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Children of The Storm (The Guardian)

Children of the Storm 
Iraq: special report

War, sanctions and corruption have brought Iraq to its knees. However, in
the midst of hardship, many Iraqis still revere Saddam

James Buchan
Saturday September 25, 1999
The Guardian 

The Amiriyeh civilian shelter is in a smart residential district about
five miles to the west of Baghdad. It was completed in 1984 during the war
with Iran. You come to it by a neat motorway lined with palms, gum trees
and oleanders. 

The shelter, grey and four-square, looks from the outside to be intact.
When I went there at the hottest time of a blazing afternoon, during the
daily power cut, I was met by a woman in a dress of deep mourning set off
at the chest by a golden amulet in the shape of the Koran.

Her name was Umm Ghaida. We needed a kerosene lamp and she took me into
her makeshift office, which was papered with curling photographs,
including one of her son, Maisan, being presented to the President of the
Republic, Saddam Hussein. Maisan, she told me, was the sole survivor of
her 10 children. The rest were killed when the shelter was hit by two
bombs early in the morning of February 13 1991. Umm Ghaida had gone home
the evening before to do the washing, and Maisan was too small to be left
behind with his brothers and sisters. 

Beyond the five-ton steel double doors, designed to close on impact, was
the upper storey of the shelter. Ahead was a dirty light that defeated the
lamp. It came down through the perforations made by the two bombs.
Sparrows squeaked among the torn steel reinforcing bars and vegetation.
There were air vents there, she said, so the concrete was only two metres
thick. She showed me the remains of the bathrooms, with the toilets still
embedded in the floor, and the place where the boys and men slept,
separate from the women and infants. 

The first bomb - Umm Ghaida called them missiles, though they came from a
US Stealth bomber-had struck at 4.30am, the second four minutes later. Of
the 1,200 people in the upper storey, she said, 1,186 were incinerated in
the 4,000-degree heat. A lower number of dead - 394 - had been scratched
out wherever it occurred on the official photographs nearby. In the two
craters in the floor were gritty plastic bouquets left by visitors, and
along the carbonised walls were photographs of the dead families,
including Umm Ghaida's own. She pointed out her 13-year-old daughter, -
"Pretty, wasn't she?" - and ran her fingers over the photographs,
muttering: "George Bush says this was a military position. But was little
Feyziye military? And Resha and Mehdiye?"

Umm Ghaida was reluctant to go downstairs. I told her I'd come a long way.
The lower storey housed the shelter's services: the Amiriyeh was supposed
to be self-supporting for 21 days in the event of a nuclear or chemical
attack. We passed scorched storerooms and a door marked "Doctor". Along
the flickering walls, the lamp picked out the scummy marks made by water
burst from the pipes and heated to boiling by the fire. In the shadows, I
sensed Umm Ghaida lose her self-control. She scampered through the
darkness. Here, under the stairs, bring up the lamp, look, feel it with
your fingers, a matting of skin, a hank of girl's hair, the imprint of a
backbone, the shadow of the heads of a boy and his sister, two
hand-prints, an eyeball.

In Umm Ghaida's devastated mind, the world was losing its order. The lower
storey had passed to the demons of dead children. It didn't matter that,
given time and the lamp, I could find routine explanations for these
phenomena: the trash left by the flood, graffiti, the egg sacs of spiders.
Down here, more than any place in Iraq, you confronted a society going off
its head.

Humiliated in war by the West, terrorised by their own government, reduced
to paupers, unwelcome anywhere in the world, the Arabs of Iraq are falling
to pieces. It is not simply that with their money and savings destroyed
and their goods embargoed, their living standards have fallen to the level
of at least 30 years ago. In their own eyes, as Iraqis, and above all as
Arabs, they have been reduced to nothing. I have never seen a people so
demoralised. Everybody I met, even the most repellent Ba'athi thug and
extortionist, felt himself a victim.

Out in the glare, Umm Ghaida withdrew into herself, hooded, dark, nine
parts crazy, waiting for her bundle of money, which she nonetheless left
untouched on the table. Her amulet glittered against the dirty black of
her dress. I wrote idiocies in the visitors' book.

As a reporter in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf
states in the 1970s and 1980s, I watched Saddam Hus sein consolidate his
control over his political party, the Ba'ath, and his country seize the
leadership of the Arab world from Egypt in 1978, then risk it all in an
eight-year war with Iran - the 19th anniversary of its beginning is this
month - and an invasion of Kuwait.

I was in Egypt when the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait by a campaign of
British and American bombing which included the attack on the Amiriyeh and
the land assault of 24-28 February 1991, known in the West as Desert Storm
and in Iraq as the Mother of Battles. On television I saw the country's
industrial fabric, including its power plants and water and sanitation
networks, knocked out of action. In the chaos, there were violent
uprisings against Saddam in the mountainous north, where the Kurds had
been fighting rule from Baghdad since the very foundation of Iraq in 1920,
and in the disaffected Shia cities of the south. (The Shia, the religious
majority in Iraq and also in Iran, had felt neglected by Saddam's regime,
which draws its chief support from a secularised Sunni Arab minority.)

On August 6 1990, soon after the Iraqi army entered Kuwait, the UN
Security Council had imposed a full embargo on trade to and from Iraq
excepting only food, medical supplies and other items described as of
humanitarian need. The UN "ceasefire resolution", SCR 687, of April 3
1991, confirmed that the trade embargo against Iraq would remain in place.
Its wording was vague, but paragraph 22 reads as if sanctions would not be
lifted for so long as Iraq failed to account for all its unconventional
weapons: these included the sorts of chemical weapons deployed against the
Iranian army and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. The resolution also
created a special commission to carry out "immediate on-site inspections
of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile capabilities".

Trade ground to a halt, such industry as had survived the bombing shut
down, private employment dwindled, the Iraqi currency collapsed and
average incomes fell to the equivalent of a few dollars a month.

>From the summer of 1991, the Security Council offered to allow Iraq to
export $1.6bn in oil every six months to buy food and medicine. The oil
revenues would be paid into an account controlled by the United Nations
and spent on goods ordered by Baghdad but approved by a committee in New
York. Saddam rejected the offer. He wanted, and still wants, to sell Iraqi
oil for cash to spend as he pleases. In 1995, amid gruesome reports from
the UN specialised agencies-including evidence from UNICEF that infant and
maternal mortality rates had doubled since 1990-the Security Council
improved its offer, allowing Iraq to sell $1bn of oil every ninety days.
At length, Saddam relented and, on 20 May 1996, the UN and the Iraqi
government signed a Memorandum of Understanding, the so-called
"oil-for-food" deal, which has been refined and renewed, with much
grumbling and grandstanding by the Iraqi regime, every six months, most
recently on May 24 this year.

Iraq is now exporting over $5bn worth of oil every half-year from its
battered oilfields. Yet because the government must pay 30% of its oil
earnings in reparations to Kuwait, cover the costs of the UN's monitoring
programme and do repairs to its oil industry, the sum available for food,
medicine, civilian reconstruction, household and school goods was only
$2.6bn in the last six-month phase, or little more than $120 per Iraqi
Arab and Kurd.

In Kurdistan, the aid is administered by the UN. The Kurdish officials I
met in Europe complained bitterly about the quality of the food and
medicines ordered by Baghdad; a government that once had only the best
from Europe and the US can now only afford rancid cooking oil from Egypt
and Syrian antibiotics. But none of the Kurdish leaders wanted the
sanctions lifted. The Kurds have suffered indescribable cruelties since
1975 and fear that, once he has cash, Saddam will merely rearm. In the
centre and south of Iraq, where rations are distributed by the Iraqi
government and monitored by the UN, the oil-for-food deal has staved off
famine and epidemic while doing nothing to repair the country's fabric
damaged in the war or improve the general health of the public. 

As for the special commission, usually called Unscom, I met nobody among
the European and Asian diplomats in Baghdad who believed it had found and
destroyed the regime's chemical and biological weapons.Whatever formal
link existed between sanctions and so-called "weapons of mass destruction"
in Iraq, it is fading from sight.

The effect, in the modern world, of the hostility of the United States is
to freeze a country in time. There are no civilian flights to Baghdad, and
most visitors must come across the desert from Amman. My first sight of
modern Iraq was a colossal fairy-lit head of Saddam Hussein hurtling out
of the darkness, as if from another galaxy of despotism and violence.
Beside it Iraqi officials stood in the shadows, smiling, their arms
crossed, like shearers waiting for the sheep. The Jordanian drivers shed
their swagger and began to whine. This was the Iraqi frontier post of

Beyond was an empty motorway, the black desert, tanker trucks swerving
like terrified deer in the headlights, then the silent, unlit city
sleeping among its palms. At the Rasheed Hotel, a nightingale was singing
in the dark garden. Crossing the threshold, visitors must step on a mosaic
portrait of a snarling George Bush, a gesture of defiance at one with the
antique anti-aircraft artillery on the roofs of the quiet ministries. 

I had expected a city under siege. I was surprised to find the shreds of
both private and public civility: a pianist plinking out the song from
Titanic to an empty coffee shop, Belarussian businessmen in the lobbies,
cinema marquees painted with gigantic negligéed women, liquor stores,
money changers, brand-new police motorbikes, Brazilian Passats bumping and
bouncing on potholed streets, fish restaurants beside the Tigris, cranes
towering over the sites of presidential palaces and mosques. It was a day
or two before my eyes became accustomed to the Potemkin character of
Baghdad. Brush against the scenery and you come on a sort of despair.

The loafers on the pavements will still buy a stranger a Coke at midday;
and this vestige of Arab hospitality came from men who can't remember when
they last ate meat. The shops in the hotels and middle-class districts,
which at first seemed so elegant, were in reality selling off the personal
property of all three generations of the Iraqi middle class: Rolexes and
Parker pens at the front, then cocktail shakers and silver cigarette cases
engraved with railway bridges, and, at the back, tulip vases and tobacco
pipes of painted Bohemian glass. In Mutanabbi Street, where books are sold
in the open air and the city's literary intellectuals gather every Friday,
I saw stacks of the American Home and the New England Journal of Medicine
from the 1950s and realised some man had sold everything he had to buy his
grandson or granddaughter a passage to Jordan. Anybody with a halfway
paying job will be supporting two dozen family dependants.

When oil revenues dried up in 1990 and the regime's foreign assets were
frozen, the Iraqi government continued to print money. As a result, the
Iraqi dinar lost 98% of its value. At the money changers' on Saadoun
Street, the chief commercial district of Baghdad, men staggered out with
plastic bags full of bundles of badly printed 250-dinar notes, known in
Arabic as dinar fotokopi, "photocopy money", or as shabah, "phantoms".
This money was sometimes refused by beggars. 

Since wages and pensions are paid at the old pre-inflation rate, all but
the most favoured sections of the civil service and military have been
reduced to penury. I was baffled that men and women went obediently to
their offices for a few dollars a month. Some said things were difficult
at home, or they liked company or the air-conditioning for the few hours a
day it is working. The truth is that Iraqi Arabs treasure any symbol of
normality. Like Saddam, they will not make peace with their misfortune.

I was taken to Baghdad university, a neat campus in Waziriyeh where the
well-dressed boys and girls looked like American high-school pupils. I was
surprised they bothered to attend. They had almost no chance of a job
after college. Opposite the gate to the Kazimain mosque the evening
before, I had met a cheerful PhD selling black georgette for ladies'
abayas who ran off a list of his fellow students who were cab drivers. It
is what Count Hans Sponeck, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad,
called "the deprofessionalisation of Iraq under sanctions". As I set off
across the hot campus, a boy named Raad trotted by my side. He said, "The
other students came to me and said, 'Run after the English reporter and
tell him our problem. It is unfair! We cannot even get Thomas Hardy!' And
this writer" - he looked down at The Great Gatsby in the old pastel
Penguin - "Scott Fitzgerald. You must tell your government to let us have
books. You must tell your government to let us visit. We are human beings,
aren't we? For God's sake let us come." 

I went to primary schools, where little children sprang up and bawled at
me, "Long live Saddaham Hissayin! Long live the Ba'ath party, nurse of the
generations!" but needed paper and pencils. We saw jerry-rigged
water-treatment plants struggling with the worst drought in memory and
railway tracks without power to work the signals.

In the hospitals, the leukaemia wards were filled with dying children and
their resigned parents; I was told that the disease was increasing in the
south, as a result of depleted uranium used in the Allied ordnance in the
Kuwait war. In the paediatric department of the Hussein Hospital in
Kerbela, sanitary conditions were so bad that the children in the
emergency rooms were perpetually infected and reinfected with gastric
illnesses. The only salbutamol nebuliser was held together by tape, and I
was told asthma patients had to be sent the 75 miles to the Saddam
Children's Hospital in Baghdad. 

Here was the reality of a weakened Saddam; asthmatic children bundled into
taxis to choke to death on the road to Baghdad.

Yet the paediatric hospitals had their elements of sham. Dr Ghaith, a
young houseman in Kerbela, scrabbled at noon through the empty shelves of
the hospital pharmacy, counting off syringes into his left hand: "...34,
35. Thirty-five is all I have for the whole hospital until eight o'clock
tomorrow morning!" I told him what the United Nations had told me, but the
Ministry had not permitted me to verify for myself: that the central
Ministry of Health warehouses in Baghdad had on their shelves undelivered
medical supplies worth $275m. Dr Ghaith looked at me in bafflement. It
occurred to me that the Ba'ath has been quite successful in blaming
sanctions for evils that are of its own creation: the collapse of the
currency, for example, or the hostility of the other Arab countries
dumping their low-grade medicines and stale food on the country, or the
incompetence, corruption or malice of the local administration.

My chief friend in Baghdad was a man whom I addressed as Mr Abdullah. A
retired professional with a wide acquaintance in Europe, he had dismissed
all his staff in January 1993 and was running through his savings at the
house he had built in the suburbs. Mr Abdullah's wife was dead, his
children were abroad, but he stays in Baghdad because he loves the town,
and because the dinar is so cheap that with $200 a month sent from abroad
to be exchanged in Saadoun Street you can live in Baghdad like an

Since neither of us had much to do, Mr Abdullah took me to visit his
friends. I met writers and architects and poets and engineers and picture
dealers and sculptors-all of a certain age, when they had begun to cease
to care about governments any more. Some were Party members, or were
active in the Women's Federation or the Union of Iraqi Journalists or some
other organ of the Ba'ath's near total social organisation. I never heard
a word of criticism of the President from these people; indeed, they
praised him for his monuments and patronage of writers. I was witnessing
the last survivors of a patrician, Anglophile, Art Deco civility. Just
evident beneath their kindness was an authentic regret: that they, who had
absorbed the values of Britain and the United States, should now be
abandoned by those countries; and also a well-bred anxiety.

They professed an intense nostalgia for the 1980s. Sitting in her fine
house by the Tigris, Mrs Salma Mishlawi, an Iraqi gentlewoman of the old
school, the first woman in her family to go unveiled, the first to attend
university in England, said: "The 1980s were a sort of climax for us. We
became spoiled. Everything we needed the government gave to us. The war
with Iran didn't really affect us for the first year or two. Until, of
course, the boys started to disappear: from here, and here, and here..."
She gestured with her fingers towards the river and Saadoun Street and
Thawra and the western suburbs. Iraq is said to have lost 200,000 men in
the war with Iran.

In the street portraits which stand at crossroads or outside government or
commercial buildings, the President is shown in different characters in a
sort of trashy international Iraq: as a weekend sportsman in a shop-new
outfit and holding a 12-bore shotgun, as an Austrian hiker with loden coat
and feathered hat, as a pool lizard in a panama, as a short-order cook, as
a Bedu prince, as an Arab officer of the Ottoman army circa 1907, as a
French judge with sword and scales, as a landowner with robe and chequered
headcloth, as a brilliant scientist with extra-large glasses, as a
grandfather with child and cigar, as a big-band musician, as a Kurdish
peshmerga, or warrior, creeping forward through long grass, as a cult
leader with garland and sunburst, as a war hero, as a young and promising
constitutional monarch, as Stalin in a fur hat, as a Russian gangster in a
leather coat, as a navvy with spade, waistcoat and cloth cap.

The purpose of the pictures is both to remind the public of its Great
Leader, particularly in the years after Kuwait when he was not much seen
in public, and also to act as a superstitious protection, a species of
devil worship. At a deeper level, they are like old portraits of monarchs
in Europe and promote a dynastic notion: that the President embodies Iraqi
male society in all its variety and in a sort of super-ideal form. We
visited the Sahat al-Ehtefalat, or Festival Square, Saddam's monument to
victory in the war with Iran, a ceremonial parade ground in Soviet or
Chinese style closed at both ends by monumental forearms holding aloft the
swords of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and patriarch of the Shia. I
was told the forearms were modelled on those of the President. To enter
it, you drive over Iranian helmets embedded in the concrete, or tumbling
from nets at the base of the monumental wrists. It expresses all that the
Ba'ath has by way of ideology. It is a monument to pure violence.

At Feish Khabur in Kurdistan, where the Tigris flows out of Turkey and is
joined by the Khabur tributary, you can stand at a place where three
countries meet: Iraq, Turkey and Syria. There is nothing in this wild
place except snowy mountains and 37 Kurdish boys, in Kevlar suits and
baby-blue United Nations helmets, on their knees clearing anti-personnel

Here, in the late summer of 1990, fearing an Allied invasion through
Turkey, the Iraqi army sowed a strip of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines
which stretches some 45 kilometres. On a small ridge above the river
junction, there is a rusty observation tower. The Italian, Chinese,
Russian, Ger man and Yugoslav mines now poking through the weeds were
laid, I guess, to protect it. While the mines might have held up a modern
army for a good 30 seconds, they blow Kurdish villagers and flocks to
smithereens. A field which took a morning to lay will take the UN nine
months to clear.

I watched a black kite quartering the minefield and realised I was happy.
For the first time in four weeks, in this cartographical rarity, among
these diligent young men and their Australian and South African
supervisors, I could breathe in and breathe out. I was delighted with my
liberty and that of the men around me.

Khorshid, my driver in Kurdistan, who lived in Baghdad, had learned his
English from BBC cameramen. As we drove south from the Feish Khabur
minefield down wide, green valleys, past immense blockhouses in the wheat
that date from British battles with the Kurds in the 1920s, or the rubble
of villages destroyed by Saddam during the war with Iran, we were driven
off the road by a truck carrying smuggled diesel to Turkey. "Cor blimey,
what a tosser," Khorshid said.

I had seen the vestiges of Iraqi rule in Kurdistan: the filthy concrete
concentration camps along the main roads, the dynamited villages. Between
1975 and 1990, the Ba'ath is reckoned by the Kurds to have destroyed more
than 4,000 villages in order to cut off support to the Kurdish fighters.
In the so-called Anfal campaign at the end of the Iran war - the word is a
Ba'athi joke: Anfal is a chapter heading in the Koran and means The Spoils
of War - Saddam tried to extirpate Kurdish rural existence. In command was
Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known in Kurdistan as Ali Kimawiya,
"Ali Chemical". On the morning of March 16 1988, aircraft clearly marked
as Iraqi dropped napalm and phosphorus on the Kurdish town of Halabjeh,
and then followed up with nerve gas. At least 3,800 people were killed
that morning. Both the Kurds and the Iranians were so shattered by
Halabjeh that they sued for peace.

If sanctions are lifted, it is hard to imagine Saddam spending the
resulting $10bn a year or more in oil revenues solely on medicine and
education and repairs to the electricity and sanitation systems. He will
spend it to restore his prestige and his security. He will spend it on
palaces and motorways and hospitals, and on weapons of every sort.

Back in Baghdad, Mr Abdullah picked me up in his Buick. It was dark. As we
drove through the underpass beneath the Zawra Park, he gathered himself
together in that way even the bravest Iraqis have when they are going to
talk about Saddam. He said: "Don't touch the President. Everything we have
here, everything you see" - and here he pointed at the new shops by the
racetrack where, in December 1996, Saddam's son Uday had been ambushed and
wounded - "everything you see is designed to protect him. Nothing else

He was right, of course, for modern Iraq is merely the physical embodiment
of a single man's fears and misjudgements. What Mr Abdullah meant, in the
elusive way of speaking people have in Iraq, is that Saddam is the Last
Iraqi. To get to him, the US will have to kill every single other Iraqi,
Arab and Kurd. What Mr Abdullah meant was that it isn't worth it: that, as
the boy said at Baghdad University, it isn't fair.

• This is an edited extract from the new edition of Granta magazine, Women
And Children First, £8.99 or direct from Granta (freecall 0500 004 033)
£6.99. James Buchan's new novel A Good Place to Die, is published by
Harvill this week at £16.99.

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999 

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