Long before the outset of war in Iraq, and more so since, Spain has seen massive demonstrations both in its main cities and its smallest centers. On February 15, when millions of people worldwide demonstrated together for the first time against the US aggression of Iraq, Spain witnessed the largest total number of people taking the streets in any single country, with estimates ranging anywhere between 4 and 6 million.
This widespread willingness to organize and mobilize against the war has come as a surprise to many, particularly since it appears to involve people who have not in the past been very prone to street actions and other types of demonstrations, particularly service sector workers and old people. Local anti-war collectives are springing up by the day even in the smallest centers, as people increasingly ask themselves what can they do to stop this barbaric attack. The Indymedia websites from Madrid and Barcelona have become a precious source of information for anyone involved in the antiwar movement, featuring daily calls to actions, suggestions for activists, reports on the demonstrations (and associated police repression) and news from actions taking place around the world.
Just like in Italy, opposition to war in Spain has been fuelled by the ongoing government support to the Bush Administration, in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population is strongly opposed to any military action in Iraq. This feeling of disenfranchisement is leading many people to question the legitimacy of JosÃ© Maria Aznar and the Partido Popular (the conservative Popular Party), and more and more demonstrations have been held under the slogans “Guerra No, Aznar DimisiÃ³n” and “Aznar Dimite, El Pueblo No Te Admite” (“No To War, Aznar Resign” and “Aznar Resign, The People Don’t Want You”).
I have been actively involved with the anti-war movement in Barcelona since I moved there just under three months ago. Since then, it has been a crescendo of daily activities, meetings, actions and organizing, which have been a source of great hope and motivation particularly as I observed the fantastic response of people from all walks of life. It has been especially moving to witness the great solidarity we have been receiving from the large Muslim community of the old city, that has been welcoming our efforts and collaborating with us all along, creating a supportive network that transcends the often-artificial cultural barriers that are being raised between communities.
It is in the course of my anti-war efforts that I met Magda Bandera, an outstanding journalist, writer and activist, who has traveled extensively to Iraq, building very close ties with the people there and with Iraqi expatriates in Spain and other parts of the world, and with whom I have had very stimulating conversations about the need to build closer ties both with the Iraqi population and activists on the other side of the Atlantic. I decided to interview her for Znet to have her share her experience and views on the Iraqi crisis and the role of the antiwar movement.
Oliveri: How and when did you decide to go to Iraq? How was your experience there?
Bandera: I traveled to Iraq by myself for the first time in July 2001, to see how the embargo was affecting the population and to verify that the economic sanctions had caused more than 1.5 million casualties over the past 12 years, according to UN estimates. When I got there I avoided the more or less “official” visits and I spent my time visiting the families and other people I had been “introduced” to by other Iraqis I had met via the Internet. One of them is the artist Nuha Al Radi, now in voluntary exile in Lebanon, author of “Baghdad Diaries”. Her friends in Baghdad welcomed me in their homes and explained to me how they were handling the lack of opportunities and the country’s social problems: growing illiteracy rates, growing unemployment, the upsurge in cancer caused, among other things, by depleted uranium, etc.
I went to Iraq once again a few weeks ago, in February 2003, together with a delegation of Spanish female artists in solidarity to the Iraqi people. The situation at the time was one of incredible tensions – people said they were psychologically ready to face the war, since they had known for months their country was going to be invaded.
Oliveri: Tell us something about the “Webcam in Iraq” project and other initiatives you are involved in.
Bandera: After knowing the Iraqi people, I realized that the degree of misinformation about this country in unbelievable. TV news services are always showing the same images and all of them in the end feature Saddam Hussein. There are never any reports on the great culture of the Iraqi people, who are the heirs of Mesopotamia and display such exquisite manners, speak several different languages and treat their guests with great affection.
Similarly, footage on Iraq is always showing the oldest and most neglected streets, not the most modern and western-like. Iraq was the most advanced country in the region until the 1980s, a secular country whose people are very easy to identify with. There is little doubt that the media portray a very negative image of Iraq, its citizens and their culture, without, for example, ever properly interviewing one of its many female engineers.
I have recently spoken quite a few times with exiled Iraqis, who belong to Saddam’s opposition and yet are opposing war on Iraq and the ongoing manipulation of information. They say that the Iraqi people have already suffered too much, and that they don’t deserve to become once again civil “collateral damages”.
During one of these conversations, I suggested they installed a webcam in one of the most western-like and crowded streets, in order for the whole world to see the faces of the Iraqi people and identify with them. This way, we wanted to prevent the attack, and above all, expose the existence of too many filters between the Iraqis and the rest of the world . The first Gulf War was shown to the world as if it were a videogame, as if there were no real victims. Censorship is very strong and both sides constantly manipulate the information and use propaganda as an additional weapon. We wanted to show what was hiding behind all that: civilians that have nothing to share with the dictator ruling the country.
Oliveri: Over the part few months, Spain has witnessed massive demonstrations against the war. How do you interpret the Spaniard’s opposition to the conflict?
Bandera: Ninety percent of the Spanish people are against war on Iraq without a UN resolution and don’t understand why the inspectors were not given more time to carry out their job , above all taking into account that is in fact Iraq that is financing the UN through the “Oil for Food” program. What is really driving the Spaniards to the streets, however, is the attitude of the Prime Minister, JosÃ© Maria Aznar, who has been using his party’s absolute majority to obstruct critical debate in Parliament. He is using in an absolutist fashion the legitimacy he obtained through the elections. Citizens don’t understand why Aznar is not taking into account the will of the majority of the population. He was elected by 10 million voters, but that happened three years ago and his platform did not mention war without the UN Security Council’s approval.
Nor do the Spaniards understand why Aznar has been hiding his unconditional support to the Bush Administration over the past few months, although he was asked about his position several times. The great majority of the Spanish people fear this war is only the beginning of a worldwide military escalation, and are showing their discontent in the streets. People in this country have never forgotten the Civil War that caused a million casualties between 1936 and 1939.
Oliveri: Tell us more about the actions organized by the anti-war movement in Barcelona and other Spanish cities. What do you think about the effectiveness of those actions?
The demonstrations against war in Iraq are the largest ever in Spanish history. Public opinion was surprised by how well organized and how diverse they have been. In Madrid and Barcelona all the weekly calls to action have gathered over 500 thousand people and in some cases over a million. Young people, who until now have been very de-politicized, are also responding incredibly well. This war has led them to demonstrate in very large numbers, asking politicians for more democracy. Internet has allowed them to coordinate their actions.
In this respect, the attitude of Spanish artists has also been remarkable. Movie stars took advantage of the celebrations of the Goya Film Festival (the Spanish Oscars) to express their rejection of war. These days we were expecting something similar during the Night of the Oscars and people are discussing Hollywood’s fear to express its views. People don’t understand that very well.
Oliveri: As a journalist, what do you think about the role of the press and other media during the Iraq crisis both in Spain and worldwide?
Bandera: They are totally biased. Images of the victims are being censored on both sides, and both sides are treating PoW very badly. Nobody is respecting the Geneva Convention, including our newspapers that have been featuring pictures of prisoners in violation of their rights.
TV networks should not be part of this dirty game and, on the other hand, they should be providing critical analysis, which they are not doing at all. Disinformation rules, facts that are told one day are refuted the following day. More and more people every day are turning to the Internet for the news. Indeed, Spanish TV is being harshly criticized for the consistent manipulation of information. Similarly, more and more journalists and reporters are condemning the “war show” with live images being commented as if we were watching a football match. At the same time, TV networks are avoiding to broadcast the images of civilian victims, to prevent the public from further raising its voice against the war.
Oliveri: Do you think it is possible to achieve a greater coordination among the hundreds of movements opposing war worldwide? How do you think we can attain that?
Bandera: During my last visit in Baghdad I made contacts with activists from Voices in Wilderness and Code Pink, both very organized and effective in their struggle against the war, the embargo and its consequences for the Iraqi people. North Americans have always been a great model of activism and pacifism for the rest of the world and more and more people in Europe are talking about how it would be desirable for the two coasts of the Atlantic to be better connected.
Initiatives like that of moveon.org have sparked great interest among the Europeans, who would like to participate more closely with the North American anti-war movement. I think US activists should structure their online forms and petitions so that we can submit our support, too. And we also need to create more spaces for dialogue, both online and in person, such as in forums. We should talk a lot more to each other, translate each other’s articles and publish jointly…
Oliveri: Is there any message you would like to send to the hundreds of thousands of US activists who are mobilizing against war in Iraq?
First of all, I would like to thank them because they are an example for us and give us a great motivation to carry on with the struggle here.
I would also like to report to them something many Iraqi friends have been telling me these days. When I was explaining to them that some Spanish activists were starting to feel very frustrated because they couldn’t manage to prevent the war, they replied that demonstrations are not at all useless, that we should carry on demonstrating. To begin with, because they force our governments to control their actions (albeit minimally so), and above all because they help people from Arab and Muslim countries to see that the people of America, Spain and the United Kingdom are not their enemies.
They have started to make a distinction between the governments of western countries and their citizens.
Magda Bandera is a writer and journalist. She’s the author of six books-her last one “Hijos de Guerra” (Children of War) deals with the effects of the embargo and the post-war periods on the Iraqi civilians. She wrote a chapter for the book “No A La Guerra” (No to War), collecting the contributions of 11 Spanish war reporters, and wrote the introduction to the Spanish edition of “Baghdad Diaries” by Nuha Al Radi (both of them published in March 2003).
Adele Oliveri is an economist and political activist from Italy, now living in Spain. She can be reached at [email protected]