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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.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

My new phone number: 773 860 4684

Spam / Viruses / Attachments
It seems there’s been another bogus posting of a viral attachment to the list. I want to apologise for these. I’ve now barred attachments from the list so it shouldn't happen again and just to reiterate, I never send attachments on the list so if you do receive a message through the list that has an attachment, it’s not from me and please delete it.

I was assuming the first ‘Encrypted Document’ was just random spam from someone who knew how to get the message to appear to come from me, but I’ve since been told that the attachment contained photos which make me think it might be deliberate targeting. So again I want to apologise for any inconvenience or cyber-disease caused. If it is deliberate it’s from someone who doesn’t like the truth being told and if it’s not then I expect they’ll grow out of it.

May 22nd
California

The newspaper at Birmingham airport said civilians have been killed in Nasariya. I thought of Maha and Kenaan and got on the plane. The immigration officer at Los Angeles didn’t flick through my passport to notice all the pre-war Iraq visas, being more concerned about the saxophone I was carrying. I promised on my honour that I wouldn’t be playing any professional concerts, confiding reassuringly that I’d only been playing for three days and knew a grand total of seven notes. Apparently looking more like the illegal worker type than a terrorist I was allowed in without further questions.

LA is enormous and the way around is by a mass of six lane highways with an inordinate number of signs, giving directions, radio frequencies for congestion information, religious and moral advice and invitations to Adopt A Highway. Unlike the more common adoptees such as children, dolphins and large mammals, which require either a lifetime of parenthood or a standing order at the bank, highway adoption apparently demands a commitment to litter clearance. Taxes apparently don’t cover removal of roadside rubbish.

The first talk was in a community centre and radical bookshop called Flor y Canto in a Latin American part of town. Run by volunteers, it’s got meeting space, a little kitchen and a row of four computers where Latino kids were surfing the internet. That part of the city had signs in Spanish or dual Spanish and English and murals to “Libertad, pobre, solidaridad”.

There is also a big Iranian population in LA, one man who left Tehran in the 1970s because of repression, lived in the UK for a couple of years and then moved to the US, who wanted to know about what had happened to women since the invasion of Iraq because his sense, like mine, was that their oppression, in the name of fundamentalism, had got worse and their rights were going unprotected. The Iranians know better than anyone what that’s like.

But back in LA, there was talk of the prosecution of Greenpeace for the actions of its members in Florida. The activists themselves have already been tried for boarding and putting up a banner on a logging ship which was bringing illegally felled rainforest timber into the US, which still accepts the wood.

Later the Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to take the organisation to court as well, for the actions of its members, making unprecedented use of a law a couple of centuries old intended to prevent brothel owners or their representatives boarding ships and luring poor innocent sailors into their houses of ill-repute.

If the prosecution succeeds in twisting that law to prevent political protest, it will also be a step on the way towards closing down Greenpeace and other non-profit organisations whose members are involved with protest, by continually summonsing and fining the groups. It’s a way of suppressing activist organisations without the controversy of announcing a ban.

And another thing: pharmacies are allowed to refuse to fulfil prescriptions for the birth control pill or the emergency contraception pill, even if the woman can’t get it from anywhere else.

Hummingbirds live around the hill behind the house we stayed in. From the top, one side was all twinkles of light, the other – Downtown LA – was blotted out by smog. Petrol has just gone up to $2.50 a gallon because of the oil price rises: a Black Hawk helicopter flaps its rotors in Iraq and the car economy in the US stays exactly the same because there’s no real public transport system in LA. Still, it costs more than that for a litre in Britain.

Lost, in the morning, we stopped behind a white car with both its front doors open. The woman inside was reading a book, signs in her back windscreen asking for work. She lived in the car at the side of the road, eschewing a quieter spot in favour of one where her job request and any possible attacks against her were more likely to be seen. It’s not uncommon, apparently, for people to live in their cars in LA, a stepping stone between becoming homeless and living on the street.

In the end we got directions from lurid lycra man, who was thrilled about our destination: “Dude! I live on that street. OK, trip out – you go down that way…” There’s a whole array of different churches I’ve never seen anywhere else, the Ark of Refuge, the Fundamentalist Trinitarian.

Another thing I’ve never seen is the array of community radio stations. KPFA’s studio in San Francisco’s East Bay was built by listener donations and there’s a pledge drive going on now which enables the station to stay independent of advertisers and means it’s able to carry much more radical content, much more political content.

After 1945 and the end of the war, a percentage of the available bandwidth was set aside for public radio. A lot of the stations are becoming commercialised but there are still community radio stations in a lot of towns which, again, are able to serve a much wider spectrum of interests because they’re not dependent on advertising revenue, with a show called Rocking the Boat on Santa Cruz radio and another called Pissed As Hell airing in Chicago (that’s ‘pissed’ as in angry, not as in drunk).

We talked in City College, San Francisco, a community college, and in a Filipino community centre in the East Bay, among some sculptures inspired by the artist’s visit, fully suited and masked, to Chernobyl, where empty fairgrounds, houses and streets waited in silence. A wheelchair bound metal suit with giant eyes and a gas mask sat in the middle of the room like a robot, its claustrophobic innards the only liveable space in the toxic world the nuclear mishap left behind.

We talked at the Long Haul Info Shop in Berkeley, the name referring to the commitment required to make real social change, the understanding that a few demonstrations won’t be enough. Berkeley is home to one of the most prestigious and conservative universities in the country. Slater and Julie were there, friends I haven’t seen since we were playing football in the park on a scorching day in October in Bristol, Julie who used to sustain me with beautiful e mails about sparkling snow and maple syrup in Vermont in the winter.

We talked in Santa Cruz, stopping at a wild and gorgeous beach on the way, and to a packed lecture theatre in New College in San Fransisco. With us were Eddie Yuen, who co-edited the book “Confronting Capitalism” and Rebecca Solnit, who wrote “Hope in the Dark” about all the victories of the global justice movement, more than most of us have noticed or remembered. It’s easy to forget how much has changed, that once seemed impossible: the end of slavery took time, as did the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, civil rights and everything else that was ever worth achieving.

Meanwhile there was a demonstration of three hundred people in Houston, Texas, against Halliburton, the Dick Cheney offshoot which is taking vast amounts of money through contracts in Iraq and overcharging the US government for services in Iraq. It was unprecedented to see so many Texans out for a demonstration like that.

Coming soon in San Francisco there will be a huge meeting of Biotechnology industry delegates, working on the next phase of foisting genetically modified crops on the world. So the Bay Area talks also included a bit of explanation about that, what the biotech industry means for most of the world. 25 thousand people a day die of hunger.

These same companies and organisations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, forced so many people off their land and now they claim their products and their free trade and privatisation policies are the answer to world hunger, neglecting to mention that there is already enough food.

Through loans and arms sales they create debt. Through debt they enforce privatisation of public services, external control of natural resources and abandonment of subsistence growing in favour of cash crop production and an economy dependent on international markets. The hunger, displacement and devastation which result are a means of creating a pool of cheap labour. In Iraq the agricultural economy and cash crop production are less central than elsewhere but the themes and the perpetrators are the same.

The We Are Everywhere tour is about all of that and the resistance to it from all over the world. The book consists of stories from the uprisings in Mexico, India, Nigeria, of farmers burning Monsanto crops, women in Bolivia confronting police who were preventing them getting access to water, South Africans in the poorest areas reconnecting people cut off from basic amenities because electricity and water are human rights. It’s about telling the stories that are not part of the news, of ordinary people’s history, which is much more inspiring than the mainstream version.

The murder rate is more than a hundred a year in Oakland and in some other districts of San Francisco, Rob told me. Do you mean I’m in more danger here than I was in Iraq? No, he said. You’re white and you’re staying in an OK area. But the local newspaper was talking about the murder of a young black woman who was about to go to law school and her father’s agony, blaming himself for not moving the family to a safer district.

Vietnam is still everywhere, maybe even more so than Iraq. The bridge across the Sacramento River is called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge – not that anyone has yet apologised to the bereaved families for sending those thousands of boys to their deaths there and the poster wall which peacefully coexists with the luxury apartments at what used to be the Mission Police Station. The political art of the day is pasted there: a famous picture of the chief of Saigon’s US appointed and maintained police force executing a suspect in the street.

The chief’s head is in clear focus, encased in a television screen, the rest of it pixelated outside that. “If Vietnam were now, this is what you would see,” it said. The Vietnam war came at a time when small cameras and video technology were newly available and yet real images and opinions were coming out because the soldiers did not expect to be criticised for killing civilians and celebrating. Now the military authorities are much more cautious , much more aware of public relations and so more controlling. Along with the censorship comes self-censorship, by editors and by journalists who know what their editors want.

In California the Humvees are black and shiny, instead of beige and dusty, driven by middle aged rich white men, perhaps towing a boat, instead of a poor black teenager trying to dodge an as-yet invisible roadside bomb and I wonder if, instead of telling those kids they were going to free a population and protect their own country, the government had confessed that it was about protecting the privilege of the fat-ass fools in power, with the ancillary bonus of dumping the recently-inconvenient Saddam, if they’d admitted that arms and legs and lives were to be lost not to eradicate the Baath party but to change its leader and its name, then instead of blast walls proliferating all over Iraq there might have been walls around the gated estates of the company execs torn down all over the USA.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

I found this on Faiza's blog - it reflected what Jeremy Hinzman, one of the former US soldiers who refused to go to Iraq. said last night - I'll blog about that when I've got a spare minute and a computer.

The Marine's tale: 'We killed 30 civilians in six weeks. I felt we were
committing genocide'

By Natasha Saulnier

23 May 2004 "The Independent" --- During 12 years in the US Marines,
including three years putting new recruits through boot camp, Staff Sergeant
Jimmy Massey hardly questioned his role. But what he saw in Iraq changed
that.

"In a month and a half my platoon and I killed more than 30 civilians," Mr
Massey said. He saw bodies being desecrated and robbed, and wounded
civilians being dumped by the roadside without medical treatment. After he
told his commanding officer that he felt "we were committing genocide", he
was called a "wimp".

Mr Massey, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and depression, left
the Marines in November. Back home in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina,
he says the cause of the uprising in Iraq is that "we killed a lot of
innocent people".

His 7th Marine Weapons Company, armed with machine guns and missiles, was
one of the first into the country in March last year. "We would take over
villages and control checkpoints," he said. "My men and I would fire warning
shots at oncoming vehicles. But, if they didn't stop, we didn't have any
qualms about loading them up."

The Marines were told that Iraqis were filling ambulances with explosives,
and that soldiers were dressed as civilians, but after pouring fire into
vehicles and hearing no explosions, they started to doubt the truth of these
claims.

"Iraqi military compounds had nothing in them, except for dismantled tanks,
equipment that was barely functioning, and barracks that looked like ghost
towns," Mr Massey said.

The incident that haunts him most took place early in April, near an Iraqi
military compound five miles from Baghdad's airport. "There were
approximately 10 demonstrators near a tank," he said. "We heard a shot in
the distance and we started shooting at them. They all died except for one.
We left the bodies there.

"We noticed that there were some RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] about 200
metres away from them - they might have come from the military compound. The
demonstrators had the ability to fire at us or at the tank, but they didn't.
The survivor was hiding behind a column about 150 metres away from us. I
pointed at him and waved my weapon to tell him to get away. Half of his foot
had been cut off. He went away dragging his foot. We were all laughing and
cheering.

"Then an 18-wheeler [truck] came speeding around. We shot at it. One of the
guys jumped out. He was on fire. The driver was dead. Then a Toyota Corolla
came. We killed the driver, the other guy came out with his hands up. We
shot him too.
"A gunny from Lima Company came running and said to us: 'Hey, you just shot
that guy, but he had his hands up.' My unit, my commander and me were
relieved of our command for the rest of the day. Not more than five minutes
later, the Lima Company took up our position and shot a car with one woman
and two children. They all died."

The next day the platoon guarded a checkpoint at Baghdad Stadium. "A red Kia
Spectra sped toward us at about 45mph. We fired a warning volley above it
but the car kept coming. Then we aimed at the car and fired with full force.
The Kia came to a stop right in front of me, three of the four men shot
dead, the fourth wounded and covered in blood. We called the medics, but he
died before they arrived. That day we killed three more civilians in the
same circumstances. I talked to my captain afterwards and told him: 'It's a
bad day.' He said: 'No, it's a good day.'"

Mr Massey watched as badly injured Iraqis were repeatedly "tossed on the
side of the road without calling medics". His reaction to the event that
triggered the recent siege of Fallujah - the sight of the blackened,
mutilated bodies of four American private security men - was that "we did
the same thing to them".

Iraqis, he said, "would see us debase their dead all the time. We would be
messing around with charred bodies, kicking them out of the vehicles and
sticking cigarettes in their mouths. I also saw vehicles drive over them. It
was our job to look into the pockets of dead Iraqis to gather intelligence.
However, time and time again, I saw Marines steal gold chains, watches and
wallets full of money."

Several members of his platoon expressed concern that so many civilians were
being killed, but Mr Massey says he told them: "We've got a job to do."
Finally, however, he voiced his own doubts to his commanding officer. "I
told him I felt like we were committing genocide in Iraq, that we were doing
harm to a culture. He said nothing and walked away. I knew my career was
over." Later, he says, his superior poured abuse on him, saying, "You're a
poor leader. You're faking it. You're a conscientious objector, you're a
wimp."

After being sent back to the US, Mr Massey was offered a desk job. "I had
seven years until retirement from the Marine Corps, but I told them I didn't
want their money any more," he said. The Marines' slogan - "No better
friend, no worse enemy" - now embitters the former sergeant, who says
remorse keeps him awake at night.

"One day we would go into a city and set up roadblocks where civilian
casualties would take place, and then the next morning we would undertake a
humanitarian mission," he said. "How do we expect people who've seen their
brothers and mothers killed to turn around and welcome us with open arms?"

I received this briefing on Iraq's debt and what the recent resolutions on 'forgiving the debt' are really all about. It's the first posting to a new list and I won't post future ones but you can subscribe if you're interested. It's important information.


Assalaamu alaykum ya asdeqa,



This is a new list providing occassional news summaries relating to Saddam’s $160bn+ of debt & reparations, and updates on the Jubilee Iraq campaign working to eliminate them.



As the July transition approaches this issue is becoming increasingly urgent. You have been added to this list because (a) you have signed the Jubilee Iraq petition or (b) we have had some contact with you over the last year. If you do not want to receive these mailings (about 2-4 a month) then please use the link at the end of the email to unsubscribe, and we apologise for the inconvinience.



UN draft resolution – key points on debt & reparations

Paragraph 17: "the privileges and immunities provided in [1483] shall not apply with respect to any claim arising out of an obligation entered into by Iraq after 30 June 2004;" JI says: This revision may mean that, following a Paris Club restructuring of Saddam's debt after 30th June, the creditors may be able to sieze Iraqi oil to meet their debt payment claims. This is potentially very dangerous for Iraq.



Paragraph 18: "Welcomes the commitment of creditors, including those of the Paris Club, to identify ways to reduce substantially Iraq's sovereign debt… recognizes that the Interim Government of Iraq has the authority to conclude and implement such agreements as may be necessary in this regard." JI says: This is what we have been warning about for over six months - the transitional government will be bullied by creditors into signing a binding agreement with the Paris Club, forcing the future elected government to repay a large part of Saddam's odious debt and submit to economic conditions set by the IMF in return for recieving partial debt "forgiveness".



Paragraph 20: "Calls upon all Member States to take appropriate steps within their respective legal systems to stay for a period of 12 months from 30 June 2004 all legal and other similar proceedings before their courts or other tribunals involving claims by or against the State of Iraq." JI says: It is unclear where the UNCC reparations claims would be covered by this. If they are then this is a positive development. The Resolution does not include a reduction in reparations payments (currently 5% of all oil revenue) as requested by Hamid al-Bayati last week. The UNCC is actually meeting on 1 July to aware more reparations, and Jubilee Iraq will be gathering Iraqis from across Europe in Geneva to protest as we did in March.



French say only 50% reduction

French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated: "If we departed from the rules of the Paris Club, what would we say to those countries that did not have the same conditions. 50% [reduction for Iraq] is the Paris Club rule." The G8 summit June 8-10 in Sea Island, Georgia will cover this issue as it did last year. The IMF is expected to produce a long awaited report on the amounts of non-Paris Club debt and a debt “sustainability” analysis before the summit. There has been some speculation in the press that the US favours an 80-90% reduction, however Jubilee Iraq has had no credible confirmation of this and is highly doubtful. Our understanding is that the debate in the Paris Club is for reduction in the range 50-66%, an insufficient amount which also will leave Iraq paying more in debt than health+education, ignore the culpability of creditors in financing Saddam and will require Iraq to submit to IMF conditionality such as rapid privatisation.



Private creditors organise against Iraq

Two separate initiatives have been launched recently to lobby for the interests of private creditors who are making claims against Iraq. One involves UK-based accountants BDO Stoy Hayward and US investment bank Turan Corporation, the other Debt brokerage Exotix and investment bank GML International. The creditors, both sovereign and private are organising. Iraqis need to organise too and unite strongly around a common position which rejects Saddam’s odious debt and the reparations.



See www.jubileeiraq.org for full news updated daily.



Key documents



Saddam's Odious debts - 2 page summary handout, April 2004 (Word)

Slides - Overview of Saddam’s debts for Berlin conference (March 04, powerpoint doc)

Assessing US policy on Saddam’s debts (March 04, web or word doc)

Paying for the Executioner's Bullets: Iraqi views (Nov 03, web or pdf)



Take Action

Write to your finance minister and/or local representative demanding that all claims against Iraq are dropped as soon as a soverign government is in place, or submitted to a fair and transparent arbitration tribunal. Tell us about the responses you get.



Ma’asalama,



Justin Alexander & the Jubilee Iraq team


Monday, May 17, 2004

After the west coast tour I’d like to go to Arizona
then across to Louisiana and perhaps Florida if
there’s time, those being swing states. If anyone’s
able to organise talks there, please get in touch. If
you’re able to raise some travel expenses I can also
bring David to show his film footage from Iraq and
Falluja.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

May 10th
A Message from Ma’ali

“You are going back to England? Could you please tell Tony Blair we’ve had enough of his bombs?” I promised Ma’ali I’d pass her message on.

She and Manal and Nihad and Dalia all came to say goodbye, in the girls’ housing at Baghdad University, and Farah came to give me the book list for her project. She’s writing a thesis on the political discourse of the Iraq debates between Tony Blair and Ian Duncan Smith. I know, I know, why would you want to subject yourself to that, but she’s fascinated by their use of words to play around with the facts and people’s beliefs.

The trouble is, and it’s the trouble for a lot of students, that they can’t get the books and the journals. I would rather, of course, wave a wand and rehabilitate their libraries and give them much more comprehensive access to subscription web resources, but my wand batteries are flat so…

If anyone thinks they can get access to journals and books and British library resources which can be either photocopied, scanned and e mailed or sent in with someone who’s heading that way, let me know and I’ll send you the list. If anyone has remote access to sites like Lexis, and is willing to share their password with Farah, that would also be very helpful.

Farah also said her favourite band is Blue. This is because, in their videos, they are naked and her parents, because they’re just pop videos, let her watch them.

In the end I haven’t created as many twinnings as I hoped to. This month just gone and the next one I planned to spend following up all the contacts we made through the circus with schools, youth centres, disabled kids’ homes and so on, and that’s not been possible in the current situation, but I’ve got all the contacts that will make it possible to get them sorted over the next few months.

The humanitarian flight out of Baghdad International Airport is run by a non-profit organisation flying aid, sick people and NGO workers in and out of conflict zones. The pilots are South African, the aeroplane second hand from Qantas Link with a recorded safety announcement in Australian, the window seat and the aisle seat one and the same, with in-flight refreshments in a cold box by the door.

Nada, an Iraqi doctor working for the International Medical Corps, was leaving to Jordan for some training. She’d never flown before and the corkscrew take-off, climbing to fifteen thousand feet while still over the airfield to stay out of rocket propelled grenade range, unsettled her stomach a bit.

Waleed was in Jordan, keeping his head down for a couple of weeks after getting death threats. He didn’t know if it was because he worked for the BBC, because he said something derogatory about Saddam or because of some grudge. He was making use of the time away, working on a documentary about heavy metal across the Arab world and its relationship to devil worship.

Faris Daraneh saved me from falling apart when I rediscovered the merits of a kind, obliging travel agent over a cold, unreasonable, heartless computer. I sat next to a Welsh smuggler and father-to-be on the plane, coming back from his holidays. Salih picked me up at Heathrow airport, bought me falafels and played Basra folk music all the way into London so I wouldn’t feel homesick. People trudged about looking miserable, not realising that I’d just left behind a load of people who, not all but many of them, would give almost anything to be here, not tat they’d necessarily be any happier than those people if they were.

It feels good to walk down the road unnoticed and unshouted at and to not be invited to share intimate relations with three quarters of the men on the street. It feels good not to worry about bombs, random shooting and kidnapping and horrible to know that, for all my Iraqi friends, that’s still an everyday issue and there’s no going home and getting away from it all.

I’m going to the US to do some talks about Iraq. The dates up to the end of May are below; more information from www.weareeverywhere.org and then I think I’ll be at the 5th Grassroots Organising Conference on Iraq, in Indiana, and watch this space for whatever’s happening after that.

Amnesty International have just published a report on killings of civilians in Basra and Amara, the British controlled parts of Iraq, including those by UK forces and those by armed groups and individuals: see www.amnesty.org

I expect I’ll carry on writing from the US but I just want to thank everyone who’s been reading, everyone who’s helped make twinning links happen, given me support, sent e mails that I haven’t replied to personally, helped me financially, said prayers, made spells, meditated or otherwise sent me protection.

This is not the time to forget the Iraqi people. This is not the time to give up the struggle for peace and justice.


May 18
Los Angeles, CA- 7:30pm Flor y Canto - 3706 N. Figueroa Ave-
in North East LA -
www.florycanto.org
May 19
Santa Cruz, CA
May 20
San Francisco, CA- Anarchist Library at City College 11:30-2pm
May 21
Berkeley, CA 8:30pm - Long Haul Infoshop 3124 Shattuck Ave. at Woolsey
May 22
San Francisco, CA - 4:30pm - New College
May 24
Seattle, WA - Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave with Biotic Baking Brigade sponsored by Left Bank Books
May 25
Vancouver, BC- Spartacus Book Store benefit
May 26
Bellingham, WA - 12-1:30pm World Issues Forum - Fairhaven Auditorium, Western Washington University, 6 pm potluck - 7pm show - Alternatives Library at EcoBell, 1515 "I" St.
May 27
Olympia South Puget Sound Comm.College, noon, bookstore, then an unconfirmed evening event in downtown Oly.
May 29 Portland, OR - Liberty Hall - Black Cross medic gathering
May 28
May 28-31 (date to be confirmed soon) Port Angeles, WA at the Juan de Fuca Festival
May 29
Portland, OR Liberty Hall, 311 N. Ivy St.
To contact the editorial collective e-mail:
info@weareeverywhere.org

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

May 9th
Neo-Baathism

“The US fought the people of Falluja because it said they were Saddamis. Now they are letting the real Saddamis have their old jobs back. For a year we have been told there are no jobs, but suddenly there are 6000 jobs for Baathis.” Saleh was one of a few thousand men at a demonstration that went from Kahromana Square to Firdos Square against the re-employment of all but the highest-ranking former Baathists.

“The Governing Council decided this without consulting the people. Now the Baathis will be representing us. They started killing people before. They never did good things before. It is impossible. There are not enough jobs. They have to give the chance to new people.” Taalib was a politician in the Daawa Party, forced out by the Baathists.

Mehdi was employed by the Ministry of Information, fired along with 50 other workers because he did not join the Baath Party. “Now they are bringing the Baathis back we will face the same problem.” The same is true for teachers. Hassan graduated in 1991 and applied for a job as a teacher but was refused because he was not a Baath Party member.

“The employees who humiliated us are now Ministry of Education employees. After the war they said all the politicians and teachers and others would get our old jobs back but none of us did,” Hassan said.

The decision is only a public announcement and a larger scale advancement of a policy which has gone on since the US took over in Iraq. Adil went to apply for a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it reopened after the war and found the same Baathi still there on reception, refusing to let him in, telling him no, there were no jobs there for him.

Neo-Baathism, the process of slipping the old party back into power, was predictable. When the US and UK talked about De-Baathification they hinted at a massive operation but appeared to plan for much less. The regime figureheads were to be changed, its loyalties, but not its power base. The people were expecting more, especially the ones who lost people to the Baathists.

Adil’s daughter was pushed down the stairs when the Baathis raided his house to look for his brother and the head injury is still causing her problems. He was carrying a set of papers, black and white pictures of men murdered. One cousin died during torture. One was in a high position and was killed by them. His brothers were killed. In all thirteen of his relatives were killed for being Daawa Party members. He was not a member but was nonetheless sacked from his job as an engineer in the Electricity Ministry because of his brothers’ affiliations.

Likewise Hadi found himself pointed at in the street as a child: “There’s the boy whose brother was in the Daawa Party.” His brother was arrested in 1981, an engineer, and his body was brought to the family ten months later. For twenty years Hadi was pointed at. “Now they are trying to bring it back,” he said. Worse, Fadhil’s wife was arrested and spent seven years in jail while he was in exile in Iran, where he spent 25 years altogether. He said he came from Iran and got her out of jail with bribes.

“Why put the criminals back into power?” Jassim demanded. “You have to give rights first to the victims and their families.”

The difficulty is, as with all such regimes, that the majority of the qualified, experienced people, the people who know the workings of the ministries, were members of the Baath Party. As the men explained, you could lose your job for refusing to join the Party, teacher, engineer, journalist. Even students, even children, especially those in orphanages, faced coercion to join the Party.

Yasser was adamant that all of them, every person who joined the Party, were criminals, no matter if they only joined to get or keep a job. Not one of them, for him, ought to be given a job now. Who would teach the children, when all the teachers had to be Party members? People from the Daawa Party and other parties, he said. But they’re not qualified. It didn’t matter: better to have an unqualified person teaching the children than a qualified criminal, better anyone than a Baathi.

There’s something in that, of course. The choice in the end is a difficult one. In some former communist countries everyone who had been a member of the party was sacked. The teachers and so on were young graduates, inexperienced but quick to learn and although the transition was painful, it created a clean break from the past. The young graduates do not pick up the bad practices and corruption that have become second nature to the old ones; the old policies are not maintained by default or by habit.

But where is the justice for people who might argue that they sacrificed their personal beliefs in order to be of use, to teach children or to keep public services going by working in the ministries, putting their education and skills to use and seeing Party membership as a necessary evil, a means to a socially useful end? Should a line be drawn by age: those who were less than eighteen or less than twenty-one might be seen as redeemable?

If they are not sacked, where is the justice for the ones whose jobs were taken away all those years ago. I make no claim to have an answer. The promise of De-Baathification was held out, the promise of exorcism, and it would have caused hardship to some people who did not seem to deserve it and it would have brought healing and restoration, maybe retribution, to some people who lost those same jobs years ago.

Of course, the former Baathis who are now re-employed were not there to tell me their stories. The men there were all like Abdelhassan, sacked from the Ministry of Housing for not joining the party, fighting for ten years to get his job back and now watching it going back to the former Baathi. The men there were saying nothing had changed.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

May 8th
English Lessons

A loud scraping noise and a jolt announced the arrival of the other car in the back driver side of ours. It was gentle, as collisions go, and the deformity of the bumper was quickly rectified but the debate over whose mother had been a canine looked like taking a bit longer to settle, so we paid the driver and found another who, admittedly, didn’t know the way but at least he was moving.

The highway towards the university is partly on a flyover which affords a perfect view of the layers of smog that envelop the city. For a lot of the way the road was quiet, which is not common. “I hope there’s not another Fatwa,” Anna said, referring to the order not long ago from Al-Sadr that students should not go into university.

The young women were all immaculately dressed, not a hair astray between them, let alone an eyebrow, black lines around their eyes, lips painted. This is the only place they get to meet up with their friends, the most likely place to meet a future husband, so apparently it’s worth getting up at stupid o’clock and making the kind of effort I and my friends only used to make for a big night out. I’m sure the wearing of hijabs on campus is less down to conservatism or religious belief than the only way out of hours of tortuous hair styling.

Anna teaches English conversation to the final year students at Baghdad University, who wanted to talk to someone with a British accent and I wanted to talk to them about university twinning links. Because it’s all over the news here the same as everywhere else and because I introduced myself as a clown and trainee lawyer, the topic of conversation moved quickly onto the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The other students muttered, “Shame,” as Mohammed mentioned it. “There is a contradiction,” someone said, “between what they do and what they say they will do.” Heba said her neighbour’s house had been raided one night and three men, the father and two sons, were taken away. That was seven months ago; two have been freed and one is still detained. The reason given for their arrest, according to Heba, was “talking loudly against the Americans”.

Lots of the students nodded at her account. Mugher’s house was raided too, on false information, he said: someone told the Americans that there were guns in their house. Most of them had heard of the Geneva Conventions, although few knew anything about what they were, and wanted to know how one went about acquiring any rights under them. Ahmed explained the Conventions as, “Some informations about the rights of presidents,” an indication, perhaps, of how limited their use has been in Iraq.

I explained about the different Conventions, the essence of the protections they contain and the problem of enforcement, that there is no court which can uphold them against a powerful country, particularly one which chooses to exempt itself from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Of course, the prisoners in Abu Ghraib are not all classified as Prisoners of War because most were not taken in anything resembling a combat situation.

A young woman called Hana said it’s because they are Muslim. She listed Bosnia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya as places where Muslims are abused either by or with the complicity of the US and UK. Someone else pointed out that the people of Central America have also suffered abuse and torture at the hands of the CIA, along with plenty of other non-Muslim countries.

The belief that religious bigotry is behind all of this runs deep, but we moved on to how power corrupts: power in the hands of prison guards, in the hands of a single and unassailable national leader or in the hands of one all-powerful country. Anna’s family is from Maryland, where several of the guards that have so far been exposed are from. Some of them worked in the big prison there before going to Iraq with the Reserves. She said people are wondering, if this goes on in an Iraqi prison, whether the same thing isn’t happening in Maryland too.

The worst thing, though, the students agreed, was the arrest of women. They said the same as I have heard from a lot of other places, that women are often arrested if the wanted man can’t be found, just like Saddam used to do. Lamia explained, “The families send messages to the women inside the jails to tell them to kill themselves, or not to come home, because they are a disgrace to the family.”

I asked why but she was embarrassed to tell me. Why, if they’re wrongly arrested, is it any shame on her or her family?

“Because they think it is certain that bad things have been done to them in prison,” Haythem said.

“They expect that the woman was raped in the prison and that is a disgrace to the family because they were unfaithful to the husband or they are not virgins anymore. It’s not if it was her fault, but it will be her disgrace,” Mohammed said. The other students looked away. This, more than anything, was too horrible to talk about.

Anna had to tell them about their final test, next week. There was one a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by a fine array of excuses for not turning up. “There was a bomb at the end of my street,” “The highway was blocked by the Americans” and “It was my wedding” were my personal favourites.

Shayma said her new husband heard of her by reputation and came to ask the family for her hand in marriage. The family agreed and the couple met, just once before getting engaged. The engagement lasted eight months and they were married a couple of weeks ago, a couple of weeks before her university finals.

All the girls said they want to get married. “Of course.” It’s not even seen as optional. It’s like asking whether they want to graduate. “Your family will choose your husband,” Beyda explained. “It could be someone you chose, who went to your family to ask them. You have the chance to say no to the man they suggest, but you don’t want to risk that no one else will want you.”

I’ve heard similar things from other women: one friend was married at nineteen to a man she had ‘a little affection’ for and her sister at 27 to a man she didn’t love at all, each of them fearing that if they passed up this chance they might not get another. After a small conference the girls thought perhaps about half of the marriages were happy. Once you were married, though, you couldn’t go out to work. There are, of course, married women who work, but they said it would be expected of them that they stay at home.

The university is not obviously filled with radicalism and student politics. Like most people in Iraq, students have been pounded with politics for enough years to want to avoid them. But still you can see the boundaries of society being pushed on and around the campus. There were young women in knee length skirts and figure hugging clothes that you rarely see elsewhere, perhaps a reflection of the relative safety of the campuses, though a lot of them were still wearing hijabs, and young men and women are able to meet and talk in a way that’s unusual outside.

Equally, though, there were women in full abayas, hijabs and black gloves, with their normal clothes underneath. There was no electricity in all the time I was in the university, which meant no fans and certainly no air conditioning. Papers and files flapped back and forth like giant butterfly wings. Exams must be unbearable in this.

At the end there was a birthday party. Taif, a student on the MA course, won’t be 23 until July, but she wouldn’t be able to invite both male and female friends to her house for a party. This, the end of the academic year, was as close to her birthday as she could celebrate with the whole group. Even in the university Taif stands out, with curly reddish brown hair, a bright yellow patterned skirt, short sleeves and loud, rapid speech in accented but excellent English.

It said “Westlife” on the classroom door, probably the most popular band among young Iraqis, along with Backstreet Boys and N-Sync. Interestingly, the same was true last February, Iraqi youth being apparently less fickle than their British counterparts.

I left laden with e mail addresses, Mohammed requesting that I arrange for Iraqi teachers to come to England to learn because “they don’t know anything.” Ali caught up with me to say, “Some of the students in this class are Shia and some are Sunni and they are sorry that the old regime has gone because they are criminals. Believe me.” Finally Asmaa took my hand and said, “Please, when you go, tell people all that you’ve seen here. Tell them everything that’s happening to us.”

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Please note that the e mail address wildthing@burntmail.com will stop working VERY soon and use wildthing@riseup.net instead.

May 6th
Bombs and Goodbyes

I’ve moved down the street. This has mainly advantages but one notable disadvantage in that I’m a couple of hundred metres closer to “The Green Zone”, as in “They’re bombing the…” The Green Zone, for those who have never needed to know, is the heavily fortified bit which most of the decision makers and foreign workers in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never leave because of a theory that it’s somehow more dangerous to be on the streets of Baghdad than walled into the most heavily attacked part of it.

Sure enough, first thing in the morning there was a car bomb just outside it. Another advantage of the new apartment is that there’s a generator right outside my window, powering a roaring air conditioner. The Fourteenth of July Bridge provides access from Abu Nawas Street, across the Tigris, and soldiers manning the checkpoint approach the cars waiting to cross. It seems the soldier came as usual to look in the car before it reached the checkpoint and the driver detonated it, killing himself, the soldier and six other Iraqis.

In Falluja they are still finding bodies, bodies in the rubble of the houses crushed by aerial bombing by the US in Al-Julan, Hay Askeri and Shuhada, bodies buried in gardens, bodies being brought to the football fields turned into cemeteries. There are some very tiny graves. There are people still missing. The 600-deaths estimate put out by most of the media seems on the low side.

If the killings of four US mercenaries were the reason for the attack on Falluja then the ratio is at least 150 Iraqis to one American, maybe 250. From the other side, the Iraqi side, the resistance side, the Iraqi life is worth more. If the killings of eighteen Fallujans shortly before the killings of the mercenaries were the spark for the latter then one American life is worth just four and a half Iraqis, a little less than the six-to-one of the car bombing.

There is, of course, a difference between armed self-defence when your town is being invaded, like Falluja, and setting off bombs in the street but in the end it comes down to this: there has been enough killing. There has been too much killing.

The US military says it will begin patrols through the town again on May 10th. The many people of Falluja that I’ve talked to say they can never accept US troops on their streets again after all they’ve done. They say the Mujahedin are still there, are waiting, will kill them if they try to re-enter the town. Perhaps the US command is hoping that, having gone home after so long away, people will have lost their will to go through it all again and will beg their sons and brothers and fathers not to fight anymore, leaving the troops an unhindered passage back into the town.

There’s already been a massacre in Falluja, a living town turned into a desert of humanity where to step outside to look for food and water or to flee for safety was to risk death from a US gunman on top of the next building, where young men died fighting, in uniforms and in tracksuit pants and trainers. With every death, the journey back gets longer. There doesn’t need to be any more.

Meanwhile we’ve been trying to get into Najaf and Kerbala, where Sattar is setting up field hospitals to help deal with the sick and the expected and actual casualties. He’s a civil engineer, now running a driving company since the sanctions and the Baathists combined to eradicate the possibility of work that he was qualified for. During the war, while looking for some neighbours in the hospitals, he realised that hundreds of people needed help and volunteered. In Najaf the troops closed down the main hospital, which houses almost two thirds of the 950 or so beds the city has.

The extra difficulty in Najaf – apart from the obvious one of US troops preparing to attack the city - is the increasing number of factions involved. The various leaders are starting to publicly express disagreement and people in the town, dependent on the pilgrim trade for their income, are none too impressed with the economic effects of the stand off. Again every step, every fracture created, is one bit further from peace.

That all this is going on makes it hard to leave, that and the fact that I love this place and quite a few of the people in it, but I’m going to, in a few days, as I knew I’d have to one day. It’s impossible to get the Boomchucka Bus going at the moment – because of the security problems and the heat, not as a result of any kind of engine problems – and it’s already hotter than the hottest summer day in Britain and I’m too tired to want to do anything.

I went to say goodbye to the boys. Six months ago they were filthy, glue addicted, violent, with no self-esteem at all, living on the streets around Abu Nawas and Baba Sherji, the ones who were rejected by all the new orphanages setting up because of their anti-social behaviour or who couldn’t settle in one and returned to the streets. Nahoko used to wash their clothes and feed them. Donna and Uzma and some others came and set up a shelter for them in a basement which provided a stepping stone for most of them to move on into long term accommodation in an orphanage run by the Kurdish Children’s Fund.

Now Aakan is back with his mum and has been for a few weeks. Maybe he’ll end up back at the house for a few more spells, respite or space or something, but they’re working on it. A few of the older ones have got jobs a few hours a week and seven are going to school, including Ahmed and Laith, who Imad and I used to play counting games with on Abu Nawas, when they weren’t dazed on solvents. You couldn’t have imagined them going to school then, or when the circus first worked with them in January.

Nothing’s changed at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Yasser and Omar and Alaa pick up more and more English each time I see them: Alaa’s most-used words seem to be, “What are you doing?” You could set up a balloon animal factory in their room and none of them would get tired of it. Omar likes trying to pump them up but hasn’t quite got the strength or co-ordination to push the air in. Ilyas is still singing “Oh Donna” over and over again. Probably we ought to have taught her another song for the sake of variety. Some Australian doctors are going to give Noor some prosthetic limbs.

I know there are issues about Mother T herself but the nuns and volunteers there are good people and it’s the best place I’ve seen here for disabled kids. They asked us if we can get some child-sized exercise bikes. Most of the kids can’t walk and there’s no way for them to get any exercise. Not being the engineering type, I thought we could just get a small bike and put it on a stand instead of wheels. Alas it’s not quite so simple because the front wheel needs some resistance, so we’re going to show the diagram to the welders next door and see what they can do.

A few things have changed at the camp at Shuala. There’s been no aid at all for a month, partly because most of what was available went to Falluja and partly because most of the international organisations had to pull out for security reasons. There are no jobs for the same reasons – the security problems and the fighting. Even we are afraid to go out, they said, even the Iraqis. Wasn’t I afraid to go out?

The women scolded me for staying away so long, asked where I’d been. “The children miss you. They’re always shouting ‘Boomchucka’ and asking when you’re coming.” I apologised, from under a heap of children but still it was good for the soul of a very tired clown.

Aala explained, unprompted, about Falluja as the kids played with the drawing things I brought, Abdullah covered in felt tip ink. The old Iraqi flag features a lot in kids’ pictures lately, since the new flag was introduced, Shia and Sunni alike. These are the ones I’ll miss most, the tribe of girls and Abdullah and Abbas who have become more and more bold and boisterous over the months, rediscovered the clowns within themselves, and Marwa, the beautiful, clever one, now twelve, who wants to be a doctor but hasn’t been to school for over a year.

Abu Ahmed has been ousted as representative of the camp and Abu Bassim elected to replace him. Beyda rolled her eyes as Abu Ahmed explained the conspiracy behind his removal and, when he was gone, everyone else explained the conspiracy for which he was removed. Mistrust is virulent. Both the conspiracies and the conspiracy theories are products partly of the love of intrigue combined with a lack of other entertainment and partly of the sores of years of living with surveillance and corruption.

Between them they’ve raised the money to run some more electricity cables from the nearby pylons into the camp and Saida wanted to know if I could bring them fans to keep the mosquitoes off at night. Of course I couldn’t, but I did say I’d try to find an aid agency that could, and one that could pay for her operation as well as carrying on looking for one that could provide a doctor and build the school.

We gossiped. Beyda grumbled, understandably, about her husband’s preference for his other wife. “He only comes to me to say hello and then he goes to her. I’ve only got one daughter.” But her sister Fadma, who got married in January, is pregnant now, due in November. Fadma was engaged for five years before she and Ali could afford to get married.

Ali was called up to the army when he was eighteen, as usual. He and his friends turned up for training but weren’t given proper uniforms, food or wages. The money wasn’t enough to support the two young nieces and other family members he was responsible for supporting, so after his first month he paid off an officer to give him false papers and cover for him and didn’t return from leave.

“I carried on working, using the false papers, until I was caught at a checkpoint and I was put in prison for a year in Kirkuk, where my unit was based. When I was released I was returned to my unit and I did the same again but after that whenever I was caught I paid a bribe to the police who caught me, so I didn’t go back to jail again. When the war happened all that was over, but Bush has betrayed us again.”

Thursday, May 06, 2004

May 5th
The Not-Quite News About Prisons

The thing about prison is that you’re locked away. No one can see you unless they’re let in or you’re let out. Suddenly – and I am relieved that the world knows about it at last – the abuse of prisoners in Iraq has become partly visible. The Photos made news in a way that countless Iraqi people’s stories did not.

The Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) has been taking statements and testimonies from released detainees and their relatives for months – www.cpt.org – as has an awesome Italian woman called Paola Gasparoli and there are several Iraqi human rights organisations working on individual cases. And yes, they do also work on cases relating to the old government.

The pictures which have been published cause outrage and rightly so but they are the tip of the iceberg.

Women are often detained because their husbands are wanted. There have been many reports of them being kept naked. There have also been a lot of women detained because they were prostitutes used by high-ranking officials of the old leadership. A woman human rights worker from one of the major organisations working on detainee issues disappeared into a US prison for two months.

It is known that many women have been detained, including over a dozen bank clerks, to force them to pay for the discrepancy between the genuine currency handed in and that given out in the January changeover. They were told to pay out new currency for all notes handed in, even suspect ones, because there was no way of verifying which were real. But to be imprisoned is deeply shameful for a woman, mainly because it is assumed that she will have been raped, so most are unwilling to talk about what happened, even confidentially and there is as a result very little information about women detainees.

One prisoner told CPT about hearing rumours of a mass grave under the prison. He said that he and fellow prisoners dug under their tent and found recently dead bodies a few feet down. There were stories, independently back up by various former detainees, of demonstrations against conditions in the camp being brutally suppressed by soldiers and another man reported one incident where the prisoners were shouting “Freedom” and soldiers opened fire, killing four men and injuring three.

There are reports in the cases known to me, to CPT and to the local human rights organisations of the following:

Extrajudicial executions during a raid which turned out to be on the wrong house.
Violent arrests of children from their school.
A prisoner having his toenail being pried off by guards.
Prisoners being forced to swallow liquid.
Psychological torture: being left blindfolded in an open air passage, wit a tank driving towards them so they thought they would be run over and killed.
A minor reported having his buttocks held apart by soldiers who were kicking his anus.

The following appear routinely throughout the statements of detainees and their families:

Beating and kicking of prisoners and of residents during house raids; soldiers and guard treading on backs and heads
Guns being pointed at children or held to their heads during raids.
Denial of water
Denial of food or very low quantities and poor quality of food, sometimes including pork which is forbidden for Muslims.
Denial of blankets, shade or air conditioning.
Excessive chemicals being added to water so it is dangerous to drink.
Denial of washing and toilet facilities, both within the prison camps and during long road transfers.
Hands being tied behind the back for prolonged periods, including when this prevents the prisoners from drinking water.
Hands being tied so tightly that the arms swell.
Denial of medical attention or being taken to a military ‘doctor’ who kicks and otherwise abuses or else ignores and refuses to examine the prisoner.
Overcrowding of tents so that there is not enough room to lie down to sleep.
Prisoners being forced to kneel or squat all day and to remain in the sun all day in temperatures of up to 120 degrees F.
Detention of minors.
Individuals being kept for their entire detention in only underwear or nightwear, having been refused the chance to get dressed when arrested at night, sometimes suffering severe sunburn as a result.
Severe verbal abuse.
Theft of money and jewellery by US soldiers during the raid.
Failure to return documentation, IDs, passports and other personal property that was with the prisoner when detained.
Use of Kuwaiti military as translators and prison guards, who are apparently particularly aggressive with Iraqi detainees, believing that they are taking revenge for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Additionally there is no provision for detainees to be given access to legal advice or representation. From arrest, it can take weeks even to be processed. There is limited provision for family visits and relatives have to wait at prison gates with the tag number of the prisoner. Most are told to return in several weeks or months.

It may be impossible for the family to find out the tag number, because names are transliterated into English and stored in a computer. There is no standardised transliteration system for Arabic into English and a tiny difference in the spelling of a name could make it impossible to trace the prisoner, leaving the family uncertain which jail the person is in or even whether he is still alive and lost in the system somewhere.

There is a huge amount of evidence that US forces are acting on false information and ‘malicious tips’ which they do not bother to investigate or verify before carrying out raids and arrests. Accusations include harbouring wanted members of the old regime who had in fact already been arrested, being a member of the Fedayeen or trafficking weapons, with one man who had been repeatedly tortured by the Baathists being jailed for being a Baathist.

The fact that the ‘information’ is false is evidenced by the fact that so many are released without any charges or evidence being brought against them. Of 63 former or current detainees interviewed by CPT members, not one was convicted of anything. Unfortunately, because the review board meets so irregularly, it can take many months before the release without charge is effected.

Mass arrests also occur, with soldiers seizing every man in a given area after an incident, which may have involved only one or two individuals, or during a raid. In some cases the raid has been on the wrong house and the soldiers have admitted the mistake but nonetheless arrested the young men in the house.

The detentions often mean the loss of the family’s only earner and also the only driver, so that children can’t get to school, and in some cases loss of the family home if they can’t pay the rent. There are indications that some families have managed to retrieve individuals from the prisons by way of bribes to people working with the coalition forces. Others say they would gladly pay if they could find someone reliable to give money to. Depression is ubiquitous among the prisoners and some families report severe behavioural changes following release.

This information relates to US prisons. I’m sorry that I haven’t got any for the British troops in the south. There are one or two local human rights groups down there but fewer international activists and fewer journalists. The pressure needs to be kept up so the detainees don’t just disappear again. The governments involved have to be pressed for more information and to take responsibility for and control of their troops.

Lawyers acting for the US soldiers charged are claiming that it was a system wide problem and their clients are not responsible because they weren’t given clear guidelines. Do you really need a guideline to know you’re not meant to beat, kick and sexually abuse a prisoner? But their individual guilt shouldn’t be used to absolve those higher up the system of theirs.

The commanders are responsible, right to the top of the military, right to the political leadership, the ministers and secretaries of state whose job it was to provide clear rules, supervision, protections, to know what was going on and to get rid of individuals responsible. They won’t take that responsibility of their own accord. It’s left to us to persuade them.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A Letter from the Pentagon and Ray

A letter was forwarded to me from some people asking what I thought. It’s a letter from Ray Reynolds, a medic in the Iowa Army National Guard, serving in Iraq, complaining about the “very poor job” the media has made of “covering everything that has happened.” It proceeds to give a “list of the things that has happened in Iraq recently” and asks recipients to pass it on to their friends so they “can rest at night knowing something is happening in Iraq that is noteworthy.”

It’s strongly reminiscent of an e mail that went round a few months ago with the subject line, “The Good News”, containing excerpts from a speech by Rumsfeld or Powell or one of those, each sentence beginning with, “Since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1st…” followed by some benefit that had supposedly accrued to the Iraqi people in the aftermath of that event.

It’s also strongly reminiscent of the “letters” that started going around soon after that declaration, which were forwarded over the internet and published on the front pages of local newspapers in the signatories’ home towns, that were later exposed as having been commissioned, often written, by commanding officers. In many cases the soldier concerned had only signed the bottom of a standard letter.

That’s not to say this medic didn’t write the letter himself to accompany the Pentagon’s list of good things. I don’t know. But at the end he challenges “anyone, anywhere, to dispute me on these facts.” Alright then. I will. I’ll start with the stuff about schools, because I’ve been spending a bit of time in schools with the circus and the twinning project.

Firstly this:

>* Girls are allowed to attend school.

Yes. Girls are allowed to attend school. And the point is what? Girls were also allowed to attend school before the war, and college and university. Young women studied for masters degrees and PhDs and went on into good jobs. For sure, in some rural areas, girls left school early and still do – a cultural issue which isn’t going to be quickly changed, but in the cities and towns, girls have been going to school for decades. The statement is not false: I would not challenge Ray on the fact that girls are allowed to go to school, but it seems intended to imply that this is something new since the war and that appears to me dishonest.

>* School attendance is up 80% from levels before the war.

I don’t have official figures but the teachers in the schools I spent time in said that a lot of children, especially girls, have dropped out of school since the war because of the security problems with both the journey to school and the schools themselves. Poverty and the need for the children to contribute to the family’s income and psychological problems associated with trauma and stress are also raising the drop out rate according to several head teachers around the country.

I don’t know which “levels before the war” Ray is referring to. Perhaps he means the day before the war, when the schools closed down and just a few kids went to say goodbye to each other, not knowing how long it would be before they could go back. Education was free and compulsory before the war, but since the sanctions were imposed, that was not the reality as children started to drop out because of poverty.

An Iraqi friend and his English wife once described to me the changes in Iraq from the nationalisation of the oil industry which funded the social programmes like education as well as the war wit Iran and the building of Saddam’s palaces, when children started wearing shoes and going to school, stopped begging on the streets, up to the sanctions, where the children stopped going to school and started begging, barefoot, on the streets again.

Still I would like to see the evidence that says school attendance is up, let alone by such an enormous proportion, from any genuine level before the war.

>* Over 1,500 schools have been renovated and rid of the weapons stored there so education can occur.
Is there any evidence that there were weapons stored in those schools?

The renovation of schools has been one of the big abuses of Iraqi “reconstruction money”. A lot of contracts have gone to Bechtel, a multinational company linked to the US government. It takes contracts commonly in the region of $75,000 and immediately subcontracts for two thirds or three quarters of that price, creaming off a few thousand dollars for no work whatsoever. The sub contractor then subcontracts again and the work is eventually done for a fraction of the money, often poorly.

A friend in Nasariya explained that at a local school the new fence fell down, injuring two girls, soon after the “renovation”, which mainly consisted of painting the walls, with poor quality paint and brushes so there were bristles stuck to the walls.

Among the schools I worked in with the circus there was barely one with windows intact, working toilets and plumbing, adequate classroom furniture and so on. A lot of them were in poor areas where the help would be most needed but where it has been least given.
>* Textbooks that don't mention Saddam are in the schools for the first
time in 30 years.

The new curriculum has not yet been written. There was an intention to reprint the old text books with the Saddam pictures removed and a few offending pages taken out but there were problems with the awarding of the contracts and in fact most of the contracts were never awarded. Consequently teachers all over the country are still using the remaining old textbooks, with the Saddam pictures and unwanted pages torn out. There are not enough text books to go around so the kids are sharing between too many and there are no other teaching materials, at least in the many schools I’ve been in, so all the teachers can do is lecture the children.
> >* The port of Uhm Qasar was renovated so grain can be off-loaded from
ships faster.

… by SSA Marine, formerly Stevedoring Services of America, yet another US company brought in to do work which could be given to Iraqi companies. The company has a terrible record on labour rights and that’s been reflected in the experience of Iraqis working at the port, with the management making strenuous efforts to keep out the press and international organisations and suppressing unionisation among the dock workers in breach of international labour law and uman rights conventions.

> >* 100% of the hospitals are open and fully staffed, compared to 35% before the war.

I’m sorry but this is just not true. I’ve no idea what proportion of hospitals were open before the war. Many were not fully staffed, because under the sanctions there was too little cash in the economy to pay public sector workers.

Many hospitals are still short of qualified nurses because most of the nurses prior to the 1991 war were foreigners, who left before that war and didn’t return because under the sanctions they couldn’t earn a proper wage.

Hospitals are operating without enough cleaners, sometimes one cleaner for two floors, so the patients’ relatives are helping to clean the floors and jobs like disinfecting the curtains don’t get done at all.

There aren’t enough senior doctors so in a lot of hospitals, junior doctors are working without proper supervision, having to contact seniors by telephone for advice and opinions, which have to be delivered without actual contact with the patient.

As well, doctors are having to rely on international aid agencies to provide them with a lot of the medicines they need because the Ministry of Health and the US administration is failing to adequately supply them with medicines and equipment.

In addition, in areas of conflict, US and other troops have been closing down civilian hospitals. This happened in Sadr City / Thawra, in Falluja, in Najaf. I got a message yesterday that the main hospital in Najaf has been closed down by US troops, from one of the doctors down there, who said the main hospital has 600 beds, and all the rest of Najaf’s hospitals have a combined total of 350. I can’t explain this. Even if they claim they fear the hospital will be used by fighters, they cannot legally or morally close down the civilian hospital.

In addition to this apparent collective punishment through the hospitals, US soldiers have been shooting at civilian ambulances. There are many many testimonies from doctors who were working in ambulances that this happened and I know it to be true because it also happened to me when I was working in an ambulance.

> >* Students are taught field sanitation and hand washing techniques to prevent the spread of germs.
> >* Over 400,000 kids have up-to-date immunizations.

I’m not clear what the Pentagon and Ray are trying to imply here. I’m sure the students are taught about health issues and given vaccinations, but these things happened before the war as well. Unicef had a huge immunisation programme running before the war, going door to door, centred on the public health centres. They use this unclear phrasing wich states what the current situation is but gives no indication as to what change this represents from life in the months and years before the war, never mind before the sanctions. It also gives no indication of who is making the improvement if any is claimed: who is vaccinating the children? The Ministry of Health, or international aid agencies?

> >* Sewer and water lines are installed in every major city.

Again, it’s not clear how this has changed. Prior to the sanctions, sewer and water systems were commonplace. Many of the pipes were damaged in the 1991 war and couldn’t be replaced for years because the pipes were put on hold by the sanctions committee of the Security Council, lest the sewage pipes should be turned into the fabled “supergun”. Pardon me, but there’s only one thing you can fire out of a sewage pipe.

Not far from where I live, there is a lake of sewage in the street. This doesn’t go away even when it hasn’t rained for weeks, but when it does rain, sewage flows in the street all over the place. I couldn’t comment with any confidence on the comparative capacity now and at the undefined period ‘before the war’ as below…

> >Over 4.5 million people have clean drinking water for the first time ever in Iraq.
>* The country now receives 2 times the electrical power it did before the war.

…but I can say with certainty that the electricity is still erratic and has been for the last 6 months since I got back here. It’s hot now and the power is on for two or three hours at a time, off as much as it is on, cut without warning and with no real pattern that enables us to plan things around the lights and air conditioning. When we haven’t got electricity, some of the time we don’t have running water either.

A big part of the problem is that the power plants were built by French and Russian companies and their control as now been handed to US companies which are not allowed to buy replacement parts from those countries, as a punishment for their refusal to join in the war. That alone hampers the efficiency of the power generators. It seems the agenda is to sow that the current plants can’t be repaired and that US companies will have to be contracted to build new ones.

See Dahr Jamail’s report on Bechtel and water issues on Public Citizen, a Washington based website or get the link from the start of his blog, via www.newstandardnews.net

> >* Over 400,000 people have telephones for the first time ever

Oh yes. The telephones. A lot of the landline network is still not functioning after all the exchanges were bombed during the war. Phones were allowed and common before the war, but mobiles and satellite phones were not. The mobile phone network now exists, although it’s hopeless: it’s frequently impossible to make or receive calls, sometimes for hours on end. A lot of international calls just never get through at all. The cost of phones and lines are out of range for most Iraqis and credit can only be bought in dollars, not Iraqi Dinars.

The Iraqnas only work in Baghdad, not even on the outskirts and the phones on the southern networks only work in their respective areas, so if you travel around the country you either can’t use your phone or you have to have another one for the other network. Within each area there’s a monopoly, so there’s no way to have a phone if you want to boycott the overpriced and incompetent network you’re on.
> >* Over 60,000 police are patrolling the streets.
> >* Over 100,000 Iraqi civil defense police are securing the country.
>Over 80,000 Iraqi soldiers are patrolling the streets side by side with US soldiers.

Around forty percent of the new army has quit, deserted, refused to fight or taken action against the US, according to one of the US army’s own spokespeople. I wouldn’t dispute the number of ICD police, but “securing the country” is an interesting way to describe what they’re doing. That’s not to question their commitment, but the country is a very long way from “secure”. The Iraqi Police in my experience are very friendly, polite people who drive around in fours and fives in pick ups and avoid trouble whenever they can because they haven’t got adequate back up.

Another big security problem is the impossibility of telling a genuine checkpoint from a fake one. The Iraqi police, ICDC and army haven't been properly equipped so that although the IPs all wear the same blue shirts and armbands, they’re often out in jeans and trainers. Likewise the ICDC wear combat uniforms and whatever shoes they choose. One of the main ways international aid agencies are advised to tell a fake checkpoint is by the uniforms – it’s easy enough to fake an armband, but standardised boots, ideally imported and difficult to get in-country, are much harder to copy or steal. This has been the cause of a lot of thefts.

>* An interim constitution has been signed.

The constitution, the Governing Council, the new flag are almost universally unpopular, the latter viewed as a superficial irrelevance when so many needs remain unfulfilled. The Governing Council are seen as puppets, “here for the prizes,” corrupt, a criminal, in Chalabi’s case, even among people who don’t oppose the occupation per se.

As well, people are beginning to realise that “power” is not to be handed over to them at the end of June, so the Pentagon and Ray are on thin ice when they try to flag things like the interim constitution as a political achievement. Many Iraqi people are concerned that the form of federalism now created (rather than the idea of federalism itself) exacerbates divisions and sets up problems for the future.

> >* Elections are taking place in every major city, and city councils are in place.

But the fact remains that the bodies elected are largely without power and will continue to be so even after the “power handover”. Ask most people what they want, what they need, and it’s not elections but security. The CPA funds certain activities and one of their favourites is “democratisation”. To this end they’ve opened several Women’s Centres which teach democratisation, i.e. they tell women why it’s important for them to vote. They’ve found little favour among the Iraqi women because it’s just not a priority.

>* The country had its first 2 billion barrel export of oil in August.

Hooray!!

To quote someone I met, returning to his home in Falluja after several weeks seeking refuge in Baghdad from the fighting, “Let them take our oil. Let them take it and go and leave us in peace. Just let us live in peace.”

Ray concludes by telling readers not to believe for a second that these people don’t want US troops here. I’m unclear which people he’s referring to. Don’t believe for a second that there’s a unanimous Iraqi opinion. But a significant development, I think it’s fair to call it an ongoing trend, is the alienation of those who were and should be the US’s main Iraqi allies, those who were most brutalised by Saddam. The killing of civilians in Sadr City / Thawra, the frequent house raids, the closure of the hospital have turned the area, which at least to some extent welcomed the US troops, into “the black zone”.

Ray says he has met many, many Iraqi people who want the troops there. I have met many, many who don’t and a few who do and a whole spectrum in between. Part of the problem that has been created by the US administration here is that decisions are made by people who don’t walk the streets of Iraq. The majority of the foreigners working in the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) don’t leave the boundaries of the “Green Zone”. Many of those making the policy in the education sector have never visited an Iraqi school, for instance.

I’ve had e mails from soldiers serving in Iraq who never get to leave their bases or the Green Zone, who read my writing for information about what’s happening beyond their bases, and fair play to them for wanting to know, because there are others who are not interested at all. I had another e mail, very similar to this one, a few months ago, with a little introduction from whoever forwarded the e mail to whoever forwarded it to me, saying “This guy seems to have a pretty good handle on things…” and proceeded to quote meaningless figures about electricity generation that contributed nothing at all to the reader’s understanding how ow life was for ordinary Iraqis.

Finally Ray says he is “very disgusted by the way this period of rebuilding has been portrayed” in the media. Of course we would all like to see our own view on things put forward, me included. We would all like to be told what we want to hear. But I’ll tell you a story that illustrates a bit how the media works here.

Just after I came back from Falluja I was invited by a friend who works with CNN to come out with them for something. They’d been more or less cooped up in their hotel / bureau for weeks. Their only reports from Falluja were coming from reporters embedded with the military, so their footage was literally from the point of view of the US soldiers, usually shot over one of their shoulders. Fair enough, it was hard to get into Falluja and their stringers in the town had fled with their families or were otherwise indisposed – maybe pinned in their homes like the rest of the civilians left in the town.

So we interviewed the man from the Red Crescent and then headed out to meet some families who had fled Falluja and were squatting a half-completed building. On the way through Shuala, within sight of the long term squatter camp that the circus worked in regularly, there was a burnt out military vehicle at the roadside. It had been there a while. It wasn’t smoking, had been comprehensively stripped, probably happened during the fighting in Shuala before my first trip to Falluja, more than a week earlier.

Still the security man ordered the driver to turn the car around and go back to the Red Crescent. They weren’t staying there. Why not, I asked. Wasn’t that enough for me, he demanded. The burnt out vehicle hadn’t even registered with me, just part of the scenery, an every day sight. What was it going to do? Jump up and chase us? I suppose that’s why he’s CNN’s security adviser and I’m not – one of the reasons anyway. So we went back to the Red Crescent and nothing happened in Iraq that day, not in the media anyway.

I know, I know, it’s different if you’re a multinational corporation with insurance premiums to pay and pension obligations and if you’re making decisions on safety on someone else’s behalf and I know, because I cuddled his friends for hours, that CNN have already lost someone in this conflict. But another Iraqi friend who works for the BBC has been frustrated that the correspondents were barely leaving their compound, waiting for Reuters to come back and tell them where the explosion was.

That’s before you even start on that dread dictator, The News Agenda. During the war, the first house bombed was a big story, the second a bit of a story and the third and the fiftieth and the hundred-and-eighth unreported and unseen. It’s the same now. As soon as something becomes commonplace, it’s not news, however appalling.

Only now, when the world has seen The Photos, do the big networks want to hear about the thousands of stories the Christian Peace Team and others have recorded from former detainees who were abused and tortured by US prison staff in Abu Ghraib and the airport, though those stories have been publicly available for months. Likewise there were dozens of doctors coming out of Falluja with stories like mine about US soldiers shooting at their ambulances but it was only when a white English woman told the story that it became ‘news’.

So yeah, like you, Ray, I’ve got some issues with the way the situation in Iraq has been reported, with the unquestioning acceptance of the US government and Pentagon line by most of the US media and the acquiescence of too much of the UK media in the equivalent British government versions of events.

And Ray, if you want to discuss the situation of ordinary people in Iraq, I’m happy to talk about that with you.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

May 2nd
Going Home

There is life, again, on the streets of Falluja. There are hugs, there are greetings, there are children watching the town refill from gateways that look out onto the roads where we ran and rode with stretchers and bodies and terrified families. Boys waved at each other across rooves that have been, for the last month, the preserve of snipers. The patchwork of territories and no man’s lands is home again.

On the outskirts of Baghdad on Saturday afternoon a US army fuel tanker was burning furiously and at the checkpoint on the main highway beside the Hay Askeri [Military Quarter] district of Falluja, US soldiers were turning away an exhausted looking family crammed into a Kia, a small Chinese made minibus. Thus far you might not notice anything has changed. Their orders, in the last couple of minutes, were not to let the press in either. Gunfire sounded. They said there were still snipers over there, indicating the buildings of Hay Askeri, couldn’t say whether theirs or the Mujahedin’s.

The Iraqi soldiers wearing armbands of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps were new though, in camouflage uniforms and assorted shoes. Part of the security problem in the last year has been that the Coalition hasn’t properly equipped the Iraqi Police and army. It’s common to see the police in blue shirts, IP arm bands and their ordinary jeans and trainers, which makes it hard to tell a genuine checkpoint from an Ali Baba one.

The checkpoint was, apparently arbitrarily, only letting through 200 families in a day, of around 8000 thought to have left, so the thin dusty back roads that were our way in and out during the fighting were the main route for the returners. Saad came through earlier in the day to check that it was safe. There was no fighting on Friday or Saturday and no checkpoints this way, he said.

Seventeen family members were travelling back together in a pick up. They left 26 days ago, on the fourth day of fighting, because of the air strikes. They stayed, crowded, with relatives in Abu Ghraib. They turned off the road onto a dusty track beside the river, two men and a woman in the front, another man in the back holding up a white cloth, thirteen year old Hussein leaning on the bare pole behind the cab. One of the boys held his arms in the air in celebration as we drove into Falluja.

Everyone raised a hand in greeting to the ICDC guards who waved us straight through a checkpoint. Everyone raised a hand also to the Mujahedin fighters in ones, twos and little clusters around the town, their faces still cloth covered, Kalashnikovs still at hand, walking in and out of houses, one holding up the Iraqi flag, one in a black balaclava guarding a corner.

They are waiting, Saad said. “They will shoot the Americans if they come back. We will not accept their patrols. We blame only the Americans for what happened. The fighting in Falluja was because they were shooting civilians. Let them have our oil, we don’t care, but let us live in peace. This is only people from Falluja fighting, not foreigners, because of the tribes. If the Americans kill a father or a brother then the tribes want revenge, but we don’t let strangers in.”

A car flashed its lights, slowed down, passed bags of food to the people in the pick up, offered another to us. Women, men, small children stood by a shop, its shutters open, food on sale in scales and bags. As the pick up slowed down the kids jumped out, ran in through the gate as if to check, then dashed back out to fetch me. Hussein and Betul wanted me to see their garden, a small green space with slender trees growing up poles. They pointed out where flowers had been in the spring, asked for their photo taken, two brothers and two sisters, all dwarves.

Hussein’s best friend and next door neighbour had been back a couple of hours, a tall thin boy with dark smudges of malnutrition under his eyes. They shook hands, Hussein bouncing with excitement, Ali looking nervous and exhausted. Their dad showed us the hole in the ground that they’d had to use as a well after the electricity was cut to the whole town, early on, as collective punishment.

Abdulbakr’s house was just around the corner, a pile of refilled plastic water bottles in the corner of a room whose floor was covered with pebbles. A trench runs through the hallway because there’s no drain, a couple of blankets spread out beside it. The back of the house is open, steps leading up to the roof. It wasn’t damaged by the bombing, they said: “We were already poor, without them attacking us.”

The last drop off was a few streets away, the children running across the road to reunite with the other part of the family who got back earlier in the day, having stayed with a different set of relatives, cuddling the baby, reorienting, seeing that things are still where they were, Safa’a wiping her eyes on her abaya amid her laughter, embracing her own children and everyone else’s. You have to come back, she insists, when we’ve straightened things out.

Before we left they gave us a list of phone numbers for the rest of the extended family still in Baghdad, so we could call them when we got back to town and tell them it’s safe to go home. The fuel tanker was still burning as we drove back at sunset and still this morning, as aid vehicles and families flowed towards the checkpoint.

Again the seemingly arbitrary limit of two hundred families a day was in place, a family comprising up to 25 individuals. All but the driver, women with infants and invalids were required to walk through the checkpoint, to be frisked with a wand while the vehicle was checked with mirrors on the underside. Lots of them left a month ago, just as the fighting started, and have moved between relatives ever since.

Almost as many were leaving as coming in, driving out to fetch the family members still outside. Nazar was going to fetch five surviving relatives from hospital, his mother Zahra and his one year old nephew Sejad killed by a missile that landed among them, fired from a US plane as they tried to flee their home, walking to find a vehicle.

A local man, Salam, with a small minibus had already brought back his own family and started ferrying others back in. He’d brought two families from Baghdad this morning, was returning for more, hadn’t heard that only two hundred would be allowed through in the day. It would take him another couple of hours to get back so he’d have to go in the back way.

He stayed in farms around the town through the fighting; his own house was fine but there are many, he said, whose houses have been destroyed in Hay Julan, Hay Shuhada and Hay Askeri. It’s not a happy home coming for everyone. Maki at the clinic said there are still people missing, who haven’t yet turned up either living or dead, and the casualty figures from the different clinics, hospitals and mosques have yet to be collated, several hundred, at least, who can never come home.


Saturday, May 01, 2004

April 30th
Where Have All the Women Gone?

Zaid’s sister Zainab got engaged today. Everyone was exhausted from dancing all afternoon at the party but it was the first time we’d seen each other in months so no one was too tired to dance some more. Tying sashes around my hips and their own, they moved the rug to create a dance floor under the ceiling fan.

You generally see the women in anything from long loose clothes, with or without a hijab, to a full on tent, gliding along like a black phantom with even their faces covered, but the underwear stalls in the market can be taken as fair warning of what might lie beneath.

The tassels of the sashes flicked wildly back and forth with the movement of their hips, their heads back, shoulders quivering, swaying down to the ground where they kneel facing each other shaking their busts, wiggling everything there is to wiggle, sensuous, sexual, energetic, whether the music is Arabic or western.

They do a clicking thing with the fingers, palms together, clamped by the thumbs, fingers outstretched, the first finger of the right hand making a loud clicking against the knuckle of the first finger on the left. There’s another rhythm, holding one hand above the other, clicking the fingers on one hand then the other then clapping the palm of the top hand against the closed fist of the lower hand so it makes a sound like a horse galloping.

Asmaa has been looking for work but can’t find any. She used to teach computing before Bibo, the younger child, was born, first in a public college then, after she had Mimi, in private lessons. Now there’s no work to be had; women, especially, struggle to find jobs because the sanctions and then the war have extinguished so many jobs. It’s boring and frustrating to be at home all day, especially for someone like Asmaa with good qualifications, not going out because there’s nowhere to go if you’re unemployed and it’s not safe to wander about.

“We do all the work of the house and then we chat on the internet and we download music and dance and we watch TV.” They know they’re among the luckier ones to be able to afford the internet in their house. I had to laugh at myself, watching TV with them, music videos on the Arabic channels, again a mixture of western and Arabic singers, gorgeous women in tiny clothes gyrating. Since the recent foreigner-kidnapping spate, we’ve all been disappearing under mountains of clothes, hijabs – the head covering, jubas – the long coats and abayas - the loose black cloaks.

When we were held in Falluja some of the guards were of the belief that even the most innocuous music could encourage dangerous sexual feelings in women. It was “haram” – sinful. We invented the term “haramovision” for all the raunchy dancing on TV when we got back. Asmaa and her sisters in law raucously told rude jokes, talked openly about sex. Like my friend Sabriya, their favourite channels are the sex channels, which they watch for both entertainment and ideas. “Iraqi women love the sex channels,” they both said.

Even Sabriya’s tiny house – a single bed in a square cabin of metal, a wooden extension built on to it and an outdoor kitchen and toilet – still has a TV. For those who can’t go out it’s a breathing tube to the world outside. Women have not completely disappeared: you still see them in the markets, on the buses, working in the banks, begging in the traffic queues. You still see them inside the universities. In Karrada you still see them, a few of them, dressed up and shopping.

But as Asmaa said, there is nowhere to go. The coffee shops are the preserve of men. The streets are dangerous. The shops are just depressing if you haven’t got any money to spend. There are no cinemas. There are few places where women can meet and just share gossip and company.

In the Sufi mosque at Friday prayers the women greeted each other with hugs and hundreds of kisses, whispering eagerly at the back while the kids frisked about, until a woman in a huge white outfit, the Prayer Police, came past to tell them to face the front, be quiet, keep their children under control. When she’d gone the chatter would start again.

Lines of women prayed, standing, bowing, kneeling, a young girl praying next to her mum, a smaller one going through some of the motions but mostly trying to balance on her head in some semblance of the bow from a kneeling position. A tiny, curly headed girl in a white frilly dress danced about, tumbled over one of the grown ups.

The Prayer Prefect came through the hall spraying rosewater on all the women’s faces, her own face now joyous, the severity gone, stopping to plant kisses on some of the foreheads, including ours, so the room smelled of roses and the breeze from the four fans on each pillar cooled our skin where it was wet and not swathed in abaya.

The imam’s voice was piped through from the men’s part of the mosque next door, asking for strength for the people of Falluja, calling on them not to give in to the Americans. Everyone moved to the front to stand close together for the final prayer and then the real business began of exchanging the week’s news. Men gathered outside waiting for wives and sisters and in-laws who were queuing for the return of their shoes, reluctant to cut short the only social occasion of the week.

Leaving the room, some of the women pulled down face coverings so that only their eyes were exposed, even the space between the eyes concealed behind a spur of fabric. Sabriya told us that in her neighbourhood the most heavily covered women are often the most promiscuous. Apparently there is a way of having intimate relations without, biologically speaking, losing one’s virginity.

And then they were gone, hidden away for another week and I went on to the tent camp because I promised to go back and play games again with the kids from Falluja. There are 97 families living there now and the overflow who can’t be squeezed in are staying in a school nearby. There’s a cooking tent now, so they’re not reliant on local people to provide food. The toilets are built and a water tank is working. The kids’ tent is due to go up tomorrow.

One of the children from the camp was killed yesterday along with another child from the neighbourhood. They were playing near the camp when they were apparently caught in crossfire between Iraqis and Americans, gunfire, mortar fire: no one seemed quite sure. Either way the trauma, the boredom, the constant closeness of death was all too evident on the kids faces as they greeted us with uproarious glee.

They were too manic even for a fairly raucous game like Cat and Mouse, so we played a lot of parachute football, made plenty of chances to just dance about shouting under the billowing rosy glow of the parachute and yelled “Boomchucka” a lot. The relief of having the children diverted for a while was all over the women’s faces, sitting in the tents. Some of the children still shrink from the helicopters, others rage at them as they thunder over, shaking the ground, churning the air.

The men came out to play as well, one or two recognising us from the mosque and the clinic in Falluja. Someone forwarded me a column from a UK newspaper sneering at the idea of a circus in Iraq at a time like this. Sorry, but you’re wrong. Play is what these people need, not just the children.

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