A report by Cécile Hennion and Rémy Ourdan translated from the French daily Le Monde of 3 November 2004.
No-one had envisaged these nineteen months like this. For the Iraqi people, subjected to violence, paranoia and depression, Bush is the enemy, Kerry is the unknown.
Baghdad is an occupied city. It’s difficult to describe, but there’s always something in the air to remind you of this.
The American occupation is Abu Ghraib, it is torture, and it is the prisons and the systemic humiliations. It is a green zone, a huge Americo-Iraqi camp planted in the heart of the city, supposed to symbolise "the new Iraq." It is an Iraq so removed from the real Iraq that its inhabitants often laugh at it, and sometimes cry. It is a ballet of planes and helicopters. It’s a frightened patrol that crosses the city, guns pointed.
The other occupation – a direct consequence of the first – is the simmering guerrilla war. It is this blackened carcass on the pavement, those car bombs that seek their targets. It is the houses riddled from the impact of bullets in Haifa Street, a stronghold of the Sunni guerrillas, 500 metres from the Green Zone. It is the road to the airports, lined with decapitated palm trees and routine ambushes. It is the parked planes that are forced to take off to avoid the missiles of the Mujahedeen. It is the trapped streets of Sadr City, where the mines of the Shi’ite guerrillas kill more children in the district than the American enemy. It is the fear that haunts these places, and the menace that sleeps in others. The other occupation is the assassins and the kidnappers on the look-out for their prey – both Iraqi and foreign.
And then there is the invisible occupation. "Saddam has disappeared, but today, each Iraqi is a little Saddam." Some, like the student Ammar, believe that the poison comes initially from within, that three decades of Stalinism (of the Tikriti variety) has perverted the Iraqis' spirits.
Iraqis who do not describe themselves as angels being struck down by a diabolical, foreign force are rare, as are Iraqis who do not recall the time, as if to tempt fate, when their country was the home of "kindness" and "hospitality." The enemy of Iraq is clearly foreign. The prime suspects are America, Al-Qaida, Iran and other neighbouring states.
"We will never be free," says the student, "while Saddam is in our heads." He speaks of people’s mentalities, of their ways of life, and above all of "values." For him, the enemy of Iraq is, first of all, Iraqi.
"Under the dictatorship of Saddam, Iraqis acted like wolves against other Iraqis. There were many deaths, disappearances, torturing," remembers Mona, an academic.
"However, this is nothing compared to today. Under this occupation, with this war, mutual solidarity and trust don’t exist any more. We don’t only fear Saddam’s secret service, but the man in the street, our neighbour. Danger is everywhere."
"People don’t think of anything except surviving and making dollars," says Ammar, "even if it means trampling on others."
So Baghdadis choose voluntary seclusion. Many don’t leave the house, ban their children from going to school, the boys from going to the football pitch, the girls from going to eat an ice cream. Even inside the home, life has changed.
The doors are closed. The stereo and everything of value has been stored away somewhere close – where the curiosity of malevolent neighbours will not be aroused. If you are rich, you will be kidnapped for a ransom – so it’s necessary to hide your riches: don’t change the car, moan about the increase in prices, don’t cause envy. And, for even more safety, don’t invite your neighbours round. Stay alone, with your family – sheltered from glances. Sheltered from danger.
For these besieged Iraqis, the television and the internet represent freedom. Unless they believe it. Until they discover, like Mona, that her husband – a depressive – wakes himself up in the night to drink arrack in front of the news, and that her son Mohammed sits out his insomnia watching porn films.
Or, like Nahla, that her son Ahmed surfs an Islamist website, where he can watch – full screen – the execution of hostages. Ahmed watches decapitations for some length of time. Blood fascinates him.
The other day, he had a crisis: he rolled to the ground on the Persian carpet and banged his head against the wall. He yelled, "Iraq is shit! Islam is shit!" He cried that he wanted to become "Jewish, Christian or Chinese." When he had regained his calm, he returned to his computer.
"We have already totally banned it. But if I deprive him of the internet, he will become mad," says Nahla. To see Ahmed, it’s rather this ultimate freedom that leads to the psychiatrist’s office.
Alia, the sister of Ahmed, is also bored. The sole obsession of the adolescent, to escape from the familial prison, was school. This summer, this young wise and obedient girl has, for the first time in her live, stolen money from her mother. Nahla doesn’t want her to study, because of expulsions due to the Islamist threats against mixed schools. So Alia stole in order to buy her exercise books and pencils.
The parents yielded, and lived – with her school re-entry – one month of hell. Then everything changed. The other night, a rocket – destined for a police station – hit the house of their neighbours, and struck a bottle of gas that started a fire that killed the family of six. Alia saw the house burn. Since, she has not gone to school, or out at all, and she never speaks except to cry that she wants "to leave Iraq."
Almost all Iraqis agree, nineteen months after the event that changed their lives forever, that the USA has done nothing since 9 April 2003, the day of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but poison the situation. Even those who remain enchanted with the fall of the dictator have only one word on their lips: waste.
"I’m leaving. It’s awful." In Baghdad, that is one of the phrase which one hears the most these days. "I’m leaving." It’s without any doubt the first American failure in Iraq. The urban elites and the youth do not only think of fleeing. The future – it’s hell. Patriots, and even strong nationalists, often add "and I will come back," albeit with a look of doubt in their eyes and some hesitation. Ammar the student is also leaving – to study, to forget. He leaves without the intention of returning.
Iraq today is the kingdom of violence, paranoia and depression. Each Iraqi feels like a prison, lost in a hostile environment – alone.
No-one envisaged these nineteen months like this. The irony is that even the staunchest opponents of the American invasion – without talking of any of partisans – were persuaded that the US’s gamble was going to be successful.
The Iraqis say they were too exhausted by twenty three years of war to not offer themselves – by choice or resignation – to the biggest political, economic and military power on earth. After Saddam Hussein, and despite the fact that George W Bush was unanimously hated, a miracle was certain. We feared civil war, but we spoke above all of a country that could become again the shining light of the Middle East. History was invoked – as was oil and dollars.
Some even believed the idea that Iraq would become "the first Arab democracy." And, even when the population wonders how the elections could take place in three months, some still believe it. These people are especially confined to the Green Zone, the bunker of the masters of the country. Some others still believe it as well, but do not dare to say. Outside the Green Zone, to approve of it is to die – because there is in Iraq today at least two dictatorships; that of the occupation and that of "the resistance."
The occupation that brought, by eliminating Saddam, a universally greeted freedom of speech, of politics and of religion, is however a dictatorship in itself. "There can be no democracy under occupation," one heard everywhere.
As for "the resistance," theirs is a reign of terror – one that would destroy the new found freedom of speech, one that would impose its own political and religious order.
"There is a multitude of dictators," thinks Ali – a writer. "The Americans, the Allawi government, the Sunni nationalist and Islamist guerrillas, Al-Qaida and the other foreign Jihadis, Al-Sadr’s Shi’ite guerrillas, the bandits, even the jerk in my street with his Kalashnikov." He says, like Ammar, that Iraqis have become "little Saddams."
Iraqis are trapped by their contradictory sentiments. Trapped between the occupation and "the resistance," two camps with minority support. Trapped, besieged, depressed.
"And then there is not only the political civil war," adds Hussein, prosperous tradesman of Sadr City and quiet father to his family. "My son was kidnapped and tortured my Al-Sadr’s fighters. He was released in a terrible state. So I wait. Today it’s too dangerous to oppose these bandits – but tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, I will go to see the Chief of my tribe. He will give me a blessing for revenge. Blood will run."
At least this month Baghdadis can complain. Ramadan as a catharsis - for the one who has "forgotten" to get up at five o’clock in the morning in order to eat before sunrise, or who is most pal. Baghdadis are in a bad way, but they don’t often speak amongst themselves about the occupation, the war, the attacks, the crime, and the unemployment. Politics is death – a forbidden subject.
So they speak of their dizziness and their empty stomachs. In return they receive understanding shakes of the head – the ill feeling finally shared in a concert of lamentations without fear of being judged or condemned.
Young Baghdadis shut themselves away and dream of exile. Those who live in action, or who simply have to feed their wives and children, have no choice but to become a policeman or a soldier – a "collaborator" or "occupier" in the eyes of "the resistance" – or to join the mujahedeen. To become a hero, a traitor or a terrorist – according to your point of view. And, in every case, with a strong probability of ending up dead – a martyr mown down by a bullet or torn apart in an attack.
"Freedom and democracy are playthings of the rich," philosophises Latif, an unmployed intellectual and an alcoholic, sunk into an armchair in front of his television. "Here, what we want is security of jobs for the men, school for the children."
The occupation is hell. The end of the occupation, however, is also hell. Many Baghdadis say that, reluctantly of course, they want George Bush to be re-elected. They fear that if Kerry becomes president he will order the withdrawal of the American army.
"Bush is the enemy of Iraq, Arabs and Muslims," says Munzer, a cigarette-seller, "but if the cowboys were to go, we’d have civil war."
Baghdadis watch Americans vote for the man who holds the keys to their fate – Bush or Kerry – and cannot imagine that they will also be able to vote, in three months, for their first democratically elected president. But when one fears walking down one’s own street, this seems still to be "a plaything of the rich".