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The Last Days of Iraq
by Janine di Giovanni
March, 2003 (Vanity Fair)
On Ash Wednesday, a few weeks before war was declared on Iraq, I went to mass in St. Mary's Church on Palestine Street in Baghdad. The mass was in Armaic, the ancient language of Jesus, and around me the Iraqi Christians knelt and prayed for peace. On their faces was etched all the fear and anxiety of the past few weeks as the diplomatic process unravelled and the world fought over whether or not their country would be bombed. A few of the women, wearing lacy white mantillas on their heads, were crying.
Towards the end of the mass, three American peace activists, stood and addressed the congregation. Over the past few months that I had been in Baghdad, there had been a flurry of pointless peace activities, beginning with the arrival of the actor Sean Penn in December, to a host of human shields from Seattle and Michigan, to men of the cloth spreading words of faith. One of the priests, from Washington D.C. said slowly, "We hope we carry the hopes and fears of the people of the world in the quest for peace." It was meant to be reassuring, but the congregation looked wary.
The next man came from the Riverside Church in New York and he spoke of Martin Luther King. I turned to the woman next to me, about my own age, deeply drawn in by her own prayers. She was silently mouthing the rosary; when she saw me, her eye seemed to register a plea for help: can anybody stop this?
Outside, the desert sky had grown dark. The mournful wail from the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer, came from a neighbourhood not far away. But the Christians, who number around 3 per cent in Iraq, shuffled out of the church and lit beeswax candles in front of a statue of Our Lady.
Suddenly, a group of Muslim peace activists from Egypt appeared with white doves in their hands and a sign demonstrating their solidarity with the Iraqi people. It was an odd moment. The prayer session had turned into a public-relations session with the Egyptian trying to high-five the reverend from Washington. I decided to leave.
My driver, a Palestinian whose family emigrated to Iraq in 1948, was with me. For weeks, he had been helping me stockpile food, water, car batteries and medicine in my room at the Al-Rasheed Hotel, and helped me find a secret, safe place to live in the city once the war started. Driving me to church, he said I seemed more nervous in the past few days.
Even though Iraqis in those days before Baghdad fell did not have access to satellite televisions which would bring them CNN or the BBC, my driver knew what was coming: war. But he was fatalistic. A few days before, he arrived with an enormous bag of gum for me to chew during the bombing so that my ears would not pop, and he advised me not to be afraid of the noise, or of the rockets.
"It is written in heaven the day we are going to die," he said sagely. "So don't be afraid."
I said nothing: there was little to say. We climbed into his long 1987 Oldsmobile - everyone in Iraq seems to drive cars straight out of Starsky and Hutch – and drove over the muddy Tigris.
"What will happen if the Americans come?" I asked him, breaking the silence. Even though my driver, as well as my government appointed "minder" had to report back on me and my activities to the Ministry of Information, sometimes on a daily basis, they had both become friends. After two months working inside Saddam's Iraq, I became accustomed to not asking questions, not expecting answers. But sometimes, I crossed the line and asked things I knew I should not.
My driver's eyes shifted, the way they did if someone mentioned President Saddam Hussein, or if I asked what happened to the man I kept seeing in the Ministry of Information who had no fingernails. The first time I saw this man, a wizened character who collected money from journalists in a large sack after their official visits, I stared in horror at his naked nail beds. Who had done this? What had this man done to deserve this torture? And how had he managed to survive it, such trauma?
When I asked my driver about the man, he had not answered. I repeated my question, thinking he had not heard. But his face closed down like a steel gate. Don't ask me. He had managed to survive this long without getting into trouble. In those dark days, no one mentioned Saddam's name, no one mentioned the mukhabarat, the secret police with their thick moustaches and cracked leather jackets who sat all day on the sofas of my hotel, and stared brazenly when we passed. No one mentioned the President's evil sons, Uday or Quasay, or his family. Safe things to talk about were the weather, George W. Bush or sanctions.
I tried again. "What will happen when the Americans will come to Baghdad?"
Silence. Finally, he answered. "We will fight," he said. "Every Iraqi has a gun. No one in this country, even if they oppose the president, wants foreigners occupying their soil."
He turned over Revolution bridge, over the River Tigris, the wide, muddy river where the great British explorer, Freya Stark, who lived in Baghdad in the 1930s once wrote,
"It is the only sweet and fresh thoroughfare of the town: not clear water, but lion-coloured like the Tiber or Arno. Its' low winter mists in early morning, or yellow slabs of sunset shallows when the water buffalos come down to drink after the day…"
Now the Tigris is still wide, but it is drastically polluted: tonnes of raw sewage poured in every day, the result of faulty water purification plants destroyed during previous bombings in 1991 and 1998. But it is still grand, imposing; walking near it still makes me realise how ancient Iraq is.
Sometimes, walking by the river, by the old grand colonial houses, by the former British Embassy on Haifa Street, a pale-yellow building with collapsing verandahs which closed when the diplomats fled in 1991 before Operation Desert Storm, I had flashes of life before Saddam in Iraq. Near the river, life continued and war felt distant. The masgouf - grilled carp fish - restaurants were still open and the fishermen pulled in huge silver fish and roasted them over open fire pits on sharpened wooden sticks. Men drizzled the fish with fresh orange slices, and drank bottles of Iraqi beer made from water from the Tigris.
The souks and cafes were full of people; of old men who sat with nigilas, apricot-flavoured water pipes and plates of the famous Iraqi dates reading the newspapers and gossiping. And on Thursday nights, the first night of the Muslim weekend, the best restaurants in town - Il Paese, for instance, which served spaghetti all'oilio or mozzarella and tomato salad – were packed with well-dressed middle class families. Women with carefully straightened hair, their dark-suited husbands, their well-dressed children.
It was easy to forget that these people, who looked like you or me or like friends of ours, existed. In a country devastated by economic sanctions, where child beggars grabbed the end of your coat and babies died from diahorrea because of unclean water, it was easy to forget there were people who were educated abroad, who spoke good English, good French, and who looked at America and Britain as friends, not as enemies who would very soon bomb them.
More than the bombing, people were fed up with sanctions which prohibited anything that might be remotely considered a dual use product - something that can be used to make weapons of mass destruction - to arrive in the country. That included medicine, and strange things like pencils and shoes. "I don't know who makes up these rules back there in the U.N. hadquarters" a puzzled Iraqi friend said to me once staring at his ungainly plastic shoes. "We used to have the best clothes and the highest standard of living in the Middle East. This embargo is choking us to death."
This is what sanctions meant: you died of cancer if you got it, unless you were rich enough to afford black-market chemotherapy which cost around $3,000 each cycle. A professional Iraqi earned, in those days, about two dollars a day. It meant you shared books if you were a student, and they were probably photocopied or downloaded from the internet or smuggled in from abroad.
It meant you read 20 year old copies of The Studio to get ideas if you are an artist because you could not get new ones. It means you could not travel or update your knowledge if you were a doctor, a professor, a scientists.
It also meant an strangulation of the intellectuals. On Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, we walked to the book market off al-Rasheed Street. If you got there early in the morning, you saw piles and piles of books in English, French, German for sale. Copies of the letters of Gertrude Bell - the English woman who rose, along with T.E. Lawrence, to the highest British political office, and died in Baghdad in 1926. Faded orange Penguin classics, copies of Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham and Truman Capote. Stacks of Newsweek from the 1970s, with a photograph of the first test-tube baby on the cover. Encyclopedias of medicine from the 1950s, political leaflets from Moscow, ancient books from the British Consul Library, long disbanded.
People sold books to eat. In the last days of Saddam's Baghdad, they sold them to buy lanterns and supplies for what they believe will be a long war. There' was a café at the end of the street, in an old Ottoman style building that dates before the British mandate, with faded sepia-print photographs on the walls. Inside is a scene out of 1930s Paris, Les Deux Magots. But instead of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre pouring over the meaning of existence over an espresso are Iraqi poets and writers arguing over Italian post-war cinema or translating their poems from Arabic to English.
In one corner was Nasir, who wore a black polo-neck jumper and had dark circles under his eyes; there was his friend Yoahkam Daniel, a Christian film critic, and his friend Sada Bathan, a translator who clutched a worn copy of Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons. The two friends met in the café several years before and bonded over their love of books. They call the meeting point at the end of Mutanabe Street their "sanctuary." Both smoked heavy imported French cigarettes, drank sugary tea and argued Italian post-war cinema.
"Roberto Rosellini!" shouted one.
"Vittorio da Sica!" countered the other.
Sada lost his wife to a routine medical procedure which went wrong. He blamed it on sanctions, but also on the life that has deteriorated around him. He loved his wife passionately, said she was a cross between Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, and his grief hung around him like a mantle. "I called her Beatrice," he said, thumbing through the Capote book. "After Dante."
The three friends compared about their lives in 1970s Iraq, " A rich life, full of travel and money and books and luxury" said Yoahkam, to the current days, the steady drip of misery, of fear.
"The embargo is suffocating us," said Sada. He paused. "But no one can strangle our minds."
One afternoon during Eid - the Muslim festival of sacrifice which carries on for several days – a middle-aged man with a gentle face approached my table at Il Paese where I was having lunch with my driver and my minder. He was a former pilot from Iraqi Airways, and he asked if he could sit for a moment. He brought with him a beautiful teenager, his daughter.
"We wanted to welcome you, to thank you for coming here," he said in slow, careful English "For seeing what it is like to live in this country now, in this difficult time." His wife, who had wide, pale blue eyes and copper coloured hair, waved shyly from the next table. "It's not easy for us now," he said. "We used to travel, meet so many people. Now no one comes to Iraq. Our country is an empty shell."
When I first arrived in Iraq in early December 2002, war seemed so distant, like a storm that was far off at sea. By early spring, the days were bleaker. Deep in the into the heart of the city, into old Baghdad, the area of the traders and goldsmiths and market stands that sold shoes and leather bags and copper, and huge pyramids of oranges and tangerines, the mood changed drastically in the days leading up to the war. There were more women shopping with their brothers and their husbands, with huge sacks stuffed with provisions for the war: bags of rice, sugar, tea, flour.
The Iraqi government had given months and months of rations to families, so much that many people have complained they don't have enough space to store it. But buying food, or candles, medicine, duck tape or re-chargeable lamps gave one a slight psychological triumph over fear and anxiety: it meants you can attempt to have some input into something you have no control over.
Those last days of pre-war, those last days of Saddam, were dark days in Baghdad. Children were digging trenches in the streets. Sandbags are going up, there were more soldiers on the streets. On my bed at the al-Rasheed hotel, someone discreetly placed a brand new instruction book: What to Do in Case of a Fire. It had been freshly printed, the only new thing that I noticed in the shabby Soviet-style hotel. The instructions might be helpful in suburban America but I doubt they would work during a cruise missile attack. For instance, "If smoke fills the room, open a window and hang out sheet to drive the attention of rescuers."
Ten days before Hans Blix, the United Nations chief weapons inspector delivered his final progress report to the Security Council - a crucial linchpin in the diplomatic process – I drove to the edge of town and visited the Iraqi House of Fashion. I had thought it was the place where Iraqi womens' wear was designed, instead, the director general, Firyal el-Kilidar, a soft spoken economist wearing an elegant black dress with leopard cuffs explains that the House of Fashion was a cultural monument, a way of promoting the ancient civilisations of Iraq. Saddam was a sponsor, as was his moody blonde wife, Sajida, whose photograph at the opening of the House of Fashion in 1984 hangs on the wall. She's shaking hands with a very young and nervous looking Firyal. It is the first time I have seen the President's wife: a tall, blonde, pretty woman dressed in an Yves-St. Laurent kimono- style dress with her tiny dark-eyed daughter, Hala, by her side.
The dresses that Firyal and her team fashioned were exquisite, but they were not for sale. In the old days, pre-war, the dresses and the house models - who had their own gym, their own swimming pool and their own library of copies of Vogue from the 1970s - went on a tour of the world, parading in costumes that depicted the ancient Iraqi civilisation. The dresses were staggeringly beautiful: filmy caftans embroidered with real silver; a ballgown made from date-palm leaves; a green and blue silk dress number that suggested Babylonia.
But the place reeked of sadness and disappointment. Firyal, great dark rings under her eyes, put on a brave face. "This is the best way to show the reality of our country," she said, adjusting a headdress on a model. As Director General of a company within the Ministry of Culture, she is effectively part of Saddam's regime. But with her soft, motherly face and her fluent English, she did not seem like the enemy. She just seemed like what she was – a grandmother in her late 50s who had worked all her life and was now terrified at what was coming.
The House of Fashion was made from glass. It took a rocket hit during the 1991 bombing and an enormous sculpture of the shards of glass stands in an open courtyard: an Iraqi man playing the flute and a dancing woman joined together. It's a sign of something, not quite defiance, but survival, almost as if to say: you can bomb us and bomb us and bomb us, but we will still survive, we will still have our culture, our history.
"Why can't people leave us alone - let us live our lives?" Firyal said suddenly. She told a long story: her only brother went to live in London, and now is one of the openly active Iraqis in exile, speaking and writing out against Saddam Hussein. Firyal no longer speaks to him, she doesn't understand why he has turned on their country. She prefers the government ahead of her beloved brother. It is typical Saddam propoganda,, but when I suggest that gently, she sits up straight. "There is no pressure to defend Saddam!2 she says. "I've worked within the ministry for thirty years! Everyone is allowed to do what they want."
When she says goodbye, she say that she is so frightened she can't sleep. There are tears in her eyes. "I will stay here, where else can I go?" she says. "I will stay at work until I can't work anymore. Then I will go to my home. I won't run away. This is where I belong."
Then she wishes me luck and goes back to her dresses.
The bombing began on March 20. Slow at first, in the suburbs. Then closer, hitting Saddam's Palaces, and Republican Guard positions, lighting up the River. By early April, the electricity went out. The sprawling city was plunged into darkness, and the al-Windawi's had to use the small generator I gave them to cool their daughter's insulin.
In the south, in the desert, the weather had changed. From raw low-rising mist on the Tigris, to desert heat. At first, the desert war moved slow, though the briefings in Centcom in Doha, or in Kuwait City, or Amman said the coalition forces were progressing.
"I am a patient man," said a British General who was in the south with his troops, trying to contain rebel insurgents. His men patrolled checkpoints where they checked civilians to make sure they weren't suicide bombers.
"Remember, we will have lots of surprises in store for the Americans," was what my friends in Iraq had said, over and over. "We will not be occupied." The Iraqis liked to use the words "quagemire" and "guerrilla war". Tariq Aziz likened the winding streets of Baghdad, where Fedayeen paramilitary fighters, most of them recruited from jails and orphanages, could crouch and hide, to the jungles of Vietnam.
The Americans mowed hrough the desert in tanks and APCs. On April 4, they arrived at Saddam International Airport, which I had flown into many times, and renamed it Baghdad International Airport. I imagined the American marines sitting in the duty free lounge, eating the plastic cheese sandwiches and drinking the orange Merinda soda, the only thing you could then buy. A day later, the BBC reported that they had made it as far as my former home, the al Rashid hotel.
But it was not an easy war to win. American soldiers with soft eyes, from Texas or Colorado, approach civilian vehicle at southern checkpoints and are met with children with guns. Prisoners of war are taken. It is said that a girl in Safwan saluted a coalition soldier and then is found hanged a few days later.
The sun drops fast in the desert, the heat drops sharply, and the thousands of coalition soldiers are plunged into darkness. In the base I share with some British soldiers near Basra, everyone uses flashlights at night that have been penned in with red felt-tip. There are eerie flashes of red throughout the camp at night, like martians, and the sound of low thuds, mortars in the distance.
We have to go around with green military bags strapped to our sides: gas masks, spare filters, atropine injections with inch-and-a-half needles to inject into our thighs in case of nerve gas. At 7:15 am every morning, a truck distributes our daily ration packs as well as malaria and nerve-agent pills. There's a decontamination unit next to us, they let us use their cold water showers sometimes, the same showers that will be used if soldiers get "slimed" or contaminated.
During the day, the temperature rises, and rises. There's a bout of some infectious gastrointestinal bug going around and the Quarter Master, a thin Brit with a public-school accent and a shrill strictness, lectures everyone about hygiene. We get two litres of drinking water a day, a small bowl to wash in the morning. Dinner is rations: Lancashire hot pot in an envelope, eaten with a plastic spoon or beans. We go to bed early and rise around 6 am when it is still cool.
By 10 am, it is at full desert heat - 40 degrees C, inside a tank, suffocating gasps of breath. We drive through the desert in Land Rovers and across the flat, lunar landscape, Basra shimmers in the desert heat, surrounded by a cloak of oil fires ringing the city. At the furthest British front line position, a young sunburnt soldier with a blonde crew cut leaned out of his tank for a breath of air.
"It's 60 degrees in here," he said. His face is ringed with sweat.
Suddenly came the whiz and the dull thud of a mortar landing close by. As it burst, thick black smoke rose like a fat cloud.
"Mortar or grenade?" asked a 33-year old British reservist, a pretty blonde woman named Nicky, who usually worked as a lobbyist in Westminster, but has been in Kuwait and Southern Iraq for the past two months. She added dryly, "If it's an RPG, I can honestly say it's the first time I've been RPGed."
It turned out to be a mortar, and more rounds came in. Further up the road, past Bridge Number Four in the southwest point of the city which spans the Shatt-al-Basra canal, another group of soldiers, Irish Guards who had taken position in a former technical college with shattered windows fired back with rapid machine gun fire.
A few weeks ago, Iraqi students sat neatly with their books in front of them on desks and portraits of their president, Saddam Hussein, on the walls. Now the school is transformed. It has become the war zone, the furthest front line for British troops, a base with soldiers in desert-coloured uniforms jumping in and out of tanks and armoured vehicles, racing further down the road. The portraits of Saddam have been yanked down from the walls and someone has written, in the fashion of Ali G, a British comic, "I'm a loser, in-it?"
There was a shudder to the hot, still air as rounds came in. The dusty earth under our feet shook slightly. Further on, an RPG dented, but did not penetrate a mustard-coloured Warrior.
There was the rank smell of cordite, then the sound of more gunfire. "All fun and games," sniggered one young soldier. The injured, but not damaged, tank had a dark stain and looked as thought it had been struck with rocks. But the rocket had not penetrated the armour, the soldiers explained proudly.
"There's quite a few RPG's around," explained Second Lieutenant Tom Orde-Powlett, the platoon commander. "There was quite a lot of noise when it hit, we were aware of it. But there's so many loud bangs going on all the time."
Underfoot, near the school, the ground was littered with shattered green glass and burnt-out blackened buildings. David Birnie, a 22-year old from Leamington Spa, lifted his shirt and adjusted his combat trousers to show a three-inch minor flesh wound, bleeding, with a bandage hastily slapped on top to staunch the blood.
"This did it," he said calmly, taking a chunk of jagged shrapnel from his pocket. "in that last round of incoming."
Another Warrior rolled up with a 30 mm mounted cannon. A soldier with a shaved head who looked like he should be out raving at a club in Manchester was half hanging out, a startled expression on his face. He had just spied an Iraqi land rover moving with an anti-tank gun, and as the Iraqi soldier re-loaded, he shot his cannon.
"Got him" said another soldier with grim satisfaction. "Took out some Iraqis. But he feels kind of strange, doesn't want to talk about it."
That day, sixteen days into the battle of Basra, the Brits say they are not besieging the city, but are "isolating" it from Ba'athist and pro-Ba'athist military elements. All four key bridges which lead into the city centre are secured by British troops and they have taken strategic footholds - houses or industrial sites - from which to launch their operations.
The British forces are battling on two different fronts to secure Basra, but they are still fighting Iraq's armed forces as well as irregular militia troops. There are an estimated 1,000 militia troops reportedly still holed up inside.
"What we did today was rattle the cage," says one soldier. "Stir up the wasps nest. We went in, pushed further, trying to create a response to draw the enemy towards us so we could fight more on our terms."
The next day we drive out to Basrah International Airport, now secured by coalition forces. In my bag, I still have an unused ticket for Baghdad-Basra-Baghdad for February 16, 2003. I never used it and now I look at the gutted airport with a burnt out Iraqi tank blocking the runway and pock marks of shells everywhere and I can't believe one month ago, this was a normal place.
The wind whips down the runway, scattering sand. There are no civilians, only Desert Rats, British soldiers, who have secured all four strategic bridges in Basra. They talk about hearts and minds and winning the people's trusts. They talk about "liberation" not occupation. But later, in the camp, I quietly speak to a young soldier who says to me in a whisper, "This is all about George Bush's Texan oil friends, isn't it?"
A few days later, Day 18, the Brits go into Basra. Civilians come out with their hands up, the men in dirty dish-dashes, the children scared. The desert outside my camp has wild camels and if you close your eyes, you might imagine that once this was a different place for the Bedouin or the Marsh Arabs who live north of here. But now, it is an Army encampment and life in Iraq will never be the same. The place has the bitter and hostile smell of war.
One afternoon, on the way back to our base, we passed villagers fleeing, wheeling trolleys of too-ripened tomatoes grown in soil rich with depleted uranium, and some clothes hastily put together. The trenches around Basra filled with oil flared, a wall of fire, dug by retreating Iraqis in front of an oil supply line, which they fractured before setting the spillage alight. The British soldiers say their purpose is to obscure aerial or satellite imagery. But the wall of smoke left an eerie light reflecting the sky, painting the houses which flew white flags overhead milky-colour.
It is so easy to forget people lived here. That there was a time when it was not a war. Driving back to camp, further south, in the fields, some peasants still worked the crops in the midst of the smoke and the thuds, as if they did not know there was any war at all.
I am back in Baghdad. The war is over, but the streets have changed, they're full of young soldiers with sun tans, from strange small towns in America.
One marine comes to my room to wash the dust off himself, weeks of desert dirt, from the tubs of water I have stored in my dark bathroom. Still no electricity. Another, even younger, comes to my room looking for some food. I give him a chocolate bar. He chews it thoughtfully.
"Miss," he says, munching on the weird Iraqi chocolate, much more bitter than the candy he grew up with. "What is this war about?"
© Janine di Giovanni