Postcard from Baghdad

Wednesday 1 October 2003, by Susan HARVIE

It is midday in Baghdad and there are no women or children to be seen on the streets. Instead of the "new era of freedom" which the US army was supposed to introduce to Iraq, the chaos and insecurity has resulted in an escalation in kidnappings of women and children and the rape of women and girls. No women can walk on the streets and no children can play in the parks during their school vacation.

Instead they are imprisoned in their houses and apartments in temperatures of 50 C with no fans or air conditioning because of the sporadic electricity, often with no water and with no way of communicating with others because the telephones still do not work. If they are unlucky enough to live in an area frequented by American tanks, their street is probably running with raw sewage. Like most city streets, Baghdad’s roadbeds were not designed to withstand the weight of tanks and many of the sewer pipes have broken, spilling raw sewage into the streets. Gunfire is heard regularly at all hours of the day and night and every day brings new stories of innocent civilians shot by nervous American soldiers. The official list of detainees is an inch thick sheaf of computer printouts. So much of the information is inaccurate that many detainees are quickly lost in the hopelessly tangled bureaucracy and frantic family members spend days running from place to place trying to locate their loved ones.

Although there can be no doubt that most Iraqis are happy to have seen the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, nobody likes the American occupation. "We are happy that Saddam is gone", they say, "but, under Saddam, the UN inspectors and our religious leaders were not bombed. Under the American occupation, nobody is safe."

In spite of the enormous difficulties, civil society organizations are working with energy and enthusiasm amid the chaos. The formerly illegal Iraqi Women’s League has taken over an old military base as their office. It was bombed during the war and has no water, no electricity and no windows but, every day, there are meetings for new members who hear about them through word of mouth. Their first demonstration in July to demand greater security for women and children attracted over 200 women to a central square in Baghdad in spite of the dangers. About 400 members of the General Union of Workers in Iraq, illegal until four months ago, have already elected a temporary Executive Committee and opened their office in Baghdad and branches in every governate (province) of Iraq.

For most Iraqis, life has become more difficult and insecure over the past four months. The occupation is exacerbating the multiple political, ethnic and religious tensions that permeate Iraqi society, fears of civil war are increasing and the Americans are showing no signs of going home. But, the organization of civil society is gaining momentum and people continue to hope that the occupation will end in time to give Iraqis a chance to rebuild their society for themselves.


The author is project officer for Alternatives in Iraq.

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