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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 12:05PM :

Mennonites are good, honest, hard-working people.
In Baghdad, Bravado and Deep Concern As War Clouds Gather Yet Again
By Edward Miller
September 12, 2002

Edward Miller is an MCC worker living in Baghdad since March, 2002. He coordinates MCC’s ongoing work in the country and spends his free time getting to know the Iraqi people. As American President George W. Bush tries to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq, the people of Iraq prepare for the worst, as they have so many times before.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In Basra, southern Iraq, last Saturday afternoon, the air raid siren went off an hour after we arrived for a two-day visit. I was told it is a daily occurrence; later we heard that an area near Basra Port was hit that day, killing a number of civilians. So far this year American and British planes have executed almost 40 strikes on the "no-fly zones" in southern and northern Iraq, most of them resulting in human casualties. It is difficult to claim from Basra that the war against Iraq has not yet begun.

On the streets of Baghdad, American threats and thoughts of an impending military attack on this city enter every conversation. Few doubt that something will happen, and frenzied defence preparations are underway at higher levels. But the most tangible effect over the last few weeks has been a downturn in economic activity.

One shopkeeper told me he will have no choice but to close his business. Taxi drivers and shoeshine boys say they must work longer and longer hours to make their normal income. People are saving already stretched monetary resources, unwilling to spend, but no one admits to stocking up on food or fuel.

Rumors have it that the usual monthly government food rations will be altered, replaced by a one time provision to each Iraqi resident of six month's worth of food. The government has meanwhile ordered that, in the event of an attack, people must restrict normal movements and take refuge in their houses.

From the US administration, the war drums grow ever louder and today George Bush will try to convince a frustrated and sceptical UN that military action is necessary.

"This is normal - Iraqis have experienced war for the last 22 years," say most people.

My friend Imad notes that Iraqis have learned to survive immense hardship - whatever America has to offer this time around will be survived, even resisted.

"I will take a gun and defend my country," he says with a smile. Ideology and political affiliation is beside the point, he says - no matter what people think of their own government, none will agree to an American takeover. He adds that he is tired of the tense waiting and would prefer an attack to be sooner rather than later.

A taxi driver expressed similar sentiments a few weeks ago, after warmly welcoming me. We don’t have an argument with the American people, he said, but if American soldiers turn up in our streets, I will be forced to go out and shoot them.

"We will win not because we are strong," another driver told me, "but because we have faith."

But the bravado masks deep concerns. This time it will be different; this time the US goal is to take Baghdad. It will be a fight to the death on both sides, commented a colleague. Many Iraqis have adopted a "wait and see" attitude, though this may simply be the only course of action available: most lack the resources to leave the country, and are otherwise immobilized by family responsibilities, living day to day on scavenged wages.

"We can only trust in God," said one older man I talked to.

Others see Iraq now as already at war, or at best under siege. S.F. is a professional musician, now selling instruments and giving music lessons for a living. He plans on staying around for the next few months, to "see what will happen." If things remain as they are now, he says, he will try to leave the country to find work abroad.

A state of worried depression, of hopelessness and certainly of resignation dominates the mood. Iraqis I've talked to feel drained already by "22 years of war," by the daily pressures of trying to live a dignified, middle class life in a dilapidated country with a stagnant economy. And utterly powerless to quell the rhetoric on either side, unable to halt the steadily advancing avalanche that is America's war machine.

"Why?" asked some Iraqi acquaintances recently. "Why do Americans want to see the US military annihilate Iraq and kill Iraqis?"

The question will continue to resonate, unanswered. Though times are uncertain, Iraqis are quite sure of one thing. I think of a painting Baghdadi artist Shaddad Abdulkahhar showed me a couple months ago. It is a close-up of the torsos of advancing soldiers, ominously titled "They Are Coming."


A Decade Later, Newborns Bear Witness to the Horrors of War
September 10, 2002
Edward Miller

BASRA, Iraq – Imagine a city. A sprawling city of 1 million, in which every neighborhood has a private pond, replete with swaying rushes and gliding ducks. But these ponds are unplanned and foul - mysterious gatherings of stagnant green water. Near the reeking puddles, children play and girls with pans collect water from the cleaner puddles or from broken water pipes close by.

A city with open canals - but canals filled with vile-smelling sewage. A city which has not a single acre of clean, grassy land, every square foot seemingly a dusty depository of plastic bags and assorted trash, or a foetid swamp of salty green mud.

A city surrounded by oil refineries and other industries which create a pall of sulfurous air, thick with humidity in late summer's 120 degree heat. Constant strong winds do little to clear the atmosphere. Scenery at every horizon is limited to these sprawling factories, or empty scarred flatlands with an endless spread of gargantuan metal towers linking electricity cables.

Imagine in this city, in a bare hospital room, a newborn baby with no eyes. A second born with its digestive system, bowels and all, outside the normal abdominal cavity, fully exposed. A third child with no mouth, her nose protruding above, not below, her eyes. Another without a skull, its brain bare.

Imagine a city where the air raid siren sounds daily, where American bombs find targets nearby every week.

This is not Hiroshima, circa 1945. This is not a reminiscence of war-ravaged Iraq in 1991. This is not a rendering of some imagined world, post-nuclear war. Welcome to Basra, southern Iraq, September, 2002.

At the Basra Maternity and Pediatric Hospital I am being shown around by Dr Amir Issa Al-Jabar. The hospital has not only been dealing with the rampant health problems resulting from the destruction of Basra’s water and sanitation infrastructure. We have looked through photo albums of newborns the hospital has delivered during recent years, and I have seen there physical abnormalities too horrific even for the realm of fiction. Now before us on a bare table, a swaddled baby is carefully unwrapped by its mother.

The child has a cleft palate, so severe the nose and lips hardly have any connecting tissue. This is apparently a boy, but his genitals consist only of testicles. His arm bones are bent and stunted, his chest not quite right. I notice that he breathes rapidly, with difficulty.

He is his mother's first child. I hesitate to ask for his name, unsure if he has been given one.

In another ward we visit a two-month old baby resting in her mother's arms. She has a heart defect and also struggles to breath. Dr Amir points out that her legs are atrophying as she is unable to use them - one is curved, bent sideways almost at a right angle.

Over the last six or seven years, congenital abnormalities such as these have been increasing. Studies by Iraqi scientists have repeatedly concluded that toxic depleted uranium (DU) used by the American-led allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War is causing the rise and visiting international experts have concurred.

"We have seen new defects not known in our books," says Dr Amir. Because the incubation period for DU-related diseases is four or five years, he says, such cases were not seen until 1995. Compared with the situation before 1991, rates of congenital abnormalities have not simply doubled or tripled - they have increased seven-fold.

"There has also been a 220 percent increase in cancers," adds the doctor. It is a particularly aggressive type, "invasive and not responsive to chemotherapy." The mortality rate among the cancer patients is 95 percent, he says.

It is estimated that 300 tons of DU were used in southern Iraq during the Gulf War. American and British forces found DU-tipped weapons particularly useful in penetrating and destroying tanks and concrete bunkers. The metal is not only super hard, it is pyrophoric, meaning it burns on impact - a plus for those seeking the most destructive qualities in a weapon. Far from being "depleted," DU is said by some experts to be 60 percent more radioactive than natural radiation.

Though U.S. and United Kingdom military spokespersons insist that there has been no conclusive evidence against DU, they faced tough questions after thousands of Gulf War veterans fell sick and died over the last decade from what became known as the Gulf War Syndrome. Among members of one American unit, 67 percent of their offspring had serious illnesses or birth defects.

The doctors at this Basra hospital are fiercely committed, but short on hope. What is known about depleted uranium suggests that the horrors in Basra's maternity wards are only set to escalate. Some scientists claim DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. The news gets worse: in the second Gulf War Bush seems so intent on carrying out, DU weapons will again be used.

Bush's war still lies in the future - but let no one claim that war on Iraq has not yet begun.

Valiant Efforts to Rebuild Water Systems, but Sanctions Are a Bottleneck
September 1, 2002
Edward MIller

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The name Diyala conjures up images of sun-speckled orchards, branches heavy with ripe fruit, piles of bulbous oranges and bright lemons. In reality, as we cruise eastward on a smooth highway, the area seems little different from the rest of Iraq's central riverine region.

There are, though, many more date palm plantations here - large tracts of land covered with thick brown-green forests, the palm trees all the same height. The farms are like others I've seen in Iraq, with vast dusty fields crossed by narrow irrigation canals. On some, green maize plants bask unevenly in the harsh sunlight.

This area, the Diyala governorate just northeast of Baghdad, is Iraq's "fruit basket," long an energetic producer of citruses. But in 2000, drought hit hard and insufficient rains over the last two seasons have meant Diyala is still dry and still recovering.

As we cross over a small branch of the Diyala or Mahrut River and cut through a massive date palm plantation, I realize why we are not seeing the endless green stretches of orange trees one might find in California.

I also realize why the palm groves look so thick and forest-like. These date palm plantations are the citrus orchards. My companion today, Majeed Waleed of CARE, tells me that farmers here have always grown citrus trees beneath date palms - for temperature control in both summer and winter.

After visits to the hospital and health center CARE is constructing, we turn off the main street onto a dusty path which winds along a narrow open waterway. On our right are ancient houses of grey mud bricks. Housewives are slowly sweeping their courtyards. Children kick through the dust; a group of boys frolics in the canal's milky water.

Skirting around an unsteady bicycle rider - a swinging bucket of water on each side of his handlebars - we arrive at a small water treatment plant. I am here to witness firsthand the challenges inherent in rehabilitating Iraq's water systems while under the weight of international economic sanctions. CARE's water engineers are tackling two water treatment plants in this town.

In Iraq's cities before 1990, water provision techniques were so sophisticated middle-class residents were used to having two kinds of water on hand - one tap would deliver clean drinking water, the other untreated water for use in the garden, or for washing the new Volkswagen Passat in the driveway.

Even in rustic villages like this one, individual water faucets for households were the norm and wells and communal pumps were generally unheard of. Now, as the Iraq government and various NGOs work at rebuilding and expanding the water networks, there is no move to dig wells or install village hand pumps. The original plan remains unchanged - to provide to every Iraqi house clean piped water.

In this endeavor, the UN's Oil-For-Food (OFF) program furnishes the means... but also represents the biggest obstacle. The program's notorious bureaucracy means contracts for everything from pipes to electric pumps to chlorinators are not only limited but slow in getting processed and even slower and always erratic in getting delivered.

"In terms of actually achieving the goal of providing potable water to people, [the program] has only been about 20 percent effective," says Majeed.

This region has seen plenty of new OFF equipment - brand new flow pipes, shiny pumps, generators. But they do not always correspond with specific needs.

At this water center's sister plant down the road, OFF pumps were made available. They were vastly oversized, but all the OFF program could provide. Because the community's water demands were rising rapidly, water engineers installed these new pumps, doubling the water intake. The plan sort of worked - more water flowed through neighborhood pipes. The glitch was that it remained undrinkable.

The plant's system was built with a certain intake in mind, explains Majeed. Overloading it meant that the filtering step had to be bypassed. Cleaning agents like chlorine were still put in the water, but could not penetrate bacteria resident in the solid particles - and thus the liquid gushing from community taps remained distinctly dirty.

And at this smaller plant, similar problems arose. We stand on a massive rusting hulk of a water tank. I am assured the tank is still strong and usable; it only needs some cleaning. This beast is supposed to remove the silt and sludge from the water after the first cleaning step. But because its design was altered to deal with increased intake, the system was rendered ineffective. Majeed tells me the water coming out of the plant was actually dirtier than the source water.

Now, workers and engineers are hard at work replacing pipes and pumps and various network components. The plant must revert back to its original intake levels, and it must be made to operate effectively at said levels. Has the OFF program helped the CARE engineers achieve this goal? Majeed says it again - "20 percent."

The truth is that many key parts must still be imported privately.

"It is like having a tie, then buying a suit to go with it," says Majeed.

It is not only pumps and tanks that cause problems. Everything from chlorinators to the aluminum sulphate used as a cleaning agent to mixers has presented a snag for the engineers. Often the quality of local materials is dubious at best - but imports (especially of chemicals) are simply impossible due to OFF restrictions. Or imported items are too hi-tech for these rural water centers, unusable from the beginning.

There are those who claim that the OFF program and recently instituted "smart sanctions" are making great strides in improving life for ordinary Iraqis. I might beg to differ.

"Look at this town," says Majeed as we head back out through the main market street. Traders display meager handfuls of farm produce on old wooden stands; half-empty kiosk shelves stock a limited assortment of food basics.

"Nothing short of economic normalization will have a real impact here," he says.
Lost in the Music in the Depths of the Baghdad Museum
August 25, 2002
Edward Miller

BAGHDAD, Iraq – This is about as far back into old Baghdad as you can go. We have descended a brick ramp off Rashid Street, paid a cover price of 25 cents and slipped through an old brick doorway to drop even lower. The steps lead down to a well-lit basement hall filled with cigarette smoke and loud conversation. Above the noise of the crowd are the delicate sounds of musical instruments being tuned and tea glasses being stirred.

The sturdy high-backed benches are filled to capacity up front, almost exclusively with older men, and we must take our places near the back - something I will be glad for later. My Arabic teacher and I settle on thin mats that only barely disguise the hard wooden surface of the bench. Around us spirits are high. Men greet old friends, shout for tea, light cigarettes, gesture with bright prayer beads. The anticipation builds.

On the slightly raised stage facing us are seated five musicians. A violinist, an iqa'a or tabla drum player, a grinning blind flutist, a somber man with a hairpiece and a tambourine, and lastly a man seated in front of a qanuun, something like a square hammer dulcimer. Behind them is a huge mural of an old Baghdad square. Before them is an empty chair and a lone microphone stand.

We are beneath the Baghdad Museum, a place that seeks to replicate the houses and markets and teahouses of old Baghdad. I have toured the rooms above me, filled with stiff life-size figures in moth-eaten wigs engaged in tasks ranging from baking bread to dancing in wedding parties to circumcising small boys. Bronze placards in Arabic and English explain each scene to visitors. I enjoyed most the architecture of the place - tight staircases, old balconies, warren-like market alleys.

Like the rest of the museum, this hall has been constructed solely with tan-colored bricks. Framed black-and-white photographs adorn the walls - famous Baghdadi singers of old, the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Khalthoum, 'oud players from the early part of the century. A few spindly Christmas decorations add a touch of color to the stage. Apart from these and the large speakers hanging from the ceiling, nothing indicates the present century. The oldest men amongst the audience tonight are wearing, in addition to carefully pressed old slacks and shirts, the sidara, a dark navy-style hat that marks them as members of the old musical orders of Baghdad.

As more people drift in to take seats, the director of the museum, tonight's suave MC, rises to introduce the evening's singers. In the line-up, he promises, are some of the city’s best maqaam performers.

Iraqi maqaam, I have been told, is a unique music that harks back to some of the earliest musical creations Baghdad had to offer, a blend of traditional Arab poetry and urban instrumentation.

The violin, qanuun and flute start in, providing a light, flowery introduction for the first singer now seated before the microphone. It is loud, the sounds from the speakers on the edge of distortion. I glance around. No one seems too concerned over their rattling eardrums, instead focussing intently on the singer.

His mouth opens and his first wailing plea bursts forth. "Oh, night!" he sings in Arabic, "What do you have for me?"

It is loud. From the audience, a collective cheer as the first line ends abruptly and the violin and qanuun again take over. After a short break, the already sweating singer starts in once more. His singing is forceful and emotional, and it seems that the longer the notes are held, the more pleasure the audience derives. The poetic lyrics obviously provide much pleasure also, but they are nothing new. Everyone in the audience seems to know them and generally sings along.

The back and forth between singer and musicians continues for five minutes, building steadily to a climax. And finally, after a deliberate pause, the tabla and tambourine jump in with a flourish, the audience unleashes a loud collective sigh and, amid whoops of pleasure from the men around me, the song proceeds apace, fully developed now with the masterful rhythm section going full steam. It is wonderful, but it really is loud. I instinctively lean back as the volume rises.

Given my western ear and lack of adequate Arabic, I can make little distinction between tonight's music and the songs of Umm Khalthoum or other well-known musicians from the greater Arab world I may have heard on stereos around town. But there certainly is a difference between Iraqi maqaam and the modern Arabic pop music that climbs radio chart shows, though both styles revolve around love and romance themes. Here there is no electronic drum beat or catchy chorus; what marks the music tonight is the heartfelt, forceful and carefully crafted singing. My Arabic teacher claims these songs have meaning and beauty - today's pop songs, he says, are by contrast just silly dance numbers communicating nothing. Perhaps.

The hall has continued to fill up. More tea is drunk, more cigarettes smoked. More singers take to the stage and we are honored to hear from one of Baghdad's oldest living maqaam singers, a man now in his 80s. His son, also a musician, treats us to a song accompanied by 'oud, the Arab lute. The men near us have maintained their enthusiasm throughout the concert and generate much laughter. But the older men are more meditative, concentrating on the nuances in the music, quietly bobbing their heads.

When we finally emerge onto Rashid Street, I am temporarily disoriented amid the modern shops and the evening's thick traffic.
© 2002 Mennonite Central Committee

-- Lilly
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