December 2nd - Catching Up
03 Dec 2003
Modified: 22 Dec 2003
Catching up with some friends I haven't seen since the war. Husam was arrested by coalition forces. Talaat has been working as a doctor throughout the war and occupation.
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Husam was driving his uncle’s car when a US humvee (big armoured car thing) pulled out and crashed into his side. He came to as they were dragging him out of the car. They pushed him onto the ground with his arms pulled up behind his back, tied them, put him into the humvee and didn’t speak to him for 20 minutes or so. The soldier in the humvee just watched him, smirking.

The translator came and told Husam he knew it wasn’t his fault, that it was the soldiers who caused the crash. Husam asked him please, go and tell them that. The translator went to tell them and a soldier came and hit Husam. “Watch yourself.”

After a while one of the soldiers suggested to the others that “we should take $50 from him for attacking us.” Husam didn’t have $50 for them to take but there was a child’s bike in the boot of the car that he was taking to one of his young cousins. One of the soldiers said, “Aah, he’s going to make a child happy. Let him go.” He was untied and let out of the humvee. He asked what they were going to do about the damage to his car. “It belongs to my uncle, not to me and you’ve destroyed it.” The translator said just go. You have your life, you have your freedom, just go.

He emailed a few days ago and today was the first time I’d seen him and his family since the war started. Harb, his dad, greeted me with open arms and a huge smile which faded when I asked him how he was doing. “Lousy,” he said.

“No work?” I asked.

“I have no work, there is no electricity – look, we’re using a generator, there is no security, no law and if something is broken, who do I complain to? There are no ministries. The sewers are full and there is no one to fix them. Saddam was a criminal, a criminal. I’m not defending him, but I am defending the government. We had an establishment, very much establishment, and if something wasn’t working you made one phone call and they would come and fix it. The sanctions made everything slower and more difficult but still we had this establishment. Now there is nothing: no government, no police.

“We can’t drive anywhere. It takes me an hour and a half to drive Husam to his college in the morning and in the afternoon it takes two hours to bring him back. Today my wife had to walk half her way to work. She is an old woman.”

Umm Talaat’s English isn’t as fluent as the rest of the family’s but she understood that much and gave him a resentful look – as if having to walk around the road blocks and traffic jams wasn’t indignity enough, now she was being called an old woman. The bus didn’t arrive – no doubt caught in traffic or broken, so she had to take a taxi. The bank she works in is on Old Rasheed Street, which was closed by the Americans for some reason connected with the exchange of the old currency for the new one. The closure stopped the traffic on surrounding streets and she had to walk about 3 kilometres.

The petrol queues make everything worse: Harb described the choice between queuing for two hours to fill up in a petrol station for between 20-50 Dinars per a litre or paying 4000 Dinars for 20 litres of black market petrol – 200 Dinars a litre - from a roadside seller who’s already done the queuing for you. Last time he paid the extra; today he queued, hence his overflowing frustration. “The Americans did one good thing today – they chased away the kids with petrol cans at the petrol station, so the queue moved quicker. When they do something good, we have to say so, they did something good, but when they do something bad, we can’t say they did something good.”

Talaat, the oldest son, is a doctor. His salary has gone up, he said, trying to be positive. But, he shrugged, everything is more expensive. Harb said a kilo of potatoes has gone up fourfold, from 300 to 1200 Dinars. Talaat said he bought a kilo of meat earlier that day for 9000 Dinars. I’ve no idea what it cost before but the entire family looked scandalised.

He got married in September to another doctor: the wedding had been on hold until after the war, which he spent living and working in the hospital. They received sometimes 100 casualties in a quarter of an hour, ran out of everything. He saw looters in the hospital while he was operating in theatre the day Baghdad was taken by the US. The next day, marines came to guard what was left because Baghdad Medical complex was the only hospital still functioning in the city.

The far side of the bridge was a tank, shooting at everything, “human or animal”. A pick-up was fired at: “Incidentally there was a family inside. The ones who could run away escaped and came to the hospital for help, there is a woman dying in the car and children. We went to the soldiers guarding the hospital and said to them please signal to those soldiers and tell them to stop shooting so we can get to those people. They said we can not signal to those soldiers because we are the marines and they are the ordinary army.

“We told them please, can’t you talk to them, so we can get the ambulance there and they said no, it’s not possible. So they were killed.

“Nothing has changed since the war. We have no nursing staff. I work as a surgeon, a scrub nurse, a cleaner. Still there is nothing. I am working in a septic environment. We have to prioritise – we will operate on this one now, this one later, let that one die because we can’t spare the treatment for him.”

Bullet wounds are now the biggest generator of casualties. Last year’s medical graduates are still without jobs because ministries not working properly to put them into work. They’ve been told they’ll have to wait till after January 1st. Harb indicated the girls’ accommodation buildings for the university, which are unuseable at the moment, because the glass is all broken and the structure damage. “The girls, mind you – they can’t just live in any rented accommodation.”

Husam pointed out the old republican palace. “People used to drive past as quickly as possible and make sure they didn’t slow down or stop near it. This was the main street. Now look what the Americans have done – they have put razor wire and concrete and the road is blocked so only one car can pass at a time. Now the street is always jammed.

“Did you see the telephone exchange? It was bombed four times with eleven missiles, to make sure it will never work again. We were here in the house. It was unbelievable.”

The house is a block away from what used to be the exchange. Piles of rubbish burn on the crumpled remains of the building and the tower, as if the ground opened and sucked the concrete, metal and glass into the crater it created. The surrounding houses are derelict as is the block of flats on the corner which used to house NASYO, the Non-Aligned Students and Youth Organisation, which sorted out my visa last time. Squatters live in what’s left of it.

Aside from being able to say aloud, “Saddam was a criminal”, the sole advantage Harb and Husam could think of was that you can now get onto all of Yahoo. Before, you could only access the search page. Still it’s impossible to download software that you have to pay for because there are no credit cards. Harb says it just means there is lots of pornography now on the internet. Husam is the supervisor in an internet centre which uses satellite, so all sites are accessible, but otherwise some sites are blocked by the US, notably the hacking sites which used to be the key to Iraqis’ navigation of the internet.

Adamiya is still under frequent US attack, still resisting occupation. Another friend from the neighbourhood expressed pride in his part of town. They don’t want Saddam back, he says, but they don’t want Americans there either. He was sitting outside a café one day when two men ran out from the market carrying grenade launchers. He and everyone around saw what was about to happen and dived on the ground. The first man caused a little damage but the second hit the tank hard.

The Americans started shooting in all directions but a third man was on a balcony in the market and hit them from above. All but one of the soldiers in the tank, Ahmed thinks, were killed. The last one carried on firing for a while and then realised it was hopeless and ducked back into the tank. The helicopters came but by then everyone had run away. That’s the only thing to do, Ahmed said. Get away before they arrive.

In a coffee shop a couple of days ago he was talking to a man and realised he was the brother of the men involved, who have now escaped the country. Amid the sound of dominoes clattering on the tables you could hear people talking about various weapons and ammunition. The sabotage, he says, is coming from ordinary people, local people, because they don’t accept the occupation. “I love the people of Adamiya,” he said.