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June 02, 2003

Iraq after the War - People without Hope

Austrian doctor Eva-Maria Hobiger writes about her visit to Iraq after the end of the war there. The conditions of the Iraqui society and of the people living there are described in detail.

“They didn’t come to liberate us, they are not interested in us and they don’t understand us. They are only interested in our oil. Why did they carefully protect the oil ministry and all documentation about the oil production? Why didn’t they protect our hospitals, our art treasures? Why didn’t they protect the administrative buildings? Now no one can produce proof for his property, the land registers are burned, no one can get a passport. All documents about our people have been destroyed. Does one still need more proof for what the Americans are really interested in?”

International law has been repealed since March 20, 2003. The war was contrary to international law and so is the behavior of the occupying powers. According to the Geneva Convention, the occupiers are responsible for the maintenance of order, for law and justice, for the protection of the individual and the community. Where is that responsibility? The stereotypical answer, “That is not our job” simply does not hold true. It is their job! The news about Iraq has become sparse - there are no more spectacular pictures because anarchy has become commonplace. The procession of journalists has decamped from Baghdad. Left is the misery that accompanies every war. This misery is not spectacular news and hardly interests anyone.

People without Hope
Dr. Eva-Maria Hobiger
May 15, 2003

“They didn’t come to liberate us, they are not interested in us and they don’t understand us. They are only interested in our oil. Why did they carefully protect the oil ministry and all documentation about the oil production? Why didn’t they protect our hospitals, our art treasures? Why didn’t they protect the administrative buildings? Now no one can produce proof for his property, the land registers are burned, no one can get a passport. All documents about our people have been destroyed. Does one still need more proof for what the Americans are really interested in?”

Iraq April 27 to May 11, 2003

On March 20th, 2003 at 5:30 a.m. the hopes of all those who had been committed to find a peaceful resolution to the problem of Iraq, died. The British-American coalition forces began the bombardment of Baghdad. This was a war of aggression without a mandate from the United Nations - a war in contradiction to all international treaties, contrary to the UN Charter, contrary to the wishes of millions of people on this earth. The population of Iraq experienced their third war in 23 years. Only a few hours before the attacks began, I received a message by e-mail from a friend in Iraq: “We have only one wish, for peace - the people here are waiting for a miracle.” That wish remained unfulfilled.

Five weeks later, on April 27, 2003, I embarked on another trip to Iraq. To be sure, the war had not officially been declared terminated, but the American and British armies had occupied the country - or “liberated” it, in their terminology. To the surprise of most people, Baghdad was occupied without notable resistance; the Iraqi regime has disappeared from sight. Disappeared or destroyed were the innumerable statues and pictures of the dictator.

Peace should follow war, but that is not the case in Baghdad or in other Iraqi towns. Anarchy rules in Iraq. According to the unanimous opinion of the city dwellers, it is more dangerous to be in Baghdad now than during the bombardments. The bombings were 90% predictable; the present situation is totally unpredictable.

From Amman to Baghdad

After hours of driving from Amman, one arrives at the Jordanian-Iraqi border. There are two large refugee camps a few miles from the border - they stand empty. The Jordanian customs officials have stopped work for the night and long lines of cars build up until the morning when, at 8 “clock, the officials return to work. Everyone wants to get through the border as quickly as possible - everyone wants to cover the road to Baghdad during daylight. The road is considered extremely dangerous during the day and during the night it is a deadly trap. There have been innumerable hold-ups during the past weeks. Cars carry items for sale and are targets for bandits. Satellite dishes are a favorite import article now and some cars are loaded with ten of them. Other cars are filled to the roof with Cola cans; the illegal - duty free - import thrives. Drivers of these ‘import vehicles’ stand near their cars at the roadside in Baghdad and sell the smuggled merchandise.

Driving through no-man’s land: hundreds of little tents stand here, erected by UNHCR. We are told there are more than one thousand refugees here between Iraq and Jordan. They no longer want to, nor can they, go to Iraq and Jordan does not want them. Their tiny tents are exposed to the burning sun. The International Red Cross cares for them. On the Iraqi side American soldiers await us - there is no Iraqi in sight. This is a peculiar scene - Americans on the Iraqi border. Somehow, they do not belong here. The inhabitants of a country are the ones who should guard the frontiers and receive the foreigners. Two miles later there is another sign of the new “freedom” - the shortage of gasoline. In this land of immeasurable oil reserves, this shortage gives work to the unemployed. They operate “mobile gas pumps”, a can and a hose. The mobile gas pump is set up and the seller waves to potential customers with the hose.

We see American tanks next to the road, long columns of military vehicles on the road, a soldier makes the victory sign in our direction. Again and again we see car wrecks, deep impact craters in the road - unthinkable to be driving here during the night. A burned-out bus sits by the side of the road. Several people died here when the bus was targeted. Next to a gas station, bombs destroyed a house that contained a telephone booth. The driver of the bus, who had just called his family, was killed. One hundred ten miles from Baghdad we find a gas station that has gas and we get into a conversation with the people there. The houses here were destroyed because American soldiers thought that they were weapons depots. The tenant of the gas station gets his gasoline from his old distributor as before; once the supply there is exhausted, he won’t have an income. Another man about 30 years old, who once studied political science, works here at the gas pump. He draws a bitter conclusion. “Saddam Hussein has damaged us severely, he has made us the laughing stock of the world. Now come the Americans - they loot us and allow us to be looted. From now on the world will think that only thieves live in Iraq.” Does he have hopes for a better future? “No, but the Americans should leave the country and give back to the Iraqis their human dignity. The Iraqis will be able to rebuild their country by themselves, if they will be allowed to - but they won’t be allowed.”

Twenty miles from Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib, there are traces of the heaviest fighting. All lanes of the motorway have been destroyed. Dozens of burned out civilian vehicles, destroyed Iraqi tanks, and fallen trees litter the road. No one knows how many people lost their lives here.

The view of Baghdad is frightening. The international fair grounds lie in ashes and ruins (why, really?), the ministerial buildings are either bombed out or blackened with soot, the communications installations consist only of a tangle of poles and wires. The large hotels are partially burned out. These buildings characterized Baghdad’s skyline along the Tigris, now the traces of death characterize this city. On every street corner there are black flags. On these flags in white and yellow writing are the names of the dead of this war.

A sandstorm raged for three days during the war - there are traces of the storm everywhere. Everything is covered with a pale, yellowish coating, giving the city an even more hopeless appearance. Garbage piles up in the streets; the garbage removal is not functioning. A dead horse lies on Abu Nawas Street for days and spreads an awful stench. The usually lively and people-filled Rashid Street is deserted. No car, no open store, not a person anywhere. It is hard to believe that this is the same city that I left six weeks ago. A wide area around the Hotel Palestine is sealed off. Barbed wire prevents entry. Soldiers on their tanks guard one of the American headquarters, which is housed in the hotel. The soldiers are very young, with children’s faces and that is how they behave. Even to get into the little Hotel Al Fanar, which is nearby, one needs a press card. The edges of the sidewalks are crushed by the weight of the tanks that rolled over them. On the column on which the statue of the dictator once stood there is an unambiguous message: “All done, go home!”

The new freedom is called anarchy.

A long time ago Baghdad adopted the name ‘City of Peace’ - today it is a city of anarchy. A physician said to me, “the law of the jungle prevails.” This is a city where 1200 criminals are on the loose. These men were freed in the Fall, 2002, in a general amnesty by Saddam Hussein. They can now pursue their trade without impediment. There are no police, there is no law enforcement and the opinion of the occupiers is stereotypically, “ThatŪs not our job”

At Baghdad’s four huge markets it is possible to buy any conceivable weapon from a Kalashnikov ($12) to a hand grenade - even bombs are available. These weapons come from looted weapons depots. Games with the new “loot” begin by 6 p.m. at the latest and usually last until 2 o’clock in the morning. In addition to the shots set off for fun, the sound of bitter fighting fills the air every night. Serious battles rage in some parts of the city every evening. Again and again explosions rattle the city. Once, a gasoline pump was hit and several people died. Robberies in the streets during the day are everyday occurrences. A member of the peace movement, the “Iraqi Peace Team,” was overpowered by 10 men and robbed at noon. Daily, neighbors and drivers tell us stories about what happened the night before. During this occupation, out in the open one early evening, behind the house where I lived, there was an execution. The members of the German relief organization, Cap Anamur, observed an execution by three people in the street, within sight of the American soldiers. A woman was found dead one morning in a side street, killed by a shot in her mouth. A man was shot dead in front of the pharmacy. Carjackings are especially frequent. The car is stopped, the passengers are threatened with a weapon and forced to get out of the car - the people are robbed and the robbers drive off with the loot. These cars, along with former government vehicles, are then sold to Iran and Turkey.

At the gynecological department of the Ibn Balady Hospital in the former Saddam City, we hear of more violent acts: acts of family revenge by raping young girls, the relatives of the victims then raping the sisters of the rapists - an endless spiral of violence. Member of the former Baath party and all those who were able to extract enormous advantages through corruption under Saddam Hussein are potential targets. How can this spiral of violence be ended? Every day of anarchy makes violence more difficult to control. One day, policemen appeared in the street, but they were denied the right to carry arms. They were only permitted to carry truncheons. What good is a policeman without weapon in a city where almost everyone is armed? The policeman is endangered in this environment. On the second day and on every following day, there were no policemen to be seen on the streets of Baghdad.

The circumstances of living are unbearable.

Since there is no Iraqi administration, no salaries have been paid for two months. The people no longer know how to pay for their living expenses. Many still live on the double food ration, distributed since November by the former government, but these supplies will be exhausted in 2 to 3 weeks at the most. Unless food supplies in large quantities reach Iraq soon a terrible famine will occur. The price of food is already three times higher than before the war. Bottled gas, used for cooking, cost 250 Dinar before the war, now costs 27,000 Dinar ($14) and there aren’t many people in Baghdad who can afford to buy gas.

When I arrived I was told that there are more than 160 political parties in the city. No one knows for sure how many parties there are because new groups appear daily. Again and again it is possible to see houses which were simply taken over to establish a new political party there.

Traffic functions - somehow - even without policemen. Occasionally a civilian takes the initiative and directs traffic, but traffic is limited due to the shortage of gasoline and poor security. In front of the few gas pumps that get deliveries of gasoline hundreds of vehicles line up in triple rows, often stretching around three blocks. Customers fill not only the car tank, but also containers to use as mobile pumps. Quickly, a mobile gasoline pump emerges, not far from the waiting line of cars. There is always someone for whom the wait is too long and the ten times higher price is worth the convenience. There are fifteen, twenty such mobile gas pumps in the area. These mobile pumps are very dangerous - people who smoke next to the plastic containers.

Nobody understands why there is no electricity in Baghdad, since the power station was not destroyed. Looters hit it several times, but the spare parts are already available. It is said that the installation of “German” spare parts is being prevented, because American companies are supposed to reconstruct the power station. An employee of the power station has paid with his life for no available power - an enraged resident held him personally responsible for the lack of electricity and shot him dead.

In Al Wihda, where I lived, there was electricity twenty minutes to two hours on some days. It was no better in the rest of the city. Most buildings have electric water pumps, so without electricity the people don’t have water either. Few can afford a generator and thus there is neither refrigerator nor air conditioning to help cope with the daily intensifying heat. Evenings are dark and long, as the sound of shooting continues outside.

Curfew is in force at 11 p.m., but it is not safe to be on the streets after 8 p.m. At 11pm, the tanks roll through the streets destroying the pavement with their weight and rolling chains. Helicopters circle over the city’s quarters for hours. Before the war, the city “came to life” at 8 p.m. when the temperature is cooler and it is possible to sit outside with family and friends. During the war most people did not leave their homes. Now, they leave only during the day and only if it is absolutely necessary for them to go out. The fear of hold-ups is too great, as is the fear of returning to an empty house. Before the war, they were prisoners of the regime, now they are prisoners of danger. Nearly every Iraqi says, “Most of all, before electricity and water, before food and functioning hospitals, we need security. We need a government that will give us security again. We need police in the streets, we need judges, who will punish crimes.”

On the fifth day of my stay in Baghdad the schools were officially reopened, but few teachers or students attended. The fear of letting the children, especially the girls, out onto the streets is too great. An English teacher told me that she is simply afraid to teach and is therefore staying home. School was scheduled to be over in four weeks, but the children had lost two months of schooling during the war. It is time to start a regular instruction schedule.

The communication installations have been thoroughly destroyed. It is possible to telephone within a few city sections, but not between sections of the city nor with countries outside Iraq. Internet providers were destroyed with the Department of Information. Iraqis live in total isolation. People who can afford to buy a satellite telephone use this method to communicate. They stand in the street and offer service to people who want to let relatives abroad know that they are still alive. The charge is three dollars for one minute - a good business. And it is a token of the newly won “Iraqi freedom.” Prior to the war, possession of a satellite telephone was strictly forbidden to Iraqis.

Every day there are black clouds of smoke over Baghdad - fires are still being set and there are explosions all the time. Most stores remain closed because there is fear of looting, but men with wooden carts stand in the streets and sell vegetables and other food or blocks of ice. Due to the lack of electricity it is not possible to rely on refrigerators. The outside temperature is now between 95 F and 105 F. The situation is so uncertain that all businesses and offices are closed and scarcely anyone draws a salary.

Rafid, a former building engineer, drives me about. He takes me to the Mansour quarter, to the place where, on April 7, 2003, four 2000 pound bombs were dropped, aiming to kill Saddam Hussein. It is a place of horror, a place that demonstrates the dreadful devastation of modern weapons. Four houses were practically pulverized and there is a huge, gaping crater in the ground. Saddam Hussein was allegedly here, report the neighbors, but he left the area 10 minutes before the bombs fell. He did not die here, but the names of nine dead children are inscribed on a black mourning flag.

Looting in the National Museum - a shock for many Iraqis

The Iraqi people are especially shocked about the loss and destruction of their cultural heritage. The National Museum and the libraries were the pride of the Iraqi people - particularly the educated segment of the people. Absolutely priceless treasures that testified to the origin of humanity are lost forever. ‘Even if Saddam Hussein took away our souls, never could an Iraqi have initiated the looting of this museum’ is the unanimous opinion of all Baghdadis. Indeed, there are innumerable reports from eyewitnesses, that it was not Iraqis who were the first ones to carry away objects from the museum. These reports cite American soldiers as the looters and as the ones who broke open the gate of the museum. Only afterward US troops began the looting were the Iraqis, who were in front of the building, invited to help themselves. Following that, employees of the museum repeatedly requested protection, but this request was met with the stereotypical response heard throughout the country, “That is not our job!” These stories and others are heard everywhere.

A university professor was present when soldiers forced open the gate to the university. He offered them a key, but they felt they did not need it, they had sufficient means to force open the gate. Afterward, the people in the street who were watching these events were invited to plunder the university with the words, “Come on, Ali Baba, it’s yours.” (In Iraq a thief is called an “Ali Baba”.) An American soldier will never be able to appreciate how deeply such behavior hurts the dignity and pride of the Iraqis. On the day before my departure an engineer told me, glowing with joy, that a manager of the library filled up four trucks with valuable books before the outbreak of the war and hid them in his house and in the homes of friends, to protect them from theft. Now he brought them back and is being celebrated as a hero - a man who saved part of the Iraqi cultural heritage. All of Baghdad rejoiced about it on that day.

Where is the health care system?

The Ministry of Health has been looted and is partially burned out up to the 10th floor. There are still a few undamaged offices on the 11th floor. Naturally, there are no working elevators and smokers give up the climb to these offices. On that floor dwells an Iraqi without authority. He has to wait for the commands of his American superiors. The position of Health Minister was been replaced three times during the fourteen days of my stay. Shortly before my departure, a deputy of the former minister of health was placed in this post. This immediately prompted strong protests from the medical profession. One thousand physicians demonstrated in front of the Ministry, demanding a health system and competent people in key positions - people who are not tainted by corruption and membership in the Baath party - and they demanded salaries. Two days later an “emergency grant” of 20 Dollars each was distributed to everyone in the health care system - a ridiculously small amount, considering the inflated prices.

There is enormous tension between the personnel in the hospitals. Although the Ibn Balady Hospital was saved by two sheiks from being looted, it was suggested to the director not to come back. Since his departure, power struggles have erupted, aggravated by the fact that physicians who had been working in the (now plundered) military hospitals have come here to look for work. Also following the departure of the director, the person in charge was changed almost daily. The worst side effect of these power plays is that often there is not a single physician or nurse in the hospital on afternoons and at night. The nurse was taken off duty because of the fear of hold ups. Left in the hospital are critically ill children and adult patients - left without care and left to their fate. No one will ever count these war victims, they are part of the so-called “collateral damage” which is deemed an acceptable price to attain political goals.

A doctor of emergency medicine told me that he no longer recognizes his country - he no longer recognizes his people. He says he would never have dreamed that he would make such a statement, because he has always loved his country. Now, he hates his land. He hates his country and its people, who treat each other in such a way. He wants to get away - away from his land. He is not alone, from 20-year-olds to a 70-year-old, the story is the same: “Away, just away from here where there is no future, where there is no hope, where there is no life. Only where to?”

Sheik Ali Ala leads me through a slum bordering on Sadr City (formerly Saddam City). He has installed a makeshift first aid station in a school. Children with burned faces are being treated here; there is a paraplegic boy whose spinal cord has been severed by a projectile. Doubled up, he lies in a corner. Innumerable patients are waiting in the courtyard. The first aid station is set up in the empty rooms of a school - a school where there is no water, no electricity, no glass in the windows and where some of the children are being taught while sitting on the floor. The public teachers who teach here have recently called on the sheik - for almost three months there has been no pay and they do not know how they can survive. Approximately 50,000 people live in this slum which has neither sewers nor functioning running water. The sheik tells of many civilian victims in this residential quarter. The Iraqi army had positioned its tanks near the residential buildings and the Americans bombarded these buildings and killed the inhabitants. Cluster bombs were also used here. In a ruined apartment building the sheik shows me an unexploded bomb. Someone asked the Americans to remove it because it is hard to keep the children away from it. The response was that clearance work was not their responsibility. I learn that in one slum, 80% of the people are illiterate. Transportation to the nearest school is too expensive for the poor population.

In many hospitals the situation was not simple even before the war, but the looting has made the medical situation worse and most hospitals are functioning again on an emergency basis. Only a few public hospitals were completely plundered, e.g. the center for cardiac surgery, while nearly all military hospitals were plundered. The equipment from these hospitals is being offered at the markets and also to other hospitals. A nurse at the small private Catholic Al Hayat hospital told me that she was offered an ultrasound device for 60,000 Dinar - about 30 Dollars. She declined the offer. The supplies of pharmaceuticals stored by the Ministry of Health were protected so it is possible to supply the hospitals in Baghdad - with considerable gaps, of course.

A difficult problem is the situation in the area of surgery, orthopedics and emergency surgery. Great numbers of war injured needed care within a short time span and the operating rooms are soiled. Because detergents are in short supply or non-existent, it is not possible to clean these rooms properly. There are practically no surgical supplies so only closed fractures can be set in plaster in the big department of surgery of “Medical City.” Surgery is not possible here. I visited a man who suffered a fragmentation fracture of the femur from a bullet. The fracture was stabilized with “exterior fixation” and the man was immediately discharged to his home where he now lies with a severe wound infection. His injured leg is triple the size of his healthy leg and he will probably soon develop a thrombosis. Pain-killing medication is not available for him. It is probable that all others wounded in the war suffer a similar fate. While this man was helplessly lying at home his car was stolen during the night.

Complicating the functioning of the hospitals is the presence of tensions between staff. Previous leadership is tolerated almost nowhere so there is no sense of order and there is a constant threat of looting. During my travels through Baghdad I was able to observe daily how furnishings were removed from various buildings. American soldiers protect some hospitals, such as the Mansour Teaching Hospital for Children and the St. Raphael Hospital. Why these are being protected and others are not is inexplicable - as are many things that happen in Baghdad now and these unexplained choices anger the inhabitants of the city.

“Looting is a political problem and not a social one”, says a physician and adds “as long as the occupying power will not take care that one can move around safely in the streets, so long will the city continue to drown in agony.” Water, electricity, food, medications - all that is important, but it is secondary. The most important is security. The people are disappointed with the Americans. They are glad that they are rid of the dictatorial regime and they had hope at first, but now their hope has again been dashed. “They didn’t come to liberate us, they are not interested in us and they don’t understand us. They are only interested in our oil. Why did they carefully protect the oil ministry and all documentation about the oil production? Why didn’t they protect our hospitals, our art treasures? Why didn’t they protect the administrative buildings? Now no one can produce proof for his property, the land registers are burned, no one can get a passport. All documents about our people have been destroyed. Does one still need more proof for what the Americans are really interested in?”

People Without Hope - Part 2
Dr Eva-Maria Hobiger's

Beyond the view of the Iraqis, the behavior of the Americans cannot be understood. This view is shared and clearly expressed by many relief organizations, “By not putting a halt to anarchy it is easier to make the world believe that one’s own presence is needed” A British officer in Basra replied to the question of a German journalist regarding how long he expected to be there: “Many, many years...”

From Baghdad to Basra

Driving to Basra. Drivers daily trade the secret tip about which road is the safest. Two days ago, a bus was attacked near Amara. Single cars are at great risk. We start out on Sunday, May 4th. Our road will lead us through Kut and Amara. There are five people in our car: Karin, a German journalist, her interpreter, Jalal, Abu Naji, the driver, Bashar, our technical coordinator in Iraq, and me. When Bashar told me of his intention to come with us, I protested. I did not want to expose him to this hazard, but my protest was in vain. Finally, he would have an opportunity to do something for his people, he said. We drive for a short distance and are in a traffic jam. The Iraqi Army destroyed the bridge across the Dijla (Tigris) to cut the path of the invading Americans. It is possible to cross the river on a narrow trestle, to the right and left a yawning abyss. We wait for almost an hour until it is our turn. American soldiers direct the traffic. A few days later there will be a suicide bombing here and several soldiers will die.

Traces of battles hem the road: again and again wrecked tanks, burned-out vehicles. The primitive military installations along the road have been destroyed. We cross the next ruined bridge. Looking at the remaining roadbed, I wonder when the rest of the bridge will collapse into the river. We stop briefly in Amara and drink some tea. We are now in the zone controlled by the British. People gather around us and everyone wants to give us his opinion. The quality of the drinking water is poor - many suffer from diarrhea and fever. Here too everyone agrees, “Most of all we need security.” They are all glad that Saddam Hussein is no longer around. “He stole from us, he was obsessed with buying weapons and fighting wars.” After so many decades of fear of the secret service and necessary silence, the people enjoy being able to talk openly. Now, no one lowers his voice when he pronounces the name of the dictator. All speak openly about the crimes Saddam committed. This openness was unthinkable only a few weeks ago. But they also do not withhold their criticism of the new rulers. “The British don’t care about anything. They and the Americans should leave our land.”

The view of Basra during the time of sanctions was always deeply distressing - now it even sadder. A few bombed-out buildings have been added to the view and many buildings have burned down. Entire rows of houses and the Shatt al Arab river front are devastated. The bronze statues of the officers who were killed in the war with Iran have all been removed. They were sold to Iran for 200 Dollars each. The empty pedestals remain. The Hotel Sheraton, its name a relic from better times, is a burned out hulk. Three hundred people worked here - now they are unemployed. Dr. Akkram, a physician at the Teaching Hospital was on duty when the house of Al Hassan Al Majid (‘Chemical Ali’) was bombed. The people of Basra believe Chemical Ali was not killed. But Dr. Akkram owned a neighboring house and his entire family was killed: his wife, two sons, two daughters, siblings and his father - 11 people altogether. How can one go on living?

Fear among the Christians

Archbishop Gabriel Kassab is happy to see us. He reports, ”We are in a miserable situation, no one is helping us. Various organizations came, promised assistance, but nothing happened.” On the first day after the occupation of the city a British major visited. The bishop told him his opinion about the war and the major has not come back since. Army chaplains, however, come daily to celebrate mass. Bishop Kassab shows us a grenade fragment of about six inches which flew through his window on April 2, when a house belonging to the city administration, only 55 yards away, was bombed. The roof of the bishop’s house was riddled with thousands of small splinters. The bishop was not injured, but the events of the recent weeks are clearly engraved on his face. He looks unwell and has been coughing for the last two months. He too demands security before anything else. Then he tells an almost unbelievable story which is confirmed later by others in Basra: the British had been throwing relief packages from the trucks into the throng of people, but only as long as journalists were filming. When the journalists packed up their cameras, the trucks were also closed up.

We hear, “These were difficult and terrible days that we have behind us. Many people sought refuge from the bombs in the churches and also spent the nights there. We were all very much afraid. The injured had to wait for a long time for medical care, because there were so many of them. “ On April 6 British soldiers were seen in the city for the first time. Looting began on that day - there was destruction and arson. “That again filled us with fear and terror.” The only pharmacy in the city that was open during the war was the bishop”s pharmacy for the poor. He also distributed food supplies to the mosques, from where they were further distributed. A priest drove the borrowed minibus to the food distribution. When the priest fell ill Archbishop Kassab stepped in as a driver. Now there is nothing left to distribute and famine awaits the poor.

The Christians are afraid of the future, they fear an Islamic government. Women are already being accosted on the street and told to wear a head scarf and long sleeves. Until a few years ago not even Muslim women wore head scarves. In his Sunday sermon the bishop asked the people not to provoke by the way they dress. “We are very much afraid”, a Syrian-Orthodox Christian said to me, “because there are so few of us. What is to become of us?” And all Christians want to leave the country: “There is no future for us here!” Again and again on the streets of Basra, you hear the call for an Islamic government, but not a fundamentalist one, like in Iran. Some totally reject an Islamic government. What the government of a future Iraq should look like nobody really knows. The differences between the ideas are great and every one of the new political parties struggles for a position of supremacy. The dissident favored by the Americans, Ahmed Chalabi, does not enjoy a high standing among the Iraqis - banners in the streets testify to this.

Reunion after the war

On March 11, my friend Dr. Jenan said good-bye to me in Basra with the words, “Is this now the last time that we see each other?” Thank heaven, there was a reunion for us on May 4, in the foyer of the Ibn Ghazwan Mother & Child Hospital in Basra. Jenan practically bubbled over, “We are in a terrible situation, we are constantly being threatened. But we stand together and together we have protected our hospital!” During the war Jenan was in the hospital every day. She often feared for her life during the drive to the hospital, but the life of her little patients was more important.

A few of the physicians have not left the hospital since the beginning of the war - they have made the defense of the hospital their responsibility. Occasionally, when looters roamed the streets, the doctors armed themselves and positioned themselves at the entrance to the hospital. Dr. Assad says that to hold a weapon in his hand contradicts his professional ethics and he is overjoyed that he did not have to use that weapon. When the looters left, the physician went to the British in their headquarters, set up in the Hotel Shatt Al Arab. He requested protection for the hospital, protection of 100 seriously ill children. He received the same answer that the people in Baghdad had received from the Americans, “We are here to fight, not to protect. That is not our job!” Dr. Asaad told me, “Since the beginning of the war I knew that you will come as soon as you can. We thought that if you undertake such a long journey to help us, then we have the obligation to protect our patients, to protect our hospital, to protect what you have brought us. That thought has given us strength during that time!’ It was difficult for me to retain my composure.

I have the impression that the common interest to protect the hospital has welded the staff together, in contrast to many other hospitals in the country. With some limitations, it was possible to treat the children on a continuous basis. Jenan and Asaad assert that this was only possible because we had brought so many pharmaceuticals to them before the war. Even from Amara, which is 110 miles away, children come to Ibn Ghazwan for treatment of Kala Azar, because word spread to Amara that this hospital in Basra is the only one in Iraq having the necessary medication.

Shejma, the girl with a bone marrow ailment died at the beginning of the war. Jenan relates that the girl was terribly afraid of the war. Another child with the same ailment is now getting the medications I brought in March for Shejma. Jenan shows me a few children, sick with leukemia, diagnosed during the last few days. One five-year-old boy has a hugely bloated belly - his diagnosis: cancer of the lymph nodes. An infant, about one year old, has a huge, blue-black discolored tumor on the side of the chest wall. The parents, who live outside Basra, did not dare bring the child to the hospital earlier.

Security in Basra is better than in Baghdad, but there are hold ups. On the day of our arrival, the hospital car, en route to the medical supply warehouse, was ambushed. The passengers were dragged out of the car and the car was stolen. The medical supply warehouse was almost completely plundered two weeks before, as was the food warehouse. There is a lack of many medications and I am given a long wish list. Ninety percent of the children, who are admitted to the hospital, suffer from diarrhea. Only the very severe cases are here - the others are treated as outpatients.

There is cholera and typhoid fever in Basra - not surprising if the drinking water situation is known. A visit with the International Red Cross offers some explanations. The water system of Basra is complicated and the supply depends on fifteen installations, which must all be functioning in order for the city to have running water. Here again we are told, “The most important thing is security for the equipment and for the personnel. None of the installations was bombed, so why isn’t the water supply working?” People are drilling into water pipes to get water and every day copper pipes are stolen and sold for a few dinars on the market. It would be easy to protect these fifteen installations, says the IRC expert, but the Brits refuse the protection. Therefore, the people from the IRC are doing a never-ending task. Every day they patch the conduits again and replace pipes. The next day they start the work all over again. The man from the IRC has understanding for the poor, who want to earn a few dinars for the copper pipes, but he considers the problem of no water security a clear breach of the Geneva Convention. “The Brits are responsible for this situation!”

At this time of year, temperatures rise from daily and an epidemic seems to be unavoidable. Hundreds, even thousands, of infants will die of diarrhea and dehydration this summer. They will die because the occupying power shows no interest in the Iraqi population. These children too, will be victims of this war, but their names and numbers will not be included in any statistics of war victims. “Americans and Brits are liars” and “Leave our country!” say the graffiti on the building walls. The populations’ displeasure is aired carefully. The results of criticism of the ruling powers during the past 30 years were bad. But how long will the patience of the Iraqis last? The current situation harbors enormous explosiveness. Unless the occupying powers act soon, the Iraqi people may be visited by the next catastrophe, perhaps in the form of a civil war. Many of the people I talked to fear that.

Dr. Ala, director of the blood bank, proudly reports that the blood bank has been exempt from looting. At least six people sleep here every night to protect the installations. Smiling, he says that perhaps the looters don’t know what a blood bank is and are afraid to break in here. The refrigerator for plasma, which we brought on an earlier visit, has not been working for two weeks. The Director suspects that the fluctuations of the electric current are to blame. Bashar begins work to discover the cause. It is great that he was able to come with us! Unexpectedly, he gets support from the engineer Mohammed, who had been in charge of the overhaul we commissioned. The two of them work for hours and finally find the problem - the thermostat did not withstand the war conditions in Basra. It is dismantled and I will take it to Vienna with me and procure a new one. Our centrifuge has also stopped working. The water pressure is too weak and, because of the war, it was not possible to install a water pump. It is not easy to be of help under these difficultonditions!

Mohammed was in Kerbala during the war. When he returned to Basra he found his house totally empty. Later, he saw his vacuum cleaner again at the market, where a colleague from work was offering it for sale. I ask a laboratory assistant what happened to the picture of Saddam Hussein? He laughs and says that it is in storage - one could never know... This opinion is often offered in the South - people will only believe that the dictator will never again return if they could see a photo of his corpse. Now, there are graffiti in the street emphasizing that at least under Saddam Hussein the security in the country was assured.

The former director of health in Basra, with whom I fought a few battles in the past, has been dismissed and now works as an ordinary physician in a hospital. In his place, the British have appointed a military physician. This man is not being accepted by the physicians of the city and he will probably soon be replaced.

A question I am asked frequently on this visit, “When are you coming back again?” The answer is clear - “As soon as possible, in about three to four weeks and then with a large delivery of relief supplies.” This time I was able to take only about 290 pounds of medicines with me. I divided these between the hospital and the pharmacy for the poor.

On our last evening in Basra, five-year-old Sarah, accompanied by her father, awaits me in the lobby of the tiny hotel (the only one in Basra open at this time.) He apologizes for coming this late and tells me that one of his friends lost his nine-year-old daughter today when she had stepped on a land mine. A tragedy lurks in the background of every conversation here. Sarah could not be treated with the medications I had brought along. These medications require strict control of certain blood measurements. At this time, it is impossible to conduct these controls and therefore the girl remains untreated. A five-year-old girl, who because of her chronic pain never learned to laugh, and an unhappy, immeasurably sad father are sitting across from me. I cannot promise him anything, but I must try to bring the child for treatment to Austria. The father is immensely grateful even for the attempt. Sarah is unable to walk, her father has to carry her. She does not have a wheelchair. The two of them say quick good-byes, it is late and the nocturnal streets are dangerous. Tanks rumble by.

Waiting for death

Bashar and I remain seated in the hotel lobby. I am choking on the lump in my throat and Bashar is slumped down in his seat. He starts to tell me of the days during the war. He tells of the fear, which he cannot describe, of the horror during the bombardments. In four weeks he and his family left the house only once. That was when rockets hit several times in the immediate vicinity and there were explosions that made the house shake and they expected that the roof over them would collapse. They decided to go to the home of friends in another part of town, but then the same thing happened there. They returned to their house, determined not to leave it anymore. They wanted to await death there. Every night the terrible bombardment, every night the panic and every night without sleep. He purposely avoided sleep during the day, hoping that sleep would drown out the noise of the bombs during the night. But the noise was more powerful. Being captives, they spent the time reading and in conversation and prayer.

On the fifth day of the war I had succeeded in telephoning Baghdad and Bashar tells me what this phone call meant to him and his family. From then on, he knew that there were people in the outside world who thought and felt with the Iraqis in those difficult days. That knowledge kept him going, gave him strength and the hope to survive. After that call, the telephone remained silent. The communications equipment was destroyed, the television station fell silent and finally the electric supply failed. Life contracted more and more, cut off from the world. The nights of bomb attacks were endless. And then, when there was a night without a bombardment they knew that the Americans had occupied Baghdad. The first thing he saw when he went into the street again, was a burning picture of Saddam Hussein, the man who had destroyed the lives of so many Iraqis. Incredulously he watched the progress of the flames. Saddam Hussein had been around as long as he could remember and the dictator had controlled the lives of all Iraqis. Now he disappeared from the scene in front of Bashar’s eyes. After the terrible days he had lived through this was a symbol of hope. Tonight in Basra, four weeks later, this hope has again disappeared. His homeland is sinking into anarchy and there is no vision for the future.


The last day in Baghdad is at hand and I am sitting in the garden with an Iraqi friend. The flowers and the intense light of the late afternoon create a make-believe idyll, which quickly ends with the sound of shots nearby. I have the privilege to be able to leave tomorrow, to go back to my homeland, where I have been living all my life in peace and security. I never needed to think whether there is electricity, or water, or food. Throughout my life, all of these things have always been present. Why was this friend not so fortunate in life? I don’t know the answer. His accusation encompasses the entire tragedy of the Iraqi people. It is directed against dictatorship and the rule of the secret service, against neocolonialism and strivings for hegemony, against war and against all forms of violence:

“Have you ever seen a human being who no longer has hope? A person cannot live without hope, but I am a man without hope. As far as I can think back, there has only been one good year in my life: that was in 1989 - we had no war then, there was no embargo. We breathed a sigh of relief, but a year later our hope was quickly extinguished. The next war was imminent, a war that has brought infinite suffering to our land, followed by an embargo, which has destroyed our country. Saddam Hussein has destroyed our lives, he has destroyed my life, he has destroyed the soul of our people. The Americans are destroying what little was left to us. He has used the wealth of our country to buy arms and he has robbed our people. Now the Americans come here and they want to rob our people, they occupy our land to exploit it.

Saddam Hussein has kept us in fear and terror for thirty years, the Americans have driven us to panic with this war. Now they manage to have us threatened by our own people. We are afraid to leave our house, we are afraid to walk in the streets. With this behavior they want to show the world that we Iraqis are unable to govern ourselves. They present us to the world as a people of thieves. But we are not. What is happening here would be happening everywhere in the world if there is no rule of law. We don’t ask for much, we don’t want luxuries, not wealth. We only want to live, have a normal life, pursue an occupation, continue our education, start a family. We don’t want more! We Iraqis, like all other human beings on this earth, have a right to this life and not just to an existence, to vegetate miserably. We cannot continue to live this way. They ignore our rights, they treat us like wild animals, in order to have a justification to stay here, a justification to keep our land occupied. We want our human dignity back. That is all we demand!”

The end of international law

When I saw my friends during this trip again I was frightened by the way every one of them looked. The terrible experiences of the recent weeks are conspicuously engraved on their faces and the Iraqis are still in a state of shock. There is no vision of the future that could liberate them from this shock. It is a land full of potential refugees, but no country on this earth wants them. For 1000 of them the escape ended in no-man’s land. The European Union immediately, with the end of the bombardment, rescinded the right of asylum for Iraqis. The wealthy states of the West increasingly tighten their borders against the desperate and hopeless people of this earth. For these people the war is not over, the endangerment is now greater than it was only a few weeks ago - but now they are considered “liberated” and they should not expect further assistance. What does the future hold for these people? A battle against the occupying power? Civil war? It is not even conceivable that the occupying powers, who have been acting so haplessly, will soon be successful in setting up an acceptable government. But how should things continue? Perplexity rules.

International law has been repealed since March 20, 2003. The war was contrary to international law and so is the behavior of the occupying powers. According to the Geneva Convention, the occupiers are responsible for the maintenance of order, for law and justice, for the protection of the individual and the community. Where is that responsibility? The stereotypical answer, “That is not our job” simply does not hold true. It is their job! The news about Iraq has become sparse - there are no more spectacular pictures because anarchy has become commonplace. The procession of journalists has decamped from Baghdad. Left is the misery that accompanies every war. This misery is not spectacular news and hardly interests anyone.

How many people have become victims of this war? We will never learn the true figure. The number of those who will die as a consequence of this war will remain unknown to us. The black mourning flags with their white-yellow inscriptions, substituting for the many others, silently give testimony of the dead. Where are the demonstrations against the injustice that is now happening in Iraq? Where is our solidarity with those deprived of their rights, the desperate? Since my return I cannot get past the impression that the media wants us to believe that this war was not so bad anyway. How many dead does one need to condemn a war? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? It will certainly amount to that within the next few months as a consequence of the war. Twenty three million people, suffer as a result of the war. The results of the war are many: unemployment, hunger, and illness, lack of medical care, anarchy - an entire people's hopelessness, without any vision of the future. A very high price for a military victory and certainly sufficient to condemn this war.

When on May 11, coming from Amman, I am about to leave the plane in Vienna, two policemen stand at the door of the plane and check the passports. (The normal passport control takes place again in the air terminal.) This measure is to prevent Iraqi refugees from entering Austrian territory, even the territory of the airport. A refugee would be immediately sent back to the airplane cabin. I am coming from a land full of potential refugees, every one having reasons to leave. After the experiences of the past two weeks I can understand every one of those who want to leave. I am ashamed to be the owner of a passport of the EU. I think back - a week ago today a woman in Basra thanked me for coming and she said, “To see you back here again after these dark days brings us peace.” Will there ever be real peace for this people - and when?

May 15, 2003
Dr. Eva-Maria Hobiger

See also:

My Turn
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

The war in Iraq, specifically America's role of leadership in this war, is a painful invitation to ask ourselves what, if anything, we've learned from previous wars. I, like you, am revolted by the brutal killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people during any war. And, like you, I'm saddened by the apparent inability of human beings to find less violent solutions to conflict and terrorism. What can we learn from previous wars? Are there lessons from past experiences that can help reduce or minimize the likelihood of excessive and unnecessary destruction and devastation of lives and countries, and our future on Earth? I believe the answer is yes! We can learn, and there are lessons available.

See also:

UK aid funds Iraqi torture units
Peter Beaumont in Baghdad and Martin Bright
Sunday July 3, 2005 - Observer
British and American aid intended for Iraq's hard-pressed police service is being diverted to paramilitary commando units accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings, The Observer can reveal.


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Monday June 2 2003
updated on Tuesday December 21 2010

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

I am adding this article as a comment as it deals with the same theme as the original - just from another perspective.

Published on Thursday, May 29, 2003 by the National Catholic Reporter

Is There Anything Left That Matters?
by Joan Chittister, OSB

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well- known international lecturer. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society. She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

This is what I don't understand: All of a sudden nothing seems to matter.

First, they said they wanted Bin Laden "dead or alive." But they didn't get him. So now they tell us that it doesn't matter. Our mission is greater than one man.

Then they said they wanted Saddam Hussein, "dead or alive." He's apparently alive but we haven't got him yet, either. However, President Bush told reporters recently, "It doesn't matter. Our mission is greater than one man."

Finally, they told us that we were invading Iraq to destroy their weapons of mass destruction. Now they say those weapons probably don't exist. Maybe never existed. Apparently that doesn't matter either.

Except that it does matter.

I know we're not supposed to say that. I know it's called "unpatriotic." But it's also called honesty. And dishonesty matters. It matters that the infrastructure of a foreign nation that couldn't defend itself against us has been destroyed on the grounds that it was a military threat to the world.

It matters that it was destroyed by us under a new doctrine of "pre-emptive war" when there was apparently nothing worth pre-empting.

It surely matters to the families here whose sons went to war to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction and will never come home.

It matters to families in the United States whose life support programs were ended, whose medical insurance ran out, whose food stamps were cut off, whose day care programs were eliminated so we could spend the money on sending an army to do what did not need to be done.

It matters to the Iraqi girl whose face was burned by a lamp that toppled over as a result of a U.S. bombing run.

It matters to Ali, the Iraqi boy who lost his family -and both his arms - in a U.S. air attack.

It matters to the people in Baghdad whose water supply is now fetid, whose electricity is gone, whose streets are unsafe, whose 158 government ministries' buildings and all their records have been destroyed, whose cultural heritage and social system has been looted and whose cities teem with anti-American protests.

It matters that the people we say we "liberated" do not feel liberated in the midst of the lawlessness, destruction and wholesale social suffering that so-called liberation created.

It matters to the United Nations whose integrity was impugned, whose authority was denied, whose inspection teams are even now still being overlooked in the process of technical evaluation and disarmament.

It matters to the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world, both now and for decades to come, perhaps.

And surely it matters to the integrity of this nation whether or not its intelligence gathering agencies have any real intelligence or not before we launch a military armada on its say-so.

And it should matter whether or not our government is either incompetent and didn't know what they were doing or were dishonest and refused to say. The unspoken truth is that either as a people we were misled, or we were lied to, about the real reason for this war. Either we made a huge - and unforgivable - mistake, an arrogant or ignorant mistake, or we are swaggering around the world like a blind giant, flailing in all directions while the rest of the world watches in horror or in ridicule.

If Bill Clinton's definition of "is" matters, surely this matters. If a president's sex life matters, surely a president's use of global force against some of the weakest people in the world matters. If a president's word in a court of law about a private indiscretion matters, surely a president's word to the community of nations and the security of millions of people matters.

And if not, why not? If not, surely there is something as wrong with us as citizens, as thinkers, as Christians as there must be with some facet of the government. If wars that the public says are wrong yesterday - as over 70% of U.S. citizens did before the attack on Iraq - suddenly become "right" the minute the first bombs drop, what kind of national morality is that?

Of what are we really capable as a nation if the considered judgment of politicians and people around the world means nothing to us as a people?

What is the depth of the American soul if we can allow destruction to be done in our name and the name of "liberation" and never even demand an accounting of its costs, both personal and public, when it is over?

We like to take comfort in the notion that people make a distinction between our government and ourselves. We like to say that the people of the world love Americans, they simply mistrust our government. But excoriating a distant and anonymous "government" for wreaking rubble on a nation in pretense of good requires very little of either character or intelligence.

What may count most, however, is that we may well be the ones Proverbs warns when it reminds us: "Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks the truth." The point is clear: If the people speak and the king doesn't listen, there is something wrong with the king. If the king acts precipitously and the people say nothing, something is wrong with the people.

It may be time for us to realize that in a country that prides itself on being democratic, we are our government. And the rest of the world is figuring that out very quickly.

From where I stand, that matters.

Posted by: Josef on June 18, 2003 05:52 PM


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