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…