Iraq: The Devastation
Iraq: The Devastation
The devastation of
The illegal war and occupation of
I've been in liberated Baghdad and environs on and off for 12 months, including being inside Fallujah during the April siege and having warning shots fired over my head more than once by soldiers. I've traveled in the south, north, and extensively around central
Then, as now, for Iraqis, our invasion and occupation was a case of liberation from -- from human rights (think: the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib which are still occurring daily there and elsewhere); liberation from functioning infrastructure (think: the malfunctioning electric system, the many-mile long gas lines, the raw sewage in the streets); liberation from an entire city to live in (think: Fallujah, most of which has by now been flattened by aerial bombardment and other means).
Iraqis were then already bitter, confused, and existing amid a desolation that came from myriads of Bush administration broken promises. Quite literally every liberated Iraqi I've gotten to know from my earliest days in the country has either had a family member or a friend killed by
It was quickly apparent, even to a journalistic newcomer, even in those first months of last year that the real nature of the liberation we brought to
In December 2003, for instance, a man in
Sadiq Zoman is fairly typical of what I've seen. Taken from his home in
I visited his wife Hashmiya and eight daughters in a nearly empty home in
Her daughter Rheem, who is in college, voiced the sentiments of the entire family when she said, "I hate the Americans for doing this. When they took my father they took my life. I pray for revenge on the Americans for destroying my father, my country, and my life."
In May of 2004, when I went to their house, a recent court-martial of one of the soldiers complicit in the widespread torturing of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib had already taken place. He had been sentenced to some modest prison time, but Iraqis were unimpressed. They had been convinced yet again -- not that they needed it -- that Bush administration promises to clean up its act regarding the treatment of detained Iraqis were no less empty than those being offered for assistance in building a safe and prosperous Iraq.
Last year, the empty promises to bring justice to those involved in such heinous acts, along with promises to make the prison at Abu Ghraib more transparent and accessible, fell on distraught family members who waited near the gates of the prison to see their loved ones inside. Under a scorching May sun I went to the dusty, dismal, heavily-guarded, razor-wire enclosed "waiting area" outside Abu Ghraib. There, I heard one horror story after another from melancholy family members doggedly gathered on this patch of barren earth, still hoping against hope to be granted a visit with someone inside the awful compound.
Sitting alone on the hard packed dirt in his white dishdasha, his head scarf languidly flapping in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared unwaveringly at the high walls of the nearby prison as if he were attempting to see his 32 year-old son Abbas through the concrete walls. When my interpreter Abu Talat asked if he would speak with us, several seconds passed before Lilu slowly turned his head and said simply, "I am sitting here on the ground waiting for God's help."
His son, never charged with an offense, had by then been in Abu Ghraib for 6 months following a raid on his home which produced no weapons. Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission slip that he had just obtained, promising a reunion with his sonâ€¦three months away, on the 18th of August.
Along with every other person I interviewed there, Lilu had found consolation neither in the recent court martial, nor in the release of a few hundred prisoners. "This court-martial is nonsense. They said that Iraqis could come to the trial, but they could not. It was a false trial."
At that moment, a convoy of Humvees full of soldiers, guns pointing out the small windows, rumbled through the front gate of the penal complex, kicking up a huge dust cloud that quickly engulfed everyone. The parent of another prisoner, Mrs. Samir, waving away the clouds of dust said, "We hope the whole world can see the position we are in now!" and then added plaintively, "Why are they doing this to us?"
Last summer I interviewed a kind, 55 year-old woman who used to work as an English teacher. She had been detained for four months in as many prisonsâ€¦in
But that, she assured me, wasn't the worst part. Not by far. Her 70 year-old husband was also detained and he was beaten. After seven months of beatings and interrogations, he died in
She was crying as she spoke of him. "I miss my husband," she sobbed and stood up, speaking not to us but to the room, "I miss him so much." She shook her hands as if to fling water off themâ€¦then she held her chest and cried some more.
"Why are they doing this to us?" she asked. She simply couldn't understand, she said, what was happening because two of her sons were also detained, and her family had been completely shattered. "We didn't do anything wrong," she whimpered.
With the interview over, we were walking towards our car to leave when all of us realized that it was , already too late at night to be out in dangerous
"No, thank you, we must get home now," said Abu Talat. By this time, we were all crying.
In the car, as we drove quickly along a
I had none. None at all.
And yet when it came to the basics of that New Iraq, unemployment was at 50% and increasing, better areas of
I was then working on a report that attempted to document exactly what reconstruction had occurred in the water sector -- a sector for which Bechtel was largely responsible. That giant corporation had been awarded a no-bid contract of $680 million behind closed doors on
At the time, when travel for Western reporters was a lot easier, I stopped in several villages en route south from
What water his village did have was loaded with salt which was leaching into the water supply because Bechtel had not honored its contractual obligations to rehabilitate a nearby water treatment center. Another nearby village didn't have the salt problem, but nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, cramps, and even cases of cholera were on the rise. This too would be a steady trend for the villages I visited.
The rest of that trip involved a frenetic tour of villages, each without drinkable water, near or inside the city limits of Hilla, Najaf, and Diwaniya. Hilla, close to ancient
He spoke of large numbers of people coming down with the usual list of diseases. "Bechtel," he told me, "is spending all of their money without any studies. Bechtel is painting buildings, but this doesn't give clean water to the people who have died from drinking contaminated water. We ask of them that instead of painting buildings, they give us one water pump and we'll use it to give water service to more people. We have had no change since the Americans came here. We know Bechtel is wasting money, but we can't prove it."
At another small village between Hilla and Najaf, 1,500 people were drinking water from a dirty stream which trickled slowly by their homes. Everyone had dysentery; many had kidney stones; a startling number, cholera. One villager, holding a sick child, told me, "It was much better before the invasion. We had twenty-four hours of running water then. Now we are drinking this garbage because it is all we have."
The next morning found me at a village on the outskirts of Najaf, which fell under the responsibility of Najaf's water center. A large hole had been dug in the ground where the villagers tapped into already existing pipes to siphon off water. The dirty hole filled in the night, when water was collected. That morning, children were standing idly around the hole as women collected the residue of dirty water which sat at its bottom. Everyone, it seemed, was suffering from some water-born illness and several children, the villagers informed me, had been killed attempting to cross a busy highway to a nearby factory where clean water was actually available.
In June, six months later, I visited
And then, of course, he -- like the other doctors I spoke with â€“ brought up their horrendous water problem, the unavailability of unpolluted water anywhere in the area. "Of course, we have typhoid, cholera, kidney stones," he said matter-of-factly, "but we now even have the very rare Hepatitis Type-Eâ€¦and it has become common in our area."
Driving out of the sewage filled, garbage strewn streets of
Today, in terms of collapsing infrastructure, other areas of
While an ongoing fuel crisis finds people waiting up to two days to fill their tanks at gas stations, all of the city is running on generators the majority of the time, and many less favored areas like
The heavy-handed tactics of the occupation forces have become a commonplace of Iraqi life. I've interviewed people who regularly sleep in their clothes because home raids are the norm. Many times when military patrols are attacked by resistance fighters in the cities of
Then there is Fallujah, a city three-quarters of which has by now been bombed or shelled into rubble, a city in whose ruins fighting continues even while most of its residents have yet to be allowed to return to their homes (many of which no longer exist). The atrocities committed there in the last month or so are, in many ways, similar to those observed during the failed U.S. Marine siege of the city last April, though on a far grander scale. This time, in addition, reports from families inside the city, along with photographic evidence, point toward the
Last May, at the General Hospital of Fallujah, doctors spoke to me of the sorts of atrocities that occurred during the first month-long siege of the city. Dr. Abdul Jabbar, an orthopedic surgeon, said that it was difficult to keep track of the number of people they treated, as well as the number of dead, due to the lack of documentation. This was caused primarily by the fact that the main hospital, located on the opposite side of the
He estimated that at least 700 people were killed in Fallujah during that April. "I worked at five of the centers [community health clinics] myself, and if we collect the numbers from these places, then this is the number," he said. "And you must keep in mind that many people were buried before reaching our centers."
When the wind blew in from the nearby Julan quarter of the city, the putrid stench of decaying bodies (a smell evidently once again typical of the city) only confirmed his statement. Even then, Dr. Jabbar was insisting that American planes had dropped cluster bombs on the city. "Many people were injured and killed by cluster bombs. Of course they used cluster bombs. We heard them as well as treated people who had been hit by them!"
Dr. Rashid, another orthopedic surgeon, said, "Not less than sixty percent of the dead were women and children. You can go see the graves for yourself." I had already visited the
Speaking of the medical crisis that his hospital had to deal with, he pointed out that during the first 10 days of fighting the
Both doctors said they had not been contacted by the
As I walked to our car at one point amid what was already the desolation of Fallujah, a man tugged on my arm and yelled, "The Americans are cowboys! This is their history! Look at what they did to the Indians!
And that, of course, was before the total siege of the city began in November, 2004. The April campaign in Fallujah, which resulted in a rise in resistance proved -- like so much else in those early months of 2004 -- to be but a harbinger of things to come on a far larger scale. While the goal of the most recent siege was to squelch the resistance and bring greater security for elections scheduled for January 30, the result as in April has been anything but security.
In the wake of the destruction of Fallujah fighting has simply spread elsewhere and intensified. Families are now fleeing
The intensification is two-sided. With each ratchet upwards in violence, the tactics by the American military only grow more heavy-handed and, as they do, the Iraqi resistance just continues to grow in size and effectiveness. Any kind of "siege" of
Despite a media blackout in the aftermath of the recent assault on Fallujah, stories of dogs eating bodies in the streets of the city and of destroyed mosques have spread across Iraq like wildfire; and reports like these only underscore what most people in Iraq now believe -- that the liberators have become no more than brutal imperialist occupiers of their country. And then the resistance grows yet stronger.
Yet among Iraqis the growing resistance was predicted long ago. One telling moment for me came last June amid daily suicide car bombings in
Three weeks ago, a friend of mine who is a sheikh from Baquba visited me in
The Bush administration has recently increased its troops in
What I wonder is, will I be writing a piece next January still called, "Iraq: The Devastation," in which these last terrible months of 2004 (of which the first half of the year was but a foreshadowing) will prove in their turn but a predictive taste of horrors to come? And what then of 2006 and 2007?