I no longer recognize Baghdad. The physical landscape has been destroyed and the social fabric has been shredded. The city looks different with each neighborhood controlled by different militia, with Sunnis killing Shi’ah, Shi’ah killing Sunnis, Shi’ah killing Shi’ah, and Sunnis killing Sunnis. This is NOT the city I knew. We never talked about Sunni/Shi’ah as much as everyone is talking about it today. We never thought about the idea of splitting the country into federations that is more or less divided along sectarian lines. We never had as many religious symbols as we have in the city now, so much so that a new visitor would probably never believe that Baghdad was once a secular city where religion was seen and respected as part of its citizens’ private lives but not in the public definition of the city.
None but a very few of my relatives and friends are still in Baghdad. My parent’s friends who we used to go out with them to the museum or the opera house, or galleries have all gone… My friends that I use to go swimming with or to the movies have all gone… my father’s tennis partners have all gone. Baghdad is a city that has been abandoned by the educated professional community, because it simply was not safe for them. The ongoing violence means that now doctors are afraid to go to the hospitals, lest they be killed, professors are afraid to go to the universities since they too have been targeted for killing, and people are afraid to express their political opinions loudly for that too can make you a target.
The culture of spying on each other that was propagated in Saddam’s time has stayed intact. Except that instead of writing secret reports on your neighbor or friend to the government secret service, people now submit their report to the militia. Saddam’s regime often killed, tortured or imprisoned people based on these reports, the current militias often just kill. The system is intact, the punishment is even more random and more severe than it was during Saddam’s time and the people who had held onto their hope for the country are no longer there.
I don’t have time to meet many local organizations and I am sort of scared of publicizing my visit less I intrigue the interests of kidnappers. But I do ask to visit Hana’a Edwards, the founder of Al Amal Association, an organization with a wonderful mission and a great leader. I met Hana’a about five years ago and I am familiar with her work throughout the country, even during Saddam’s time. I consider people like Hana’a, as well as the staff of Women for Women International in Iraq, heroes for staying in the country and continuing the struggle. I share with her my sadness at the country and ask her for her source of hope. I am most worried about the future, a future that does not have those educated, professional, artists, intellectuals, activist as part of it either because they have been killed or because they have escaped with their lives.
I know at Women for Women International-Iraq’s office, we are getting the hope by simply knowing we are giving women some venue for hope and an opportunity to stand on their feet. The women we are working with are survivors and economically and socially excluded. They may be able to rebuild their lives by getting a job and knowing about their rights. They do not replace, however, the country’s need of the middle class who is disappearing rapidly in the country.
There are pockets of the educated middle class still holding on in the country, pockets that are trying to survive in silent, subtle ways. Pockets that are afraid to be loud, out of fear that they will be killed like so many of their friends, colleagues and relatives. The situation in Iraq is far more than the mere argument of whether or not we are having a civil war. What we are having in Iraq is an “intellectual cleansing,” where those with education, professions and skills are getting killed. I thought of my mother’s stories of how the Mongols, when invading Iraq in the 13th century burnt all the books in all the libraries and killed so many professionals that the Tigris river ran red with blood, came to my mind. This story is very much a part of Iraqi oral history and is passed from one generation to another. If my mother was alive, I know she would tell me we are going through another such massacre of everything intellectual in the country… I am thankful she is not seeing what I am seeing.