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[casi] the people of Iraq

the following is an excerpt taken from a longer article published in
the August 10, 2002 edition of the publication CounterPunch
  written by Jan Oberg. -

   The countryside and its people
When you leave Baghdad, the scenery changes and is reminiscent of poor
developing countries. On the highway toward Babylon, you see half-finished
houses, water facilities out of order and fences with barbed wire where all
the metal has been taken away and only the poles left naked behind. The
typical village is a series of houses on both sides of the four-lane road
with small shops selling cigarettes, groceries, and vegetables. People,
and a few cows here and there move around in sand, dust and filth. There is
no end to the car repair shops, of course. There may be large plantations,
some surprisingly green but there are also grey or light-brown agricultural
fields that do not seem to have seen water for months.
Bedouin men and women in black or white dresses move slowly with their flock
of sheep. Here a demolished bus, victim of the murderous traffic; there a
Vauxhall station car from the 1950s; further along a Toyota with maize. Two
men try to repair a water pump in the sticky heat, approaching 50fC (122fF).
Women, some completely covered in black with only their eyes visible, fetch
water from a well while men drink tea and smoke under a tree. An over-filled
Scania Bus has seen better days when it passes a type of arch at the
to a village on which a portrait of the great smiling leader has been hung.
You wonder whether, back in his palace in Baghdad, he has ever been here or
has a clue about the situation 50 kilometres away? Now and then, but by no
means in surprising numbers, we see soldiers, checkpoints and (unmanned)
watch towers.
We ask ourselves whether this is the type of rural area which hundreds of
thousands of Baghdad citizens will flee to when and if their country is
bombed and invaded? There is no way that they could survive out here. The
whole environment smells of stagnation, de-development after years of
domestic mismanagement and international sanctions.
Iraq is a very unique country, but in one sense it is like anywhere I have
seen wars: it's the ordinary, powerless people who pay the price of high
politics. They have no chance to get out of the double cage of domestic and
international politics.
Of course we see Babylon here; it's being rebuilt to a certain extent. The
huge walls and few original stones and reliefs are impressive. The attempts
to rebuild Babylon and the small tiles inserted with a text stating that
Saddam Husseyn is the builder and protector of it all, feels slightly
pathetic given the misery we have just passed through.
Hopes among the disadvantaged
However, we are in Babylon not merely to see this but to visit some UNDP
micro-credit programs. In Babylon town we meet a young energetic woman who
speaks a few English words. She is in a wheelchair and tells us that she
recently finished her education in computer science at the Babylon College.
She then applied to the UNDP for a micro credit and got $750 US after having
also been accepted by the Iraqi Ministry of Labour. She was trained by UNDP
and she now runs courses with all types of students, local (older) citizens,
even one in the shop who does not own a computer but hopes to one day. The
walls in her little combined shop and classroom are filled with manuals and
there are advanced programs on several of the computers in the room.
The local UNDP people also take us to an unmarried carpenter born without
legs in 1964. He is repairing a rather large rococo chair with some gold
paint on it when we arrive in his little shop. He has received $500 US and
pays back about $25 every month. The huge cupboards he builds by sitting and
crawling low on the floor, cost about $80 US. He has a good chance to repay
the loan within a few years as his business grows. He has just invested in a
saw but his greatest wish in the future is to be able to buy a wheelchair
that cost about $75 US. We leave with a sense of hope; he has a chance to
prosper because he makes incredible things with his hands and works hard. It
is impossible to miss the pride and the hope in his brown eyes.
We also visit a bazaar area where a young, round man has been helped to run
shoe shop. He buys Chinese and Syrian shoes and sandals in Baghdad for 7,500
Iraqi dinars a pair (about $3 US) and sells them for 9,000. We hastily enter
all kinds of shops in the bazaar and ask for the prices. ($1 US = approx.
2000 Dinars) A piece of soap 250, make- up powder 2000, a blouse 16,000,
conditioner 6,000, night gown 7,500, a kilo of olives 1,000, rice from
Southern Iraq 200 per kilo, 100 grams of curry 500, flour 500 per kilo. The
ordinary citizen who has a job will hardly have more than $5-10 US a month,
10,000-20,000 Dinars. Those who have a job, or a pension, must share it with
family and relatives who don't.
Here, like everywhere else and in Baghdad, we meet only kind, welcoming
people. We would not have been surprised if someone thought we belonged to
the West (we do!), were Americans or otherwise guilty for the sanctions, a
major cause of their misery. Not one person did during 14 days; we felt safe
everywhere. We took pictures, many asking us to do so, and the children of
course indescribably happy to see themselves on the monitor of the digital
camera. Shop owners invited us in, offered sweet tea, and showed us their
neatly arranged produce and commodities. Here you may get a pen, here is
something sweet to taste. "Welcome, welcome, wher' you from?"
The classic Arab hospitality and welcoming attitude towards the stranger has
certainly not been destroyed. Their gratitude and joy over the fact that
somebody has come a long way to ask them about their lives is so touching.
These are the people we, who have been there, think of when we read about
Bush regime's plans to bomb the country. Even if the peasants, Bedouin
shepherds, the young handicapped computer woman and carpenter and our bazaar
friends may not be killed, their dreams and hopes - like those of 25 million
other innocent Iraqi civilians - will be brutally crushed.
There is no humanity without empathy
When you are here, and see with your own eyes, there are other pictures of
Iraq than those you get sitting back home. One reason that so few scholars,
journalists and diplomats go there is that it opens your eyes to another
reality, a broader human reality, of this problem called Iraq. It becomes
impossible not to sympathise with the 25 million people sitting for decades
in a double cage.
It becomes difficult to accept that cold-blooded, emotionally numbed people
in your own Western "civilisation" have nothing else to offer the Iraqi
people than their present lives, where they live like animals in a zoo (the
Oil for Food Program just keeps people alive on a minimum of calories) and a
future of war. That war is bound to destroy their few simple belongings,
homes, water supply and produce. It will be the climax of decades of
dehumanisation and humiliation. How could it ever lead to peace and justice?
Only one conclusion is possible when you go there: the Iraqi people deserve
the world's sympathy, not our bombs. If you go there, you will hardly be
to advocate war. Not one international staff member or mission chief we met,
most of whom have worked there for months and years, thought sanctions was
effective political tool or that an invasion would solve more problems than
it would cause.
If TFF can go there, so can thousands of other citizens, NGOs, media people,
scholars and diplomats. Please do, and find out about the other angles you
never get here.

Jan Oberg is director of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future
Research based in Lund, Sweden.

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