By Cathy Breen*
Being stuck in traffic is a daily fare in Baghdad. While checkpoints have been dramatically reduced in recent times, and the number of concrete walls appear markedly decreased, traffic jams still defy description. It doesn’t help in the least that everyone is leaning on their horns. A half-a-million taxis roam around Baghdad spewing pollution as they look for potential fares. Proposals to counter this problem have been put forth to authorities, for example, the creation of taxi stands throughout the city. All attempts to remedy this problem seem futile.
In my travels this trip to Najaf, Karbala, Babylon and Baghdad, the dilemma of widespread corruption is of predominant concern. Young and old, without exception, feel caught in and strangulated by this reality. One young person related how one of the bosses in their workplace substantially increased their salary by fudging figures. If someone were to speak up they would, at best, be let go.
This past Monday a woman journalist, Afrah Shawqu al Qaisi, was kidnapped from her home in the Saidiya district of Baghdad by men claiming to be security personnel. She had written an article expressing anger that armed groups could act with impunity (BBC news Dec. 27, 2016).
“How do you get up in the morning?” I gently asked a young woman from Baghdad. “How do you manage?”
“With no hope” she replied. “Each morning I get up with no hope.” Her mother is ill and worries each day that her daughter will not get home safely from work. “All Iraqis want hope,” she added, “but they are resigned to bad conditions.”
But a gentleman who was also part of this conversation responded “There is no future if we keep silent.” Although he himself lost his position for speaking out against the corruption, he fears for the future of his children if the problem is not addressed. He believes that an answer for corruption is to educate by setting an example.
I had the great joy of visiting a family we have not seen for over three years. Kathy Kelly first introduced me to this family in 2002, and we have tried to remain in contact throughout the years. As evening descended, some of us walked the streets of the old neighborhood where this family lives and where Voices rented an apartment, in 2003-2004.
We went to the site of the horrific suicide bombing of July 3, 2016, only two blocks away from the family’s apartment as well as where the Voices apartment was. The night of the bombings was on the eve of EID, ending the fasting month of Ramadan. Many people were out doing the final shopping for this celebration. Vendors with their wares on the sidewalks, children eating ice cream in the blistering heat of summer. It was about 10:00 p.m. The blasts took the lives of over 300 people, many of them children. Over 200 more wounded. In the apartment where some of this family lives, three families lost children, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in this explosion. I passed two of the survivors on the stairs this night.
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I had my young friend take a photo across the street from one of the sites. We became silent as we looked at this blackened mass towering over us. Months later the area is still blocked off by a corrugated fence as you can see in the picture. Across the street was a second bombed building. All around us were people visiting, walking, looking at wares, etc. “It is good to see life” said my young friend as we walked arm in arm. Armed vehicles and police were very present as well in this area.
A pain for me during my stay in Baghdad was not to be able to contact another family with whom we are also very close. I’ve written extensively about this family as the father and oldest son fled to Finland over a year ago. I had hoped to be able to meet up with the mother and at least some of the children at a place that would be safe for them. Sadly, this was not possible.
Baghdad cannot be compared to the relative quiet and safety of Karbala and Najaf. As I write, we just got the distressing news of a double suicide bomb in a Baghdad market this morning. At least 28 people were killed. Many of the victims were people who had gathered near a cart selling breakfast when the explosions went off.
“Torn clothes and mangled iron were strewn across the ground in pools of blood at the site of the wreckage near Rasheed Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad,” an AFP photographer reported. “The targeted area is packed with shops, workshops and wholesale markets and usually teeming with delivery trucks and daily laborers unloading vans or wheeling carts around…Hugh crowds were expected to gather on Saturday evening in the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the New Year for only the second time since the lifting in 2015 of a year-old curfew.” (The Telegraph News, UK, Dec. 31, 2016)
I was on Rasheed Street only yesterday.
While in Baghdad I stayed with a gracious couple who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, this past year. In one of our many conversations, my host asked somewhat mischievously, “Which of the four do you think is the greatest sin in Islam? Theft, illicit sex, drinking or lying?” I mulled this over not really knowing, but enjoying the exercise. The answer turned out to be “lying” and, curiously, I got it right.
But then the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq was based on lies and deceit. Many in the U.S. accepted, without adequate investigation or even curiosity, the notion that the U.S. would improve conditions ordinary Iraqis faced following the 2003 invasion. Tragically, almost fourteen years later, nothing could be further from the truth. Yet we should ask now, with genuine care, what Iraqis will face in 2017 and how we can make reparations for the suffering we’ve caused.
*Cathy Breen ([email protected]) helps coordinate Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)