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