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An activist, clown, trainee lawyer and writer from England. I was in Iraq several times, most recently Nov 03 to May 04, still writing about Iraq and passing on my friends' stories from there.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

February 23rd
A Postcard from Jordan

Would you believe it? My first morning out of Iraq, I was woken up by an earthquake in Amman. With every crash and thump, Simona and I looked at each other, shook our heads and reminded ourselves we were in Jordan now. There was no reason to think that noise was a bomb. The building started to shake and I was about to remark on the gale that must be blowing outside when the roar stopped me.

“That one was definitely a bomb.”

“Why would there be a bomb in Jordan?” Tommo asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, mentally computing how far we were from the blast. “See. There’s the helicopter coming to the scene,” I added, identifying the familiar thudding sound of the rotor blades. Walking past the road works later I realised my error.

Amman was cold and grey but the Mecca Mall was all glitz. Really, it’s called the Mecca Mall, a less than spiritual shrine to shopping and cinema screens. We only went there because I hadn’t seen Lord of the Rings yet. As Denethor stuffed his face with the finest foods while the men of his city perished in the stupid mission he’d sent them on I found myself muttering, “Nothing changes.”

Near where Jamil lives there are loads of ministries and government buildings, among them the “Directorate of Education and Military Culture”. What’s that all about? I thought it was bad enough the way the British government has started letting the army infiltrate schools, allowing kids in some places to drop a couple of GCSE subjects in favour of military training, but it seems worse is possible. How can you have education and “military culture” in the same department?

It made me curious so I looked the human rights reports for Jordan on the internet and they weren’t great. There’s a law that allows for lenient treatment of men who kill female family members because they disapprove of their behaviour – you can get a 9 month sentence for an “honour killing” and the only protection the state gives the girls and women is to lock them up under “administrative detention” for their own protection, which no option to choose not to be imprisoned for safety, although the father of a 17 year old woman was allowed to take her into his custody and then he killed her, more or less with impunity.

Journalists who don’t follow the official line, i.e. what the king says, are fired and so are academics and so on. They’re kicking out Palestinians who are refugees there and also closing their borders to refugees from Iraq.

I asked L about it because he’s originally Palestinian and he was saying a chant in Arabic which was something about “Don’t you know we love Saddam?” I said surely you don’t really, and he said yes, he was a good man, and talked about all the things he did for Arab countries, for Palestinians, for Sudan, Syria, Jordan, etc. He was, says L, the best Arab leader. He protected Arab people. I pointed out that he also killed lots of Iraqi people for saying they didn’t think he was a very good man or for criticising his government.

Obviously one man’s opinion doesn’t represent everyone in the country, much less the whole region, but L’s answer was that it made Saddam angry that people were being so ungrateful for all the money he gave for hospitals and stuff and that was when he started killing lots of people. It seems to me a weird kind of justification.

He said the Jordanian king doesn’t care at all about Jordanian people. He’s always off abroad and buying nice things for himself and his wife and putting up taxes so people earn only 80-110 Dinars a month, working 13 hour days, and you want to eat, you pay tax, you want to go to school you pay tax, you want to go to the toilet, you pay tax. If you earn 100 Dinars they tax you 115.

There’s a prime minister, he says, as well as the king but he’s only there to do as the king says and if he doesn’t he gets sacked. The newspapers are only allowed to print what the king tells them as well. He says the last king was a bit better but really they’re all the same. He says the UAE leader is the best in the Arab world now – he cares about his people and gives them money, housing, education, etc. I don’t know. I’ve never read anything at all about UAE.

The capital is built on hills so you walk up a slope on the road and the ground rolls away from you on one side so when you look down there are loads of buildings nestled in the dip and the buildings seem to be carved out of the hillsides, built to fit the contours. There are some dramatically shaped tall buildings – one is sort of cylindrical with Batman-like pointy bits on top. The rooves are a mushroom field of satellite dishes. From the back room in Raed’s house you can see across the entire city, as different as it could be from the small towns, villages, deserts and valleys around.

The Bedouin have moved out of Petra itself, the ancient city literally carved from the mountains, caves cut into striped, curving rocks woven out of dozens of colours, stalks and limbs and pillars pouring down the mountainside. Ida said the King, the last one, moved them into a village nearby. Life was fine there, she said. They keep goats and make crafts and come into the ancient site every day to sell to the tourists. Ida’s eighteen and unmarried. “Some of the girls are married at fourteen and they have three children by my age, but it’s too young.” She learnt her English from the tourists.

Fahima sells jewellery beside the Lion Fountain, the creature carved into the rock under what appears to be a waterfall when there’s enough rain to flow down it. As we came round the corner, the wind slicing through our layers of clothes, she asked for a lighter. Huddled round the fire she made in a corner, rock towering over us, she softly told us she’s got three children, her husband keeps camels for trekkers through the city and they’re happy living in the village. The queen helps the women and now they have co-ops to sell jewellery and other crafts and to get a bit of education.

A woman joined us for the last stretch of the way up to the High Place of Sacrifice, wheezing like a steam train, losing her court shoes on the rocks, apparently just so she could climb into a hole in the rock and play something tuneless on her whistle. An old man sitting at a table of odds and ends by the Urn Tomb invited us to look: “This from Hong Kong, one week old.” He gestured towards the other side of the table: “These ones, these are antiques from Petra.”

Ali found us traipsing down the mountain, his donkeys clattering ahead. In the gorges, the sounds around the next corner echo and ricochet so it sounds like the walls are singing and calling. “Every day I run up and down this mountain. I have about 100 JD a month, about 3 Dinar a day, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow I am going to town for photographs and papers to join jaish [army]. It will be easy life in jaish. If I have to run for three days, no problem. I do this already.“

Ali opened his wallet to show us a picture of his girlfriend. “I think in your country you don’t have to pay money to the bride’s family to marry. I can’t marry because I have no money for her family. I have no money for a house. It’s maybe 6000 Dinar. In jaish pay is 350 Dinar a month.” He was planning to sign up for sixteen years. What if he had to go to war, to fight, to kill people? He shrugged. It’s the same everywhere: poverty forces young people into the military and, once there, they’re the tools of the wealthy and powerful, whether they agree with them or not.

Further south in Wadi Rum, tourism is also run by co-operatives, of 4 wheel drivers, camel owners and villagers. Here and there in the desert is a camp, a small rectangular enclosure, partially covered. Aodeh’s description, on the bus up from Aqaba, of his camp a couple of hours’ walk from the village, seduced us with stars and red mountains, blue lizards, eagles, immense beetles, purple and yellow wildflowers and endless quiet, this last splintered by the ubiquitous beeping of the two Bedouin men writing text messages on their mobile phones. Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps you can’t stand in the way of progress.

I knew Hussein was Iraqi before he told me: he’s got the look, the sunken cheeks, the worry lines around eyes that look too young to look so old. Before he got off the bus at the miserable building site, hundreds of miles from home, the only place he could find work, he wanted to know, how is it now in Iraq? Is there work? Is there petrol, electricity, water? Are there still explosions?

The drive home to Baghdad was a little wild. Gales and hail slowed the drive out of Jordan. Bureaucracy slowed the passage through the border. The time was that Iraqi drivers were finished with the formalities in minutes, while we foreigners sat waiting for interminable hours in a room full of tinsel, a giant Saddam portrait and a TV, generally playing something like Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Now it takes a few seconds to get a European passport stamped and interminable hours to bring the driver with you.

On the Iraqi side of the border a sandstorm was obscuring the white lines in the road until you were on top of them, dunes in an ongoing process of creation and obliteration in the middle of the highway. Between Ramadi and Falluja, with visibility clear again, we went to pass the middle vehicle of a three-humvee convoy. It was in the centre lane and we moved to pass it in the outside, not an unusual manoeuvre on Iraqi roads. The gunner on top whipped round and pointed his gun at us. He gestured furiously at the inside lane. Hussein and I both shrugged. If it made him happy, we could pass them on the inside instead.

Behind us he was flapping his arms even more frantically at the next vehicle, which wasn’t going fast enough to pass them. A burst of gunfire behind our wheels rattled the air inside the car, and me. The humvee sped past, then slowed down and we had to start the whole performance again. In spite of everything I got home in one piece. The news is as follows.

Someone threw a grenade into Safa’s garden, where Happy Family is based. No one was hurt although the cat got a bit singed. He says he knows who it is, it’s a personal vendetta, nothing to do with working with foreigners and the same person threatened a couple of schools and orphanages not to bring their kids to the show in the National Theatre.

I missed the big show. The date had to be changed because there’s a festival commemorating the death of the Imam Ali and performances like ours are not acceptable, so it had to happen earlier. I also missed the Romeo and Juliet wedding. A young man from a powerful tribe but a poorer family and a young woman from a lesser tribe but a wealthy family fell in love.

His family didn't want him lowering the status of his tribe; hers opposed her marrying into 'poverty' and tried to marry her off to the first candidate they thought suitable. She refused them all and was mistreated. His relatives threatened to wipe out hers if they married. They talked about eloping to Yemen; they even concocted a plan for him to kidnap her but it's impossible for an unmarried couple to cross the border without her father's permission.

Eventually, faced with worse disgrace, her family agreed to, but refused to attend, the wedding. His, if they know, are in denial. Boris, a Hungarian journalist with a longstanding interest in the right of Iraqi people to choose who they love, arranged a wedding reception in lieu of their families and asked Peat to perform. When they visit their families, they'll each go alone and hope in time the sides will accept it.

The happiest news is that Abbas, the four year old boy who was badly burnt at Al-Sha'ala camp, is OK. When Peat went to take him to the hospital, they were turned away because of a bomb nearby. The place was full of more casualties than it could handle. He's written in more detail about the frustrations of trying to get a doctor sorted. Eventually one was found who could get out to the cam. He said Abbas was only days from losing his leg to the infections.

Peat saw him a couple of days ago and he's walking about, sleeping at night, smiling and laughing, wearing trousers, still whole, the look of exhausted agony and despair gone from his eyes although I doubt Peat or I will ever forget it. He took Alaa with him to translate when he brought Abbas to the hospital and she couldn't sleep until she knew he was alright.

It horrifies me to know how close he came to having his leg amputated, to think of how many we haven't reached and won't reach, that eight and a half months and billions of dollars after the war ostensibly ended, lives and limbs are so precarious that they can depend on a bunch of clowns arriving at the right moment.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

February 9th
Reflections

The reed hut used to stand at the edge of the water, its wendy house shape reflected in the sludge at the edges of the pool. Now there is but a puddle, several metres away. The drain at the Sha’ala camp isn’t completely finished yet but already there’s an enormous improvement. Huge tanks from me and them to everyone who helped build it.

Still not everything is well. Abbas is four, his legs a bloody, pus-oozing mess, the breeze block and canvas home stinking of his infected flesh. He burnt his legs three weeks ago on the paraffin flame from the stove and hasn’t been seen by a doctor or a hospital yet. He lies under a blanket, eyes huge and glazed, unresponsive except when they crease and spill tears. We went to take medicine today, antiseptic and antibiotic creams, but it’s worse than yesterday. Raed and Peat are bringing a doctor first thing in the morning.

I’m going to Jordan for 12 days. I’m tired and burnt out. It’s been three months now, just over. Tommo’s coming to meet me in Jordan. It’s been over three months since we last held each other’s hands. Mama and Damia gave me some beads for Tommo and a cardboard package.

“You must not open it until you are with him, but I think maybe you will need this.” It says ‘lingerie’ on the box. Iraqi women mostly dress extremely conservatively on the outside, in the same way that their homes often have very plain exteriors. What’s inside, or underneath, is much more elaborate. Mama says I’m to tell Tommo about my Iraqi mum and family, to tell him he’s welcome any time, he’s one of the family already.

The circus is sorted, working out better than I dared to dream and well able to go on without me for a few days. Luis, with his didgeridoo, gave a deaf and dumb teenager his first ever music, feeling the vibrations when he held it to his ear. They’ll keep working with the boys from the Kurdish House, keep rehearsing and doing shows with Happy Family, go and play in the camps a few times. After I come back, if all goes to plan, we’re going to the north, to Suleimania, with the boys from the Kurdish House and Happy Family.

A young French photographer came with us to a show the other day. Safa said when he saw her, his heart jumped a beat. We all started teasing, as you do, till he explained why. Her face reminded him of Wafaa, his girlfriend, the woman he thought he would marry. She was killed in the war.

There’s still an incredible volume of sadness, of trauma, of suffering. The circus, the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been with it has made me realise that rehabilitation of Iraq is a matter of much more than rebuilding a physical infrastructure, as vital as that is and as badly as it’s being handled.

And I love this place and its people, in all their bewilderment, their anger, their fierce hope and depression. I love the kids on the roof opposite and on our street, Fatih on his balcony like an anchor, the bright lights of Karrada Dakhil and the flames of the barbecues when all the other lights go out, the gossip in the women’s rooms. I’ll be back, fresh, in a couple of weeks, to carry on. Speak to you then. Take care.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

US Soldier: "Sometimes it is a soldier’s duty to tell the truth, no matter what"

It has nothing to do with liberation or ensuring a free election in Iraq. No way that will ever really happen. If you could see how they are parceling out the Iraq resources to the contractors there right now, you would understand what I mean. I have seen the profiteering on a first hand basis. I have never seen that level of outright greed even around the Pentagon at budget time.


Feb 6, 2Ö04

By Jay Shaft- Coalition For Free Thought In Media

The following interview was conducted with a US Army high level commander who has been back from Iraq less than two weeks. I was shocked that someone of his rank would be so open and willing to speak out, but he told me he has lost over 100 soldiers from his command since the war started.

The man I spoke too had spent months with a front line combat unit and had seen terrible and horrific sights. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to get his tale of the horrors in Iraq.

I have taken every precaution to insure his identity remains a secret for reasons he details in this article. In this time of war and reprisals against soldiers who speak out, he has exhibited extreme bravery and true valor.

JS- Good morning sir, are you enjoying your time back in the states?

USO- No, to be honest, I am not enjoying being back here. I keep seeing the soldiers dying every time I turn on the news or pick up a paper. I can’t get a sense of relief at being home when many of my fellow soldiers will not ever be coming home. It is hard to feel good about no longer being in Iraq. I just can’t seem to put my feelings in any kind of perspective.

Imagine how terrible it is to be home and not be able to tear your mind away from the worst hellhole you could ever imagine. I pace the floor at night when I think about all the soldiers that are still there or imminently going over, I worry about the ones that are on call up or training to go take their turn at trying to stay alive.

I was in several other combat theaters and I have never seen something as bad as Iraq. I have well over 15 years in service and was in the first Gulf War. I thought I had seen every thing that had to do with combat and police actions. I was wrong, and most of my fellow officers have said the same thing. None of us were really prepared for this, no matter what type of training or experience we have.

I have seen officers with two or three combat tours just freezing up and getting this baffled look of panic and fear. I saw an officer with almost 15 years loose it and just start screaming after he lost ten guys in two days. Some of the NCOs who should have been the most experienced at losing men are being devastated by the continued loss of troops.

JS- I keep hearing that from the soldiers I talk to. Almost everyone I talked to said there was no way they could have ever been prepared for how bad Iraq really is. Is this something you think the Army could have prepared you for?

USO- No, there is no amount of training they could have given us to prepare us for how much of a hellhole Iraq really is. The first thing I want to point out is that most of our troops are not trained for a police action. They do not have any idea how to conduct peace keeping operations or effectively act as a police force. They are trained to kill any type of opposition forces, but not react peacefully to a civilian demonstration or day to day civil unrest.

The main line troops do not even know how to properly conduct peace keeping exercises, and after many months of hostilities, they really don’t care to learn. They see their buddies dying and getting severely wounded, and peaceful interaction goes right out of their minds.

They are stuck in the middle of a massive civil unrest and factional strife, and they is no way to expect battle hardened troops to be objective. That is not what they were trained for and the Army has very little actual hands on training opportunities with an occupied population.

Most of the guys that were in Afghanistan are able to cope with it a little better, but the majority of them were involved with combat and not the civilian control and policing. That is another thing the military never really planned out. They had no real plan set up for long term occupation, and this occupation is going to be long and bloody, no matter what those policy hacks in the White House tell you.

It took us a few weeks to supposedly win the ground war, and then it was right into the role of peace keeper and police force. I am going to make this very clear: We are not giving our troops the proper training to occupy Iraq over the long run. Even if there was relative stability it would be hard, and in the midst of continuing hostilities it is impossible. These men are trained in gun barrel diplomacy, not as police or aid workers.

I always laughed at the term gun barrel diplomacy, but it fits the situation that occurred in Iraq.

JS- I have to ask the question that will be on everyone’s mind. Why are you speaking out and being so frank and honest? Some people are going to accuse you of outright treason and betraying your own government and chain of command. Why are you choosing to speak out about this?

USO- Sometimes you have to weigh your duty to your government, and the duty to your fellow soldiers to protect them and keep them safe. I feel the duty to my fellow soldier out weighs any loyalty to my government. I do not see this as treason or betraying my command, especially in light of how badly the government has betrayed our troops at every level.

I feel it is my ultimate duty to do everything possible to make sure my men come home alive and unharmed. My men have no greater expectation than that I will do everything in my power to keep them alive and to protect them as much as much as possible in any battle.

There comes a time when every commander has to put the life of his troops at a higher level than the profits of our corrupt leaders. There comes a time when to sit silently and watch means you have a part in those soldier’s deaths, and their blood is ultimately on your hands if you do nothing to stop it. If you can do something to stop the death of even one soldier, and you sit back and do nothing, you are as culpable in that soldiers death as whoever actually kills them.

You won’t find a whole lot of support for the way Bush and the Pentagon are running this war, not in the military anyway. Someone has to come out and tell the truth so that the rest of the troops will not be afraid to be honest with themselves and the American public.

There is such an under current of fear among the troops about what might get you in trouble. There are soldiers worried that something they say in a letter or on the phone will get them court-martialed or thrown in the brig for treason.

It is not right that our own men and women have to fear the government to that extent. What the hell is going wrong in America right now? The military has prosecuted and punished soldiers for simply telling the truth about the actual situation in Iraq. How can the American people let this go on?

To punish a soldier for speaking his mind is one of the most atrocious things I can think of. If a soldier comes back from Iraq and wants to tell the truth we should let them do it. As long as they are not giving away any sensitive military information or revealing top secret documents there should be no reprisals against them.

These brave soldiers are putting their life on the line in Iraq, supposedly to bring about democratic elections, but they are not allowed to speak freely when they come home. I think the situation with the serving forces in Iraq is slightly different, but look at what I am doing. I had enough of the bullsh.t and made my decision a few weeks ago. I went to a journalist with a major US newspaper and offered to talk to him under anonymity and he told me he wasn’t looking to take that kind of heat from his paper.

I know of several soldiers who were interviewed by the press while on leave, and when they started really telling the truth they were ignored, and their words were never published. I know of the Sgt. Jessica Macek incident where she went on the radio and denounced Bush and the war.

Her comments were reported to the Pentagon by a journalist from some newspaper in her home state. More soldiers might be willing to speak out if they knew they were not going to get harassed and sent back to Iraq as punishment.

I am doing this for all the soldiers who want to speak out but will not for reasons of fear and keeping a career intact. I know of a few guys who got called in to the O2 (intelligence operations for a military unit) after making harsh comments in e-mails home. The military has been trying to stomp out the grass fires of dissent and anger in the ranks. They are so afraid that a high level NCO or commander will go on record that they are crushing any form of dissent no matter how small.

I looked at all the reasons to keep quiet, and the need for the truth outweighed any personal consequences. I want to make sure that every American knows this information, and the press has not done sh.t to bring out the voices of the dissatisfied soldiers. I think that they are willingly taking part in keeping this type of interview away from the public eye, at least for the most part.

JS- So you feel it is your duty to do this interview?

USO- I swore an oath to defend this country, but I also swore to protect my men to the utmost of my ability. I am only doing this out of honor and loyalty to all the men who put their life on the line in my command and the command of others. I am sick of watching young men and women die needlessly. If there were a purpose behind it besides oil and the sick greed of our leaders, I would keep my mouth shut and drive on.

There is a military term we have for this type of thing. FIDO: F.ck It and Drive On! That is the attitude they try to pound into your head from the first day of training. You are supposed to follow orders and do as you’re told no matter what. That makes it feel unnatural to do an interview like this or to speak out publicly against any military problem, even if it is killing troops.

Another thing they have done over the past year is to make supporters of the peace movement look like traitors and terrorists. Many of our family members have joined in the protests or spoken out publicly against the war. To cast dispersion on the peace movement has really alienated many service members whose families are active in some type of peace group or activity to bring us home.

There is an enormous amount of veterans who are involved in Veterans For Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against War, and other organizations. There are also a large number of vets who don’t actively participate in those groups who are individually opposed to the war. My older brother is a Vietnam vet who has been anti-war for many years.

He is not a part of VVAW anymore, but he still does his part to support the troops and send them letters and care packages. There is growing number of soldiers who have family members in the peace movement or have a veteran in their family who does not support the war.

We got letters and e-mails, and all kinds of care packages from the peace movement. When your half a world away, someone that writes you and says they want to bring you home doesn’t look that bad sometimes.

I feel that I needed to get all this in some kind of recorded form, and bring out the truth even if they come after me. I don’t want to be publicly identified because I have a family and a new baby at home. I don’t want to get in trouble if I can avoid it. I had thought about going on record with my name, but it is still way too dangerous right now.

To finish this question off, yes I feel it is my duty and every commander and NCO who truly cares about their men. We must do whatever it takes to make the public call our leaders out on this. Our men are dying every day and there is no real purpose that I can see. We were told we were going to Iraq to Iraq to liberate them and keep Saddam from attacking the US.

I don’t see Iraq liberated and there are not any WMDs. I was there on some of the searches and I can tell you that we did not actually expect to find anything. Our leaders were telling us we would find them, but most of the officers knew that wasbull sh.t.

I am sure that there will be many of my fellow soldiers who will hate me for speaking out like this. There are many of them that are still completely dedicated to the cause of the US. Don’t take this interview as a condemnation of everything the US stands for. I am still completely dedicated to serving my country in the military and fighting in whatever place they send me to. I am not going to stop serving my country, I just don’t want to have my men lost for something I can’t totally believe in.

I have talked to many of my fellow soldiers about this tearing feeling of having to call into question any of our countries policies and beliefs. But on it’s basic principles, the whole war in Iraq is based on many lies and half truths. I am not saying that it will not end up causing more good than harm, but it might be years before we can really see any real results from our occupation.

JS- So tell me how bad it really was. I heard recently that the chain of command almost broke down entirely. An article came out yesterday and the Army admitted that there was complete chaos at the company command level. There were details of the supply chain breaking down, lack of fresh water and food, and a whole host of problems that were not expected. How bad was it during the first months, and had it improved at all?

USO- To quote a really old and well worn military expression, it was a complete cluster f.ck! I am in command at a higher level than the company command, so I saw first hand how badly prepared some of my unit commanders were. There was a level of chaos and confusion that almost brought the chain of command down around our ears. I really want to focus on some more recent stuff, but I will give some brief details on this one, because I think it caused many lives to be lost needlessly.
In the first few weeks our supply chain was in shambles, whole columns were getting lost in the desert, there was a severe shortage of drinkable water, and unit level communication was completely unreliable. I could get my staff on the radio, but often we were out of contact with the more remotely located unit commanders for hours or days at a time.

That was a major problem when we were trying to scout the Iraqi positions. We did not hear from some units for days except by satellite phone communication and other non-standard communication methods. I heard one story of a guy who scrounged up some kids walkie-talkies and it was the only way the unit commander could keep in contact with his patrols. I also heard of one unit that found a pair of old field radios in an Iraqi vehicle and they had to use them for short range communications.

The food was in critically short supply for some of the front line units. Our faster moving strike force units were days ahead of the forward supply chain, and we had a severe parts shortage for a few weeks. Some of our units lost quite a few vehicles along the way and they had to cannibalize some of the vehicles to keep the others running. One of the worst problems is the dust and sand that gets into everything and clogs the filters and moving parts. I ate and drank enough sand to crap a beach or two.

The communication problem was the most frustrating from a command level perspective. I needed to know exact positions and details of each unit on a real time basis. There was no real time communications on a consistent basis for over a month. It was especially frustrating when we reached Baghdad and our scouts could not get proper reports of the area of Iraqi positions.

Initially there wasn’t any real idea of how many Iraqi soldiers we were facing. There were a couple situations during combat where the unit commanders used some of the embedded reporters’ communications devices to reach other units for reinforcements and artillery support.

Let’s get on to more recent events. It’s been almost a year since the invasion happened. There are much more important things happening now. I could talk about all the problems of the first few months, but it doesn’t change the fact that our soldiers are still dying at an intolerable rate. That’s what I really want to focus on.

JS- All right let’s get to that. You told me on the phone the other day that you don’t think that there is a good reason for the soldiers continuing to die after the Pentagon has declared major combat operations to be over. Do you have any solution to this?

USO- That is one of the problems that is tearing me apart. We are stuck in Iraq now and committed to long term occupation, no matter what the Pentagon says. There is no simple solution, which is why I get angry with the peace movement on some issues. They just want us to come home right now and get out of Iraq.

That is not possible right now, and if it were the US would not withdraw voluntarily. There is no way they are going to give up the foothold we have acquired. That is one of my biggest problems right now with the way they are directing this occupation.

It has nothing to do with liberation or ensuring a free election in Iraq. No way that will ever really happen. If you could see how they are parceling out the Iraq resources to the contractors there right now, you would understand what I mean. I have seen the profiteering on a first hand basis. I have never seen that level of outright greed even around the Pentagon at budget time.

It makes you nauseous to see how methodically they are taking over the Iraqi economy and work force. Right know if you don’t work for the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), or one of the US contractors, odds are that you will be among the 50% that are unemployed. If you take a job with the CPA or one of the contractors the Iraqis are liable to call you a traitor and take revenge on you or your family.

This internal strife this is helping to make it more difficult for us to stabilize the country. As long as there is any kind of internal discord among the population, it is that much harder to stop the attacks and bombings.

Iraq is a powder keg right now and it is going to explode if things don’t change. If it ever really turns into a classic urban guerrilla war we are going to be in a very bloody, drawn out conflict. All you have to do is look at the situation that occurred in Lebanon in the last thirty years and you can get an idea of how bloody Iraq could become. The Israelis know all about jihad and urban warfare from the high toll the various Palestinian groups have extracted. Iraq is in a similar situation and some of our high level officials refuse to admit it.

If the deaths keep up at this rate we will loose over 2000 soldiers in the next year. I have heard some of the Pentagon insiders predict at least 1000 more deaths over the next year. The way they talk about it is just so casual it makes a combat commander cringe. They seem to be willing to fully accept those kinds of losses or even more deaths if it comes down to it. Anything to insure the military domination and control of Iraq.

Without the military occupying the country there will be no need to build bases and installations. The whole premise of long term occupation entails fortifying the country with bases and airfields to better control the region.

The fact that it is costing me the lives of my men and the brave coalition forces is not even coming into the picture. The disregard for the man in uniform who is out there on the front line dying and shedding his blood is what we need to focus on.

The total lack of caring for how many of our men and women we will have to sacrifice is appalling. The nest of vipers at the Pentagon has taken over our whole military structure for the profits of their corporate connections. I don’t know how much more obvious it could be.

That is what I am doing this interview for. I have talked to many guys with long years of service and have heard the rants about Halliburton, Bechtel, DynCorp, Fluor, and the rest of the contracting mess.

JS- Let me break in here and ask you something. I have heard about the high rate of fatalities that have occurred in soldiers traveling in the older, lightly armored Humvees. Some unit commanders have told me that up to 80% of their front line casualties are coming from the older hummers. How bad is that situation and is that number of casualties reasonably accurate?

USO- I will say that the Army has started to take some steps to put better armor in them. It is not going to happen soon enough to save the lives that will be lost before they give them better equipment. Not to mention the lives that have already been lost, and all the soldiers who have been, or will be injured.

Let’s talk about the thousands of our soldiers who have been permanently disabled either physically or mentally. They have evacuated thousands of troops with mental problems, and then they claim that troop morale is high and the troops are satisfied with their service.

JS- Let’s talk about troop morale. I keep hearing from so many people that all they see on the news are soldiers who were quite happy to be in Iraq, and that their morale couldn’t be higher. That is one of the things I keep having hammered into my head. How happy are the troops and how is the morale on an overall basis?

USO- Are you really asking me that in a serious manner, or are you just being sarcastic? You have talked to some of the guys who came back. Did their morale seem high to you? Did they seem happy that they were going to have to go back to Iraq? I’d say about 25% of my men actually wanted to be in Iraq and were happy to be in combat.

Most of them were just there because it was their duty, or else they had no choice in the matter. It’s not like you can really tell the military no, and most of the soldiers would never think about it. It’s not like we are looking to get out of our duty to fight in Iraq. We just want our duty to be meaningful and not cost unnecessary lives.

That is what is really getting more of the soldiers to be opposed to doing duty in Iraq. The high fatality rate has really hit them like nothing else c an. To get into the whole case of WMDs and even the general condition of Iraq is useless for the average soldier to even consider.

What is really affecting them is the daily loss of close comrades and fellow soldiers. Seeing an endless stream of casualties is what will make a soldier think about objecting to some of the things we are being ordered to do. It is not really because we are trying to bring freedom to Iraq that most of the soldiers are fighting. Many of us just do what we are told because it is so much a part of our entire being.

I would not have this kind of problem if we were not losing good soldiers to such a stupid drive to completely rule Iraq. If this were about really liberating and freeing Iraq, we would have set up a different type of occupying force. We are trying to lock down a whole country while we keep telling the Iraqis that we are here to bring them freedom.

I have had many Iraqis tell me it is no different than when Saddam ruled them. They see us as just another master trying to control them. One of the comments you hear is that America is the white Saddam.

So no, there are not a lot of recent events that would inspire high morale. The press and government will still keep trying to sell that to the public though. At best most soldiers are just committed to doing their duty and trying to stay alive. I don’t think you could say that there are that many ecstatic soldiers.

JS- Let’s get back to the Humvee situation. I want to explore that some more.

USO- We kind of got off track there, but the morale issue needed to be discussed. Some of the horrific injuries from the Humvees are actually causing major morale problems. I had a brand new vehicle and I was still worried that it was vulnerable to IED and rocket attack.

The road side bombs are tearing up the older hummers like they were made of cardboard. I have seen many that were torn open and the crew compartment was full of shrapnel holes. I have seen several that took an RPG or rocket hit and it was a bloody scene. I don’t know if the casualty rate from the hummers has been as high as 80% but it has to be well over 60%.

That is what the reservists have really been complaining about. They have all the older vehicles and supplies. The vehicle situation was especially bad with the support units and some of the Reserve MP units. It gets even worse if you look at some of the National Guard units. The equipment in some of the units I saw was pathetic.

JS- Okay I want to get into a few other things now. You have had to take steps to make sure that the Army does not come after you. How do you feel about the fact that you are afraid to speak out?

USO- I never thought I would have to speak out so I didn’t ever think about what the military would do to me. I have been terrified about doing this because of how bad it will get if they catch me.

The least they will do is to take all my benefits and my pension away. Not to mention the fact that they could formally court martial me and put me in jail. It would not be something that would be easy to go through if they ever find me. That is something a soldier should not even have to think is a reality, much less the fact that it will happen if they catch me.

You had asked me to explain why I am doing this, and that is part of it, but not really the big reason for me. My biggest reason is to make some difference in the death toll on our troops. I have seen my men die and it hasn’t made Iraq any safer or more stable.

If you sacrifice a man’s life, then let it accomplish something. The tragic waste of life is just sickening and it crushes troop morale. It takes away soldiers who can help defend our own shores or fight in a real defensive war should it become necessary.

That is probably the biggest factor in my telling tales out of school. Do you think it is really easy for me to do this? I am trained and told to distrust the media and the public opinion on general principal. You just don’t do this type thing if you want to survive in the world I live in. I just had my fill of the lies and failure to insure the safety of my men.

I thought I knew how I would deal with the large scale death of my men. There is no way to prepare yourself for that kind of responsibility. It has changed my whole perspective on honor among the troops.

George Bush says he is behind the troops but he keeps cutting more of our benefits and services. Right in the middle of two raging wars he has consistently demonstrated his lack of compassion and caring. My father has had some of his health care benefits cut and had to wait three months to see his doctor.

These are my main reasons and I had to think long and hard before I decided to take a stand and tell someone. It was probably the hardest decision I have made recently. I am not a traitor or ashamed of doing my duty. I want nothing more than to be the best leader I can be.

I searched for some other solution and for a while I was going to keep my mouth shut. Sitting here the last week watching the soldiers die changed my mind like nothing else could.

I know you had told me that almost every soldier you interview has said about the same thing.

Let anyone who thinks I am a traitor take my place and send good men off to die. If you can honestly say you could do this without any guilt or remorse, than you are one of the reasons that America is failing our troops. I try to understand how any citizen could support the useless death of our soldiers without any questions.

I am growing more disillusioned as we lose more troops by the day. I watched the news for the last week and saw all the men we lost. It has made it feel surreal to be back home and see the war getting worse by the day.

It just feels wrong to be able to walk across the street without having to watch for attackers. I left behind men who will die and come home wounded. I went to a movie and had a pizza the other day while three men died. That is something I can’t get out of my thoughts.

There is not an unpatriotic bone in my body. A true patriot stands up for what he believes in. I have come to believe that doing this is right, and my duty as a patriot makes this necessary. This country was founded on the right of all men to address their grievances openly, without fear of reprisal. That is the opposite of what I have seen recently.

I don’t know how much difference this will make, but I am obligated to do it and hope it helps save lives. Nothing else could ever be more important to me than trying to stop this bloody carnage. There has to be a better way than this. I don’t think I really have anything else to say. Make this count for something. I don’t want to do this for nothing.

JS- Thank you for doing this. I think it will make a real difference if people are willing to listen.

Jay Shaft,

Editor,

Coalition For Free Thought In Media,

E-mail coalitionforfreethoughtinmedia@yahoo.com

CFTM address http://groups.yahoo.com/group/coalitionforfreethoughtinmedia/

Saturday, February 07, 2004

January 27th 2004

Umm Qasr Occupation Lock-Out, IPA Chief Gets a Kicking (again), 25
Answers

Ewa Jasiewicz

It's a grey blank day and the Highway of Death is sending us to Umm Qasr,
Iraqs most significant trade and passenger port, currently under the
operation of Stevedoring Services of America or, in tune with the
corporate trend here of spinning new aliases and name-changes - SSA
Marine. My friend is recalling what he saw in 1990, after the US Central
Command agreed to let their arch foes, the Republican Guard, fly over the
strip of returning soldiers from the Kuwait front and massacre them into
the asphalt for over 130 kilometers. 130 kilometers, from within Kuwait
up to the mouth of Basra, a highway of corpses - The Highway of Death.
Clearest in his mind is the sight of officers shooting the injured, lying
on the road. Bang after Bang as un-rescueable soldiers were finished off
by their comrades, staggering sights of strewn bodies for as far as the
eye could see. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, just a computer game
killing juggernaught and the only hope Iraq had for an end to 35 years of
Baath fascism, swept away in blood. Respective dictators shook hands,
closed the deal, and went back to business-with-the-Baath-as-usual, each
side sharpening the long-knives for an attack another day, another
bloodbath another day.

Inside Umm Qasr its the boss first  always. We met him before, a man on
the side of the Iraqi Port Authoritys Abdel Razzaq. Razzaq, a man once
admired but now reviled by most of the 18,000 IPA employees in Basra, has
withstood a number of attacks against him and his administration by
wildcat striking workers. I tried no les than five times to see him to
obtain his permission to speak to workers. Why? The end of October saw
Razzaq issue a notice to all IPA staff informing them that any
unsolicited communication with journalists or NGOs would be punished by
dismissal. Not wanting to get anyone sacked, we returned time and time
again to get his open-sesame word. But he was never there (despite our
friends telling us he was). This time a friend of a friend of a friend
has sorted us out. Workers were expecting us. The Manager will let us see
the port, see whatever we like, ahlan wa sahlan. The first thing he wants
us to be convinced of is the top-class
security at the port, the very first thing. We nod politely, weve heard
about the smuggling and the complicity of the US military, currently
still running customs at the port, controlling everything coming in and
out, signing along the dotted line for any contraband coming in. Weve
heard via an off the record well-placed source working within the CPA
itself. Its an old old story, its the same old story, post-war chaos,
little market regulation, no government. Open borders mean free booty,
controlling the borders means controlling the trade, and turning a blind
eye or slipping a tip means a pocket full of cash, day in day out. The
black market is soaring. And the pressure and intimidation againt Umm
Qasr workers is gnawing.

Formalities out of the way we finally meet a group of workers, 6 or so
are sitting around the ports Clerks Office, some are sat outside
munching oranges, others are drinking tea, smoking. Some in overalls,
some in homeknit jumpers, they glance over, dwell a little and look away,
theyre not interested in another journalist. There are no ships
unloading today otherwise the docks would be full of people unloading
explains our guide/guard, a handlebar mustached former crude oil tanker
sailor and currently responsible for security at Umm Qasr.

6-7 passenger ships pass through Umm Qasr weekly. There port contains
four container cranes at two in the new docks, two in the old. Part of
the old dock is a US military base. Following The Fall everything
including office chairs and desks was stripped from the port by looters.

We walk in and settle ourselves into the worn-out, Spartan clerks office.
Workers gather round. We start the talk on how there lives are, whats
going on, what do they need.

Wages, as usual, are the first topic of discussion:

We get 100,000, all of us, everybody apart from maybe 5 people out of 50
who get 200,000 or 300,000 tells us one of the clerks, a stout, chirpy,
mustached man in his mid thirties who everybody listens to. 100,000 
Ill tell you now that this doesnt last me and my family or any family,
more than 10 days. My rent alone is 40,000 per month and then its 9000
transportation to and from work every month. With clothes and medicines
and school - it should be 300,000 at least. I ask him how he survives.
He smiles, looks away, and explains, frankly, I find another job, I get
tips from lorry drivers, extra payments from trade members/buyers, and we
share, we here share our wages too. A round of nods and Aiywahs
(Yeses) animates the room when he says, Theres no difference between
Bremer and Saddam  theyre both thieves, two faces of the same coin.

Another starts to talk about transportation, We used to have six buses
before the war, three were destroyed by looters, two are for the personal
use of the administration and that just leaves one, and its not enough.
Two days ago one of our friends was killed by looters on his way home
from work. We really need buses. Another talks about the axing of all
profit sharing, Before the war we got a cut of all the profits here.
Were supposed to get 2% and the annual profit for the docks here in
Basra is $50m  John Walsh (SSAs Operations Manger at the port) himself
told us this and that it was held in a bank in Kuwait. That share must be
distributed amongst all the dock workers. With 52 weeks per year, two
ships per week, transporting 250 containers per ship, and the $150 tax
per container, you can imagine how much we're not getting'. Another cuts
in, A foreigner comes here and earns $7000 per month, and we are Iraqi,
we make everything happen here and we get next to nothing. I cant afford
to save; I cant afford to buy anything new, not even chocolate for my
children. After the fall of the regime we were expecting results,
changes, but nothings different. Our security guide cuts in too, What
is this 100,000 Dinar gap between wages?? 120,000 yes, 150,000 ok, but a
jump straight up to 200,000?? What, someone has to work 15 years before
they can get 200,000, and were the country of oil, what is this?.

The men in this small, decrepit clerks office are gnarled with
frustration, They came here to loot our country, Saddam was looting us,
and so is the occupation. They never came here for the weapons of mass
destruction or for Saddam  now they say hes not even a war criminal!
Hes a prisoner of war  will they release him next!!?. Here take a
look at this, says one, he heaves in a dusty cardboard box and plonks it
down in front of me. Go on, open it, I open up the cardboard flaps.
Its filled with something soft sealed in plastic. I smell it. Its
smells like fermented vinegar, pangs my nose, What is it?, Its bread
mix' he says. 'The British gave it to us. Look, look at the date. Its
out by four months. Weve been starving, weve been eating this. The
British have been giving us old off food and weve been eating it.
Didnt anything bad happen to you, you didnt get sick? I ask, Ask
him, they say, pointing to a quiet dark skinned guy standing by the
wall, who looks a bit startled, mumbles what? Then responds, No, no it
was fine, it was ok. The shame is burning though.

The clerk, irate, throws out an example of whats to come if things dont
get better: You know the 1920 revolution? When Nasiriyah people went
against the British army with swords and sticks  swords and sticks
against cannons, and won?! We promise to give life again to the 1920
revolution!. The room is gathering energy, the guys are moving around
more, tuning in more. He goes on, One of the most insulting things is
that I am a son of this country and when I leave my workplace, I find a
foreigner standing there pointing a gun at me.

Another younger worker picks up the talk, The last demo we had here was
something for the media, the next actions we take will be serious.
Falluga? Falluga is simple, basic stuff. Ive heard from people here
many a time, In the north they are fighting for their own interests, for
the privileges they lost, here when we fight we will fight for our honour
and we will lead. And from the talks I've head with workers and trade
union leaders, their honour and rage compounded by their struggle under
the regime will set them in good stead for the fight ahead.

People are all prepared, theres no surrender to the occupation in the
south despite the 'our boys winning hearts and minds in the stable south'
mantra of theatrical press officers and eager BBC Government
line-tow'ers. The stable south, the grateful south, People are watching,
waiting, some biding their time, some making plans, re-grouping, working
towards making sure the Baath, their interests and their power sources
are broken, and the Baath themselves too, are reconfiguring their
identities and positions into new businesses, organizations,
representations. Everybodys getting on with reconstructing their own
lives and working towards as well as openly fighting for, their own
interests. Nobody I have met in 3 months of being here is in agreement or
acceptance of the CPA, its institutions, its representatives, its Iraqi
collaborators, or its economy restructuring role. Daawa Party
spokesperson and Basra Security Council member Ayoob Abu Hajaar told me
that: ''All of the Iraqi people who came with the occupation don't have
dignity, honesty or loyalty to their country. Iraqi people see them as
intruders, not Iraqis. The Governing Council is not legal, it is not
elected by the people. We have our representative involved but we
accepted that because we wanted someone to watch the steps of the GC, not
because we think it is legal'.

Back to Umm Qasr, an older, worn looking man explains at pains, We are
followers of Sistani. If he says Jihad, you will see what happens. This
is why the British are following Sistani  he has the first and the last
word.

On the mater of their working conditions, We expect everything to go
from Bad to Worse,  says one, At first the British and the CPA took
down our names for unloading the first ships and told us wed get special
payments. We got nothing. Theres no electricity (blackouts are
constant, seeping Basra daily, sometimes four times a day), no pure
drinking water. The British managed to bring in cable but they only lit
the streets, not the houses. A clerk cuts in as I scribble frenetically,
And we have no hope in what youre writing by the way, because weve had
five visits from journalists with no results. Two things have improved
in our lives since the Occupation began, begins our guide, Satellites
and bananas  both became cheap, And the dish is only there to distract
us from what's really going on, distract us from the reality of our
misery comments a younger worker. He looks knackered out beyond belief.
Looks like he hasnt smiled since Eid. Not that there would have been
anything to smile about because Umm Qasr workers got Zero Eid bonuses
from the IPA  compared to the recommended public sector worker amount of
100,000 ID.

You have to form a union I say to them, This will really really help
you, help you get organized, get better wages.. they cut me off, Weve
never even thought of setting up a union. Four months ago we had a riot
over our wages  we hadnt had them for two months  we rioted against
the administration. Abdel Razzaq was beaten and as a result they had to
get in police and security. And just two weeks ago, they say, 50 workers
attacked Abdel Razzaq in front of the Minister of Transport. Grimaces and
laughs light the room all-round, a mixture of pride and slightly
delirious frustration as nothings really changed since.

Umm Qasr workers have managed to change two general directors of the
Iraqi Crude Oil Tanker Company. Saying of one, the Clerk begins We
talked to him politely, we said, sir, you are not serving our purposes
directly, and he left, But Abdel Razzaq is STICKING to his position!! He
has a special authorization from the ministry, a special budget to spread
around his closest people, and he managed to assign the Badr troops
(Armed militias of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution) as a
result of this. The workers tell me that his nephew, who used to work as
bodyguard for the head of the Basra Baath Party branch, is now his own
personal bodyguard. Looks like he needs one, the rage against him runs
deep. Hes a big liar, he promised a lot, special payments to help us
but we got nothing. The clerk points to the barred window next to him
with sunlight glaring through it, and then to a bag of material on the
floor. Hes a millionaire and we bought the curtains for this office
with our own money!!.

Two weeks ago six gate guards managed to shut down the Port of Umm Qasr
for six hours. The lockout was over low wages and long hours. Turns out
our friend was one of the organizers. We had worked constantly for eight
months, with no holiday, 14-hour days, we need a break, we need a
holiday. We locked out Abdel Razzaq, the British, everyone. The British
were just standing there, watching. In the end the strike ended with a
lie  we were told wed be paid more, something would definitely be
worked out. But nothings changed.

The clerk quips up, exasperated, exhausted, The police on the gate get
400,000, I have a certificate, I am educated, and I get 100,000 ID per
month. And the British boss here never even comes to shake our hands. He
comes here, driving through the gate, and he looks at me as if IM working
for HIM, and in fact, I AM!! Resentment against the Occupation
profiteers for their very presence catches fire when those profiteers
disrespect Iraqi workers. Under duress, cajoling, and repeated requests,
one of the workers opens up about his experience with a Mr. Mike, a
company rep from British security firm Olive, who allegedly got drunk and
damaged an employees car. I was totally insulted by him. He told me
fuck you, and he called me names. In Iraq the appropriate response for
him is a punch in the face, but, because he is a foreigner, I couldnt do
anything. He's not comfortable with the story, can't recount it with
ease, it serves as yet another testament to the daily humiliation and
cheapening of Iraqi life by the Occupation administration and its
business allies, taking up the gauntlet from where the fascist Baath left
off.

So, you should really form a union, I say, trying to reintroduce the
subject, they all look at a loss, some dismiss the idea flat, brush it
aside with a wave of their hands. I run to the car and gather up the
stacks of Arabic ILO conventions I'd been saving for them. The
International Labour Organisation, set up in 1919 and incorporated into
the UN, is responsible for the creation, facilitation and advocacy of the
Geneva Conventions of workers rights  the ILO Conventions). I lug up
Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to
Organise (Iraq is not a signatory to this), Right to Organise and
Collective Bargaining Convention 98, Workers Representatives Convention
135, Dockworkers Convention 137, Occupational Safety and Health 
Dockworkers Convention 152, Workmen's Compensation (Occupational
Diseases) Convention 42, plus a list of all 185 ILO conventions with
those signed by neighbouring Arab states and of which 66 of which were
ratified by Iraq. Also in the bundles is the chapter, detailing the boss
and labour history of Stevedoring Services of America. in Arabic, from US
Labour Against The War's 'The Corporate Invasion of Iraq'.

I give them out; they're met with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity
and a ripple of 'What's this? What's this for?' The room falls quiet,
people are reading, and then our clerk friend starts to well up with
anger Why should we kid ourselves? he says slapping convention 35 on
the table, What's the purpose of forming a union? How can it serve us?,
'It'll be just like the old one', joins another, 'And how can we organize
when there is no 'labour'?, Why? We lived in fear for 35 years, you
think we can accept this? With all respect, this is useless, we can't do
anything. We have tried, to start a union  but, it, it can't happen'.
'Is it your management, will they sack you? Are you afraid? Are you
afraid from violence from them', I ask tentatively, the responses are a
'Yes', 'Yes', 'Yes', with a closed-eyed nod, for each 'We are afraid of
the management, we are afraid of the response'. 'What do you mean kid
ourselves?' challenges another, 'If we want to strike and shut down this
port tomorrow we could do it, we're ready, we can do it,' Clerk volleys
back - 'No we can't! We can't even agree on one word; 25 of us met, tried
to organize a strike and what happened? Yes or No  we couldn't even
agree on one word, to do it or not. What is that??', ' The whole room is
in uproar, a-blast with strained voices, embattled positions,
declarations, refutations, argument, anger, flux and frustration. They
start to read the conventions, Number 135 on the protection of worker
representatives from harassment and intimidation is intriguing them.
'Well, you work hard', says one, 'And this is something that deserves to
be read'. A spontaneous negotiation ignites over whether they should go
to the Federation or to form one themselves? Where would the office of
their union be?

My friend tells us we better get going, if the management come and see
all this the guys might get sacked. What we're doing is dangerous. Some
of our new friends are reading, others considering the possibilities. I
say, in leaving, that they should visit the Federation of Iraq Trade
Unions in Basra, that they will help them form a union. We give them
names and the address. I tell them that they have mass international
support and solidarity, especially from the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union (ILWU), the workers from which have the same employer as
y'all  SSA. I tell them that ILWU workers refused to ship arms for the
war last year, and that they shut down their docks for a day in
solidarity with jailed Black Panther supporting radical journalist Mumia
Abu Jamal. 'They're a very strong union, very', 'Abtaal!', (Heroes) , I
say putting my hand into a big fist, 'They are with you, they will
support you'. They look surprised and interested and 'really??'

In truth is too short a meeting, the documents need more explanation, and
back up, there should be Bremer's Orders number 30 on Employment
Conditions of State Employees, Order 39 on Foreign Investment, the goal
of the war and occupation in writing, transforming the whole of Iraq into
one massive free trade zone, and the Public Notice on Organisation in the
Workplace (being implemented like an order) which revives Baath
dictatorship anti-worker law  all in Arabic. But we can't stay, is
getting too hot and management suspicion will be gathering. Our clerk
friend asks us again where the Federation of Trade Unions is, he's going
to go, they're going to go. I tell them they can succeed, they just have
to get organized, that they have the power, they're survivors, people
will help them, they're not alone, all I can to encourage them.

With the victory of Basra's Southern Oil Company workers winning higher
wages from the Occupation Administration/CPA, this month, and the
Electricity sector workers still in negotiations with the Ministry of
Energy and the GC on raising theirs, bolstered and empowered, they say,
by SOC's win, the road is open for workers struggling not just Occupied
Basra but Iraq as a whole to reclaim their revolutionary history and
finally fight the fight for justice they've been murdered into
refusing,intimidated into denying and divided into desisting.

Ewa Jasiewicz is an independent human rights activist and has been
working with Iraqi trade unionists and workers in Occupied Basra and
active in Baghdad the past 7 months.
Something I got sent by e mail - thought I'd share it. See bring them home now and military families speak out


I am an Army Nurse Corps Captain stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center, in Washington D.C., and I feel compelled to share with anyone who will listen what I have seen. You see, when OIF [Occupation Iraq Forces] troops are evac'd out of Germany, the huge majority are brought here to WRAMC by the Air Force flight nurses and docs.

I do not have access to any of the numbers of how many wounded and what types of injuries, etc, but I can honestly tell you that the OIF wounded occupy
more than half of our two major intensive care units (SICU and MICU) at any given time. At times, we get so full and are expecting more to arrive, that we have to hound the docs to transfer somebody out of our unit to a ward upstairs so we have some beds for these soldiers. Most of these wounded soldiers come in to our unit on a ventilator breathing for them, with severe wounds caused by IEDs (improvised roadside bombs) or AK-47 GSW (gun shot wounds). Many, many soldiers have already lost arms, limbs, or eyes before they even get to us, and many have received dozens of units of blood before they left Germany.

I am very proud that I am privilaged to take care of these brave men and women, but it breaks my heart to realize that their incredible loss that they and their loved ones will have to deal with for the rest of their life seems to have not been for the good of our country. Rather, their pain and sorrow has merely allowed a few greedy souls to make a power grab for more wealth and control. One of my dear friends has tried to convince me that this is all part of God's plan, and the death and pain is for some greater purpose that our leaders are not telling us yet. I wish I could believe her. It would make my job and daily life much easier, but I cannot buy it.

I apologize to the reader for my tangenital thought processes, but this never ending situation is getting to many military nurses. Anyway, the following is my main point in reaching out to you. As you might be aware, the press is being tightly controlled and what is being reported from a medical standpoint is only a fraction of the true reality. Yes, I do believe the daily number of killed that CNN and whoever report is accurate.

What I am saying is that the walking wounded are being sorely ignored. Don't
believe me? Walter Reed is an open base, not a tightly controlled fort. Just
have a valid ID and consent to a vehicle search. Then park, and walk inside. You will see so many 20 something mostly men missing arms, legs, and eyes. The blinders covering your eyes will be ripped away as you see the poor families making their daily walk from the Malogne house to the wards and units to see their sons or husbands. It is so sad to see young wives and fiancees cry over their honey who was in Iraq less than one month before losing both legs and have several abdominal surguries which leaves his belly crisscrossed with staples, and now he is fighting for his life from the infection that the injuries have caused.

And that is just one example of what I saw this week. I will spare you any more wrenching true stories. God help our men and women in uniform. Please do something to end this madness.

Friday, February 06, 2004

February 5th
Back to Sha’ala

The Sha’ala kids came running out to meet us, arms out. The girls joined in with the parachute games this time, asked to be picked as cat or mouse, lying on the fabric to be lifted up and run around on it. The women watched through the reed fence of the house next to the concrete square where we performed. They wanted the scarves that are tied to the broom handle for twirling but I didn’t have enough for all of them.

Tanks came by blasting out some message over a loudspeaker and throwing brightly coloured leaflets behind them. A couple of the boys ran to pick them up, cartoons depicting a man planting a bomb in a newly built school, while the kids were happily dancing about. An Iraqi person sees him, finds an Iraqi Police man and reports it. The bomb gets safely removed, the school is saved, the criminal is arrested and everyone but him is very happy.

“We think probably half of the bombs are planted by Americans,” Abu Bassim said. The recent party office bombings in the north they are sure were the work of American provocateurs trying to create divisions; likewise the bombing in Najaf of Al-Hakim a few months ago. “There is no division between us and Sunnis. We are all Moslems, but the Americans trying to create divisions. They have done it all over the world, everywhere they go.

Marwa came to me with her eyes shining. I think you already know how much I love this child. She wants to be a doctor. It seems impossible because she hasn’t been to school in months and she’s from a very poor family, without even a real home, and I don’t know how long free university education will continue, but I can’t bear the thought of her becoming a housewife like the other women there, hidden under a headscarf, producing child after child and trying to keep them all alive, looking out through a reed fence and hoping her daughter will have better chances than she did.

We were meant to be meeting a sheikh this morning who represents the 4,500 families or about 25,000 people, living in 35 squatted former government buildings. They’re expecting that the new government, when elected, will want those buildings back and will evict them. There’s no housing for them to go into, so they’ll be on the streets. There are some rights for squatters, which is what we were going to talk to the sheikh about – the rights they have and what support they want, but for various reasons the meeting was to be in the Convention Centre and was cancelled because of ‘an important ceremony’ in the Centre – apparently more important than people’s right to have somewhere to live.

Still Abu Ahmed and Abu Bassim say they want elections as soon as possible. Like all the Shia people I’ve met in the camps, they follow Sistani . an Iranian, he won’t be a candidate himself, but they will vote for the man he backs and if he calls for jihad, they say, they will leave their families and fight. Over lunch in Abu Bassim’s compartment, made out of a corner of a roofless farm building, they said they’re not backing the current resistance because it’s killing innocent people and, as Abu Bassim explained in response to the leaflets, they are convinced that a lot of the attacks are American-perpetrated.

Jihad, they said, would include attacking the Americans, with bombs aimed at their bases, not at convoys in the street, where innocent Iraqis get hurt, but the main focus, Abu Bassim said, would be unarmed jihad: refusal to work with the Americans, total non-cooperation and so on, that all Iraqis could participate in.

“The Americans are the same as Saddam,” Abu Ahmed declared, “They are from the same line. We can criticise the Americans, that’s true. We went on a big demonstration a few weeks ago and chanted against the Americans and the British and the Governing Council and we were not stopped. We can complain, but that is all.” They’re not represented by anyone at them moment but there are four section to the camp, each with its own sheikh so, with Abu Ahmed, there’s a committee of five.

We gave them the money for the drain at the end of the show and explained it was from ordinary people, in solidarity. The place was full of smiles: they will start preparations straight away and then get the digger in. It will be built within a week.

Today is the long awaited day off. There’s been no electricity for most of it and no internet throughout the city because of the thunderstorm, apparently. I did my washing in the dark and hung it out in the rain. It was even cold and wet enough to drive Fatih off his balcony opposite.
February 1st
Happy Eid

Lack of electricity was delaying the start of the Eid show at the Happy Family base so I climbed up on my stilts and we started clowning and boomchucking. The kids and the Happy Family lads all shout it at us when we arrive now. I nicked Luis’s hat and, as I was posing and strutting about with it and he was finding a child to put on his shoulders to try and reach it, the power came back on, the music burst out and the kids jumped up and danced with us.

Not surprisingly, HF thinks a generator is the top item on the kit wish list. The boys from the Kurdish house started break dancing and took turns wearing the Sylvester and Tweetie-pie costumes, performing for the smaller kids. It was wicked seeing them using their creativity, playing, doing something to make other children happy. I’m hoping we can get them on stage during the show at the National Theatre. Applause must be life changing when you’ve been a drug addicted street beggar refused by the whole world.

Laith was already there when we arrived at 11 to practise. The other boys didn’t arrive till later. He was looking a bit sad, so I put my hands out, palm up. His eyes lit up and we played a couple of rounds of the counting game, which made me wonder what it must be like for them, to move from the street into a house. Food tastes different, wilder and sweeter, when you weren’t certain there would be any.

Whatever you find or get given is something special, something you never could’ve bought or made for yourself, the feast of kings and queens, but the ground is still hard and there’s no one to cuddle you before you go to bed on it, unless some semi-stranger you’ve befriended from one of the hotels comes past to give you one.

There’s only the glue to soften things, to make them look funny and feel less harsh, and meeting people who come from strange countries you’ve never heard of, who look strange and sound strange and teach you bits of English, or play games with you, and give you blankets and jumpers when you’re cold, and the kind of excitement that goes along with the exhaustion of living on your wits and knowing that what you need will come along, or that it won’t but you’ll tell yourself you don’t need the things you didn’t get, like warmth or medical care or a hug, that the things you did get mattered more.

Glamour attaches to the violence and drugs of the gang members, the appearance of power that comes with their weapons. Mortadha and Akan went back to the street and the gang and both decided after a couple of days that they wanted to go back to the orphanage, but Akan was scared out of it when one of them showed him a big knife and gestured, pulling it across his throat as a threat.

I remember myself moving into a house after months of living outside and finding it weird, too small, too square, too restrictive; I thought I’d never see anyone anymore because there was a closed door in front of me.

Uzma and I have been adopted by Safa’s sisters. Mum cooked us breakfast when we got there and Damia and Mariam whisked us off for beauty treatments, clearly the most important preparation for the show. I’m all for mutual grooming, the more so if accompanied by gossip and kids as cute as Ayu, Noor and Abdullah, but had to escape having my eyebrows ripped out of my head by pleading the needed to rehearse my dance.

For those who are interested in such things, Iraqi women use a length of cotton, one end held between the teeth, the other end in one hand, with a loop in between, that’s pulled tight around the offending hair to wrench it out of the skin. For non-facial areas they use an abrasive sugar solution.

Damia’s a dress maker. She wants to find a husband but she’s so shy she won’t even go out and talk to the Happy Family boys when they come to the house. She only knows their names. Mariam is married to one of Safa’s brothers. There seem to be dozens of brothers and I can’t keep track, but her first baby is Abdullah, a wide eyed sweetheart of six months. She parked him on the windowsill, legs out in the sunshine, one either side of the window bar, fixed in place with her headscarf so he could wriggle but not fall. I taught Mama to juggle scarves, yellow, pink and blue, the only thing I can juggle, after Peat taught me how in the morning.

As for the show, the dance was a bit shaky, because Uzma and I don’t know it very well, but the kids who go there a lot know the song that goes with it off by heart and sing it loudly. There’s a bit which I can’t really describe by e mail that needs an “Oy” so we imported one. Raed’s keen as long as it means he gets to re-record the song. He’s the sound engineer, co-founder of the group along with Safa and completely obsessed with recording and playing music.

He’s also taken the dubious decision to idolise Peat and wants to be just like him. He comes to our apartment to bring grapes and kiwis for Peat, talks endlessly about him and has adopted him as a brother. He runs a music shop full of bootleg CDs – the only kind you get here – of film soundtracks, Arabic singers, western boy bands, Britney and Britney clones and eighties classics.

He showed us the drawing of their plans for the garden. They want to turn the waste ground part at the end into a play space, plus a library and dressing room. The existing dressing room is the uncovered concrete space adjacent to the toilet. As well they want to extend the stage and cover it because it’s too small for the dance on: your fingers hit the wall when you spin with your arms out. The games were cut short by rain and in the summer it’s too hot for the kids without shade, so they’re planning a cover for the garden as well.

It was meant to be a day off, because there hadn’t been one for about a hundred years, but there was a women’s delegation over with good fundraising contacts so we agreed to do the show in the hope it will get the group some financial support for their plans. Someone had sent 50 quid via Peat for them. Safa got upset. He thought it was Peat’s money he was giving them, said we don’t do this for money.. It took ages to explain, and when we managed it they were really touched, that someone would really send money for something and someone they’d never met, just because they thought it was a good project.

I had to teach Mustafa a new word – ‘poser’. He’s always checking himself out in the mirror, wetting his curls, making sure they’re in the right place, making sure he’s still tall and dark and handsome and elegant. He’s a professional singer and dancer, so we got him to show us some folk dances. The National Theatre repairs are finished and the date for the Big Show is set, February 25th at 11am.

There’s still no sign of Esam, no word from the Americans about where they’re holding him or why. Amanj’s brother has also disappeared. No one seems to know whether he was arrested, kidnapped or something else.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

It was the last thing I heard before I slept, unfolding the spare mattress for Ahmed, sleeping off the alcohol he drowned his sorrows in, and the first thing I heard in the morning, when Hamsa opened the door and sat on the end of my bed.

He is dead. He is dead. Four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad.

His name was Durayd. His four year old son is called Ibrahim and his wife is known as Umm Ibrahim.

She’s too young, Hamsa said. She can’t deal with it. They ask her does she want to see the body. She doesn’t know. How could she know? Hamsa says if she waits until the body is cleaned then she can’t hold him. If she holds his body it will have to be cleaned again before burial. But if she sees his body before it’s cleaned… Four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad.

Durayd was a presenter on Shebab FM, the Voice of Youth radio station, before the war. That’s how Ahmed got to know him. Hamsa knew him from the College of Languages first and then they worked together at CNN, as translator – producers. A lot of the young people with good English got jobs with the western media after the war, supporting their whole families, English being one of the few skills that could get you employment in occupied Baghdad. She said he looked after her, helped her get her packages finished.

Who killed him? Whose was the finger or whose were the fingers that fired the bullets? Who determined that CNN should be the White House, so hated that they were targeted? Who decreed that there should be this chaos and destruction? And when you thought enough about it, tied enough knots, it made perfect sense to target the Iraqis who worked with the Americans, rather than the Americans themselves, because they’re less protected and the supply of Americans who will come is probably limitless but the number of iraqis prepared to risk their lives for US wages may be fewer and if no one co-operated with them, no one collaborated with them, no one worked for them, the occupation would be far harder to maintain.

Husni said Hamsa didn’t eat for two days, didn’t sleep, just cried and cried and cried. We dropped her at Durayd’s home and went to Premiere Urgence to meet Fadhil and the others and go to the camp at Rajdiya. Fadhil was on a downer, crushed under the weight of his everyday sadness, even before he knew.

“How are you?”

He shrugged. “You know, we are tired. We don’t go out and meet people. We lock our door. Even we don’t see our friends. I am depressed.”

Then came the knowledge that Durayd was dead, his skull destroyed by four bullets on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad. And he always tried to help everyone, had time for everyone, loved his son like there was no tomorrow and then there wasn’t.

Today the funeral process began, delayed from the traditional and important next-morning burial by various requirements and rigmarole.

Today we went to Mahaweel, a small town in Babylon governorate. I didn’t notice how dirty the stage was till I started sweeping, between dancing about with my magical music box, and the audience disappeared spluttering in a cloud of red dust. The kids seemed to come to life as the show began, like Bagpuss waking up and bursting into colour. In the middle of the first act, the lights went out. No one noticed, nor when it came back, part way through Peat and Luis’s juggling extravaganza. The downside was that the Iraqi TV crew’s very bright light suddenly dazzled the jugglers.

At the end, as we were leaving, one of the men came to Peat and me. “I want to thank you for coming. This is the first time since the war that I have seen the children laugh this way, from their insides.”

The youth centre hosts about 750 kids a day, mostly boys, for sports and games and drama. It reopened in June and the youth workers say the children are visibly scarred by the war. Explosions still shake them and their play is more violent, their concentration disrupted. “They are fearful,” Ali said with a shrug. They are full of fear.

Coming home, along the road from Hilla back to Baghdad, burnt tanks mark the kilometres, some tucked in among the palm trees, some stark at the roadside, for some reason not thrown into the tank cemetery at Al-Dora, a huge expanse of wasteground where burnt out tanks and vehicles are piled.

Aala goes there to cut bits of metal off the tanks to sell to the Kurdish men who come to buy from the people who scavenge a precarious living there. It’s divided into territories within which a particular group or family has the salvage rights. His mum died when he was still in nappies. He can’t remember anything about her. His dad’s left them now to marry a new wife and the older brothers and sisters take care of them.

Now sixteen, he’s fairly independent but, tiny and powerless, he’s only paid 1000 Dinar – about 40 pence, for a day’s worth of metal. His older brothers get a better rate. He mustered a small smile. The oldest brother provides food for them, so sometimes he has enough money to go and play billiards. He stays there till his money runs out and then he comes back to the wasteground. There are five families living in the houses immediately bordering the cemetery on their side.

I asked him if anyone had warned him it was dangerous to cut metal from burnt out tanks. No, he said. It used to be that a lot of people died from explosions there, but those are not so many now. A memory caught him: there were some journalists who came with a machine and they said there was a reading on it, that it was dangerous to climb on the tanks and take the metal, there was something, what was it called? Radiation. But he didn’t know anything about that.

Esam’s been arrested. He’s an independent Iraqi film maker. His house was raided at 3am on suspicion that he had video CDs of footage of the resistance. Nothing was found but Esam was taken. The Iraqi translator is well known in Adamiya, Mohammed Saddam. He gave the Americans the “information” and arrived with them to make the raid. He told Noor that he’d make sure her husband was released in half an hour if he could hold her hand.

All day Noor and Uzma and some others have been going to the CPA, the bases, the police stations. At the military-run police academy near Al-Shaab stadium Paola and Jodie were allowed in to enquire while Noor was barred. Still they don’t know where he is. I don’t know whether it needs saying that Noor is distraught. People disappear for months into that system. Younis, who he was working with, was arrested six months ago and his family haven’t seen him, haven’t received any information about him.

And so the early nights are filled with listening to bereaved friends and so are the morning lie-ins and so the days or hours off are filled with traipsing around the city looking for arrested friends and so the computers are destroyed by viruses

And one more is dead, after four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad, and one more has disappeared after someone sold him to the Americans for a few dollars, buried in the system, and another couple of hundred children laughed as if it was bubbling up from their bellies and Aala cut some more sheets of metal off tanks contaminated with depleted uranium.
January 30th
The Workhouse

“Workhouse for Orphans and Parentless Children” is scrawled in spray paint in English on the wall outside. Uzma was melodramatically bawling her eyes out when Afra tiptoed past her, pig-tails bouncing, picked up the broom and started doing Uzma’s sweeping, possibly the cutest and most charming act of solidarity I’ve ever seen. She’s seven and a resident of the Dar al Banaat [Girls’ House] orphanage a few minutes’ walk from our house.

There are 85 girls, babies up to 18, living there but today there were only about 20 of them because some go to their families or other relatives on Fridays. Eid starts in a couple of days, so these were the ones who have absolutely nowhere else to go or are completely unwelcome there, which made it all the more important to go and bring them some laughter.

Some have lost their mothers and their fathers can’t cope with bringing them up. Some have lost their dads and their mothers are too poor to keep them. Some are rejected by the new step parent when one remarries. Of all the agonising stories of the war, there are girls who were raped in the post invasion chaos, who were thrown out by their families as unmarriageable, a source of shame. We didn’t ask the girls their stories but there was one, a beautiful twelve year old, who wanted to marry Peat. She hated Iraqi men, she said.

A crowd gathered to hold the make up for Uzma and me in front of the mirror in the corridor. The girls’ rooms either side had posters of boy bands and Shakira and pretty knick knacks hanging on the walls. One of Uzma’s stilts has got a screw loose so she was on the ground blowing bubbles while Afra clowned for me, taking pictures from my stilts. I am Tawila [tall lady] in multi-coloured extra long trousers and a silver dress.

A new act was born yesterday when I stole Luis’s hat off his head during the “boomchucka”s. He jumps up, trying to reach it, picks up a child to try and reach my head, puts another one on his shoulders, staggers about, fails again, begs, pleads. I strut about, taunt him with the hat, pulling it away as he grabs for it, fanning myself with it, raising it on and off my head, out of the reach of the kid on his shoulders. Eventually he bursts into tears, howling and wailing so the kids and I start feeling sorry for him and I give it back. We’re mates then and dance together, off the stage or out of the semi-circle of kids.

The girls became part of the show, warning Uzma when the Boss clown was coming, nipping around the corner to check he was still out of the way, skipping over the rope. I think I’ve said before how hard it can be to get the girls to join in with stuff. Here the only boys were a couple of workers’ sons. The older girls were in jeans and close fitting tops or long straight skirts and heels. None of them was wearing a headscarf. I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t got families to tell them what to wear, because nobody expects them to marry so there’s no reputation to protect or because the managers prefer to let them make their own decisions but that’s how it was.

Parachute games with them were a joy. They worked as a tribe, they laughed a lot, they played parachute football with the passion of a world cup tie, held the fabric with all their might for each other to run around on. When, at the end, one of the juggling balls was missing, they came and told Peat none of the girls was an Ali Baba. They wouldn’t tell on the boy, the manager’s son, who had it, but while we were out of the way getting changed, they got it back from him and passed it back.

Back in normal clothes, Uzma and I were singing with them. We didn’t know any of the Backstreet Boys / N-Sync / Shakira songs that were their favourites and could only manage the chorus of “We Will Rock You”, which they requested over and over. Heba started dancing, Arabic dancing with the wild hips and swaying that I couldn’t get at all, till Heba took my hips and moved them in a figure of eight motion. Oh yeah, that was funky.

We were already buzzing when we got there from the kids at Happy Families’ base. We went for a rehearsal for the gig at the National Theatre and the kids from the street outside the other day were playing in the garden. The lads were taking turns to entertain them. We told Raed about the “boomchucka” part of our show because we wanted to include it. Even the thought of a thousand laughing kids yelling it back at us gives me goosebumps.

He was sceptical. “I don’t think the children will join in.”

“Oh, yeah. They always do.”

He wasn’t convinced. Come on then. We took him outside to the patio stage where a couple of dozen children were lined up. Peat started: “Hello.”

“Hello” came the echo.

A few times over, then all four of us shouted, “Wo-oh.”

“Wo-oh,” all the kids yelled back.

“Boomchucka.”

And all the kids repeated it, loud and gleeful. Raed was so excited he came with us to the orphanage in the afternoon to see if it would work again. It always does. He had a wicked afternoon. Yesterday in the IDP camp in Rajdiya, the children from the marsh villages and nearby towns were probably the loudest yet.

There are about 400 families there, from the Maisan and Amara areas, living in an old army base. It was a bit of a timewarp for Husni, having been based there for three years in the army. Crushed buildings and barbed wire, reed houses, donkeys, cows and chickens knocked about the place.

There are a few different stories: Eman moved up from the south when her husband was sent to Baghdad with the army. Layla came north when her husband, the sheikh, started being abused by local government officials. The mayor, a relative of Saddam, burnt 65 houses which were alleged to belong to people resisting Saddam. Mohammed went to Saddam to complain. Investigators, headed by another relative of Saddam’s, found it was true but the mayor gave out a few irrigation pumps to influential individuals and the matter was hushed up but local government officials started persecuting Mohammed.

Informers accused the Sheikh of supplying weapons to the resistance and he was arrested, jailed for two months, questioned, denied blankets, denied food except bread and beans, mistreated, his family not knowing where he was. A lot of the tribe were fighting Saddam, retreating into the marshes for cover. The marshes were drained so there was nowhere to hide. The fish and birds died.

All those reasons, plus a lack of work, electricity, facilities, drove people from the south to Baghdad but they weren’t allowed to settle here. Unless you were registered as a resident of Baghdad in 1957, or a descendant of someone who was, it wasn’t legally possible to buy land or property. Of the squatters, some were evicted from rented houses having stayed in Baghdad; others returned to the south and came back after the war. Here they have next to nothing. In Amara, they said, it was worse, but still there is no hospital or secondary school, electricity is a rare commodity and they don’t know how long they will be allowed to stay before the new government demands the land back.

Layla looked away when I asked about the women’s health. To the floor, she said, “For myself, I feel very tired. I do not feel that I am settled here because it is not our land. It is hard to find the energy to do things around the house when we might have to leave. Most of the women feel the same, depressed and without purpose. The children are sick, especially now that it is winter, with flu and diarrhoea. I just want a place to settle, to know that we can stay on this piece of land and make our home here.”

“We have seen nothing so far,” her husband adds. We had hope before the war that things would improve but nothing is better. We are jobless, unemployment is high, there is so much crime and more religious division than we have ever known. Divisions existed before the war but they were limited. Now they are encouraged by the Americans. We need elections. Wee need to choose a government that reflects Iraqis. The Governing Council reflects different denominations, which is unjust, because we are all Iraqis.”

He and all these people are Shia so this is emphatically not the bitterness of a member of a formerly powerful group. “The Governing Council is weak and the US wants it this way. It’s imposed. We want elections, for a real government that will stop the suffering , give us security, food, give our children a future after the sanctions they imposed on the people. Those never affected Saddam, only the people. We refuse the occupation. They cannot stay here.”

On the wall of Layla and Mohammed’s house are an elaborate drawing of a tree, each leaf bearing the name of a male member of the tribe, Al Bou Mohammed, the branches depicting the family tree, and a painting of a man called Faisal Ibn Khalifa firing a cannon. The grandfather of the sheikh, he was known as Abu Tuwab – Father of Cannons. He made them to fight the Ottomans. After he died his son used the same cannons to fight the British occupiers.

Ali Kamel, a grey haired retired school teacher, lived in a rented house in Hoseinia, a wave of his arm indicating an area nearby, again because he was not allowed to buy a home in Baghdad. Several of the squatters were evicted from houses in that area after the war when they couldn’t pay the rent. He’s now headmaster of the site school for about 250 – 300 of the residents, aged 6 – 11, with seven teachers, all squatters from Hoseinia. The kids wanted to take me to see their school but it was closed for the day because they were all at the show, organised by Fadhil’s group.

Ali Shalan is a doctoral student in Baghdad University mechanical engineering college. His studies are more or less on hold at the moment: “I have become lazy,” he said, clearly the wrong word for the man who is constantly refining his system of distributing emergency humanitarian aid in the camps. Formerly an assistant in the Internally Displaced Persons team at Premiere Urgence, he founded Malath Relief to help.

“We make the assessments by going to the houses and then request the goods from IOM, the International Organisation for Migration. Food comes from the ration, although we are working on providing more fresh food as well. Today we are giving blankets and plastic tarpaulins. I record in the book what is to be given to each family and then I write out tickets for each household.

“We used to have the head of each household come and collect the goods but yesterday we tried giving them to a representative from each part, so they take the goods, and we go with them to see that they go to each household, so it works more as a web instead of everyone having to come and queue for their things. It involves the people more and it’s less chaotic,” he explained, while juggling questions from half a dozen directions at once.

Then Emad and Odai came round to take us to be entertained by someone else at the theatre in Al-Wazeria. Two rows of immaculately dressed young men, arranged in a semi circle, played the oud, a stringed instrument not unlike a guitar except that the body is oval and there’s a ninety degree angle at the other end. The second half was a group of women in long extravagantly embroidered dresses, a couple in headscarves, several wearing cream headbands, playing oud, hand drums, something I’ve never seen that makes tuneful twanging sounds when struck and an incredible sounding stick-like thing playing with a bow. It was gorgeous.

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