From Inside Iraq
In the first of her dispatches back to SQUALL, Jo Wilding describes her arrival back in a country bracing itself for a military onslaught.
16th February 2003
Chance and lateness combine to put me inside Downing Street, opposite number 10, as the Cabinet comes out. I've just delivered a letter to Tony Blair telling him I'm going to Iraq to act as a human rights observer and gather evidence of likely and actual breaches of the Geneva Convention on protection of civilians. CND and Peacerights have served a "letter before action" - the first stage of the legal challenge process - and although countries like Britain and the US frequently flout international law with impunity, I want Tony to know people are still holding him accountable for the effects of his war on ordinary Iraqi civilians.
So I've delivered the letter and Sky News want an interview, which is why I'm waiting behind the barriers when they all come out. The Sky reporter shouts "Is it a united cabinet, Mr/Mrs..." whatever at each member as they come out. They all pretend they can't hear. They've all been in there debating whether to kill thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and now they're filing past me in their smart suits, chauffeured safely away from impertinent questions. Robin Cook appears: he of the ethical foreign policy. That makes me quite cross. I don't recognise Geoff Hoon but the reporter calls out to him. Geoff Hoon is one of the cabinet's chief warmongers.
"How many Iraqi kids are you going to kill Mr Hoon? They're going to die because you're going to stop them getting food or clean water Mr Hoon. It ceases to be a collateral effect when it's foreknown and inevitable, Mr Hoon. It becomes genocide Mr Hoon."
Expelled from Downing Street for asking a minister a couple of questions. How naughty.
Next to me on the plane is a Palestinian man who was studying on a scholarship in Sweden when the 6 day war made him an exile. He can visit Jerusalem on a Jordanian passport now, but he can never go home. The owner of the taxi company that takes us from Jordan airport into Amman city tells us that 750,000 people have left Iraq through the border with Syria, since the border with Jordan was closed. He's moved most of his cars from Amman to Damascus because that's the route people are taking now.
It strikes me, as I make my own journey: how frightening, how dislocating, to leave knowing you might never be able to come home.
Though it's dark for most of our 960km journey 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.
The inside lane and the roadside are liberally ornamented with the remains of tyres. On my last visit I saw what those tyre remnants mean. People can't afford new tyres: 60% of them have little or no income aside from the food ration. Bald tyres blow out and the driver loses control of the car, which careens across the road till it finds something to crumple into. No flowers, just torn rubber marks the spot.
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 their sanctuary. Inside a building is a bad place to be. Somewhere wide open is the best bet - a field, a park, the riverside. We walk down along the riverside, past feral dogs and a group of boys playing football.
Ahmed and Mohammed are still where they always were, outside the Al Fanar. Ahmed's face has matured - he must be 16 now, but he's still very small. Saif isn't there. I wonder - he had what looked like melanomas on his face, but Ahmed says he's fine. There's another boy now, a smaller boy, Hassan, shining shoes now on their pitch. The soles of his trainers aren't attached to the rest anymore and his feet are too long for them. I try to ask what size he needs, but our mutual language isn't up to it yet. I go looking for Muna, but her money exchange isn't there any more. I check a couple of times, up and down the street, in case I've just missed it, but she's gone. I wonder, but I'll never know.
Over the evening bread and houmous in the Al Fanar hotel we're entertained by a woman at the next table who works for Oprah Winfrey. She's just set up an interview with Huda Ammash who is, she says, a powerful woman and the voice of Iraqi women. The name is familiar. She's one of the highest ranking people in the ruling Ba'ath party. She was interviewed by Scilla Elsworthy, head of the Oxford Research Group, who was out here a few weeks ago. The Oprah woman doesn't want her to say the same as she said to Scilla. She wants her to "break out of the box". Huda, it seems, is gaining, or being given, quite a lot of credibility.
Perhaps there is a pattern emerging. In any conflict in which the UK or US has deposed an existing leader or regime - such as Afghanistan and the Balkans - there follows a process of legitimising the people who have fought their way to a position of power before the ceasefire. Elections are then called and declared to be free and fair providing the right people win and behold, the US/UK has brought 'democracy' and 'freed the people'. No matter whether it's someone the people want, whether the people are safe, or able to do any more than previously. No matter what the new leader did to get into the position of power he or she is then legitimised in. In Bosnia, the election was declared free and fair while the election observers were still on the bus returning to give their reports that there had been intimidation of opposition parties by the power brokers within each area. There was a 103% voter turnout.
Oprah-woman carries on to tell her companion about the Non-Aligned Students and Youth Organisation conference, which Julia and I are going to [Jo Wilding is in Iraq with British documentary maker, Julia Guest, whose subsequent film is viewable on www.journeyman.tv - search for 'Baghdad Stories']. We'd been chasing visas for weeks before we heard about the conference and as soon as we registered we were given visas. She says there are over 1000 students going to the conference and not one of them female. Surprised, Julia and I check under the table that we've not undergone any changes in the last hour or two. No, we're still female. And this woman is part of the process of legitimising possible future leaders of the Iraqi people.
This is Jo Wilding's second visit to Iraq. She wrote an article for SQUALL about her first visit called 'Behind the lines', available on the features section of this site. Jo will be sending more Frontline Communique's back to SQUALL throughout her current visit.
FROM INSIDE IRAQ 2 - 18th February 2003
BEHIND THE LINES - Life inside Iraq following the invasion - Nov-2001
SANCTIONING IRAQ - Interview with former Asst. Sec. Gen of the United Nations on resigning over Iraq - 2000