The situation in Iraq has reached such a point of degradation and danger that I’ve been unable to return to report — as I did from 2003 to 2005 — from the front lines of daily life. Instead, in these last months, I have found myself in a supportive role, facilitating the work of some of my former sources, who remain in their own war-torn land, to tell their hair-raising tales of the new Iraq. While relying on my Iraqi colleagues to report the news, which we then publish at Inter Press Service and my website, I continue to receive emails from others in Iraq, civilian and soldier alike.
What I know from these emails is that the articles on Iraq you normally read in your local newspaper, even when, for instance, they cover the disintegration of the Iraqi health system or the collapse of the economy, are providing you, at best, but a glimpse of what daily life there is now like. After all, who knows better what’s happening than those who are living it?
I thought I might just give you a taste of the sort of private communications I read every day. Take my primary interpreter during my eight months in Iraq, Abu Talat. He was finally forced, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow Iraqis, to flee to a neighboring country due to the nightmarish security situation in Baghdad. Without a regular income, he struggled even to pay the rent for an apartment in a Syrian city, and finally had little choice but to return to Baghdad to sell what was left of his belongings. On November 18th, he wrote me from there:
“I am trying to sell my car. However, prices have plummeted so low that there is barely any active automobile dealing here, or any other marketing for that matter…Life ends at around 2-3 p.m., at which point Baghdad changes into a city of horror. The sounds of mortars and clashes erupt all through the night. (Two explosions just rumbled nearby, but we can’t tell the exact location.)”
The next day he wrote:
“Today, while I was arranging for the car to be sold at the highest price I could find, explosions burst almost 50 meters from the place where I was standing. I was forced to hide under the car I was selling for over 2 hours. There were ongoing clashes between the Iraqi Army and resistance fighters in broad daylight in the middle of the capital!”
Even from semi-independent, Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, often described as the most peaceful and prosperous region in the country, the news I get is bleak. A November 28th email from a Kurdish friend (who is also a U.S. citizen) went this way:
“It is worse than ever. The problem is that our U.S. government and the Iraqi ‘Government’ tell the world that things are improving here when they are not. All of the rebuilding bull crap is nothing but a scam that is worse than the oil-for-food program [of the post-Gulf War I years]. We have ONE hour of electricity a day now. I have power to turn on some lights and my computer by way of a little generator that I hooked up to my office today. A gallon of gas costs over $4 now, when the salary of an engineer is less than $200 a MONTH.”
Terrible as life is when Iraqis across the country find themselves essentially camping out in their own homes with few or no basic services, it pales in comparison to life in Baghdad, the country’s capital and home to nearly one quarter of its population. A friend of mine, who works there as a freelance cameraman, sent me this grim summary a couple of weeks ago:
“Life here in Iraq has become impossible because of the militias, sectarian violence, and the occupation [U.S.] forces. Every day we see the dead bodies near our homes which have been killed by militias. We watch how the U.S. troops see these dead bodies and… do nothing to stop this violence. Two of my brothers just left their houses and rented a new place because they were living in a Shia area. They had to run away just because they are Sunni.
“Every day the U.S. troops raid so many houses in my area and arrest so many innocent people. Yet, when the Americans arrest one of the [Shia] militia members they release him the very next day! Why?
“I hope I can show you how the dogs have started eating the dead bodies which lie in the streets of Baghdad now. I filmed one of the dead bodies while there was a dog eating on it. The U.S. troops and Iraqi police leave the dead bodies in the streets for one or two days… I think they intend to do this because they want everyone, including the children, to see this. Three days ago my young son saw some of the Shia militia as they killed an innocent Iraqi in front of his eyes just near his school.
“Oh Dahr, I don’t know what to say about my wounded country. Every Iraqi wants to bomb himself because of this shit life. Now Iraq is nothing like it was when you were here last, as bad as it was then. It has become very difficult to find someone who smiles. Everyone is sad and crying. This is true and this is our life now.
“The problem is that I know everything because I am filming so many people who are suffering.”
Then there are the emails I get from American soldiers or their family members. In late October, I received one from a mother whose son is a Marine stationed in Ramadi where the fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents has been fierce and ongoing these last months. “Many, many atrocities on both sides,” she writes,
“because of course the town has deteriorated into nothing more than a horror flick. His emails are few because his outpost was mortared and he lost computer connection with me. He has to go to the Army side of the city and try to send email from there. I’ve gotten one email. The marines are not supplying the boys with working satellite phones. Instead they give those, along with money for bribes, to the Iraqis in hopes of obtaining information. So our marines sit there (only 400 patrolling half of Ramadi, a town of 400,000… talk about war crimes). This is such a nightmare. If my son survives, he’ll be embittered forever…This is a portion of his angry email….I found it very disturbing….please excuse the spelling, he’s in a hurry and exhausted when he writes….his point is to kill the Iraqis before they kill him. Now it’s just a race for life. Insane.”
Her son’s email reads in part:
“I was gonna call you but the phone is broken. I hate this place more than anywhere else i’ve been. I guess is a compilation of all the time I’ve done overseas fighting. Bullshit fights, its really bringing me down. I can’t wait till all this is over…I’ll be the biggest anti-war person this country will have… at least against this war in Iraq….Let’s go fight a different one somewhere else cause this one is lost. I swear i wish you could spend a week over here…you would know it’s lost. You can’t stop ‘holy warriors,’ especially in their territory. Tonight we are about to go drop off generators to the enemy (Iraqi civilians) hoping they will give us info about the enemy (bullshit storys). The shit your tax dollars go to would make you puke. You really would puke. I almost do when i think about it….. thomas jefferson would have a heart attack if he saw all the shit goin on today. Oh well. I really hope it changes soon when Bush is out…but i doubt it. I thinks its all Gods plan…he runs the show no matter what. Fate and all that…its good to trust him.
“…I’ll keep the machine gun lubed in hopes of killin em all at the first opportunity for you. I love you ma and i know that no matter what you support me. I hope you don’t find this email burdensome. Just hit delete if that’s the case.”
His mother added:
“You can see how the war is destroying my son’s morale, and whittling away at his spirit. Now it’s just a killing game.”
On November 29, I received the following email from Abu Talat in Baghdad:
“In the early morning, explosions woke me up in this apartment in the center of Baghdad. It was just before 5:30 a.m. when I heard four mortars exploding in their very horrendous voices. The Ministry of Health was hit the day before yesterday by not less than five mortars. This was followed by clashes which continued for less than an hour. The fighters were using all kinds of guns, starting with rifles and ending with real heavy weaponry.
“Another battle took place here after this. Since we are in a guarded area near a police station and on the fourth floor, I had the advantage of watching this entire battle from my balcony. It was a complete war battle, guns being fired from all directions. All kinds of weapons were used by the militia fighters who are also the “Iraqi security forces,” including the American helicopters which were hovering at a low altitude (just for moral support?). As if they are only for monitoring not for fighting! The mortars spread to the morgue area which is exactly behind the Ministry.
“Iraqi life has changed into some kind of hellish disaster. Sectarian feelings are following us everywhere. Everywhere around Baghdad that you stop at any of the checkpoints, which are spreading all over, the men hold their guns in their hands. I assume each man knows how to use it, but the problem is: Is this guard a Sunni or Shia? You cannot tell. The clashes I’ve been seeing haven’t spared any of the areas in the city, whether they are Sunni or Shia.”
Keep in mind that we’re talking about the capital of Iraq. Think Washington D.C. and try for a moment to imagine such daily scenes.
Recently, an Iraqi colleague and I wrote a news story about the abominable conditions in Iraq’s medical system — or what’s left of it. Upon reading the piece, a doctor in Baghdad, another of my contacts, sent me this:
“I haven’t written to you for awhile…but your last dispatch about the health conditions in Iraq incited me to do so. I write you while holding in my mind and heart a lot of sorrow and pain for all the innocent people I am encountering every day as victims of this blind violence. I have sorrow and pain for a steadily vanishing future which once I had thought of as hopeful — even after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Let alone my sorrow for the future of my one-and-a-half year-old daughter.
“The Iraqi health system has never been this bad before, and it is growing worse day by day. The Saddam regime always tried to show that the [UN] embargo affected the health system to the bone. That regime tried to show the shortage of medicines, equipment, and the high mortality rates of Iraqi children. Saddam used to emphasize the bad conditions through the media, and especially the western media, in an attempt to affect international public opinion.
“But what is happening today is the total opposite of this. The government is practicing a marked suppression of any revelation of the reality of the health system. This is obvious through the government’s underestimation of the figures of victims of violence and sectarian killing. It can also be exemplified by their prohibiting any workers in the health facilities from speaking to the media unless authorized. In many situations the government will give an optimistic view of our disaster in a time when there are no signs for a favorable view.
“During Saddam’s era we used to see western or even local media reporters visiting hospitals, conducting interviews with patients and doctors. I wonder why we can hardly see any now. It is a big question. Nobody now is aware of the critical situation in our health institutions — once huge attractors of therapeutic tourism in the Middle East. There has been a massive exodus of senior consultants and junior doctors which means a great absence of experience. There is a grave shortage of necessary medicines and other important logistics.
“Sectarian tension has its own enormous impact. Sunni people are afraid to attend hospitals run by the Mehdi Army [Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia] which leaves them with very limited options. I have encountered many Sunni patients in the hospital who use an alias to conceal their identity so that they could have some help. Hospitals are heavily infiltrated by active cells of Shia militias, which are ready to abduct anyone they do not like. Everyone here from the manager of the hospital down the administrative pyramid must have the approval of the Sadr officials. What adds to the disaster is that these people are not qualified; they only have the privilege of being loyal to their political party.
“The latest trend of mass abductions and kidnappings puts me under great pressure of fear and apprehension that someday I might be a victim myself. What happened in the raid on the Ministry of Higher Education [up to 150 academics, staff, and visitors were abducted on November 14th when roughly 80 gunmen stormed a research institute] is always echoing in my mind. Today the media announced two officials of those who were kidnapped were found tortured, blindfolded, murdered, and dumped in Baghdad.
“The burden of violence and terror is further intensified by the very bad performance of our hospitals. Now, many innocent people can’t find the proper care and the majority are fleeing to Iran, Syria, or Jordan for care. One of these is my uncle, who couldn’t find a working machine for lithotripsy for his kidney stones in all of Baghdad, so he was advised to go to Syria.
“We doctors are under unbearable stress. Aside from the scores of injured people we see daily, factors like limited experience and the horrible shortage of supplies have caused many doctors problems. When faced with a complicated case, doctors often refuse to handle the case and try to refer it elsewhere since a doctor has reason to fear reprisal actions from the family if he fails to manage the case successfully.
“One week ago, I was called to examine a 22 year-old college student afflicted with 60% burns after a blast injury. He had his face and limbs mutilated. One eye had been lost. Nearby was standing a decent-looking gentleman. His eyes were full of tears with breaths full of throes. He was the boy’s father. He was murmuring, ‘Those criminals targeted me but hit my boy. Why didn’t they just kill me instead?’
“It was an uneasy situation and I felt speechless. What kind of words would mitigate his pangs? I thought to myself, but I couldn’t find any to say to him. So I couldn’t do anything except have my long, plaintive face reflect my condolences. That gentleman was a college professor and he explained to me, ‘I will not remain for a second. I just want my son to be fine so that I can take him and leave this wrecked country.’ I nodded my head agreeing with him and replied, ‘Right, it’s a country that you and I can’t live in anymore.
“By nature I am not always morose like this, but sometimes a man is pushed beyond his will.”
The fact is, for most Iraqis, there is little hope left, though polls show that over 70% of them still want all occupation forces out of their country. I’ve long since abandoned asking myself the question: How much worse can it get in Iraq? My Iraqi friends and colleagues tell me that one of the more popular sayings in Baghdad nowadays is, “Today is better than tomorrow.”
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who reported from Iraq for over eight months from 2003-2005, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. His reports have been published by the Independent, the Guardian and the Sunday Herald in the U.K. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service, as well as for Tomdispatch.com, and is currently finishing a book about his experiences in Iraq.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]