Baghdad — “Security is better,” a friend in Baghdad told me. “There is still violence but it is not as random. It is more targeted now.”
We were stuck in a traffic jam on our way to find a restaurant along the Tigris River. I hadn’t seen these friends since 2006 when they were able to travel to Amman, Jordan for a meeting. They insisted on inviting me out to eat.
“Outwardly things look better… There are more cars on the road, and people have better salaries. But in another way we see no improvement. We are able to speak our minds, even criticize the government… but we feel powerless to change. We have worked such a long time without seeing improvement; the time under the sanctions took the heaviest toll.”
I could hear the resignation in their voices. There were cars in front of us, cars behind us, and cars alongside of us three and four abreast… all trying to make a simple U-turn. There is no recourse, no person or place to complain to. “If we were to complain, nothing would happen.”
Later, it was wonderful to watch them relax later in the open air alongside the river. Together we watched the sun set over the Tigris.
Most people I’ve heard from do not feel safe. “I hope it doesn’t get worse,” one friend confides. “We are scared about the situation, what will happen.”
“Yesterday at 6am there was a loud explosion behind us,” said the mother of another family. “A police station was hit.”
In another home a frightened mother took me to the window, pointing: “Two days ago there was an explosion near our apartment.”
One family related, “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
“Sometimes there are 10-15 explosions, other days there are none. With the situation in Syria we are all tense and feel insecure.” This family had moved not too long ago from another neighborhood because young men were being randomly arrested in their area after bombings. They feared for their sons.
Some people feel that things are going backwards. Corruption is as serious as the lack of security. “Not only are our politicians corrupt, but the religious leaders as well. They are not paying attention to everyday matters like speaking against violence, respect for women, need for water. They talk about religion, about fasting and praying, but inside are empty. Like the politicians they are filling their pockets. ”
“Money is the key” someone else related. “We can’t do anything without bribes. Bribes in Iraq are the highest in the world.”
On two separate occasions I met with families who’ve had members in prison, one for two years and another for three.
The son of one family, arrested under false charges, was moved through four different facilities and tortured in each one. Even after he’d been cleared by a judge, the family still had to borrow and pay over $10,000 in order to secure his release. The family is in terrible debt as people are asking for their money. I was so grateful to embrace this young man whom I knew as a boy. He is slowly healing.
The other family had seen three brothers arrested by U.S. soldiers on a night raid, shooting through doors and breaking into houses in a village area outside of Baghdad. Terrorizing women and children, the soldiers had been were looking for weapons. Two of the brothers arrested didn’t even live in the house where a pair of rifles were found. Four years later one brother, now 21 years old, is serving out a 10 year sentence. He’s started to have seizures in prison, seizures which continue.
This “temporary law,” enacted under Bremer, is still in effect.
Every family has a story. These are only a few.
Cathy Breen co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. She is traveling for six weeks in Iraq.