Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Mr Blush And The Bombs Of Democracy

A diary from inside Baghdad

From the day she arrived in Baghdad to the day she was finally ordered to leave, British activist, Jo Wilding, operated as an independent human rights observer as war engulfed the Iraqi capital. What follows is an edited selection of the frontline communiques she sent back to the UK.....

17th April 2003

Though it's dark for most of our 960km journey from Jordan to Baghdad, there are trucks and tankers on the road without lights. Literally without them, not just without them switched on. Others have no brakes - or none to speak of - and simply have to sound their horns constantly to warn whatever is in their path. There aren't any spares, but life has to go on. Likewise the street lights are not on until the outskirts of Baghdad. If you look closely, there are no lights: only poles.

Baghdad, though, seems surprisingly solid. All the talk of cruise missiles, uranium bunker-busters, carpet bombing and the rest made the whole city precarious in my mind, but Saturday is a gloriously sunny day and people are going about their business. We talk to a few people about the risk of bombing. There are shelters but no one wants to go in them after the coalition bombed a civilian shelter last time, burning or boiling over four hundred people who were trapped inside. Inside a building is a bad place to be. Somewhere wide open is the best bet, they say, a field, a park or the riverside.

A gang of lads asked my name, then dissolved in giggles, slapping each other’s shoulders when I told them mine and asked theirs. Overcoming their shyness, they ask where I was from, how old I was, what I thought of Baghdad, and we danced down the street together to the clatter of drums and hand clapping.

It was an anti-war march, organised by the students at the Non-Aligned Students and Youth Organisation (NASYO) conference.

I marched with a group of young Iraqi women, clapping their hands and chanting.

People talk when they know no one else can hear. The feeling is that they would prefer genuine democracy, greater freedom, but if the choice is Saddam or the USA, they will take Saddam. They do not believe, even when they speak freely, that the US and UK will be "liberating" them.

During the march it started to rain, despite the bright sunshine. The sun was over the river Tigris, and I looked for a rainbow opposite. I couldn’t see one. If it was there, it was hidden by the UN building.

British and US citizens have been advised to leave Iraq. Radio Five Live rang at midnight to ask for a comment on the "unrest". ………."The what?"

Our friend Ghazwan was upset because it’s the clearest indication that an attack is imminent; more imminent than usual, that is. As Odai told me, they’ve been about to be attacked for about as long as he can remember. He was 11 in the first gulf war.

The food ration has been distributed for April and May already. In the next few days the 40,000 ration shops will be receiving the distribution for June and July. In the last war the food warehouses were destroyed. If they're hit this time the plan is that they'll be empty, and that people will have a stockpile for as long as possible.

Some people talk about going out to the country when the war starts, where the bombing may well be less intense. Others say they will stay and defend their city. What I haven't heard anyone say, even in private, is that they're looking forward to their "liberation" by the US. Ghazwan refers to Bush and Blair as a single entity – Mr Blush. "Blush is pushing for war despite the objections of his people," he says.

Today I went out on one of the human shield buses to a Baghdad power station where some of the international activists are going to be staying, attempting to protect it from attack.

All the way from Abu Nawas Street to the power station people were waving, cheering, giving thumbs up and peace signs. The media often suggest that demonstrations in Iraq are arranged by the government, and perhaps some are, but there was no compulsion today to pay any attention to the red double decker buses painted with peace messages. People were genuinely glad to see buses full of foreign peace activists and to know people cared enough to be there.

There are peace campaigners here from Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Congo, Chad, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Mauritius, Japan, China, India, Argentina, Greece, Russia, Estonia, the Balkans, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Britain, Ireland, Canada, the US, Australia: bring me an atlas and I’ll try to find you a country that’s not represented.

Not all internationals are human shields – there is a range of organisations out here – Balkan Sobranie, Voices in the Wilderness, the Christian Peacemaker Team, to name but a few, as well as independent activists like me.

Last night I sat down to dinner with Saddam Hussein. Remarkable, I know, and what's more, he propositioned me. He said that he had always dreamed he would "make love relationship with a Christian girl". I quickly disabused him of the notion and we carried on as before. He's studying French literature at the University of Baghdad and his father named him after the then vice president 27 years ago.

Saddam was translating for us in a meeting with the National Union of Iraqi Students (NUIS), who are now "responsible for you". You have to have an organisation which is responsible for you in Iraq, and if you want to film anything you have to be accompanied by a representative of that organisation, so we had to get their approval for our plans.

We drove out to a man-made lake. On mounds, between the lake and the engineering college opposite, an anti-aircraft gun and a radar emplacement have the look of museum pieces. Khaki men fiddle about with them while passers-by ignore them as everyday sights. As we drove up to the toll booth Saddam’s brother Ra'id mutters: "Don't speak English now."

The brothers joke a lot about what might be coming, as do many people - a satirical gallows humour that testifies to the spirit which has brought the Iraqi people still warm and welcoming after over twelve years of sanctions.

Their house is stocked with food, water and guns. Each house is ‘an independent state’ equipped with all necessities, but one family friend showed them the shopping list of provisions to be got in for the war, and the list included coffins.

Some people contemplate fighting in the streets; worst of all, the suggestion is, someone might put guns in the hands of the beggar children. Waiting for a war to start gives people far too much time for conjecture and conjuring of worst case scenarios. But there are premonitions in the air: the night before last we were shaken awake by a boom and a roaring sound and the earth seemed to wobble. We stumbled to the window but the street was normal. This time it was only thunder.

Small sandbag dens are sprouting out of the pavements, by way of some protection against shrapnel and flying debris. It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp bit of metal, so to speak, but it's not much. People have taped "X"s on their windows to prevent them shattering. Sandbags and sticky tape against Stealth Bombers, Cruise Missiles, MOABs, uranium Bunker Busters!

Meanwhile, yesterday the bulk of the remaining UN and embassy staff left Iraq.

The shops are all emptying of stock, piling it into sacks and taking it somewhere safer. Even Husam now warns us there’s a war coming. A few days ago he swore blind there wasn’t going to be an attack. It was only when we told him the UN were leaving in convoy, along with most of the embassy staff, that he rubbed his chin, frowned, and remarked that that was a bad sign Undoubtedly there are those in this country who want war to begin, in the way you long for a thunderstorm on an unbearably humid day.

There was a big puddle in the doorway into the classroom at Qataiba boys’ school in Saddam City, the poorest part of Baghdad. A woman in black drags a rag across it by way of a mop, but makes little impact. The principal’s office is as battered as the rest, deprived of maintenance after over twelve years of sanctions. Around half of the city’s five million strong population live around here. It’s a Shi’a district, touted as the most likely starting point for civil unrest after bombing starts. People tell you not to go there, even now: "It’s dangerous."

"We will not fight for Saddam Hussein, but we will fight for our land," says one man. "I will accept any Arab as president but I will not accept a foreigner. If the Americans come, they will be very strong at first, but after some time they will see resistance. We will fight them. It doesn’t matter about sects, Shi’a, Sunne, Kurd, Christian. I am Kurd. We will all fight together, not for the government. For our land." It was the first time I’d seen anyone vent frustration so openly here.

"We need to change the government, but I don’t want America invasion. This not bring freedom. I can’t talk here, because of security," ….words muttered amid the clamour of the classroom.

I hardly know whether it was real. In my head I know that bombing started around 5:30am. I know because I heard low thundering booms that drew me out onto the balcony, where I could feel the pulsation through the air and see distant flashes and the occasional moving light of a Cruise missile.

I know because I saw the feral dogs that live on the riverside running down the middle of the emptied road, trying to escape the noise, which was in stereo. I know because the phone’s been ringing all day with journalists asking what’s happening.

The war has started.

This morning the manager of our hotel was arrested, seized by two men in uniforms and dragged, screaming and struggling in obvious panic, to a vehicle, apparently because some ignorant journalists were filming the bombing from the roof of the hotel, even though they’re all supposed to be staying in the Palestine Hotel across the road. They wouldn’t tell us where they were taking him and we couldn’t do a thing to help him. We hardly expected to see him back, but within the hour he was escorted through the door. The edifice isn’t crumbling just yet.

We started with the birthday cake, because there were explosions in the distance in all directions and, if we were going to be forced to abandon the party, we weren’t going to risk having to abandon the cake. Mohammed was grinning broadly, crumbs and sugar all over his moustache. Ulam was 13 and sat at the head of the table, queen of the garden behind the tea shop beside the river.

The twins, Hebe and Dua, posed for photos, fiddling with their headscarves before presenting dazzling smiles. They ran back to the table as explosions shook the sky, then carried on as soon as the burst turned out to be anywhere but at our party. The sky was black with smoke, looking ready to roar with a huge storm, but above the smoke it was bright blue. We hugged and kissed goodbye at least four times each, especially the twins, and shoehorned them into a taxi, three in the front passenger seat and half a dozen in the back.

As I write, the sky is still rumbling, the windows shaking. It’s strange how quickly it becomes normal. But then, I’m fortunate enough to be in a structurally sound building.

"We are farmers. We are farmers." The woman kept repeating it through her rage and grief and incomprehension while the orderlies mopped the blood from the floor.

We had gone to the Al Kindi hospital to see people hurt when a bomb hit their house.

The doctor was called to the emergency room and told us to come with him. A family had just arrived. They had left their home in Baghdad and gone to their family’s farm on the outskirts for safety. There were sitting eating when a missile struck the house.

The uncle who owned the house had a head wound and a laceration to his arm but was relatively lucid and able to explain that family members were still buried in the rubble. One of the young men got married one week ago. "The bride missing. We don’t know where."

The mother held one child after another. Her eight-year-old daughter was killed.

A tiny wide-eyed boy in pyjamas cried and clapped his bandaged hands, calling out "Mama" whenever he was left alone. Safe in the lap of an aunt, he drifted off into his own world, touching his fingertip to the still-damp blood on his sleeve, looking intently at it, putting the finger to his tongue, his face chequered with cuts. In the corridor, a doctor shook with anger as he demanded, "Where is the UN?"

It’s hard now to tell the bombings from the storm: both beat at the windows and thunder through the city, but after a missile explodes, flocks of birds fill the sky, disturbed by the shock waves. After a gust, they are replaced by a deluge of rubbish, drifting in the smog of sand and dust and smoke which has turned the air a dirty orange so thick it blots out the sun and everything went dark in the middle of the day.

We have found out that three people died yesterday in the bombed farmhouse at Dialla, including the young wife, Nahda, eight year old Zahra, and her aunt, Hana. They were buried this morning.

Neighbours said the bomb hit at 4pm yesterday. The plane had been circling overhead for a while, they said. It fired three rockets, one of which demolished the entire upper storey of the house. It looked as if it had only ever been a bungalow until, clambering through the hallway, we came to the stairs, leading up to nothing.

There was nothing which could explain the attack: nothing which even looked like a target that, perhaps, the pilot might have been aiming for. It made no sense.

26- March
The Iraqi’s call it orange weather: some say it is on their side. It’s not even five o’clock and the sun won’t set till nearly seven but it’s dark outside. It stinks as well, of smoke and oil and I don’t know what else. The darkness and the grime and the fierce cold wind lend an unnecessary sense of apocalypse to the flooded craters, broken trees, gaping windows and wrecked houses where the bombs have hit. At nine o clock this morning a group of caravans was hit with cluster bombs, according to the doctors. A tiny boy lay in terrible pain in the hospital, a tube draining blood from his chest, pierced by shrapnel. I’m not sure whether he knew yet, or could understand, that his mother was killed instantly and his five sisters and two brothers were not yet found.

This morning the sky had cleared: a mixed blessing. It was good to be able to see through the daylight again but it seemed likely to mark the end of our period of grace, such as it was, when the weather was holding up the onslaught.

In Al Shaab market Mohammed Al Zubaidi told us he had a shop. It was the second one from the left as you look at the remains of the building which the bomb hit. His assistant, Faris El Bawi, was crushed in the blast and his body incinerated along with his eleven year old son Saif who was helping him, because his school was closed for the war.

Husham Hussein was about 200 metres away. He said a lot of people were injured in the flats above the shops. The shops were all open and the market was busy. He thought 25 people were killed. Someone else said 45-50 people had gone to hospital. No one could think of a military target nearby.

We were invited in for tea and biscuits in Adamiya, where a rocket demolished five homes on Monday lunchtime. Because people are not going to work or school, they were mostly at home in the middle of Monday and six died. No one saw a plane or heard anything till the explosion: they speculate that it might have been fired from the sea.

The missile landed vertically on number 13, killing the grandmother, Khowla Sherkhli, the father, Ahmed Munier, and the daughter, Maha Waleed.

Home isn’t safe, the farms are not safe, the market isn’t safe. Nowhere is safe.

Last night’s bombs were so immense I could see the flashes from inside a room with the curtains drawn and my eyes closed. The building swayed like a treehouse in the wind, rocking long after the sound had died away. The voice of the prayer call was singing out as if from a machine activated by the sudden shaking of the minaret.

The communications’ towers were hit last night and today there are no phones. I don’t know how Zaid is, or Asmaa and Israa and Mimi and Omar, or Majid and Raid or Ibrahim. They are probably less than a mile away, but it may as well be a million.

As foreigners we’re not even allowed to cross the road without a minder now. Six peace activists were kicked out this morning. A good friend was expelled yesterday to Syria as a "security risk".

I blew bubbles over the edge of the second floor inside balcony of my hotel, and watched as grown men jumped and laughed trying to catch or pop them. And all the while the bass thudding of bombs carried on around us. Playfulness in the face of war feels like profound defiance.

A missile hit the middle of the street outside the Omar Al Faroukh mosque on Palestine Street at about 4:15 this afternoon, just as people were leaving after prayers. Ahmed was walking out behind his friend Umar when he heard an explosion and saw his friend fall. Umar is a student at Rafidain College. He had fragments of shrapnel about 3cm long removed from his liver and abdomen. His grandfather, Fuad Taher, demands that Bush and Blair be charged and brought to court.

Another missile hit, close by, three minutes later. Akael Zuhair was standing in front of his house opposite the mosque. I’m not sure if it was the first or second missile that hurt him, but he’s in a dangerous state in hospital. He’s 20.

He began to regain consciousness while we were there, thrashing his limbs about while his family and friends tried to hold him still and comfort him. His mum’s tears overflowed. "I am his mother," she whispered. Nothing else. I held her without a word.

His dad heard the explosion in the street. "Help us," he said, "because we are attacked in homes and streets and markets. We are not something to be squeezed. We are thank to people in all the world, but especially in America and England. More than a million people in England say no to war. There is not a problem between people. There is a problem with governments."

Again, no one could guess what the intended target was. All of the friends and family we took statements from said there was nothing military in the area, nor any communications’ towers.

The doctors in the Al Kindi Hospital were doing a lot of tasks normally associated with nursing staff. Khalida, the chief nurse who never sleeps, said the international standard ratio is four nurses per doctor. Here it’s the other way round: there’s one nurse for every four doctors. All this as well as the bombing of another market yesterday, Al Shu’la. Dr Tariq said there were over 50 deaths and lots of injuries.

Something’s wrong. There are too many civilian casualties, too far from military targets, for all of these to be mistakes. Either they’re hitting civilians on purpose, to whip up fear in the hope of spurring rebellion, or their weapons are not as precise as they say, in which case they’re not suitable for use in an urban environment.

I’m being expelled from Iraq. It looked, for a while, as if we were going to have to leave this morning, but we scored another two days, till Monday. Coming from the Foreign Ministry, there’s not really any arguing with that. There’s no shame in it either, being booted out by this government, but it hurts, it aches. I can’t say goodbye to anyone because there are no phones and we can’t go anywhere without a minder and permission from the foreign ministry.

The bombs have been more frequent today, and closer, than any other day.

I started crying this morning. I thought I was leaving at 8am in a convoy for Jordan and I said goodbye to the staff in the Andalus Hotel.

It got worse when I said goodbye to the young soldiers on the street outside, who share their tea with us and tell jokes in mime. "Ma’assalama," I said, and added, as a reflex, "Good luck." And then I couldn’t bear the thought of them having to face those overwhelmingly powerful tanks, guns and ammunition, when all they had was an aging rifle and a hard hat to protect them.

Then when all the bags were in the car, there was a mix-up and the rest of the convoy left without me and I wasn’t leaving after all, and leaving was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but by then my defences had lapsed and the crater of sorrow inside me had filled to the top and it overflowed with the tears of Akael’s mother for her boy, Nahda’s husband for his new wife, and all the unbelievable, intolerable, uncontainable sadness in this place.

The bombing is a constant background noise today, a rhythm in stereo with no visible source. Ali is playing a game on the computer involving tanks firing missiles at things in a city. Wasn’t that a bit too close for comfort, I asked, or was it simulator practice in case he needed those skills in the coming weeks. He thought that was funny.

The kids in the Fanar Hotel were playing Risk the other day – basically a war board game, where players invade each other’s countries and try to take over the entire world with small plastic pieces. War is deeply strange.

It will probably be a while before any of my friends in Iraq are able to read this, but when you do, this is what I wanted to say. I hope you make it safely through this war and I hope you find your freedom, from the bullying of the US/UK and the Iraqi government.

Your courage, dignity, kindness and humour inspire me. Ma’assalama.

Jo Wilding left Baghdad on a later convoy and returned to the UK.

The full version of these diaries - published as they were sent back from Baghdad - can be found in the Frontline Communique section of this website

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