Kate Raphael | January 28, 2004
Yesterday at 1:00 a.m., I joined 11 other women and one man (a cameraman from Free Speech TV in LA), for a seven-day delegation to Baghdad. It has already been a very intense couple days, seeming much longer than 36 hours. It has been both fun and a little stressful for me to be the only Arabic speaker in the group, though for meetings and most errands Occupation Watch has provided a wealth of translators.
We were delayed by several hours leaving the airport, because of a foul-up with the transportation arrangements -- typical delegation experience, the Jordanian border was clogged with Iraqis coming back from Haj (not the one to Saudi Arabia, but from visiting religious sites in Jordan), and then there was a problem getting petrol because the electricity was out in the gas station and so there was no way to pump it. All this resulted in our being on the road very late; you want to enter Baghdad well before dark. We were in three GMCs, speeding on the highway, our drivers expertly zipping in and out of the lanes, watching for "Ali Baba," the bandits who roam the roads around Faluja. Just after 5:00, we noticed that one of the cars was not with us. A little later it showed up, and the drivers pulled over to consult. Our driver, Saddoun, came back saying, "Ali Baba." The other car had been robbed by four men with two machine guns. They lost all the cash they had, plus one passport, two cameras and a flight ticket home.
Today, we met Anwar, whose husband and four children were killed in front of her and her younger daughter by U.S. troops last August. They were driving from her parents' house to their own at 9:30 p.m. in the quiet neighborhood of Tunis. The army called it a "mistake," but turns out it is not one they can be compensated for, because everything that happened after May 1 is to be taken up with the new Iraqi government after the elections. I will tell you more about Anwar's story another time, but right now I want to share a story I heard last night.
Last night after dinner, some of us went with Paola, who works with Occupation Watch through the Italian group Bridges to Baghdad, for coffee in the hotel restaurant. Paola described the fierce disappointment people have with how the U.S. and Coalition forces have behaved, and what they have done since the fighting officially ended and the occupation began. She says they are using types of collective punishment with which I am familiar, learned from the Israelis: house demolitions, taking hostages from families of wanted men, villages which are completely closed, "no one goes in, no one goes out," building walls. She said, "When you look in people's eyes, all you see is sadness. It's so big. People are tired and they have no hope."
We are joined by "Amjad," who works as an interpreter and "fixer" for a group of young journalists. I do not use his real name, though he said I could in reports to my friends, because he says the "Americans" have tried to kill him several times. I do not doubt it. A fixer, he explains, is someone who sets things up for journalists. "I find the story, I set up the interviews, I get them there, I translate the story. He just has to write it down," he says. He is 26, and does not look older, unlike the men his age I have met in Palestine, who usually have three or four children by this time. After two years studying in Michigan, his English is perfect and unaccented. His clothes are U.S. preppie. I thought he had been raised in the States and gone to school somewhere like Harvard, but he comes from a Baghdad area of heavy resistance, Adamia. He says, "I am resisting too, but I am doing it with words."
He is wired and talks almost non-stop. He tells us (Kahan, an Iranian-Indian American from New York, who is exactly his age, Rosina, a former flight attendant from Singapore, and me) that he is exhausted because he has not had a break since the war began. "Working with journalists," he says, "everyone I talk to, all day long, has so many problems." He wants to tell us one story, he says, which is the most painful one for him.
Some months ago, an Iraqi journalist he knows who works for Al Jazeera, heard an explosion and went to see what happened. There had been a bombing, he was the first on the scene and he immediately set about filming it. Soldiers came and arrested him. He asked why and they said, "You know why." They said that because he had been at the scene immediately, he must have known about the bombing ahead of time and not told them.
They handcuffed him, put a bag on his head, and made him strip naked. When they demanded he take his underwear off, he protested that as a Muslim, this was a violation of his beliefs. The soldier said if he did not strip, he would shoot him. They made him stand with his arms over his head for eleven hours, Amjad says, from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m. It was very cold, his stomach clenched, and he threw up on himself. He fell down. The soldier lifted him up and told him if he fell again, he would be shot.
Now, said Amjad, this is the worst part. His voice shook. At the end of the night, they gave him pajamas and told him to clean himself with them. He did. They took him to a sink, told him to wash the pajamas, and then ordered him to put them on, still wet. He asked for underwear, and a woman soldier brought him women's underwear to put on. He protested again, that in Islam, it is haram (taboo) for a man to wear any article of women's clothes (I don't think the soldier was trying to encourage trans liberation in the Iraqi Muslim community, but if she was, her timing was pretty lousy).
I wanted to say more about Amjad's reaction to this story, but I cannot because I have to go in a minute. I will keep sending stories; feel free to share them as you like.
Kate Raphael has recently been kicked out of Palestine and is now on a 7-day delegation to Baghdad organized by CodePink and Occupation Watch. The group is investigating the status of women under occupation.
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