“Embedded” in the Real Baghdad, Telling It Like It Is

“Riverbend” is a storyteller. Her “Baghdad Burning” blog is one part Anne Frank, another part Scheherazade and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” — from cyberspace. As she wrote in her first weblog entry, dated August 17, 2003: “So this is the beginning for me, I guess … expect a lot of complaining and ranting. … A little bit about myself: I’m female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.” Riverbend’s experience of war, her political commentary and nuanced slice-of-life descriptions, have won her worldwide respect and appreciation. Now her weblog writings have been published in paperback and are available as a BuzzFlash premium. BuzzFlash is grateful to Riverbend for all she has shared in “Baghdad Burning,” as well as for her e-mailed comments to us (below) on why she writes, how she experiences American propaganda, Iraqis’ hopes, fears and disappointments, and the elusiveness of “normal” life in Baghdad.

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BuzzFlash: You write your blog at great personal risk. Clearly, while you focus on the personal hardships and daily lives of Iraqis in Baghdad, you are not a fan of the Bush occupation of your country. Why do you continue to write, even knowing what the Americans have done to individuals they deem “dissidents?”

Riverbend: I write the blog because it gives me a medium to express my emotions and opinions and possibly show the ‘other’ side of the war- the one that is not cheering on the occupation, as many news channels and newspapers like to depict. I began writing the blog because, at the beginning of the war, the pro-occupation media was overwhelming and very few journalists or politicians were willing to look at the ugly side of the occupation — i.e. the deaths, the destruction and the complete and total lack of the most basic security.

I don’t worry so much about myself personally when writing the blog as I worry that if I weren’t anonymous, I wouldn’t be able to write half of what I write. I wouldn’t be able to write about the rise in fundamentalism, for example.

BuzzFlash: In your April 3, 2005, “Baghdad Burning” entry, you are critical of the American broadcasting which has recently invaded the televisions of Iraqis. You write, “I’ve been enchanted with the shows these last few weeks. The thing that strikes me most is the fact that the news is so … clean. It’s like hospital food. It’s all organized and disinfected. Everything is partitioned and you can feel how it has been doled out carefully with extreme attention to the portions — 2 minutes on women’s rights in Afghanistan, 1 minute on training troops in Iraq and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reportages are upbeat and somewhat cheerful, and the anchor person manages to look properly concerned and completely uncaring all at once.” Has the propaganda of Saddam Hussein just been exchanged for the propaganda of the corporate-owned American media that generally follows the White House spin?

Riverbend: Iraqis were never good at propaganda. I think I realized that at an early age while watching state-sponsored Iraqi TV. The messages the former regime wanted us to believe or to reiterate were very directly introduced on state television with few frills or introductions. American media differs in that there is more money and time spent to feed people ideas and news. A lot of the news is obviously exaggerated and sometimes even untrue but it’s so carefully put together and staged that you sometimes *want* to believe it. I can see how many Americans can be misled by American corporate media. We sometimes find ourselves watching, fascinated, with news we know to be false, and yet American media makes it look so convincing!

BuzzFlash: How have your attitudes toward the occupation of Iraq changed in the past two years?

Riverbend: I think two years ago, there was a sort of general hope that in spite of the difficulties, things would improve drastically in a relatively short time. For example, we never expected that two years after the war we’d still have major problems with electricity, water and infrastructure. It’s utter disappointment at this point that security issues haven’t been sorted out and Iraq is still a very dangerous place. People wonder now how long this situation will last and just what is being done to improve things.

I think that two years after the war, we’re also seeing more inter-factional friction between Sunnis and Shia and Arabs and Turkomen and Kurds. There are certain politicians and parties that are cultivating this friction because it helps promote them amongst their own people.

BuzzFlash: We’ve recently passed the two-year mark for the American occupation of Iraq. What has gotten better during that two-year period? What has gotten worse?

Riverbend: The security situation isn’t very much better — crime has become organized and we’re seeing more and more assassinations, etc. The water situation is really bad this year. Last year we had problems with water but this year they seem more pronounced. The sewage system is also really quite bad. We had some heavy rain this year and the streets were overflowing with raw sewage and contaminated water. The fuel situation is also worse this year. We had some major problems during the winter with getting kerosene, gasoline and cooking gas. Improvements include the fact that Iraqis are becoming more organized — in other words we’re learning how to work around these problems. There’s also the fact that at least a few of the ministries are up and running, sort of.

BuzzFlash: One way you’ve contributed to Americans’ understanding of the Iraqi perspective is to talk about the Iraqis’ reaction to seemingly small actions on the part of the Americans in Iraq that have huge negative reactions from the Iraqis, such as cutting down the palm trees that lined the boulevards to the Baghdad airport. Do you think the American military and the Bush administration have any idea of the impact of their actions on the Iraqi people, or do they not care? Please elaborate.

Riverbend: I think in some cases the Bush administration does not have any idea of the impact of some of their actions — for example the cutting of palm trees in some areas. I think many people in the Bush administration are truly ignorant about Iraq and the culture, and it surprises me, because they had so many Iraqis on their payroll (Chalabi, Jaffari, etc.) that one wonders just what sort of information about Iraq they were being fed all this time.

In other cases, I believe the Bush administration is very aware of their actions. An example of this is the torture and humiliation that went on in Abu Ghraib. I think the people who helped engineer this war and occupation were extremely aware that, above and beyond all, Iraqis fear sexual humiliation of the sort depicted in the pictures and videos from Abu Ghraib. I also think that in many situations, women were intentionally brought in for detention and interrogation with the full knowledge that this would outrage the public. Some of these issues backfired, of course.

BuzzFlash: One thing about your blog that has struck us is your frequent references to the Governing Council as American puppets. That, because the majority of the Governing Council members have not lived in Iraq for a long time, they are not viewed by most Iraqis as representatives of Iraq. Is this viewpoint aired in the Arab press? How and how often? This perspective is rarely, if ever, seen in the mainstream media in the United States.

Riverbend: It’s not so much that these people have been living abroad for such long periods of time, it’s because these people did so many things over the years to prove they never really wanted the welfare of the Iraqi people. It’s difficult to view someone like Chalabi as Iraqi when he was living in luxury abroad all his life and simultaneously encouraging the blockade on Iraq, helping plan a war, riding in on occupation tanks and cheering on foreign troops while the country is pillaged and burned. People who have lived in Iraq their entire lives are also seen as puppets when they cooperate with occupation people. The Arab media doesn’t often portray them as puppets because, let’s face it, many Arab leaders themselves are American puppets — the Jordanian and Saudi royals, for example, and we really do have very few truly free media networks or newspapers in the Arab world.

BuzzFlash: You often state that, among Iraqis, there is a strong sense of nationhood that supercedes ethnic or religious differences. You point out that your family is a fairly typical Iraqi family in that it includes members of various ethnic and religious groups. But isn’t Iraq, as a nation, an artificial construct created by Western powers at the end of the last colonial era?

Riverbend: I think many Iraqis don’t care so much about how the nation was formed as they do about it remaining a united country. Iraq has a long and rich history and historically, people of different religions and ethnicities have been very able to live together in peace. The important thing to us right now is that we remain united as one country. We’ve been able to live together, Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, in the past — it shouldn’t be any different now. Though the language may differ in some places, we share similar cultures and beliefs — there is nothing that should stand in the way of internal peace and unity. I know for a fact that the majority of Iraqis don’t like being labeled as Sunni, Shia or Kurd. These labels are being promoted by the current new government and the Bush administration and many Iraqis believe they are being used to divide and conquer.

BuzzFlash: You focus so much on the daily travails of living in Baghdad, including the problems of buying gasoline and intermittent electricity. Yet, you also take great pleasure in the simple things in life, like going to buy school supplies for your nieces. Life goes on, doesn’t it?

Riverbend: Life does go on. It’s amazing what people can grow accustomed to. There are certain priorities that cannot be ignored, in spite of occupation and instability, and many Iraqis need their lives to have a certain semblance of normality. Dwelling on the insecurities and fear will only drive you insane — it’s the smaller things that make the day bearable — buying school supplies, cooking, shopping for groceries and trying to live ‘normally’ for even fifteen minutes!

BuzzFlash: Who exactly are the insurgents? The White House and the American press lump them all together. We guess that it keeps it simple for them that way. But from what we can deduce from the foreign press, the resistance to the American occupation is coming from a variety of sources. Can you speculate as to how many different groups are attacking American forces, as well as soldiers in the Iraqi Army, Iraqi police and Iraqi civilians? To what extent are the bombings and attacks due to Sunni/Shiite jockeying for power?

Riverbend: The White House makes it very simple when talking about the insurgency — foreign, Islamic terrorists. It’s hardly that simple. I guess most Iraqis believe there is resistance and there is terror. Resistance is coming from various sources — former Iraqi army people, Islamists, Ba’athists, nationalists and ordinary people who hate this new way of life Iraqis are being relegated to. Terror is also coming from various sources and in many cases it is a complete mystery. Many people believe the attacks against the police force and security forces are the work of outsiders or people who want Iraqis to hate the resistance. It’s difficult to tell at this point just what is going on. Some attacks are meant to cause sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia, but those are quite easy to see through (for example the bombing of Sunni mosques or Shia Husseiniyas) and Iraqis have proven over the last two years that they are far too tolerant to fall for such underhanded techniques.

BuzzFlash: You are obviously a secular Iraqi, with great skills of observation in writing in English. You are also an independent, thinking young woman. Do you have fears of a fundamentalist Islamic takeover of the Iraqi government?

Riverbend: I have fears of fundamentalism of any type. I fear Sunni fundamentalism and Shia fundamentalism. I fear we might be slowly working our way towards a state run by Mullahs and clerics. I fear Iraq being turned into another Iran by parties like Da’awa and SCIRI, currently being promoted by the occupation powers. It is not Islam that I fear — I am a Muslim and a practicing one — it is the deformation of Islam practiced in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia that I fear.

BuzzFlash: Would you leave Iraq if you had the opportunity to live a peaceful life in a Western country?

Riverbend: I have had the opportunity to leave Iraq several times already. I don’t know if I’d want to live in a Western country, but I do yearn for some peace and security sometimes. I know I would like to travel … but it is not so much to leave the country behind as it is to experience a different way of life. I am afraid, though, that Iraq is experiencing a brain drain like never before. While many educated Iraqis left the country during the blockade, many, many more are currently making plans to leave because they fear for their lives and for their lives of their children.

BuzzFlash: The American military successfully kept reporters from describing what was clearly a devastating assault on Fallujah, as well as some other cities. But, again, from reading the foreign press, it appears Fallujah was decimated and that countless civilians were killed. Do you have any information on Fallujah or other cities that the American military assaulted without allowing the media to cover their activities?

Riverbend: Many cities are assaulted by the military without proper press coverage. The latest is Qaim, for example. There has been a siege and assault that has lasted several days already. Last week it was Haditha and Mash’had. We know things are not going well in these areas when we get refugees in Baghdad — often women and children of men who have been detained for no reason or killed. Very few media sources are actually covering it, and the only casualties discussed are the deaths of ‘insurgents’ and ‘terrorists.’ Very few media outlets report about the deaths of women and children — only when they are caused by roadside bombs or terrorists. Even Arab news networks aren’t reporting casualties like before.

BuzzFlash: Is it true that the reconstruction money is being spent on employing American companies like Halliburton and that the Iraqi unemployment rate is 50%?

Riverbend: It is true. The Iraqi unemployment rate is atrocious. People literally wander the streets looking for some sort of employment. Factories have shut down, companies, ministries, etc. and the decision to disband the Iraqi army has resulted in hundreds of thousands of unemployed Iraqis. Many Iraqis currently graduating from college spend months and months looking for work, even if it isn’t related to what they studied.

Many American companies are getting millions of dollars for reconstruction contracts and then giving the work to Iraqi sub-contractors who have ‘relations.’ Reconstruction work right now is not about the good job a contractor can do, but just who he is related to or how many people he’s bribed to get the contract. This has resulted in shoddy work, and millions of dollars literally going to waste, because the contract is given to American companies for very large sums of money and then to Iraqi sub-contractors for a pittance.

BuzzFlash: A study in the British journal, “The Lancet,” which was largely ignored by the American press, indicated that possibly more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American invasion. Do you think this might be accurate?

Riverbend:I’m sure more than 100,000 people have died in the last two years. Everyone literally knows more than one person who died — often a relative or a friend. We have people dying of bombs, dying under torture, dying of malnutrition, a lack of shelter, missiles, attacks, abductions, etc. We have illnesses emerging that Iraqis hadn’t even heard of in the past — cancer rates have gone up drastically and in some areas we hear about cholera or typhoid. It’s difficult to know just how many people have died because the Ministry of Health was given explicit instructions about not keeping tabs.

BuzzFlash: The Bush White House and their representatives keep saying it was all worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We think there might have been other ways of getting rid of Saddam Hussein besides wrecking a nation and taking over its oil. What do you think?

Riverbend: I think this wasn’t about the welfare of Iraqi people and ridding them of a dictator. I think this has been about the US strategically placing itself in a Middle Eastern ‘hot spot’ — in the middle of Turkey, Iran, Syria and the Gulf countries — to wreak havoc and promote instability in the area, and have direct access to the oil, of course.

Democracy has to come from within and it has to be a request of the people — not of expatriates who have alliances with the CIA and British intelligence. People have to want something enough to rise up and change it. They have to be ready for democracy and willing to accept its responsibility. The US could have promoted democracy in Iraq peacefully, but then they wouldn’t have permanent bases in the country, would they?

BuzzFlash: What would happen if the U.S. forces completely pulled out of Iraq within a month?

Riverbend: No one knows what would happen. Some people say civil war, others say Iraqis would be able to sort things out. I think the best thing would be to set a timetable for complete withdrawal. This would have the dual effect of giving hope to the millions of Iraqis who feel their country will be under occupation for at least another decade, and it would also push the current Iraqi government to organize themselves and try to win over the favor of the people instead of looking out for personal gain and power. It would also inspire Iraqi security forces to take better charge of the situation in the knowledge that, eventually, they’ll have to protect Iraqis instead of Americans.

BuzzFlash: How are the children of Iraq faring under the psychological pressure of the ongoing violence?

Riverbend: Many children have lost their childhood in this war and occupation. Children saw things no child should see — corpses in the streets, foreign tanks, their countrymen being shoved to the ground or detained at checkpoints for no reason — and this is the average child … Other children saw their parents killed in front of them … or lost arms, legs, eyes in an explosion or gun fire … or were abducted … thousands of children were privy to raids on homes which were once sacred and symbolized security and shelter. Many Iraqi children know a lot about politics and religion — they’ve come to understand the differences between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds — differences that weren’t emphasized before the war.

BuzzFlash: In your journal, you talk about what a restless sleeper you are, amidst the uncertainty and the noises of war. Have you ever dreamt of peace and normalcy returning to your life?

Riverbend: Peace and normalcy seem like a distant thing. One begins to forget what ‘normal’ was in the first place. We’ve come to realize that peace and normalcy are also relative. What we consider peace is obviously very different from the American concept of peace. Normality also changes with time. Three years ago, normal was being able to walk down the street with a sense of security. Today, normal is hearing at least three explosions a day and the hum of helicopters above.

At the end of the day, why dream of such mundane things as peace and normalcy? A stable, secure, prosperous, united and above all independent Iraq — that’s a dream.

BuzzFlash: Thank your for your thoughts.

Riverbend: You’re welcome.
http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/05/03/int05016.html

Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (In Paperback, A BuzzFlash Premium):

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Riverbend

A young Iraqi woman whose weblog chronicles daily life in occupied Baghdad