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Mundane Impressions of Otherwise "Brutal Iraq"

March 22, 2003 18:07 IST

The inevitable has happened. The world is holding its breath, counting the number of raids the Americans have successfully conducted over Iraq. The images held close to my heart are very different. A recent fortnight in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq has made me imbibe many frames, totally alien to the common perception being disseminated by the world corporate media.

I would like to believe that the war initiated by George Bush Sr never ceased and the bombing begun by his son is just an appendage. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations created a war-like situation for the average Iraqi. It was in fact more gruesome for the common man than army personnel. The shadow of the sanctions haunted me during my passage to Baghdad. Many warned us about the perceived dangers of travelling to Baghdad, especially without transit visas for Syria or Jordan.

Fortunately, Click came to our rescue. Click Tours is the illegal travel link between Damascus and Baghdad. After the 1991 war the only authorised flight service is from Amman, the capital of Jordan. Even for this, daily permission has to be sought from the UN. Many a time the sanction slip arrives a few minutes before departure.

Click uses old Boeing aircraft to ferry passengers, an experience which reminded me of travelling in Delhi's crowded buses. There are no proper tickets or boarding passes and you could suddenly see somebody descending on the Damascus terminal to distribute travel passes which resemble our cinema tickets. You can see more passengers than the seating capacity. If you are a privileged one, you could sit close to the airhostess and have a chat in pure Arabic. If they are impressed they could request your service as a cabin crew member to distribute a small can of synthetic juice.

Sanctions have had its toll on the Saddam International Airport which extends hospitality only to Click and the scheduled flight from Amman. But it retains a duty free shop and has sufficient liquor brands including Johnnie Walker. We bought a bottle, which was $5 cheaper than in Dubai, supposed to be the den of cheap duty free items.

The impression we had earlier was that Iraq is a land ridden with treachery, bloodshed, penury and, of course, police observation which is part of every totalitarian system. The fortnight we spent there was free of any such hassles. We travelled freely to every nook and corner of Iraq, from Babylonia to Basra. Saddam is omnipresent and appears in different manifestations across the city, on walls, junctions and important buildings donning the costumes as varied from a military man to an Arab leader in traditional headgear. People generally speak good about him, whatever their inner feelings. The youth and students spit fire against the Americans. Men are stout and well built. The girls look extremely beautiful, many in tight jeans and tops.

The heady cocktail of socialism and Islam has worked well for Saddam and he heads the best public distribution system in the world. When democracies the world over speak in terms of user charges, the so-called despot provides a full month ration including mutton and eggs for Iraqi dinars equivalent to Rs 11.

Why do Iraqis keep cool? Maybe it is because of the compulsory military training imparted to all citizens from an early age or maybe it is because of the long wars with its neighbours. The military training is a means to get employment and Iraqi youth in the midst of severe unemployment finds it a succour. The Iraqis move about fearlessly, digging trenches and underground bunkers. They have a formidable deterrent against possible chemical or biological attack. You would see small birds in cages in front of almost every house in Baghdad, as they believe these chirping birds would sense any chemical or biological attack in advance.

Even Father Anthony, a Malayalee priest who was in Baghdad till the other day, was enthused about the small birds. He even advised three Malayalee nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, who have pledged their destiny with the Iraqis, to have a bird.

A generation has faded out due to wars and sanctions. Health service is the biggest casualty. Half a million children died due to shortage of medicines and food and the doctors complain that no new information reaches them about the ever-changing medical world. Due to the unbelievable exchange rate, vis-a-vis the dollar and Iraqi dinar, doctors have to spend a year's salary to buy a medical book. In fact you could see them selling their old books in the Al Muthanabi Street, where one can still see military barracks of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1991 war, $3 fetched 1 Iraqi dinar. Now even 2,500 Iraqi dinars would not fetch a dollar.

The 'mobile blockade' stares you in the face. You could not believe that a country in this modern era has no mobile phones. Iraqi officials said they are banned from using mobile phones as they are termed military equipment under UN sanctions. Western sources claim the paranoid Iraqi government do not want mobile phones as they could be used to locate the position of many individuals, even for triggering explosions. Iraq is also denied advanced computers as they could be used for developing military software.

Oil is the main factor for America to be enthused about Iraq. It is least bothered about the poor Iraqis. The US also may not be bothered about the rich cultural heritage of Iraq starting from the Mesopotamian civilisation and the great Babylon. Around 36,000 historical sights exist in Iraq including Karbala, the important pilgrimage center for Muslims, and Ur from where biblical Abraham left for the chosen land of Canon. Many of them were bombed during the 1991 war and the rest await the roar of American fighter planes.

It is an irony that the Iraqis inheriting a 7,500-year-old civilisation, which contributed the wheel and plough to civilisation, leading the mankind to progress, are being attacked by America, a nation with hardly a few centuries in existence.

The columnist is the Delhi bureau chief of Kairali television channel.

John Brittas