Authors: James Loney
I met Harmeet and Norman for the first time on the morning of Sunday, November 20. After breakfast, we gathered in the room Harmeet and I shared. The agenda for our first meeting was very simple: introductions, overview of the schedule, orientation to our immediate surroundings, review of security measures for travel to and arrival in Baghdad, worship, and a “check-in,” the daily CPT practice where team members share whatever they want about what they’re experiencing and feeling.
Norman talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of cheap grace. Although a lifelong pacifist, Norman found himself in the unusual, and fortunate, position of never having had to pay a cost for his convictions. He’d lived a very good, comfortable life as a professor of biophysics at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and he felt it was time that he took a risk for what he believed, especially now that he was retired and his remaining years of good health might be few. Although she was fully in support of his decision to come, his only worry was about his wife, Pat.
Harmeet was looking for a way to give something back. After an unsatisfying career as a computer engineer in Ottawa, he had moved to New Zealand to be with his sister after losing his job in the 2001 high-tech crash. He went back to school to study English literature and decided to get involved in the peace movement.
Over the next two days—the time it took us to get our visas—we met with representatives of the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq, the Red
Cross and the Mennonite Central Committee. We also met Iraqis who had fled to Jordan for safety. Over a million Iraqis were living as refugees in Jordan, a country of only five million.
We flew out of Amman on a thirty-passenger turbo-prop Embraer operated by Air Serv, a not-for-profit airline that flies NGOs in and out of humanitarian crisis zones. From twenty-nine thousand feet we descended in a tight, gut-wrenching corkscrew over the Baghdad International Airport—a technique used to avoid insurgent fire. A Canadian CPTer named Greg Rollins and Adib, one of the team’s translators, met us at the airport. My heart pounded in my chest as I put my luggage in the trunk. The airport highway was the most dangerous road in Baghdad.
Issam, our driver, puffed on a cigarette and chatted nonchalantly as we followed a U.S. military convoy through the slalom course of earthen berms that protected the highway. I sat on the edge of my seat, eyes riveted to the soldier nervously manning a fifty-calibre gun on the rearguard Humvee in front of us. The closer you were, the more danger you were in. The smallest misunderstanding between a driver and a soldier could be lethal.
I began to relax only when we entered the familiar avenues of Karrada Darkhil in central Baghdad. I was overjoyed to see its fruit stands, Internet cafés and barbershops—until gunshots and wild honking rushed towards us from behind. I turned around and looked out the rear window to see a convoy of white pickup trucks barrelling towards us. An urgent voice blared in Arabic from a loudspeaker. The cars around us immediately pulled over. Instead of doing the same, Issam passed the vehicle in front of us and sped through an intersection. “Get over, get over,” I shouted. Issam glanced in the rear-view mirror and pulled expertly into the right lane just before the convoy would have hit us. Four white pickup trucks escorting a shiny black sedan roared by. Men in black masks leaned out of windows and stood in the open truck beds, shouting, waving frantically, firing their weapons into the air. Adib sat in the front seat with his elbow resting on his open window while Issam worked his way through another cigarette.
They were deep in conversation, oblivious to the convoy that had just passed us. I touched Adib on the shoulder.
“Yes, Mr. Jim?” he said.
“Sorry to interrupt, Adib, but what was that all about?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Oh, this happens all the time. It must be somebody important passing by.”
I sat back in my seat and willed myself to disappear as we threaded our way through Baghdad’s choking traffic. It was unnerving, the way people looked at us, their faces startled and surprised, as if we were a rare, endangered species.
It was a relief to pull up in front of the CPT apartment. It was located on Abu Nawas Street, a major artery that ran along the Tigris River. Across the street, a sun-baked, rubble-strewn no man’s land was all that remained of what used to be a lush paradise of fountains, gardens and footpaths following the river.
Maxine Nash came out to meet us. “Welcome to Baghdad,” she said with a big smile.
“Max! It’s so great so see you.” I reached out to shake her hand, forgetting that public displays of affection between men and women were forbidden.
She shook her head. “Get the delegation into the apartment as quickly as you can.”
The team looked weary to me: Tom Fox, Sheila Provencher, Anita David, Greg Rollins and of course Maxine. The Iraq project was a grind. In order to reduce their visibility, they spent long hours holed up in the apartment. There was nowhere to get away, even for a cup of coffee or a cold beer, nowhere to go for a walk to unwind. The lack of electricity, the blazing summer heat and constant winter chill, the suffering of the Iraqi people that they were helpless to alleviate, the daily explosions and gunfire, the relentless, gnawing fear for one’s physical safety—all these things combined, accumulated, took their toll.
I had worked with Sheila and Max during my second stint in Iraq. They had been studying Arabic together at the time. Sheila was a
33-year-old Catholic from Boston who radiated warmth, ease, loving acceptance. She seemed to know every child, neighbour and shopkeeper in the team’s immediate vicinity. Max was a 43-year-old Quaker from Iowa. She was unflappably calm, decisive, grounded: the kind of person you wanted to have around in a crisis. Anita I had not met before but I instantly liked her. A 59-year-old Presbyterian from Chicago, she greeted me with sparkling eyes and an irreverent grin. Greg I knew as a fellow Canadian CPTer. He was a 33-year-old Mennonite from Vancouver with an incorrigibly dry sense of humour and a relentlessly optimistic disposition. Tom I’d met once before at a CPT retreat in 2004, just as I was starting out as CPT’s Canada program coordinator.
After some lunch, Greg took us up four flights of stairs to the new delegation apartment. It was a safer location than the ground-floor apartment where delegations used to stay.
Harmeet and I took one room and Norman took another. We put our bags down and then went to meet Greg and Abu Hani on the roof.
Abu Hani was our landlord, a Christian businessman who owned property throughout Karrada. He was a genial, self-assured man who, unlike most Christians with means, had elected to stand his ground against the bloody chaos that was consuming his beloved city. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a newly installed water tank. Ten days before, an errant mortar had struck the roof and destroyed the previous tank. “You can’t tell very much now, but it was a mess up here. Metal and shrapnel and roof tiles all over the place.” He raised his chin defiantly. “I fixed everything the next day. It was lucky that no one was up here and that it hit the tank. The water absorbed a lot of the blast.”
He pointed across the river to a skyline of domes and spires. “Those used to be Saddam’s palaces—the Republican Palace and Baath Party headquarters. Of course, now they are the headquarters for the Americans.”
“What’s that big building that’s been bombed?” Harmeet asked, pointing to the scorched shell of Baghdad’s tallest office building.
“That’s why our phone system doesn’t work. That’s the Telecommunications Building. Destroyed by the Americans,” he said. He pointed in the opposite direction, to four smokestacks on a smoggy horizon. “That is the Baghdad electricity plant. As you can see, there is only one smokestack working. Another big headache. After the Second Gulf War,
Saddam had the electricity fixed in a few months. It’s been three and a half years since the invasion and the electricity is worse now than it ever was.
“If you come over here,” he said, walking to the east side of the roof, “you can see Karrada Darkhil.” Before us was a blond and clay-brown expanse of flat roofs punctuated with palm trees, minarets, the occasional tall apartment building. “I have lived here all my life,” he said proudly. “There is the Armenian church”—he pointed to a high parabolic arch centred with a cross—“the Shia mosque”—a modestly ornamented minaret—“and the Sunni mosque”—a massive turquoise dome hovering in the smog. “In Karrada, we live together in peace. Or we used to.”
“How old is this neighbourhood?” I asked.
“Not very old,” Abu Hani said. “Maybe sixty years.”
“Really?” I said. “Some of the buildings look a lot older than that.”
He laughed. “Everything looks old in Baghdad, especially the people. Baghdad used to be very small. But then there was a mass migration into the city in the thirties and forties and it exploded. Now it’s a huge city of six million.”
I noted with pleasure that the team’s makeshift clothesline had escaped the mortar blast. There is always something that survives war, I thought.
The next day, Waleed, the team’s other translator, took us for a tour of Baghdad. Where in my previous two trips we could take pictures and
walk freely just about anywhere, this time we rarely left the car and had to be very careful where we took pictures. You could feel the tension in the air, the fatigue, the edge of fear everywhere. There were more rolls of concertina wire, more fortressized buildings, more burly men with guns. There were more and bigger piles of rubble dumped along more roadways and boulevards. There was more smog, more burned-out vehicles, more squatters living in windowless buildings. There were more shortages of gasoline and electricity, more helicopters, explosions and gunfire. Otherwise, Baghdad was very much the same. Except for a repaved road here and there, no reconstruction had been done. It remained as I’d last seen it, a crumbling, chaotic, patched-up sprawl of potholes, burning garbage, leaking water mains, bombed and looted buildings, cement barricades and blast walls.
Still, I admired Baghdad. There was something irrepressible about it, a gritty, get-on-with-it, make-do determination that flowed like the Tigris and Euphrates through the chaos, the shortages, the soul-aching grief of war. You saw this spirit everywhere, in clothes hanging on the line, shops that unfailingly opened every day, trucks laden with goods for delivery, homeowners scrubbing down their sidewalks, children riding wildly decorated bicycles, boys hawking newspapers and tissue boxes at grid-locked intersections, the call to prayer punctuating the wheel of each day.
On the morning of Wednesday, November 23, I started a letter to my father.
Today is your granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, and it’s your oldest son’s first morning in Baghdad. The Communist Party generator is purring at their big headquarters across the street, the power’s out (hence this candlelight writing), and Tom Fox is in the middle of his yoga routine on the living room floor. It is 5:50 a.m. and all is right with the world. In Eastern Standard Time, it’s 10:00 p.m. and still a day before. You will have just gone to bed.
I know this is not an easy thing for you or Mom, and I lament this burden of worry you both must carry because of my choices. It is my
sense that this burden is increased by your feeling that my being in Iraq is serving no effective purpose. You’ve said it before, and you said it in the course of our last phone conversation, something like what good is this going to do in the face of the never-ending centuries of the Middle East’s ever-escalating internecine violence. (In fact, we are setting our lives against something much larger than that: the apparently eternal violence of Empire itself, in this instance fuelled by an insatiable greed for fossil fuel.) It is my sense that this burden would somehow be easier if it didn’t seem so much like a mad tilting at windmills.
When we were in Amman, we met with the top UN and Red Cross officials responsible for the protection of civilians in Iraq: John Pace, the chief of the Human Rights Office for Iraq, and Joerg Gasser, deputy head of the Red Cross delegation to Iraq. As you know, both the UN and the Red Cross were forced from Iraq by suicide bomb attacks and must now conduct their work from the arm’s-length safety of Jordan. Both are eager to return but are unable to because of very real security concerns and their ponderous security protocols. Both must rely on intermittent visits. The UN relies on people coming to see them in their Green Zone lockdown, and the Red Cross flies through secure air corridors to permanent detention facilities located on three U.S. military bases. They cannot even get to Abu Ghraib because it is too dangerous to travel there. Their information-gathering systems, the lifeblood of human rights monitoring, are on life support. Both men were envious of CPT’s freedom, mobility and access to Iraqis. And I was both surprised and delighted: they not only value but also rely on our reports and documentation. We are able to get to places, meet people, hear stories, witness conditions that the UN and the Red Cross, with all their vast international resources, are helpless to.
These meetings helped me to understand the importance of our work in a new way. We are acting as a kind of intermediary amplifying the cries of those who have no voice, in some small way serving as the eyes and ears of the UN and the Red Cross, a human rights special forces team that can get in close and shine the light where it needs to shine.
I hope I haven’t sounded preachy. I’m just trying to find a way to ease this burden you’re carrying. Maybe if you can better understand
why I think this is worth doing it will be easier for you to bear. Failing that, I guess the best we can do is entrust each other to God’s hands.
Well, the day is breaking here. Sleep well, Dad.
With love, James
That morning, we went to Baghdad’s electrical power plant, an awe-inspiring complex of steaming pipes, towering chimneys, catwalks interconnecting everywhere. Despite their best efforts, the plant manager told us, they were only able to get two of the four generators going at one time, often only one. He explained it was because there was a shortage of oil in the country and they couldn’t get spare parts. The plant had been built by a German company and Halliburton was in charge of the contract. Why can’t Halliburton get the parts from Germany? we asked. I don’t know, he said, you must ask Halliburton about this.