11 oktober 2002
The man in the small Iraqi office gets up, shakes my hands and says "may peace be with you" and "welcome to Iraq" with a hand on his heart. He has a Samsung computer on his desk, and while I am waiting, I can see a young, scantily clad woman dancing on the screen accompanied by a small orchestra. "A CD from Syria, it is really good!" said the man. There is a television, turned on but without displaying any particular image, standing next to a single metal bed where he probably rests when no travellers are coming through.
This is the first example of what I was to experience many times during my visit: material goods do actually make it into Iraq.
I am travelling from Amman, Jordan, a city about 900 km from Baghdad. It took a good hour at the border before I was let through Iraqi customs. I declared my personal belongings and filled in a form for my computer and my camera. I was offered a cup of sweet tea while I waited. Everyone was friendly and polite. My suitcases had to be opened, but neither my books nor my papers were examined.
The sandy-grey, plain and stony landscape stretches in front of us as far as our eyes can see towards the blurry horizon. Several kilos of chemical substances or small parts of weapons of mass destruction could be buried anywhere around here without anyone ever finding it. It is absurd to believe that the UN inspectors could ever be able to guarantee that there are no such substances to be found in this enormous land. And, thus, it is absurd to believe that the UN Security Council will ever pass a resolution that lifts the sanctions. Iraq knows that, and the Western world refuses to admit it.
The largest American cruiser can fill its tank with 200 litres of gasoline for four dollars! I see two kinds of trucks: those transporting the oil from Iraq to Jordan and those transporting other goods, particularly hay. One can expect a lot of barrels to be transported during the upcoming days and months.
In contrast with Amman, Baghdad is a very lively city. The shops are open late in the evening, supporting a bustling commercial life. Both old and new cars clash in intense traffic controlled by the police. There are colourful neon lights everywhere and music comes from every corner. When driving along the main boulevards, one sees that shops are filled with goods and customers. It is a fairly clean city, and the atmosphere is relaxed. The population of Baghdad is estimated to 5 million inhabitants, a fifth of Iraq's entire population.
The city is modern, but judging from the need for renovation and repairs, it is easy to see that the city is a mere shadow of what it must have been. There are unfinished building sites scattered here and there: a gigantic mosque that will take ten years to build, new palaces, apartment blocs and public buildings. With its fast traffic rushing down endless boulevards, its thousands of monuments with pictures of Saddam Hussein, modern sculptures and huge memorials with imposing war monuments, the grandiosity of Baghdad is striking. Some parts of the city are particularly charming, especially down by the Tigris. But I did not feel that the city reflects its impressive history or the fact that it has been a cradle for our civilisation.
Iraq has been a rich and modern society inspired by Western Europe. Iraq once had socio-economic equality, good schools and hospitals, a high rate of literacy and social security. It was a middle-class based, secularised society. All of that has changed since the Gulf War and the introduction of the sanctions.
The Countryside and Its People
It is a totally different picture in the countryside. On the main road to Babylon, one can see half-built houses, water irrigation systems that do not work, and barbed wire fences from which all the metal has been removed and only the poles are left standing. The typical village consists of a row of houses on both sides of the four-lane road with small shops that sell cigarettes, groceries and vegetables. People live in the sand, the dust and the dirt. There are sheep and a few cows. As one would expect, there are car repair shops and garages everywhere. Surprisingly, certain parts are very green with huge plantations. But there are also grey or light brown fields that do not seem to have seen a drop of rain for several months. Bedouin men and women dressed in black or white move around slowly with their flocks of sheep. Two men are trying to repair a water pump in the oppressive heat, which is nearly up to fifty degrees centigrade.
Women completely covered in black clothes, only exposing their eyes to the daylight, fetch water from a cellar while men drink tea and smoke under a tree. Women did not dress so chastely until less than ten years ago, when religion became the basis of identity for many as their other values were destroyed. Once in a while I see unattended watchtowers and soldiers, in no surprising number, at checkpoints.
I ask myself if this is the kind of countryside and villages where hundreds of thousands of Baghdad inhabitants will have to seek refuge when their country is bombed and invaded.
Leila and Saleh
The UN development programme, UNDP, is taking me to various "micro-credit" projects. Leila sits in a wheelchair and tells me that she recently completed her computer engineering education at the University of Babylon. She then applied for a UNDP "small loan" programme, received 750$ US and got recognised by the Iraqi Labour Ministry. She is now in charge of various courses for all sorts of students in her combined shop and classroom.
I am also taken to visit Saleh, a middle-aged, single carpenter born without legs in 1964. He is fixing a huge rococo chair with a thin coat of gold on it as I walk into his workshop. He received 500$ US, and he is paying back 25$ a month. Lying on the floor is an enormous cabinet that Saleh is working on nowadays. It is worth approximately 80$. He will probably be able to pay back his loan within a few years, since his enterprise is slowly growing. Saleh recently invested in a saw, but his highest hope is to be able to buy a wheelchair that costs about 75$ US. I leave him with a feeling of hope. He has a chance to succeed because he is working hard and creating incredible things with his hands. It is impossible not to see the sense of pride and hope in the brown eyes of this man.
Here, like every other place that I have visited in Iraq, I only meet friendly and welcoming people. I would not have been surprised if someone believed that, since I was from the West, I was somehow responsible for the sanctions and the human suffering they have caused. But I felt safe everywhere. Shop owners smilingly asked me to visit their shops and stalls, invited me for tea and showed me their neat and tidy stocks.
It is to people like Leila and Saleh that my thoughts and emotions go when I hear that Bush wants to bomb Iraq. It is their hopes and dreams that the war will kill, along with the dreams of the 25 million other innocent Iraqi civilians. But Bush wants us to think of nothing but Saddam when we hear the word 'Iraq.'
The Iraqi people deserves the world's sympathy, not the world's bombs. I have not met a single international civil servant who thinks that the sanctions are an effective political tool or that an invasion would solve more problems than it would cause.
If I can travel there, so can anyone from social movements, the media, parliaments and other types of research organizations. Do it, and learn about the other side of the story that you will never get at home!
Translated by Jean-Francois Drolet
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