Heart of Darkness
Three weeks isn’t much time in most places. Just a couple weekends of meeting with friends, maybe having a beer or seeing a movie. Three weeks of working at a job that maybe you like, maybe you don’t. In my case, I’ve been in Baghdad Since May 19, so let’s call it three weeks. It’s a nice round number.
In that time, in no particular order I witnessed “a car bombing next to my hotel”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000770.php, started work for TIME Magazine, watched an interim government unveiled, interviewed a vice president, been mortared more times than I can count, missed two other car bombs by a few minutes, pined for New York and tentatively fell in love with Baghdad.
She’s a city that has seen better days, frankly. As mentioned, the electricity is bad. The gas lines are long — up to 5 km in some places — and U.S. soldiers still break up black market petrol rings even though that’s often the only way for Iraqis to get petrol.
Baghdad is also an incredibly stressful place to live and work, especially as a westerner, as “I’ve mentioned”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000771.php. We’re targets, and when you look very western, like I do, you’re constantly aware of eyes on you and the hostility. At restaurants, the waiters sullenly clear your table, sometimes being none too careful about keeping _chai_ or food from spilling on you. The kindness I encountered last year is absent; a western face brings a sullen welcome, calibrated to the bare minimum.
Violence, too, is never distant. A few days, there was an IED attack against an American humvee near the Interior Ministry. It killed one American soldier and wounded three others. We were on our way to the Oil Ministry and we detoured to the site of the attack. As I rushed up to the cordon, I yelled out to the soldiers that I was press. They responded by waving me away. I tried to ask one soldier a few questions about what had happened. Traffic streamed around us and cars horns beat out a cacophonic concert.
“Can’t talk to you, sir, go away,” he said.
“Well, where was the attack?” I pressed.
“I said go away,” he growled.
“Can I speak to your commanding officer? Who is he?”
“He said get the fuck out of here!” a second soldier screamed and both soldiers pointed their weapons at me. There are few things more threatening than seeing scared and pissed-off American soldiers pointing weapons at you. The Iraqis know this feeling well. I quickly retreated and returned to the car, shaken at the Americans’ hostility.
This feeling of trusting no one has gotten to me; it’s palpable and the constant vigilance is exhausting. My mood is black and I can feel a depression that is never far away. Not writing for the blog is a source of guilt, too, but TIME has kept me so busy with stories that don’t bring me in touch with average Iraqis much. I’ve been moving between the CPA and the former members of the Governing Council.
I also can’t seem to get excited over stories of abused Iraqis. There are so many and they have a numbing quality. Also, the hostility I encounter from Iraqis makes me — shamefully — less empathetic to their complaints. But nor do I feel much sympathy for Americans who point guns at me. The tragic part of this is that there is no way to blame anyone in this situation. The Iraqis will naturally hate an occupying army. And soldiers will naturally grow to hate a people they think they came to liberate but who continue trying to kill them.
I wish I could see more of the goodness in Iraqis that I know is there. And likewise, I wish they could see the goodness in Americans. But people here — the Iraqis, the CPA, the military and even some journalists — have become blinded to each other’s concerns and qualities. Those of us here, all of us, we’re not all bad people, I don’t believe. And I say “we” because no matter our nationality, this place hammers us into a collective body. The Iraqi selling me delicious juice concoctions, the American soldiers at the checkpoints missing his wife, the CPA employee who truly believed the Bush rhetoric, we are all in this together now.
But this environment is killing our ability to give a damn about anything other than staying alive. It’s burying our better angels. The lack of empathy is a bad quality for a journalist, and it’s a worse one for a human being. How can I do my job like this? It is for these reasons I’m in awe of the Baghdad artists who still manage to create beauty here. After a year of all this, they still see something worth seeing. “They are magnificent.”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000775.php
But it’s thoughts like this that make me thinkthat the Americans should pull out sooner rather than later even if disaster strikes. The Iraqis overwhelmingly don’t want the Americans here anymore (I’m not counting Kurds in this sentence,) but Iraqis know they’ll need help. They’re not ready to run their own country yet, and the new leaders — Allawi, Yawer, et al. — know it. The way the announcement of the interim government was handled is prime example.
The part handled solely by the CPA — the initial accreditation — went sorta smoothly, despite some mortar fire and a car bomb, but after we arrived at the clocktower that was Saddam’s former Museum of Gifts Other World Leaders Gave Him, it turned into a disaster. The television reporters got their interviews, but after the ceremony, in a chaotic scramble, the Iraqis declared the day over, leaving print reporters with little to do except recap what the television cameras had captured. Ebrahim Jafari, the leader of the Dawa Party and now one of two vice presidents, came back out to wade into a journalistic mosh pit. Some officials screamed at him to get back into the other chamber with the rest of the government. He ignored them for as long as he could before someone — I’m not sure who — literally grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the other room.
No one knew who was in charge. The Iraqis, inexperienced at managing the logistics of the day, were overwhelmed. The CPA people just wanted to get the hell out of there. There were attacks throughout the day. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps troops were merely window dressing, with the real security provided by beefy South Africans private contractors. U.S. troops hung around getting in everyone’s way.
It was an almost perfect metaphor for the New Iraq.
I write this not as a plea for pity or understanding. I don’t understand this country myself, so that may be impossible. And I know I have written things that will anger people: I am ashamed of many of the emotions I feel these days. But I care about the truth as best as I can see and tell it. I once believed that telling the truth — or a small part of it — could help the world. It could help people understand things better and thus make the world better. But this war defies comprehension. It’s so stupid and there seems to be no point to anything that happens here. People die on a daily basis in random, terrifying attacks. And for what? Freedom? Stability? Peace? There is none of that here and it’s likely there won’t be after the Americans leave. Iraq has spiraled into a dark place, much worse than where it was a year ago during the war. There is no freedom from the fear that is stoked by mutual hatred, cynicism and an apprehension about the future. So what if one side has superior firepower? Every bullet fired helps kill souls on both sides of this war, whether it hits flesh or lands harmlessly.
We — Iraqis and the Americans here — are caged by fear, and we are all conquered people now.