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

The Domino Effect

Jo Wilding sends her fourth dispatch back to SQUALL from inside Baghdad

23rd February 2003

Over cardamom coffees and lemon teas in the Baghdad coffee shop where the 1958 revolution was plotted, amid the echoing clatter of the old men slamming down dominoes onto the tables and the fragrant smoke of narghilas, our companions - two final year medical students - said they would go to the hospitals if bombing begins, to do whatever they can to help. Suraj will leave his flat, because it is next to the telecommunications tower, and go to stay with Shawkat. They say they will still come to the coffee shop and smoke and play dominoes and backgammon and chat, no matter that the bombs are falling.

People here seem to talk less about "the situation" than people in Britain, but yesterday I drank tea with a young woman called Soulaf, who talked about the bombing in 1991, when she was 13. Her four-year-old cousin cried constantly throughout the bombardment, in terror for his life. Her voice quivered and I could tell she was trying hard not to cry. She wiped her eyes, trying not to smudge the black eyeliner, and I looked for a tissue - I've been stashing them wherever I go - but the one in my pocket was fluff-ridden and unappealing. I asked if they carried on going to school. She said people still went to work, but the schools were closed, and when they reopened she had to study by candle light because there was no electricity.

A couple of days ago the New York Times published a story saying that the Iraqi people want war. Obviously I don't know the thoughts of every Iraqi person, even if they had a homogenous national opinion, but today I went out on one of the human shield buses to a Baghdad power station where some of them 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. After the welcome we've had already, I didn't doubt that this was the right place to be, but if I had, it would have ended then.

On the way to the power station I met Maya, from Serbia. She's living in Syria, studying Arabic language and literature for a year, and travelled in with the human shield buses. I hesitated a while before asking her about her experiences in the bombing of Serbia, because I thought she'd be sick of talking about it, but she said hardly anyone even seemed to remember or know that Serbia had been so recently at war.

"I am a bit jealous, to tell the truth, that there are so many people here.....and there were not any in Serbia, but I think it's good."

I thought maybe it was because a lot of people didn't really understand the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, whereas people know what this one is all about. She believes the Iraqi people are in a worse position than the Serbs were under Milosevic, but she does not see war as the answer. There are ways to support people without massacring them, ways to solve problems that do not involve bombardment and destruction of everyday life.

She said she was going back to Syria quite soon, partly because she has exams coming up, but also "I couldn't go through that again, the bombing." A US reporter from the National Geographic Channel was sitting next to us on the bus up to the power station, telling us all how it was going to be. He knows, because he's been everywhere and done everything, that all the people will hide in basements as soon as bombing starts and we won't see anyone. That's what happened in the last war and it's what will happen this time. He also knows all about the bombing of Serbia, because he was there too. Maya, evidently, is just confused when she thinks they carried on with day-to-day living.

Carl, a 72-year-old former Melody Maker journalist from Bradford, said that during the blitz in London they all used to walk around the streets, carrying on with their business with a kind of fatalism. He said one day he heard a roar and then, low enough that he could see the pilot, a plane flew over bearing Swastikas on the wing. He said he flung himself to the ground as it passed, not realising till the danger had gone that it was strafing the street he was walking down.

Carl has been to Palestine as well, and talked about how, despite the curfews, people go out and do what they need to do. Foot patrols are rare, and tank patrols can be heard from a mile away, so there is plenty of warning to take cover, and life goes on. It's not good, it's not glamorous, but they survive. National Geographic Man was adamant. I cynically suggested that he was probably right, but perhaps his knowledge didn't extend much further than the immediate vicinity of the Al Rasheed Hotel, the international journalists' ghetto.

This time, 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.

There are marches, protests at national embassies, theatre shows and concerts, football matches, blood donor sessions, link-ups between students in different countries, and so on. Not all 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 us.

As in Palestine, this is the United Nations of the people: a growing, inspiring, determined, well-informed collective of ordinary people not prepared to accept abuses of others' human rights, who will not be disempowered by politicians who refuse to listen to us.

Yesterday I was able to interview Carel de Rooy, the head of UNICEF in Iraq, about the current situation, the preparations being made and the likely humanitarian effects of war. He said that if Iraq's power stations are damaged or destroyed there will be severe knock-on effects on the entire civilian infrastructure.

I wrote a few days ago about the sewage system. Mr de Rooy explained that the system is currently in a much worse position to withstand attack than it was in 1991 and the effects of any interruption to the already deficient electricity supply will quickly become critical.

He said that water is being stored in tankers and emergency generators have been installed at water pumping plants, which will operate as long as fuel stores last, but these will not be adequate for the needs of the population, with an average share of 15 litres per person per day for all needs, compared with an already insufficient 150 litres per day. The wells we've seen dug in communities will help, even if only by providing water to wash with, so that all potable water can be used for drinking and cooking, but even so a leaked UN document estimates that just 39% may have even rationed access to water in the event of war (see

Mr de Rooy explained that the 12 years of UN sanctions have left the population highly dependent on the state. The government food ration is distributed to every resident and other essential goods like electricity, water, petrol and some non-ration foodstuffs are so heavily subsidised as to be free or almost free. Many people are employed by the government, which has created jobs to fill some of the gap left by the large scale collapse of private sector industry under the intense suppression of the economy. Again this dependence makes the civilian population far less capable of withstanding attack than they were in 1991.

Many are malnourished, 22.1% of children suffering from moderate to severe stunting or chronic malnutrition and a quarter of babies being born at low birth weight, indicating maternal malnutrition and some 70% of women are anaemic. UNICEF is supporting the country's primary health care clinics in conducting door-to-door vaccinations, first polio and then measles, beginning with children under six and then covering the 6-12 age group. Therapeutic feeding is intended to "beef up" the kids in preparation for war, but the fact remains that children are much weaker than in 1991, when their parents were, for the most part, in good jobs and they were healthy and well fed. UNICEF's national staff have been trained up to run the programme themselves, so that when international staff are ordered out, the programme will continue.

Asked whether he had any message for Tony Blair and George Bush, Mr de Rooy said that he did not concern himself with politics but with the children of Iraq. He pointed out that the effects which he talked about were already well-documented.

According to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war, effects cease to be collateral and become intentional when they are inevitable and foreknown. It is prohibited to attack or destroy objects indispensable to the civilian population, and the presence of military objectives within a population does not deprive it of its civilian character. There is already a 2300 Megawatt per day deficit in Iraq's electricity supply. Any attack on any power station will be a grave breach of international and British law. Any attack on a telecommunications tower next to a block of flats will be a grave breach.

And Tony, we're here, and we're watching you.

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