"Why, Why, Why?"
by Cathy Breen
April 18, 2003
I awoke to the penetrating smell of human sewage. Later downstairs the smell of rotting food from the hotel waste assaulted me. Yesterday as Cynthia and I walked over to the Al Dar hotel to visit with folks there we had to walk through the sludge of human waste at one point. A short time later I was down in the lobby with two friends from NGOs who are in relief work. They expressed some of their concerns to me. On the bright side some of the local clinics are up and running they said, but medications for conditions such as hypertension and diabetes are no longer available. Under the previous government, people would come on a monthly basis to receive these drugs. Additionally Iraq had an excellent system for control of serum and other products before distribution. This system is no longer in effect, and our friends are very worried about contaminated goods being distributed and used. They are in desperate need for equipment to test these products.
We have heard that cholera has erupted in Hilla, which needs to be confirmed. We spoke about the emergency situation here in Baghdad of electricity, waste, sewage and potable water. They told us of an area called Abu Ghraib, a large dairy farming area with the government's milk factories nearby. During the conflict the farmers and their livestock were caught in the middle of Iraqi and US army fighting. Many civilians together with their livestock were reportedly killed, and now the stench of rotting flesh is unbearable. They had heard that the area is being bulldozed.
We decided to meet later in the day as these friends had meetings to get to. After consulting with Kathy, it seemed a good idea to walk over to the Military Operational Services, which are based in the Palestine hotel only a stones throw away. We had to pass through the Coalition Force's control right in front of our hotel, showing ID and being frisked. At the control center we spoke first with a Staff Sgt. who told us that Lt. Cnl. Van Nordiem was out and unavailable. As we sat down to wait, Major Frank Simone came over to speak with us. He explained that the priorities they are working on are: Medical, Electrical, Sewage and Water, Law Enforcement, Oil and Telecommunications. They are trying to identify local leaders within each functional area, form communities in each area and get people back to work.
Upon questioning, he seemed to be aware that the electricity grid in Baghdad is intact and that it is the high velocity lines which were hit and need to be attended to. No, he didn't know if or when these will be repaired. I asked him what was being done about the sewage and garbage disposal in the meantime, an emergency situation that could explode into a health crisis of epidemic proportions at any moment. He didn't know, moreover he was unable to advise us as to how we could get this information. A nice guy, he said that they were working 20 hours a day. For him this seemed to be a satisfactory answer. As we left the hotel, we ran into journalists from the U.S. that we know and challenged them to follow up on and confirm the cholera and the bulldozing stories.
After returning from the Military Operations Center I was overjoyed to find our friend Prof. Saad Al Hassani in the lobby with Cynthia. We had been able to sit in on his modern drama class on more than one occasion in the past. We were able to sit together unrushed and catch up on the last few weeks. His family is safe and living with relatives, as their own house is unlivable due to a missile, which hit next to their house. His son Ali who stopped talking during the Gulf war and whose subsequent stuttering required years of treatment, seems to be doing alright, as is their younger son Yassar, 13 years old. Lamia, his wife and also a university teacher have not fared as well. The bombing and now the occupation have taken their toll on her. She cannot bear the presence of foreign troops in her beloved country. She wants to leave the country, and it seems that for her own emotional and psychological well being she should. Saad on the other hand is determined to stay on with his students. He broke down more than once as he told us about the "total destruction of the university." He told us that his books, all his memories, and his students' theses have gone up in smoke. "They burned the national library too." Like many others, he is struggling deep within himself to understand how this destruction can be happening. He too is asking the question "why, why, why?" He said, "The people who are doing this are not Iraqis, at least not the Iraqi people that we know." He said that it was all "too big for him," that he has no words to express his rage, his "absolute anger." Saad has found work with MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Co.) and NBC as a translator. He told us yesterday that he and others from NBC had barely escaped with their lives when they visited the Mustanceria University to see the destruction there. After they had viewed the burning and trashing of the University, masked "hooligans" approached them with knives and machine guns. They retreated hastily to their car just in time to avoid being jumped.
The anguished stories of his recent experiences poured out. He and a friend witnessed dead soldiers lying on the ground. One had a grenade in his hand, another a machine gun. Stepping over the dead bodies were men coming out of a building, their arms laden with looted goods. "Picture it," he said, "men defending their country while others were pillaging it." He also related having watched a U.S. medical officer operate in open air on an Iraqi man with a shotgun wound to his leg. After packing up his surgical equipment, the doctor and Saad spoke together at length. The doctor told him that he was going to leave as soon as possible. He couldn't reconcile the idea of being the cause of injury and destruction and then trying to repair the wounds.
Later in the afternoon Kathy and I were able to drive out to visit Amal. As we drove through the city we saw crowds of people standing around banks that had been recently ravaged. Torn money was strewn in the streets. Mohammed, our taxi driver and friend said almost matter-of-factly as we passed one bank "That is my bank."
At the home of Amal's two woman friends where she is currently staying - first her home was damaged by the bombing and remains uninhabitable, and then her craft shop was completely stripped bare by looters - we found her inconsolable. She said that it is only her writing now that keeps her from taking her life. We were grateful that our presence seemed to give all of these dear friends the opportunity to vent their anger, tears and despair.
Cathy Breen is a health and human rights worker from New York City, NY. She was a founding member of Andean Information Network, a grassroots non-governmental organization, where her work focused largely on documenting and publicizing the negative effects of U.S."War on Drugs" in Bolivia and the human rights abuses (arbitrary detentions, wounded, deaths) that were/are a direct effect of those policies. She is currently in Iraq as a delegate of the Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a group of international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq through US bombing and occupation, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the West. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org