Last report from Baghdad
Written on Sunday 30th March 2003
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. Many,s the evening I,ve spent setting the world to rights over tea and cake round the desk on the ground floor or, in the last week and a bit, leaning against a post on the roof with Ahmed, looking out at the city lights, or sometimes the lack of them, and the flashes and the jets of flame.
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 and guns and ammunition that can pierce body armour, with nothing but 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 us 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, writhing in pain, with metal in his head, and Nahda,s husband for his new wife, crushed in the rubble of the farmhouse, and all the unbelievable, intolerable, uncontainable sadness in this place.
Missing the convoy meant I got to say goodbye to Zaid, at least, because he arrived here at the Service Centre just after I did. He looks tired – he said he hasn,t been sleeping, because there,s nothing to do all day: no work, no money, nowhere open to go to, not even the kids to play with because they,re staying somewhere else.
There,s been no chance today to go and catch up with the people we met yesterday in the hospital and find out how they,re doing. Akael,s mother rebounds around my thoughts. Please let his head wound be shallow.
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,m so glad I,ve met you and had time to hang out with you. Thankyou for your friendship, for glasses of tea and numi basra and coffees and arghilas and songs and chat and gossip and tours of the city and evenings by the river and rollercoaster rides and shared secrets and everything.
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; I hope you are allowed your peace. Your courage, your dignity, your kindness and humour inspire me. Ma,assalama.
I,m appearing in Bristol Crown Court at 10am this Friday – April 11th – to challenge again the legality of the sanctions against Iraq. It,s an appeal from the hearing on December 2nd last year when Bristol Magistrates decided, without letting me raise any of the relevant evidence, that the sanctions didn,t breach the Geneva Conventions.
Of course, as with the war, the law isn,t the most important factor in this. Even if it were lawful, it would still be wrong to place a sweeping embargo on items including the essentials of ordinary civilian life, but every tool is important and the case is timely. The current war is in itself evidence that the sanctions have not achieved their stated aim. The conclusion of the war will likely mark the end of the sanctions in their present form, with the incalculable suffering they have caused to ordinary Iraqis and their negligible effect on the Iraqi government, which has continued to abuse its citizens with impunity.
That abuse, however, cannot be allowed to mask the responsibility of the UK and THEM governments for the hundreds of thousands of deaths attributed to the sanctions – NOT the Iraqi government – by the Security Council,s own humanitarian panel.
I interviewed Carel de Rooy, head of the UNICEF mission in Iraq, in February. He explained that 12 and a half 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.
Private sector employment has largely collapsed under the intense suppression of the economy and many people are now employed by the government, which has created jobs to fill some of the gap. One of my friends recently had to sell his games arcade business and join Baghdad,s ever-expanding taxi rank because, like the rest of the Iraqi leisure industry, he wasn,t making any money.