn't find that to be funny and we told the security guy that Iraqis didn't find anything amusing about that kind of "humor." By this point, my Iraqi colleague was fuming and he reacted to this comment with a stoic look. During dinner, he kept looking around at the American faces and said he didn't want to be there. Although this was his homeland, he felt unwelcome in those surroundings. Later, he vented his anger to me and said that the people in Baghdad were right, that they should kill all of them, meaning the American military. I told him not to say that because that meant he wanted my husband to be killed and many of my friends' husbands to be killed. He looked at me with surprise, as if he hadn't made that connection of linking my husband to the people who were treating him badly. He said he didn't mean it that way but he knew that I thought he had gone too far.

The next day, he apologized to me for his comment and said he didn't want anything to happen to my husband and he hoped we were reunited soon. He said he was angry and he didn’t realize what he was really saying. Later when I was talking to my husband on the phone, my Iraqi colleague made a salute gesture, meaning he wanted me to say hello to my husband from him. I appreciated it, because I knew he wanted me to know how sorry he was for his comment.

In those moments, I feel like I'm stuck in the crossfire of a gun battle. I can relate to both sides and understand both points of view. But still, I don't know how to reconcile those views. I know that the security guys at that U.S. embassy compound are probably good guys at heart, just as I know my husband and his fellow soldiers are decent human beings. Yet, I also know that my Iraqi colleague couldn’t see that side of them during his dealings with them. All he could see were foreigners in his homeland who made him feel like he had done something wrong.


P.S. I received this email message and wanted to pass it on, as I also feel quite strongly about this issue: Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) are introducing legislation later this month to increase the death gratuity paid to families of servicemembers killed in combat to $100,000. These benefit changes would cover all servicemembers regardless of rank, and would apply retroactively to cover those lost in Operations Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. http://www.thequonsethut.com

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

NEW YEAR WISHES

Yesterday I visited Halabja, where 5,000 people were killed in 1988 when Saddam unleashed chemical weapons on the town near the Iranian border during the Iran-Iraq war. At the museum commemorating the victims of the attack, there was a photo exhibit that showed the horror of that day. There were scenes of bloated bodies, deformed figures that no longer looked quite human. Other photos showed victims whose skin on their nose or hand had been partially burned off by the mustard gas. It was a reminder of the terror that Iraqis lived under not so long ago (although some would say they are still living under terror). And in Halabja, the past is not forgotten as a sign at the entrance of the town reads, "It is not allowed for Baaths to enter." The chemical attack in Halabja is a stark symbol of the good that American has done in getting rid of Saddam and his lackeys.

Still, I have conflicting feelings about our presence here. While I was browsing at a grocery store on Christmas day, two Iranians tracked me down and tried to have a chat in their limited English. They requested that President Bush next send the American military to Iran to oust the regime there. I appreciated their sentiment and knew their lives must be miserable in Iran if they thought they would have a better life in Iraq. Still, I couldn't help thinking: be careful what you wish for.

I know Saddam was a tyrant who needed to go, as Halabja indicated, and the Americans have brought some positive change. But my friends here, those who are very Westernized, speak fluent English and have many foreign friends, have a lot of criticisms. They talk about Americans being so good at winning wars, but not at winning the peace. And their dreams of what Iraq would be in a post-Saddam era have been dashed. They talk about suffering from depression and how not much has really changed: the electricity supply is still unstable, the water supply is inadequate and things needed for daily life, like gas, are still scarce. On Christmas, we spotted a gas station that was actually open. We didn't mind waiting in line because we were just so happy that the gas station was even open. Gas shortages have kept petrol stations closed for several days. Now the elections are the biggest news, but the largest Sunni party has just pulled out of the polls, there was an assassination attempt against the leader of the biggest Shiite party and election observers are now going to observe the elections from the safety of Jordan. And the problems are all amplified by the lack of security.

We do joke around pretty often and our days aren't all doom and gloom. On Christmas, we decided we wanted a change from kebobs and we would instead have a Mexican/Tex-Mex dinner. So we cobbled together enough ingredients to make fajitas, Mexican rice, refried beans and chili. But even our humor has turned pretty morbid. The local staff and I joke about kidnappings and suicide bombers. For Christmas, an American friend contemplated whether it would be safe to go to church, as that could be a target for insurgents. We talk about ways in which we can break up our routine, just in case someone is watching us. And all my Iraqi friends want to do is leave Iraq.

One friend was telling me about her artist friend in Mosul who is a very well regarded figure in the creative community in Iraq. This artist hated Saddam with a passion and was very happy when the Americans came. But his thoughts of the Americans changed one night when American soldiers raided his home at 4 am. Instead of knocking on his door, they landed on his roof and put a small explosive on his door to open it. The artist and his family, which included his year and a half old daughter, had been sleeping and were petrified to see the Americans storming through their home. They destroyed furniture and pointed their guns at him and his family. He told my friend he was so scared that he almost peed in his pants. The soldiers eventually left and because they didn't find anything, they returned the next day to give him more than $2,000 in compensation. But the artist cared little for this money as his love for Americans had hardened into hate. He told my friend that if anything had happened to his daughter during the raid, he would not have thought twice about strapping some bombs to himself and hunting down American soldiers to kill.

The soldiers were just doing their job, but still the Americans just lost one more friend and they can't afford that loss. And this artist wasn't a former Saddam loyalist or Baath party member. Instead, he was reacting as a father and as an innocent man.

Now that I'm here I'm even more at a loss for an answer to all of this. Instead, my mind is full of "should've, could've, would've" scenarios and I wish we could turn back time and restart the post-Saddam era. But obviously, that is not a possibility and all we can do is go from here.

So here's to the new year bringing some measure of peace and stability to this country whose people have waited too long for the rights of humanity and deserve more than what they have received. And here's to the safe return of all the soldiers stationed across the world.

Monday, December 20, 2004

GREETINGS FROM IRAQ

I finally found some time and energy to update the blog. I've been here for about a week now but in some ways, I feel like I've been here for a year.

But first I should tell you about my week prior to my arrival. I spent several days at a hostile environment training course run by ex-British military guys. On our first day as we were riding in a vehicle, our group was "ambushed" by guys carrying AKs and wearing black ski masks. Black hoods were placed on our heads and we had to lay face down on the forest ground. All of our possessions were taken from us and we were forced to lay there for about 10 minutes or so. It was a "sink or swim" introduction to the course, but I welcomed it as kidnappings are a major concern in Iraq. We spent the rest of the week learning about first aid (how to treat a person whose hand has been blown off by a landmine), weapons and ammunition, the differences between various mortar rounds, and how to roll/crawl during mortar attacks/gun battles. I've actually shot an AK before, but am by no means a ballistics expert so all the information provided was greatly appreciated. By the end of the course, my clothes were splattered with mud and fake blood. During one of the first aid scenarios, fake blood squirted into my eye.

I suppose it was a good way to begin my trip, but a bit surreal. I then drove to Iraq through the Turkish border, which gave me the opportunity to see more of the Iraq countryside. The geography here is amazing. There are jagged, rusty colored mountains with dusts of snow on top across from rolling hills draped with carpets of moss. It is definitely a lot colder here than I thought it would be and since we don't have a proper heating system, I take a lot of breaks to huddle around the kerosene heat lamp in the office.

I am in an area that is safer than the rest of the country, but everyone is a bit on edge, especially with the elections approaching. So far, the voting process has been very disorganized and many election officials don't even know what is going on, which gives me little hope that they will go well. Still, some natives I have talked to expressed the importance of identifying themselves as Iraqis as opposed to their ethnic/religious group, which always lifts my spirits.

We have been talking about what we will do for Christmas, although there is no real sense of the holidays here. I've seen a few random Christmas trees, and we have one in our office. But other than that, Santa is MIA. We've also been told by the locals to not attend any parties where a lot of foreigners are gathering as we would be targets for insurgents.

I've managed to talk to my husband a few times since I arrived, but it's actually a lot harder for us to communicate with both of us in Iraq because the cell phone networks are unreliable. We've realized that we can really only talk at night, and that's only after a few tries. And it's strange to be several hours away from each other, but not be able to see each other. Still, we might as well be on other sides of the world as our days are so different. He's been spending his time searching for weapons caches and conducting raids while I'm planning training courses for the local population and visiting co-workers' families.

In any case, this is what I came here to do and I'm even more convinced that I made the right decision. I've been told countless times that the training I'm doing is desperately needed so I already feel like I'm making a contribution. And I've already met people who I know will be friends for the rest of my life. So although everyone stares at me like I'm an alien, I feel like I've already formed a bit of a family here.

Friday, December 03, 2004

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

This will be my last entry before I leave for Iraq. My next posting will likely be in about two weeks when I am “in country,” as they say in the military.

It’s bizarre now to read news stories about Iraq and know that I will be there soon. It’s surreal to hear my husband talk of his surroundings and know that I will be seeing what he is seeing.

My hope is to contribute, in my small way, to promoting democracy, freedom and accountability. And my personal wish is to understand and decipher the chaos and confusion I see. I hope when I leave there, I come away with some sense of understanding of why events unfolded the way they did and what the prospects are for the long term.

The future of the U.S. and Iraq are now inextricably tied. And my fortunes are now also connected to Iraq. So here I go…