Monday, May 19, 2003

the people at [Electronic Iraq] [al-Muajaha] kindly agreed to host the images for this post and we will put up the post on their site too. I have warned them that I have a lot of images and as the arabic saying goes: wa qad u'thira man anthar - don't blame someone who has already given you a warning. I really didn't have any other choice, the guys at the internet place wanted to charge 66,000 dinars for uploading 1.2megs of images. thats around $50 by today's rate. you should see how people react whenthey tell them how much they charge. because of the rise in the value of the dinar even richrich people from foreign find them expensive and start bartering. we buy internet time like we buy tomatoes now: "look if a spend an extra half hour will the rate go down 3000 dinars?"

Three days in the south of Iraq. A quick run from Baghdad to Basra and back. Since I am only tagging along I didn’t really have a say on where to go and what to see. Raed had to check on the CIVIC teams (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, you can check the site – – but I have been told by Marla that it is not very informative at the moment). Raed has teams in a couple of cities and had to form new teams in others. The only place which has some sort of an administrative structure left in Iraq after the chaos are hospitals, we meet the teams in various hospitals and medical centers.
Lots of pictures to take and lots of people to talk to. We were moving to the south at the same time al-Hakiem (leader if SCIRI) was making his trip to Baghdad. We crossed paths on his way towards Samawah. In Basra I discovered the best ice cream place in all of Iraq, really the best and so cheap. I was also given “the finger” by a British soldier while trying to take pictures of the burned down Basra (ex)Sheraton hotel. That is one picture I am really sad that it didn’t turn out good, it would have been great, half of him hanging out of a military car giving me the finger. Now that’s a souvenir to bring back from Basra
Anyway, the pictures below are in no particular order.

The entrance of (Saddam) Hospital in Najaf, now obviously changed to Sadir Hospital. One icon goes another comes, not even necessary to repaint the whole picture. It is scary how well the two images fit on top of each other.
I came back from the trip seriously worrying that we might become an Iran-clone. If anyone went to the streets now and decided to hold elections we will end up with something that is scarier than Khomeini’s Iran.
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What looks like a gay parade on wheels with all the pink flags is actually al-hakiem’s welcoming committee near samawah, don’t ask me why the pink flags, I couldn’t figure that one out. the color of SCIRI is red but all you see are pink flags.
Do you see that graffiti in English? “God’s great miracle”. G. was in Najaf while “god’s great miracle” made his speech and cried. Very good theatrical effects, you see he is being accused of not being here and going thru what other Shia parties have gone thru (i.e. Islamic Dawa Party and the people around al-Sadir). The tears got the desired effect from the crowds apparently. Unfortunately Raed was in too much of a hurry to take time and see what Najaf was like at the arrival of “God’s great miracle”.
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One of the biggest surprises when we got to Karbala was that Raed has a girl on his CIVIC team there. She has sent her brother to ask if it was OK for a woman to join. She keeps a notebook for the cases she wants CIVIC to try help as fast as they can. She told us about um-khdair, who is a 30 year old mother with 6 children. Her husband is 50, their house was bombed. He died and the house has been destroyed. Um-khudair and her 6 children now live in one room in a “khan” [these are hotel-like buildings managed by mosques] she is pregnant as well. Sabah, the girl on the CIVIC team, tried to make Raed promise that he will do something, but he can’t promise anything really. There is nothing worse than giving people false hope in situations like these and we remind the team not to give the people they interview any promises. CIVIC at the moment can only collect information and in extreme cases forward the info to an organization that has the funds and capability to help.
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After the meeting they insist on going to the city and buy us drinks (juice), sabah does not join us, but she asks Read if she could take a picture with him.

I am not so sure about the juice place so we decide on canned fizzy drinks. Kufa-Cola. Iraqi Shia soft drinks (Kufa is a city with an important Shia mosque), how good is that? I bet “god’s great miracle” al-hakiem only drinks Kufah Cola.
While sipping on our blessed cokes Riyadh, one of the older volunteers tells us about an army training camp where families have taken shelter after their houses were bombed or couldn’t pay the rent the last two months when the country came to a stand still. Since this is one of the things CIVIC is looking into Raed decides to take a look.
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There we get to meet saif al-deen, a huge name for the little kid who has a problem with S’s (If you ask him he’ll tell you his name is “thaif”) and Ibrahim with his little brother.
Saif al-deen (sword of the faith) and his family had to move to the army training camp when his father, a soldier in the Iraqi army couldn’t pay the rent for last two months, 10 US dollars per month.

In total there are eight families. They say they have been moved from other places they have squatted within the city until they got to this army center in the outskirts. When we asked who moved them out of the places they were in they said it was usually the new political parties. These buildings were NOT given to these parties by the “coalition forces”, the Americans here have decided to not look at that situation for now. I don’t think that when ministries and other public institutions start functioning again they will not ask for their property back, I can’t see why the Dawa Party should take the place of a public library. Anyway, both the newly homeless and the parties are competing to occupy public buildings. The problem in the one we went to was that this training center is full of ammunition. And one unexploded thingy that has been fired at the camp from a helicopter. The kids run around showing us where the grenades and other stuff lies. There is no use taping the warnings (given to organizations by the coalition forces to put at places where there are unexploded objects - mainly cluster bombs) because no one in this place can read or write.

The only thing to do is to ask the families that are living near the back of the camp to move away from the areas where the ammunition is. They tell us that this is just training ammunition and not dangerous. And they won’t move out of this place because they have no where else to go.
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We also go take a look at a neighborhood where the Iraqi army tried to hide armored vehicles which later got attacked by missiles from helicopters. In many cases the soldiers and the civilians were warned by dropping leaflets, in some cases that didn’t happen. No one got injured here because they had left the area after the Iraqi Army positioned four vehicles in the streets but a couple of houses got badly damaged, the families moved back and repaired what could be repaired.

Enough about Karbala. Next stop Najaf then Diwanya.

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Saddam General Hospital in Diwaniya. We get there after we pass thru the Shamia area. Scenes of typical Iraqi rural areas, mud houses and palm trees. Then suddenly you see this:

the Shamia medical center saw in one single night 44 civilian deaths. All making the mistake of getting near the Shamia checkpoint on a day when the US army was having a bit of a mood. The people who live there told us that it was one of the sandstorm days. Everything that approached the checkpoint was shot without any discrimination. One of the cars was carrying the casket of a dead woman to the cemetery. All four passengers died.
It was bad during these days, not for the civilians only but for the “coalition forces”. These were days when the number of suicide attacks was increasing and after the woman who killed a number of American soldiers in one of these attacks they changed the rules of engagement (is that what it is called?). There was no way an Iraqi could approach an area where US troops where stationed without risking a 50/50 chance of being shot at because your pockets looked funny.
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At Diwaniya hospital Raed had to look around for people who would want to volunteer, and I looked around for things to photograph. And look what I saw.

The US army was helping the hospital bring back X-Ray machines and other stuff that was stored elsewhere to make sure it didn’t get looted. Afterwards they stood around for a while, took pictures and let the kids poke their big biceps. “Strong mister”.
Throughout the south in all the hospitals we have been to, there was military presence. In Kut there were FIF (free Iraqi forces – chlabai’s militia) people wearing exactsame uniforms as the Americans but with little badges saying FIF. Not high on my top five list. Yes, I don’t like Chalabi. Go sue me.
Having military there makes everybody feel safer, to the point where in Basra, because the main general hospital and the college of medicine are in the same compound, the British forces are making the area safe enough for that college to be the only one with regular attendance and classes.
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A couple of meters from this scene someone was stacking “humanitarian aid” boxes on a cart and pushing it out of the hospital.

There is absolutely no distribution method. The aid that is coming in gets taken by whomever and sold on the market. You could buy the whole box for 16.000 dinars (a bit more than 16 US dollars by today’s rate). Or you can buy only the things you like. Everybody is buying the chocolates and leaving the sugar and rice. This scene was repeated everywhere, in Basra these boxes were on the street. Did I mention these boxes were from Kuwait? There are others from Emirates and Saudi Arabia on the market. Water gets sold separately, 1000 dinar per bottle. A family in need was supposed to get one box and 12 bottles of water.
Diwaniya wasn’t so great. For some reason it was difficult to find the enthusiasm I have seen in Karbala and Najaf. Anyway, a team was formed.
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Next stop Samawah where we will spend the night. While checking on the team there one of the volunteers told us that they were not able to go around the city because everybody was too distressed about the mass graves found at the edge of the city. Many who were buried there were from Samawah. At least they can be thankful that the the buried had their ID cards with them and could be identified. All over the city you could see photocopied photos of the executed.
Gruesome fact: during the uprising after the first gulf war Saddam’s henchmen, in order to move quickly, would put people in trucks and move them to the edge of the city and bury them alive, these are the mass graves where you’ll find people still have their ID’s, fully dressed only with their hands tied.

In every shop window, on every wall the faces look back at you. This was not one of the big mass graves found, around 50 bodies.
Too tired to want to take a walk thru the city. Next day is Nasiriyah, a very big number of casualties are expected there and CIVIC still has no team there.
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The official Number in Nasiriyah (i.e. coming from hospitals and medical centers in the area) is about 1000 civilian deaths and 3000 injuries. Nasiryiah is not that big, with these numbers it must have seen very bad days. We go fast to the Nasiryiah hospital and get a team together. To our amazement we have a lot of girls wanting to volunteer although we have explained that this will involve lots of going door to door, which would usually put off female volunteers we had elsewhere. They only ask to be given districts in the inner city because of the unstable security situation.

While talking to them about what they are supposed to do the name “Jessica” is dropped. Aseel, one of the female volunteers, tells us that this is the hospital where Jessica was held in captivity. Both main hospitals in this city were turned into command centers. One had fedayeen in it and was bombed to the ground by the Americans and in the other Ali Hassan Al-Majeed was holding court for a while, before he moved to another place. When the American forces came to rescue Jessica “chemical” Ali was already out, the manager of the hospital and a couple of doctors were asked to get dressed in civilian clothes and get out as fast as they can. The hospital was not damaged.
We are waiting to see what the survey will turn out; Raed is even thinking of increasing the number of the team to 25 because of the high number of casualties reported. Usually they would get at least 25% more than the numbers from hospitals. 1000 deaths is really a big number in a place like Nasiriyah.
We stay for too long there talking to the team and end up late for the appointment with the Basra team.
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Basra is beautiful. We have a bit of a problem with hotels because it is chockfull of foreigners and news people all the places charge outrageous prices. We find a place where we pay 30,000 dinars for a night; compared to 3000 dinars in Nasiriyah (foreigners pay double that price). But there is great food and the excellent ice-cream place called Kima. No, this is not a paid plug. Go ask for ananas-azbari and be pleasantly surprised, it has frozen bits of pineapple in it. Block those thoughts about cholera and enjoy. Water is a bit of a problem, people in Basra have been dependant on water purified by the Petrochemicals plant or people who have set up businesses to provide clean water, they call it RO water (reverse-osmosis purification). Of course you have to buy that. Now there are purification plants donated by Gulf countries but you still have to queue to get it or go buy RO water on the street, its price has gone down after the plants started working. All this is within Basra city, outside of Basra? Don’t ask.
The Police in Basra are much luckier than the police in Baghdad, they get military protection.

But what doesn’t get protection is any store selling alcohol. There have been attacks on 5 stores that sell liquor and everybody in the store was killed. There is no way any one is going to sell you a beer on the street in Basra. Some areas in Baghdad have seen similar attacks but nobody panicked yet. But we will be there soon. Al-Fartoosi in his Friday prayer Khutba said that “loose women”, the cinemas in Sadoon street showing immoral films (the films are as sinful as a Britney Spears video, bellies and fake kissing) and anyone selling alcohol will be given a week to clean up their act or “other methods” will be used to stop them spreading wickedness.
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Now if you keep going in the direction the policeman above is pointing at you will eventually reach this:

Around a hundred graves at the edge of the road, starting where the pavement should have been. These were people killed during the early stages of the war when it was too dangerous to bury them in a proper burial ground. The nearest empty land was used. The latest are dated 16th of April. The ones that don’t have a name sign are people who could not be identified.

There was another makeshift graveyard near the Dyala Bridge in Baghdad

There were a couple of people buried there, near the bridge, from Basra or around it. We wrote down the names and gave them to a couple of people who were at the cemetery in Basra to put them up in mosques, maybe the word will get to their families.
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At another place the Islamic Dawa Party had long lists of names put up at the door of its headquarters in Basra. The names Dawa party members who were executed and killed by the Ba’ath. You see these scenes in all cities.

When the lists were put up in Karbala (not only Dawa but the hundreds of people killed during the uprising in 91) you saw the whole city go into the traditional 3 day funeral. 240 names. Men, women and children, families of 20 and more at a time.
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The rest of the time is spent in our way-too-expensive hotel, we only go out for a short walk in al-Ashar by the river.

The war with Iran was just over when Saddam decided to commemorate his officers with a huge monumental project at al-ashar. 30 officers he chose got larger-than-life statues cast in bronze all pointing towards the east; Iran. Today all thirty officers have been pulled down from their podiums only one remains. Adnan Khairullah, Saddam’s cousin from his mother’s side. He was killed by saddam when he was getting a bit too popular with his troops as a defense minister. The rest were pulled down, cut to pieces and sold on the market for the metal.
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Next morning we woke up to the sound of a British Army patrol.

Rushed to the Basra general hospital and met the Basra team, all of the volunteers are medical students. By this time I am really too phased out by all we have seen to listen and join the discussions. Raed goes on like one of these Duracell rabbits.
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When we were in Nasiriyah someone made a joke about saddam and the money we are using. Assel responded: “Ha! So now you find your voice?”. Yes we are all finding our voices now, suddenly everyone has an opinion. Everyone thinks he/she should be involved. Talking to all the volunteers in the cities we’ve been to really gives you a push. There was an article before the war, I think by makiya but I am not sure, saying that Iraqis after all this time have been depoliticized. You wouldn’t think so after walking in the streets these days. The people we deal with are my age or younger, we are not apathetic about the politics of this country. The University of Baghdad will be a very interesting place to be in these days.