Written anonymously by a 24-year-old Iraqi woman whose nom de plume is Riverbend, 'Baghdad Burning - A young woman's diary from a war zone' is the published outcome of a blog diary. Describing the reality of regime change in Iraq in a voice in turn outraged, witty, frustrated and courageous, Riverbend bears witness to the events shaping the fate of her beloved homeland. Hard-hitting and deeply moving, 'Baghdad Burning' won the Lettre Ulysses Award for Literary Reportage 2005. Published now for the first time in India, this enthralling journal - which has been compared to 'The Diary of Anne Frank' - has gathered a worldwide audience.
Settings the Record Straight
I'm going to set the record straight, once and for all.
I don't hate Americans, contrary to what many people seem to believe. Not because I love Americans, but simply because I don't hate Americans, like I don't hate the French, Canadians, Brits, Saudis, Jordanians, Micronesians, etc. It's that simple. I was brought up, like 13 million Iraqis, to have pride in my own culture and nationality. At the same time, like millions of Iraqis, I was also brought up to respect other cultures, nations and religions. Iraqi people are inquisitive by nature, and accepting of different values - as long as you do not try to impose those values and beliefs upon them.
Although I hate the American military presence in Iraq in its current form, I don't even hate the American troops...or wait, sometimes I do:
I hated them all through the bombing. Every single day and night we had to sit in terror of the next bomb, the next plane, the next explosion. I hated them when I saw the expression of terror, and remembrance, on the faces of my family and friends, as we sat in the dark, praying for our lives, the lives of our loved ones and the survival of Iraq.
I hated them on April 11 - a cool, grey day: the day our family friend lost her husband, her son and toddler daughter when a tank hit the family car as they were trying to evacuate their house.
I hated them on June 3 when our car was pulled over for some strange reason in the middle of Baghdad and we (three women, a man and a child) were made to get out and stand in a row, while our handbags were rummaged, the men were frisked and the car was thoroughly checked by angry, brisk soldiers. I don't think I'll ever be able to put into words the humiliation of being searched.
I hated them for two hours on July 13. As we were leaving Baghdad, we were detained with dozens of other cars at a checkpoint in the sweltering, dizzying heat.
I hated them the night my cousin's house was raided - a man with a wife, daughter and two young girls. He was pushed out of the house with his hands behind his head while his wife and screaming daughters were made to wait in the kitchen as around 20 troops systematically searched the house, emptying closets, rummaging underwear drawers and overturning toy boxes.
I hated them on April 28 when t
hey shot and killed over a dozen kids and teenagers in Fallojeh [Falluja] - a place west of Baghdad. The American troops had taken over a local school (one of the only schools) and the kids and parents went to stand in front of the school in a peaceful demonstration. Some kids started throwing rocks at the troops, and the troops opened fire on the crowd. That incident was the beginning of bloodshed in Falloojeh.
On the other hand...
I feel terrible seeing the troops standing in this merciless sun - wearing heavy clothes...looking longingly into the air-conditioned interiors of our cars. After all, in the end this is Baghdad, we're Iraqi - we've seen this heat before.
I feel bad seeing them stand around, drinking what can only be lukewarm water after hours in the sun - too afraid to accept any proffered ice water from "strange Iraqis".
I feel pity watching their confused, frightened expressions as some outraged, jobless father of five shouts at them in a language they can't even begin to understand.
I get hopeless, seeing them pointing their guns and tanks at everyone because, in their eyes, anyone could be a "terrorist" and almost everyone is an angry, frustrated Iraqi...
So now you know. Mixed feelings in a messed up world.
This war started out a war on WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. When those were not found, and proof was flimsy at best, it turned suddenly into a "War against Terrorism". When links couldn't be made to AI-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden (besides on Fox and in Bush's head), it turned into a "Liberation". Call it whatever you want - to me it's an occupation.
People are angry and frustrated and the American troops are the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of that anger simply because the American administration is running the show, and making the mistakes.
It always saddens me to see that the majority of them are so young. Just as it isn't fair that I have to spend my 24th year suffering this whole situation, it doesn't seem fair that they have to spend their 19th, 20th, etc. suffering it either. In the end, we have something in common - we're all the victims of decisions made by the Bush administration.
On the other hand...they'll be back home, safe, in a month, or two or three or six...and we'll be here having to cope with the mess of a homeland we have
now. (August 22, 2003)
The Promise and Threat
The Myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirt roads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys, and goats. These schools were larger versions of the home units and for every 100 students, there was one turban-wearing teacher who taught the boys rudimentary math (to count the flock) and reading. Girls and women sat at home, in black burkas, making bread and taking care of 10-12 children.
The Truth: Iraqis lived in houses with running water and electricity. Thousands of them own computers. Millions own VCRs and VCDs. Iraq has sophisticated bridges, recreational centers, clubs, restaurants, shops, universities, schools, etc. Iraqis love fast cars (especially German cars) and the Tigris is full of little motorboats that are used for everything from fishing to water-skiing.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that most people choose to ignore the little prefix "re" in the words "rebuild" and "reconstruct." For your information, "re" is of Latin origin and generally means "again" or "anew".
In other words - there was something there in the first place. We have hundreds of bridges. We have one of the most sophisticated networks of highways in the region: you can get from Busrah, in the south, to Mosul, in the north, without once having to travel upon those little, dusty, dirt roads they show you on Fox News. We had a communications system so advanced, it took the Coalition of the Willing three rounds of bombing, on three separate nights, to damage the Ma'moun Communications Tower and silence our telephones....
(August 29, 2003)
I heard some more details about the demonstration today. The whole situation was outrageous and people are still talking about it. Ever since the occupation, employees of the Ministry of Oil are being searched by troops-and lately, dogs. The employees have been fed up ...
Today, one of the women who work at the ministry, Amal, objected when the troops brought forward a dog to sniff her bag. She was carrying a Quran inside of it and, to even handle a Quran, a Muslim has to be "clean" or under "Widhu". "Widhu" is the process of cleansing oneself for prayer or to read from the Quran. We simply wash the face, neck, arms up to the elbows and feet with clean water and say a few brief "prayers". Muslims carry around small Qurans for protection and we've been doing it more often since the war - it gives many people a sense of security. It doesn't mean the person is a "fundamentalist" or "extremist".
As soon as Amal protested about letting the dog sniff her bag because of the Quran inside, the soldier grabbed the Quran, threw it out of the bag, and proceeded to check it. The lady was horrified and the dozens of employees who were waiting to be checked moved forward in a rage at having the Quran thrown to the ground. Amal was put in handcuffs and taken away and the raging mob was greeted with the butts of rifles...
The Iraqi Police arrived to try to intervene, and found the mob had increased in number because it had turned from a security check into a demonstration. One of the stations showed police officers tearing off their "'P" badge - a black arm badge to identify them as Iraqi Police and shouting at the camera, "We don't want the badge - we signed up to help the people, not see our Quran thrown to the ground..."
Some journalists say that journalists' cameras were confiscated by the troops.
This is horrible. It made my blood boil just hearing about it - I can't imagine what the people who were witnessing it felt. You do not touch the Quran. Why is it so hard to understand that some things are sacred to people?!
How would the troops feel if Iraqis began flinging around Holy Bibles or Torahs and burning crosses?! They would be horrified and angry because you do not touch a person's faith....
But that's where the difference is: the majority of Iraqis have a deep respect for other cultures and religions...and that's what civilization is. It's not mobile phones, computers, skyscrapers, and McDonalds; it's having enough security in your own faith and culture to allow people the sanctity of theirs...
(October 21, 2003)
Note: Riverbend takes her penname from a line from one of her poems:
"I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend,
where hearts can heal and souls can mend..."
She continues to blog on riverbendblog.blogspot.com.
(Extracts from 'Baghdad Burning', published by Women Unlimited; pp286; Rs.350)