Life On The Critical List - Inside Baghdad
Determined to stay on in order to monitor human rights abuses and report the truth on where the bombs land, Jo Wilding sent this latest dispatch back to SQUALL from a city on the brink of destruction.
17th March 2003
Kamil is a man of enormous dignity, quiet sadness and the elegance of the dancer he used to be, a lifetime ago. Yesterday he stopped speaking. He would communicate only in signs. We understood well enough. There just weren't any words which would do.
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. Today in his office they were putting everything into a back room with no windows: the photocopier, the TV, computers, all their files.
The office is in the tallest building in the area, a street away from a telephone exchange. In 1991 everything above the second floor collapsed and all the windows burst inwards when the telephone exchange was hit twice. Targets, Husam says, are always hit two, three, four times, from the top, from both sides, just to make sure.
Meanwhile CNN was broadcasting business news and adverts for Texaco, showing its shiny new pipeline, built by friendly smiling people to move the nice oil about and not a word of pollution of the planet, displacement of human beings and the uneven distribution of resources the pipeline really means. I've never watched CNN in my life before and I'll be happy never to see it again.
There was a section showing graphics and explanations of various military hardware and jargon. Here's an armoured vehicle that has stinger weapons. It can carry four at a time. A British MP says he will vote against the war, but once it starts he will be "100 per cent behind our boys". There is no question in his mind that it will start, though that implies an acceptance that the vote, and by implication British democracy, is a sham. Where are their principles? Why is our country run by people who have been made irrelevant by the prime minister and yet persist in the upholding the pretence that there is some legitimacy to this process? Where is the vote of no confidence?
I pushed my chair to the window and looked at a street dotted with palm trees and cedars, a woman in a long dress walking hand in hand with a small boy in blue trousers and a stripey jumper, a pair of schoolgirls wearing the uniform long navy pinafores with white blouses and carrying shoulder bags, two old men shuffling, cars and buses hooting in the road; beyond, lines of washing were strung between the balconies and the studio presenters counted the hours until it all gets shattered: the midnight deadline, the 48 hour evacuation warning, the speech at 4am local time.
Soulav's sister is due to give birth today. They already know the child is a girl: she will be called Suja. She's waiting at home till labour begins rather than check into the hospital now: insha'Allah she will be able to get there when she needs to.
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. People are as afraid of the Iraqi government as they are of bombs. They want rid of the ruling clan but, even so, most who I've spoken to reject a US invasion as the means to change. That's not what people are supposed to say, so I'm inclined to believe it.
Yesterday we had a girls' night out. Hind is in the volleyball team for her college and they won the university championship so we took her out to celebrate. Her family is going out to a farm in the countryside for the war, as are a lot of her friends. Her aunt left for Syria last night. Why, she wanted to know, was I choosing to stay. She's scared - she'd leave if she could.
That's a bit of a weird one: it does seem a bit hard to reconcile deliberately coming to a place which most of the residents would leave if they could. I explained that I'm here to gather witness statements, damage reports and evidence of breaches of humanitarian law - on all sides - if it's at all possible for me to do it. I told her that a lot of the journalists who will report on this war are 'embedded' with the troops and will follow them in, reporting the war from the military viewpoint. The rest will be looking for stories, not legal evidence.
I said that the winners in any conflict write the history, that if the US-UK are able to present this as a bloodless war of liberation, to deny their own crimes, then they will find it easier to begin the next war. The crimes of both sides must be answered for. Every criminal would like for there to be no witnesses. I confessed I came here knowing I might not make it home, although I believe I will, and asked her if she thought I was mad. She said not. She said the truth was worth taking risks for.
"I guess it's different if it's a choice to be here in the war. If you've chosen to come, it makes you powerful. For us, because we can't leave, we feel trapped. The war comes to us. We have no power."
Today every friend seems more precious. I bought presents for their kids, hugged them extra long as I was leaving, phoned people just to say hello. "Insha'Allah," they say, "we will see you again." For those too far away to phone, I'm thinking of you and I love you enormously.
This is dedicated, with rage and respect, to the 23-year-old woman killed in Rafah yesterday by an Israeli bulldozer which was destroying the Palestinian house she was trying to protect, and to all the victims of wars. It is time for the international community take on the responsibility of protecting human lives instead of policing the distribution of wealth. It needn't ever have come to this: we could have chosen to help the Iraqi people a couple of decades ago, when their oppressor was our ally.
SANDBAGS AND GLADRAGS - Baghdad - 13-March-2003