December 8th 2003 - Ahmed and Ali
10 Dec 2003
The US offer of reward money for information means an ambulance volunteer has had to go into hiding. The petrol queues are getting worse.
Ahmed volunteered for the last 15 days of the war as an ambulance driver. He started out trying to bring bodies and injured people to the hospital in his car, but as only one of the hospital’s ambulances in use during the later two thirds of war, he and his friend Ali started using a second one instead of the car.

“I brought five hundred bodies and many injured people. I brought all of them to Saddam Children’s Hospital [part of the Baghdad Medical City] because it was the only one that was still functioning. I never even saw a dead body before and they took me to the morgue and there were 80 bodies there.”

He had no medical training – he used to be a university lecturer in applied physics. After the war, for three months, Ahmed and Ali carried on driving the ambulance at night when people were reluctant to drive about, if they had cars, for fear of being shot by the soldiers. They got permission from the US authorities to drive after dark and, says Ahmed, after work they would start driving, collecting people and bringing them to hospital. He promised me the whole story another day over coffee and baklavas.

They kept the ambulance running as long as they could but eventually it sputtered to a halt and hasn’t worked for three months. Ahmed quit the science college because he couldn’t live on the money they paid him and now works for an organisation which clears away mines and cluster bombs. Apart from the salary, he says, there was no organisation after the war. People took freedom to mean doing exactly as they pleased, there was no co-operation and it became impossible to do anything.

The ambulance, as I just mentioned, hasn’t worked for three months. “One week ago the American soldiers raided Ali’s home. They said they have been given ‘information’ that he uses the ambulance to carry guns and ammunition and these things around at night. They found nothing in his home, not even one gun, although you are allowed to have one gun.

“Now he is a fugitive. He cannot go home because they are looking for him, they will arrest him even though they found nothing in his home. He cannot go to the Americans and say he has nothing to do with moving guns, because they will arrest him as soon as they see him and he will be in prison for at least six months. That is what happens.

“They give $2500 reward for people who give information so people tell stories about someone they don’t like, or they make something up just for the money, and they take the prize. For three months he did not sleep, just worked and then came home and drove the ambulance and now he cannot go home.”

The signs promising these rewards are on huge billboards all around Baghdad. On one of the roundabouts the posters have been bloodied with red paint – a comment on the suffering caused by those who give information, a warning to those contemplating doing so or a middle-finger salute to the authorities offering it: your offers of money won’t protect you.

But, as I’ve said before, solidarity is an alien concept for many here and while there are people like Ahmed and Ali who risked their lives, at times, to bring dead and wounded civilians to the hospitals, tale telling on neighbours and colleagues became a means of survival under the old government. The promise of a couple of years’ worth of wages to a population of which more than two thirds is unemployed means that no one has been liberated from that culture of fear of the people next door.

The mobile phone network is now said to be at least a couple of months away. It seems to delay is deliberate: in Afghanistan the network was up and running within a couple of months of the invasion. It proved useful to the resistance, who were able to communicate troop locations between, for example, the lookouts and the ambush teams. With resentment increasing, the existing MCI network is being cut back as well.

Every time you try to change dollars for dinars someone will frown suspiciously at the note you offer, shake his head, tut and pronounce, “This one is not real.” He will point out whatever feature determines that the note is a fake, maybe show you an identical one of his own as proof, and ask if you haven’t got another one to exchange instead.

Unless you’ve got a kalashnikov in your other pocket, you’re probably not carrying another $100 with you, so you move on to the next money changer, who happily hands over a wedge of the old Saddams for your dollars, thank you very much. You still get a better rate of exchange for the old Saddam notes than you do for the new liberated currency. The dinar, incidentally, is rising against the dollar, though I’ve no idea why. It’s not as if the Iraqi economy is in recovery.

Coincidentally, Tahrir Square, scene of the Saddam-Statue-Toppling ceremony, is now encircled by money changers, who sit at wooden tables with stacks of money in front of them. The wealthier ones have the new, smaller, more pert banknotes in a drawer, with only a small sample of their wares on display, a single 25,000 Dinar note the equivalent of the elastic-banded 100 note bundles of 250s which the little men are still trading. Tahrir means ‘Liberation’ – it was called that long before the Americans got there. It just seems somehow ironic that the scene of the symbol of ‘liberation’, whatever that was for anyone, has turned into the closest thing Iraq has to a stock exchange.

The petrol queues are longer than ever with several hundred cars waiting in spiral queues from petrol stations without even enough fuel to power the generators to work the pumps when the electricity is off. People spend the night in queues in order to drive to work in the morning. Tanks and humvees stand guard to make sure no one gets a can filled to sell outside but when the stations close, it seems it’s still possible for the black marketeers to get a few litres.

Check out for a front page report on the fuel crisis and other English language news from Iraq. The risk of being caught, tied up and held down with a bag on your head by a thug-fest of American soldiers [I believe this to be the correct collective term for US troops] has driven up the unofficial price even higher. I suppose in a sense it’s more socialist than you might expect of the occupying powers, preventing those with greater wealth avoiding the suffering of those without, but you still never see a humvee in a petrol queue.