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03/20/2013

10 years on: little rejoicing in Iraq. The Star's Olivia Ward looks back

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President George W. Bush meets with crew members on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln,  May 1, 2003. From the deck of the carrier, Bush announced that all major combat in Iraq had ended. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

When I’m asked about the lowest points in my dozen years in and out of war zones I think of Iraq. And all the more on the 10th anniversary of its invasion by U.S. forces.

But what comes to mind is not a battlefield.

It was on the eve of the war, in an Iraqi factory where the heat was so intense you felt you would explode, like a bag of popcorn in a microwave oven. Outside, it was 40C.  Inside, there were, mercifully, no barometers. They might have melted down in the thick, chemical-laden air that blasted from the open furnaces.

On this Hades-like landscape, emaciated stick-men toiled up and down ladders to a metal platform that must have been reserved for those sentenced to the nadir of eternal torment. The heat was vicious, palpable, a weapon of mass destruction.

Ironically, that was what I was there to observe.

Shortly before my impromptu visit, the New York Times had pointed to this industrial plant on the outskirts of Baghdad as a weapons of mass destruction site. The U.S. Congress later gave President George W. Bush authority to wage war on Iraq, with or without UN support.

In the Iraqi plant, I broke the news to workers who had interrupted their infernal toil to gawk at a handful of Western reporters, hastily loaded onto a bus by increasingly desperate Iraqi officials hoping -- futilely -- to head off the inevitable attack with favourable publicity.

“I make moulds for metal here,” said technician Kais Hamid, through the sweat that dripped from his eyebrows. But if the all-powerful U.S. decided it was nuclear bombs…well so be it. Insha’Allah.  “What can we do? We will die,” he said, shuffling back to the catwalk.

Hamid and his fellow workers may well be dead now, long buried under the ruins of the machinery plant. Part of the anonymous (to the West) casualty list of more than 100,000  --  some say many times that number – of Iraqis who perished in the bombing and near civil war that followed.

But I also wonder about so many others I knew in Iraq in the days before the black crosses of destruction were marked on their doors. More than 4 million fled their homes, displaced or huddling outside the borders. A semblance of normality has returned now, but only for the survivors. And only if normality means keeping constant watch for gunmen and bombers.

One who fled was my friend and driver Tariq al Samarai, who escaped with his children and grandchildren to Jordan during the war, after a lifetime of long work hours, to live as a dependent among relatives.

But what became of Sami, the plump, ever-jolly waiter at the cheap and cheerful Bahu café, who joked, “tomorrow we diet,” as the invasion loomed?

Souad al-Azzawi, the dean of Baghdad University’s engineering college, survived, but lost 50 friends, 22 relatives, and experienced the kidnapping of 15 people close to her. The stylish woman who recruited a team of aspiring female engineers flourished in the days when Iraq was a leader in education and received the UN’s highest score of all Arab states for the empowerment of women. Now, she calls the invasion “a disaster that will never be sufficiently documented with numbers or words.”

In the first violent years following the war, women were driven back into their homes by rapes, murders and kidnappings. “We want to be big women,” 17-year-old Noor Imad had told me wistfully, a few months from her high school graduation. “We want to be free, we want to be ourselves. We want everything. Do you think, for us, that is wrong?”

Nor do I know what became of Iraqi intellectuals like Adil Kadahum Jawad, who wrote his plays with a scratchy pen, sitting on a rickety wooden chair in a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Mutanabi Street. The nearby book market was later bombed by militants, along with the writers’ café.

The violence didn’t spare Iraq’s poorest and least educated, who were caught in the bombing and the crossfire.

Like four-year-old Walid and his 13-year-old brother Aqeel, squatting in the dust of the metal shop where they hammered out shiny steel dog leads, safety chains for fences and sturdy cables for towing Baghdad’s crumbling cars. At dawn they trekked across Baghdad to earn a few near-worthless “Saddam dollars” to help feed their destitute family.

And 12-year-old Kauthar Abed Jabar, living on a hardscrabble desert farm near the Kuwait border with her illiterate widowed mother. She, at least, was well prepared for what was to come. “I have no dreams,” she told me. “The future is nothing for me.”

And what future is there now?  The brutal and despicable Saddam is gone. But Iraqis are still living with the consequences of his violent, appallingly planned removal. And the children of his reign have grown up in a harsh school of life, which produces hard graduates.

RELATED: 10 years after Iraq invasion Baghdad doctor worries about what lies ahead

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards and collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work, as well as two on Iraq

    


 

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