Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
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Smoke and ashes

Nermeen Al-Mufti sifts through the embers of Baghdad for the remnants of a town she knew so well

Returning from the north to Baghdad on Wednesday I was confronted with devastation: no electricity, water, telecommunications or fuel. A trip through the ashes and rubble that was once my home is tearful and heart-wrenching. This is no longer the city in which I spent most of my life; it is now the capital of dolour and destruction. The most painful aspect of the experience is the sight of omnipresent, but polite, Yankee soldiers.

Making my way through the Bab Al-Mu'adham area of the northern end of the city, I passed numerous Abbasid buildings on the river's east bank. I came across a group of youths holding sticks and knives. One of them, Jassim, a student of the Faculty of Fine Arts, was brandishing a pistol. He had just been made leader of this group; vigilantes, apparently, filling the vacuum left by the forces of law and order. "There are groups like us everywhere in Baghdad to protect districts and property," he said. "We are not pretending to be heroes; we were forced to organise defence groups after the whole city was looted and burned."

In addition to Abbasid palaces, the districts of Baghdad also boasted highschools for boys. The first of these schools was established in Iraq in 1905 and remained a model school until recent times. Located here too is the House of Books and Documents, or the Grand Library, which housed hundreds of thousands of books and official Iraqi documents for the past 300 years -- all of which have been burned.

"If the Americans came to protect us from Saddam, why don't they protect our precious things?" Jassim moved to hide his tears and returned to the group, who were busy checking cars and trucks.

In the market of Bab Al-Mu'adham, which was the cheapest market before the invasion, things, too, have changed.

"Everything is very expensive," commented Maha Yousif, a dentist. "The cheapest commodities here are potatoes... and this at a time when we don't know where our next salary is coming from. What are we going to do? As far as I can recall, Bush said the sanctions would not be lifted as long as Saddam was president. Now he has been toppled, but still the US has not asked the Security Council to lift the sanctions. They came to occupy Iraq... but we will resist."

"We will resist," repeated Sherine Hassan, a well- known Iraqi artist. "We will resist by building Iraq. Throughout history, Iraqis have always emerged from the ashes."

"Liberation is in the taste of ashes and the colour of smoke," commented Ali Afeef, a young student of Baghdad University.

But the price of liberation is questioned by some.

"We do not want to start an early trial for Saddam Hussein," said Adnan Qottob, a writer, "but do you think that Saddam was worth it? I mean, that the price paid for the coalition and opposition forces to get rid of him was the destruction of Iraq?"

The general mood at the market is one of grief peppered with anger. Artist Hussein Mohy comments that all Iraqis are now broken-hearted, and is angry at the fact that while Saddam stole the dreams of the Iraqi people, the "Yankees" and the opposition have stolen their smiles. "Who could imagine that Baghdad could have been burnt again or occupied?" He also questioned the reasoning behind the recent events, saying that, as looters burned the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of General Security and the office of the mukhabarat (intelligence) "we will never know the secrets behind what happened, or behind Saddam Hussein himself. Do you think that the president was strong simply because he was a dictator, and a brutal one at that? Do people think that there was no external force supporting him?"

As for the opposition, while everybody here concedes that the atmosphere inside Iraq was not conducive to the establishment of a vibrant opposition, there is a general consensus that most Iraqi opposition figures lack credibility. Some people, like Jinan Jaleel, a professor of history, are also cynical about the intentions of the opposition.

"Their paymasters were in Iraq during the nineties, we know them very well. What do they think? They think people have lost their memories, but we will never forget. We will oppose them in the same way we will oppose the American occupation."

Not mincing words, Jaleel goes on to say that a lot of people think that many of the opposition figures are no different to Saddam; unfortunately the real truth will never be uncovered. "They sold Iraq to the Americans simply to rule Baghdad."

The final statement, however, says it all: "The coming months will be very hard for Iraqis, Americans and the opposition. The first step is to rebuild Iraq; we will do it."

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