Surviving in Iraq People on the front line speak out (11/02)

Who among us can possibly imagine what being an Iraqi, living anywhere in that doomed nation, must feel like? Should each resident of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosel build a bomb shelter? Should you abandon your home in the city and flee to a village where your cousins live? Should you get out garden tools and be prepared to fight in the street? And if so, against what and whom?

Perhaps you could head for the border to a neighboring land. But which one — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, or Jordan? Will any of them let you in? And how will you reach the border?

Should everyone in the family flee together? What about your 82-year-old father? What about your brother’s sister in the hospital? Do you abandon them? Your son is in the army; you’ll have no choice but to leave him behind. On the other hand, if you decide to stand firm and defend yourself, who will be your enemy? The neighbors whose religion is classed as Shi’a, or other neighbors who are Kurds? Will you fight the local police, or an invading army, or the Iraqi army in which your own sons stand?

In the West, with imperial power so energetically consolidating its grip over the entire world, legislators, academics, media specialists and military leaders publicly discuss their strategies as if there is a real debate going on. Most US citizens, as poorly informed as they are, eagerly embrace the call for a war against Iraq. Meanwhile, what are the Iraqis debating? The defiance we hear from the country’s leadership is a totally reasonable response, as is Iraq’s attempt to reach some compromise with the UN over the call for weapons inspections to resume. Iraqi military strategists are doubtless reviewing how they might defend their nation. But surely the majority of Iraqis, the civilians, face the most difficulty and the greatest danger.

The enemy, Washington, says there must be a regime change. But the Iraqi public cannot possibly revolt. Outsiders say it’s up to officers within the military to spark a rebellion. But even if they do, what choices would the Iraqi public have? Bloody purges would invariably follow a coup, and the authoritarian military style of new leadership may well continue under US oversight.

Then, if Sadaam Hussein is removed, would all Baathists have to go? Many more ordinary Iraqis have joined the Baath party in recent years, not for ideological reasons, but as a tactic — to escape the crush of sanctions. Party membership has become a form of insurance against hunger, a way to keep the secret police at bay, secure a job in a ministry, or extract bribes. Once an exclusive elite, Baath Party members now number many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, although power still lays in the hands of a few. In a war, what side will they be on, and does it matter?

During the past 12 years, as many as five million Iraqis (one in every four) have fled their country. Most of them are trained middle class professionals who expected to secure employment; their educational skills are prized in Europe, Australia, and the US. Many others want to follow, among them the thousands of young Iraqis still entering college. Despite their despair and hardships, these students work hard to win good marks, hoping Iraq’s reputed high educational standard (although declining) will increase their chances of getting a visa to another country. But perhaps an equal number of young people attend college because they still believe in their country, and are determined to stay and rebuild it.

For many US citizens, it isn’t easy to comprehend how any Iraqi can possibly want to remain in a place that is so devastated, led by a person who seems so brutal and autocratic. Yet, abandoning ones country, whatever the hardships, is not an option for most people. If you endured overwhelming difficulties, managing to restore your dignity, take care of your family, and keep your country from total collapse and chaos, would you want to leave?

Many millions, perhaps more than 25 percent of the population, have rallied. They have managed to give their life some meaning despite the pressures from inside, plus the deprivations and isolation. One is Mohammed Mehdi, a psychiatrist at the Ibn Rushd government psychiatric hospital. The number of patients there increased tenfold after the war, a time when the hospital lacked medicines to treat them and the facilities were deteriorating.

Mehdi’s patients come from all classes; some are civil servants, others are farmers who arrive from villages near Baghdad. Few are admitted as inpatients because space is insufficient. Mehdi was able to restore the garden in the courtyard of the 70-bed hospital "just to help our patients find some calm."

The increased demands on the hospital are almost all a direct result of the 1991 war and 12 years of sanctions. Fortunately, extended families, although not as stable as before, are still strong enough to help mentally ill member, he points out. Only with the comfort available from loved ones have "many of my patients survived these hard, hard times."

Dr. Huda Ammash is another Iraqi dedicated to staying and helping her people. A university professor and researcher, she is handicapped by the lack of books, but carries on nonetheless. "We cannot plan," she says. "No one can plan beyond the next day. It is hard for my students to imagine a career and move toward a goal. We proceed from day to day, just as I do with my own children." A biochemist whose research quantifies the toxicity in the environment resulting from the last war, Ammash has published the results of her work, but can no longer place her articles in US or British medical and scientific journals because communications have been banned by the embargo.

Lena Khalaf also will not leave her country. She lost her job during the war. Since then, although certain she could easily secure employment abroad, she has been unable to find work at one of the UN offices in Iraq. Her older sister left for Libya several years ago and works there, sending cash home to help Lena take care of their elderly parents, both over 80, and their brother and his family. Their brother, a physician, is so emotionally depressed that he’s unable to function.

Kerbala General Hospital, located south of Baghdad, has lost many staff over the years. But those who remain say they are there for the long haul. At one point, despite rising needs, the hospital had to halt surgical procedures altogether. It closed down two floors of patients’ wards because conditions were so bad and they had no medicine. Since 1997, they have begun to rebuild with their own resources and some equipment supplied through the food-for-oil program. After years of decline, the remaining medical staff formed a committee and, collecting donations from pilgrims to al-Hussieni Mosque in Kerbala City, managed to reverse the slide. Last year they opened a new dialysis wing, as well as a cardiac ward.

Consumed with daily problems — illnesses, breakdowns, depression, and fear, most Iraqis will tell you they can’t even think for a moment, if they dared, of joining any effort to change their government or protest Baathist policies. Whatever their opinion of their current leadership, Iraqis have grown disdainful of the western democracies, and the US in particular, because of the sanctions they have imposed and the suffering they have caused.

At this point, they can’t imagine a war resulting in anything other than further deaths and more hardships. Thus, in whatever way they have managed to survive and rebuild a school, a shop, or a garden, they feel they have succeeded in defying the US-led agenda to destroy them and their civilization.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a regular TF contributor, frequent commentator on Arab issues, and author of Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, available from Barnes and