One Morning In Baghdad...
By Sabah Ali
10 January, 2006
Human rights meetings are always interesting to me, no matter what. Just to show up in such meetings is support to people who desperately need it. There are millions of them in Iraq nowadays. That's why I decided to go to Falloja to attend one of these meeting although I was invited on a short notice.
As usual, no taxi driver was willing to take me to Karkh (western side of Baghdad), where the Alawy car station is. The streets are jammed, they say. It was 8; I need to be in the station at 8.30 at least. I told the fourth taxi driver that I would pay whatever he asks. Less than three minutes later, we were at Al-Tahrir Square. Al-Jumhooriya Bridge was blocked by the American vehicles. In the next square, Sinak, a minute away, the Sinak Bridge was closed too. The square was a lake of stagnant cars. There were hundreds of young and old people, men and women, crossing the bridge on feet. Tens of police and military vehicles were jammed with policemen and soldiers, pointing their guns in different directions, blocking the roads and bridges, more than the usual. I decided to cross the river on feet. The driver took 3000 dinars (more than 2 dollars). The transportations fees doubled or tripled after the latest rise in the fuel prices.
I asked one of the policemen in a pickup, he was smoking absent mindedly, what was going on. "I do not know" he replied with a shrug of his shoulders, puffing out the smoke. "Is there any explosion?" I asked again. "No!" He was sure.
Climbing the bridge, even on feet, was not an easy matter. The barbed wires left small space to pass, and going through pointed guns was not a comfortable experience. A fat women in her fifties was cursing and breathing with difficulty. Two American hummers came from the opposite direction, where the green zone is, followed by a black-windows car and three other hummers.
"That's why they are blocking the roads" the fat woman said "they are protecting their masters". She was sweating and putting her hand on her chest. "Are you alright? Do need help?" I asked. She was leaning on the bridge fence, facing the river. "It's my heart" she replied breathlessly. On the right, in the Ahrar bridge direction, a huge cloud of black smoke was going up. So, there is an explosion after all.
The middle of the bridge was cut by more barbed wires and different police cars and trucks again. Some of the police men were taking the firing position on the ground. Some men were arguing with an officer who was trying to explain some thing.
"These are the regulations" he was repeating "we are not in normal conditions, the Interior Minister's sister is kidnapped as you know, and there is a big military and police search operation going on today". The men were interested enough to discuss how futile the operation and the technique are.
A woman in a black leather coat, with long brown ponytail, was discussing the salaries and pensions with two young men, before me. She sounded strong and well-informed. I felt happy to see an Iraqi woman, different from the gloomy stereotype drawn for Iraqi women nowadays. But the voice was familiar. Passing by them, I recognized her. She is a painter or a sculptor, known for stealing paintings and works of art from the Modern Arts Museum after the invasion of Baghdad in April 9, 2003.
The roads on the opposite side of the bridge were also closed. There were no cars, only the military. To go to the Alaway station I had to walk all the way from the Information Ministry old building, the April 28 area, the Green Zone, the ministry of Foreign affairs, the head quarters of the Kurdistani Democratic Union, only to find out that the station was closed. Needless to say, all the roads were closed. Police cars, sirens, bullets, guns, shouts and the American vehicles were filling the atmosphere. People were not allowed to go out or in the station. For some reason a policeman waved to the garage busses which were waiting for too long, to go out. The rush was crazy. Another policeman ran very quickly in the garage gate direction, shooting bullets in the air and shouting "inside, all the cars inside..." The people were very angry "why are you arresting us here? We have to leave…etc". The shouting became mad. The police man was firm. NO car moves. The people, cursing everything and everybody began to leave the cars, the busses and the garage.
"I have to go to Falluja" I replied to a student who was asking how to go to the university.
"If you manage to reach Amriya, there are cars there which go directly to Falluja"
It was already 10. The meeting was at 11. I do not know how long it would take to reach Amriya, if at all. I needed a plan. My strategy now is to reach a place where I can get a taxi to Amriya. I walked away from the station towards the road that leads to the highway. The road was closed.
"Do not go through Mansoor, Yarmook, or Qadissiya" a policeman said "those areas are all closed even to pedestrians". The Interior Minster's sister was kidnapped in Qadissiya.
I walked towards the Iraqi National Museum. There was a big banner with Al-Hakeem's (the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution party) picture hanging above a big poorly repaired hole in the Museum entrance arch created by a grenade during the American invasion of Baghdad. Many other banners were hanging on the destroyed statue in the Museum square. People were gathering, looking for any transportation. A police car approached "Do not gather here it is dangerous, move" one of them was shouting. We headed towards the Ahrar Bridge. I decided to take the first car any where to get out of this trap.
A mini bus was calling "Kadhimiya". I jumped inside. "I want to go to Amriya, please take me to the nearest place where I can get a taxi. He asked for a doubled fee.
The few streets left were drowned in floods of endless car queues. "Why did not they announce a curfew" was a question on every one's tongue. Haifa street was blocked with giant trucks carrying new big cement blocks to close or limit more streets.
"They are going to distribute these blocks on families free of charge" said the driver sarcastically. "I heard that they are going to give them to the families instead of the monthly food ration" replied one of the passengers, laughing. The Trade Ministry has just announced that the food ration is going to be reduced.
Buratha Mosque, one of the old Shiite mosques in Baghdad was being restored and enlarged. The street again was blocked with hills of sand, bricks, construction equipments …etc.
Aden Square is the best point to go to Amriya. "You have to pay 6000" the taxi driver said. It was 11.10. The high way was mysteriously open, but our car was the only civilian car on the road. A very big American convoy was coming from the opposite side, and many Iraqi military vehicles and American helicopters were patrolling the way. There were Iraqi walking pattrols in Ghazaliya too. The driver was afraid and began to grumble "I never come to this terrorists' area, the devil tempted me this time". Shooting began. Many gun shots, very near. We hid our heads in our laps instinctively. The driver took the nearest opening in the highway. Obviously, they were warning us. At the Amriya fuel station, kilometers of car queues were waiting. There was no fuel in the station, but the cars were waiting just in case the tank comes. After the latest 5-double rise in the oil prices, few could buy it in the black market.
In the Falluja car at last, but the high way was closed. We had to take a detour through Shu'la, a village north of Baghdad, close to Kadhimiya, ironically. But Shu'la check point was also closed and we had to take another detour through a dusty, deserted and dangerous road. An hour later we were again on the highway, only 5 minutes west of Amriya.
Falluja, by the way, is normally no more than 30 minutes west of Baghdad. When I entered the meeting room, it was almost 1pm. The meeting was held in a school, with students, classes and everything. The meeting was ending. A man was talking passionately about the oil problem, the corruption and the missing men in jails. His voice collapsed and he broke into tears. Another man ended the meeting by talking about 1200 families who raised a complain against Ayad Allawy (the previous prime minister) for killing their loved ones. The case was closed by Jafari (the current prime minister) government. "Do not you see" he concluded "No one would help; every one has to take care of his own problems".
It was 5 pm when we arrived back in Baghdad. The traffic jam was lesser now. On the radio, the Interior Minister's sister story was on the news. I felt relieved. "Now he is going to feel the agony of people" I caught myself saying. Suddenly, I realized that I was supporting an act of terrorism, of kidnapping a woman, a thing that I condemned all my life, and still do. In the evening, Al-Sharqiya satellite channel put a program on what happened in the morning, the blocked streets and bridges, the angry people, the fuel queues … I was relieved again. But noting was mentioned about the human rights meeting.
ps. Baghdad streets, and Iraq highways, are private properties now of the American troops. to pass, you need their permission, which is not easy at all.