10 days and a year ago

10 years and a day ago, an intern for Al Jazeera was persuading me of the merits of jumping on a train to go to Washington that night. She was interning at the UN and Washington was to be the scene of more than a million people congregating to protest America’s planned invasion in Iraq. I had been listening to the Security Council proceedings and statements everyday and was surrounded by foreign (and American press). I had a very good idea of what was going on. The UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei were saying Saddam Hussein was complying and that the inspectors needed more time, whereas the American representatives would say something that could only be described as crafted for prime time broadcast  – statements that were perhaps crafted to provoke and justify military action,  statements completely opposite to those of patience and negotiation called for. Historian Howard Zinn had said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” meaning if you don’t speak up against something, you too are complicit in it. So I rushed home after work, packed an overnight bag and within an hour was at Penn station taking a train to D.C.

I had lived in Canada in temperatures averaging -20C in the winters but that day in Washington, despite marching for hours in the sunshine I remember being cold, cold, cold. Our saving grace was the inspiring energy, diversity and the belief which had drawn people from all over the country (and world) to do one thing: stand in opposition to the invasion. I remember looking down on the mall in DC, to the left, to the right and seeing people stretching into the distance. This must have been what a million people looked like, and I wondered if major newspapers would downplay the turnout (they didn’t).

So 10 years on, what has changed? What has remained the same? The cries of weapons of mass destruction, the justifications of invading to bring peace and democracy all failed. Is Iraq a worse off place now that it was more than 10 years ago? That can be debated but the facts remain that over a million people have died, been maimed or uprooted. Suicide bombings have become a bitter mainstay of a post US led invasion of Iraq. Millions marched around the world that day in what was arguably the biggest show of global unity against violence but it failed to derail what those millions foresaw. Now with a Europe in economic crisis, with Arab countries in the throws of social upheavals and changes, with an America also economically hurt, was it all worth it? And if millions of people around the world cannot have their voices not just heard but listened to, what hope is there? Are we really better off today?

Over 800 protests were organised around the world, there must have been a million in DC alone

Ya Iraq

Last week, this time last year I was in Iraq. I’d been thinking about that “one year ago, this time” but then end of January and now rolled around and somehow I forgot.

Messages were coming though – I listened to a recent podcast – the father of a 9 year old boy who was killed, as countless others, in the Nisour Square massacre in Iraq. His family was given $10,000 by the US Embassy as compensation, but the family turned around and gave $5000 back to the Embassy, so that it could be given to any family of a US soldier who had lost their life in Iraq.

I still follow Iraq from the not-so-afar, there are still people serving there who I met last year. The number of bombings seems to have decreased but the intensities have increased – that is, more primary targets, inside the Green Zone – Ministries are being hit.

Elections are coming up again in March, and I haven’t yet heard if the Ministry for Foreign Affairs here is asking for election observers to go. I

was advised not to. A few friends are keen, using the persuasion ‘but maybe this will be my only chance…” etc. Well, its not an Indiana Jones adventure. This is a bona fide war zone.

Reproduced below is my post from this day, a year ago:

This time last week I was sitting at the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad grateful that my duty as an international election observer was conducted safely.

The last time I went to Iraq was 21 years ago. It was towards the end of the Iraq-Iran war. I remember tall street lights on the highway from the airport to the city, the grey/silver ceiling of the airport, fantastic museums and murals. However as a child, I was more interested in playing with my newly met cousins and showing them how to dance to ‘Jive Bunny’ tunes.

This time, as a group of 24 observers, sent on behalf of the Turkish Foreign Ministry for the provincial elections (the first elections held since

2005), there was evident nervousness flying into Baghdad. Our flight had traced the path of the Tigris on the way down. Upon landing, we were separated into a few groups: Anbar, Baghdad, Babil. All but the Baghdad group then left for the military side of the airport – to be taken to their locations via Helicopter. We stepped into the Baghdad sun. I took a deep breathe – to consciously make note of my first breathe in the open, and as a reference point. A visibly nervous group (after all Iraq is still considered a war zone), I had never been so happy in my life to see the Turkish flag, as a convoy of armoured jeeps came to take us to the Embassy.

Baghdad is a city of concrete walls. Its a city of sadness and destruction.

There are three reasons why Iraq is significant from me

1. I spent a great deal of masters level research on various aspects of Iraq post 2003. Indeed my PhD proposal was on documenting ‘Voices from Iraq’

2. Having lived in Turkey for four years, I’ve met a good number of people who had left both after 1991 and the 2003 wars. Seeing their lives, those of their families shattered, hearing their stories is not something lightly forgotten

3. Family roots. Both my parents were born in Northern Iraq and my family can be traced back hundreds of years there. This was a homecoming, in a sense.

I realised the sharpness of disconnect between worlds and people, where macro, world issues were the order of dinner conversations and where, problems of times past affix themselves under the title of pettiness.

I asked myself, if I had the means, what would I do? First I would invigorate the municipal waste service, to stop every street corner turning into a mini-dump. Secondly I would reinvigorate, re-equip all the schools. I think those two actions would have immediate impacts. Taking the thoughts further though, this is a country with the capacity to educate, to prosper to thrive, so why isn’t it? This isn’t the fora for political debate but I was reminded of how so much in international relations, work task or  indeed every philanthropic effort, its about connecting with the few who want to, and are able to make change possible.

Writing after the fact, ‘we’ have the ability to choose, to move on; to go to the theatre, walk the streets without fear of explosions or attacks. The freedom to sit in a cafe and read for leisure. Its not about sacrificing oneself to add to the world’s collective misery, but about using resources we have – intellectual, capital or otherwise even out the playing field. I’m reminded of an ad, that nicely encourages those question, where ‘words/writing’ could be replaced by ‘actions/doing’:

If I give you a clean sheet, what will you write?
Will your words be long and graceful or short and sweet?
Will it be poetry or brute instinct?
If you have something to say, best say it now.
For soon, always, too soon.
My sheet will be filled.
And this chapter will end.
As sure as the next will begin.
With a clean sheet, new authors, and a million possibilities