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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

January 28th
Day Trip to Baquba

The sheep were making some kind of effort at grazing on mounds of sand and heaps of discarded plastic while people crouched weeding out carrier bags in plots of green. A woman in black with a stick in one hand and a donkey on a string in the other hurried slowly into Baquba town centre, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The letters on the board labelling the Iraqi Grain Board premises were peeled so as to look like Chinese style decorative writing, in front of a building devoid of windows.

And mud and mud and mud: three wedding dresses sparkled out front of a roadside shop, hovering above the bog like the spangles were holding them up. The writers who were taking us there asked the way to the children’s hospital, calling it by its new name, which I forget. “You mean the Saddam hospital,” was the firm reply, before directions were given. Resembling a building site more than a hospital, the hospital is bare.

The two ladies’ toilet cubicles were without water. One, a sit-down arrangement, had a tin can wedged in the bowl. The other, a hole-in-the-ground affair, was overflowing. We occupied the police office as a dressing room, the desk too low, really, for getting onto the stilts, doing our make up in the mirror on the back of a pink hairbrush borrowed from a policeman, besieged by women asking to borrow Peat’s juggling ball case for carrying presents for the kids, a man in an army uniform requesting the loan of some make-up (he was part of the show) and assorted security officers bringing large automatic rifles in and out of the room.

The new shaving foam pie routine went down well. We used it first in Hilla, a policeman being the apparent target of the pie-in-the-face that time, though in fact it goes in Peat’s face in the end. Today it was the reporter from Diyalla TV. Lots of sick kids had a good time, which is what matters, and it was good for an over-tired and somewhat burnt out clown to be cuddled and kissed by a crowd of smiling children at the end.

Mohammed’s nine-year-old daughter Farah adopted me as her friend which was great because it meant when we were taken for lunch afterwards I could run off to the playground instead of smiling nicely and trying to make polite conversation. A small donkey by the playground fence made her nearly fall off the slide by shouting loudly right behind her and I practised some trapeze tricks, upside down on the climbing frame, between pushing them all on the swings.

Baquba is generally seen as another of the hot spots to the north of Baghdad, not as wild as Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and the small towns around them but nonetheless a bit spicy. Uzma and I went out to talk to people and found that no one wanted to talk. No, there was no resistance here. Yes, everything’s fine here in Baquba. It’s all outside of Baquba city. Objectively this is not true and the same people who were telling us Baquba was calm and peaceful were also telling us the centre was too dangerous and we should go back.

There was a fear in people’s eyes I used to see when anyone asked them about Saddam in the old days. It’s the look when they know there’s an official line and that’s what they have to tell you. The eyes glaze over and they repeat exactly what the person before told you, the tone flat. Things are fine. No, no resistance here. Deny the visibly obvious. You point out the inconsistency in what they’ve said and they lead you round in the same circle.

Finally Khalid and Mohammed begged us to give up: “They think you are American soldiers.” Well, that explained why no one wanted to talk to us.

“There are many house raids and they destroy everything and take everything and then they come and say it was a mistake,” Khalid said afterwards. He’s the leader of the Diyala Young Pens Association, an arts and cultural group set up in 1998 to encourage upcoming writers and artists and to make contacts with those in other provinces and countries. Since the war they’ve helped establish the Iraqi Woman Rising organisation, based in Baghdad, which I haven’t encountered yet, as well as the new popular poets’ and writers’ unions in Diyala.

“Everyone in Baquba is opposed to the occupation, both Shia and Sunni,” Khalid told us. Consultation brought forth a guess of about 60% Sunni, 40% Shia in the local population. “The resistance so far is Sunni. The Shia are opposed to the invasion as well, but they were so badly brutalised by the past regime that it has taken them time to recover. People feel shame because it was not the Iraqi men but foreign invaders who deposed Saddam. They are against both Saddam and the occupation.”

And with that we were shovelled back into the van and driven home. I think we have to go back without an entourage of writers and worried people to find out more about what’s going on in Baquba.

This is dedicated to the family of Odai, who was killed last night working for the foreign media.

Also to Kathy Kelly, Jerry Zawada, Scott Diehl and Faith Fippinger, all jailed for 3-6 months in the US for demonstrating against the School of the Americas, or whatever Newspeak name they’ve tried to rebrand themselves with.

January 27th
Ghosts and Clowns

Small hands held out four, five, six coloured glass balls, picked a prize piece for the contest, lined up the rest of the marbles, flicked one from an open palm at the row on the road by the stone wall. Crouching between puddles on the crumbled road, Fatima directed play, a feisty, dark skinned twelve year old girl.

Hanging over the wall they watched Fuad and Mustafa from the Happy Family kids’ theatre project teaching us a dance for the show in the National Theatre in a few weeks. Fuad was jailed for a year for refusing to join the army, then conscripted anyway. When the war started he did a runner, hiding out in Safa’s house till it was all over.

Safa’s house doubles as the group’s base, their logo in English and Arabic on the wall, a concrete patio with a canopy serving as a stage in a garden with chickens pottering between tall straight palm trees, a busy main road just visible beyond the house, the only sign that we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. A screen hid the part of the garden that was all puddles and bits of dead cars and a curtain marks the border between the office and storeroom and the rest of the house.

The group started a few years ago. “We were the first group to perform in the burnt out remnants of the Al-Rasheed Theatre in the days after the war. It was a kids’ play with the fox and the rabbits, no lighting, heating, décor or anything. Safa was the fox.” Raed translates, as the only member who speaks a significant amount of English. He runs a music and sound recording shop and does all the music for the performances. There’s a video disc of their show in the National Theatre. The lighting was poor and again there wasn’t much decoration but the kids were loving it.

I like that we can join up with Iraqi groups trying to do good stuff for themselves and each other and the country with minimal resources. Of course, like most of the grassroots groups, they’ve got no funding other than what they earn themselves and most are students and workers at the fine arts college. They’ve got a Tweetypie costume and one of Sylvester the cat and they wanted to know if we could get them any “muppets”, i.e. any big cartoon costumes.

We’re swapping roles, joining in their ghost play and including them in our clown routines. I’m slightly concerned about the dancing thing: I want to do it in clown costume so if I spin in the wrong direction it looks like I’m just being daft, instead of incompetent. They’re really into it though and I know 1000 kids are going to have a wicked time.

We’ve encountered a child psychologist by the name of Dr Ali who’s more or less a one man operation, trying to train child care workers and teachers and raise awareness in parents around the country about the symptoms of post traumatic stress in children. He thinks play therapy is the best, if not the only, way of diagnosing and treating their problems. He doesn’t know the exact extent of the problem but it’s self-evidently enormous, with bed wetting, nightmares, inability to concentrate and behavioural problems endemic among the child population. He’s coming to see us soon so I’ll write more about his work then.

The lads walked us over, between cracked houses and more marble playing kids among the roadside rubbish heaps, to the Kurdish House where the boys are, the ex- and the not-so-ex-street children. Five left last night and went back to the basement where they used to sleep. Adapting isn’t easy. Peat and Donna went to Bab a-Sherji to look for them. One refused to go back at all to the house. Four agreed to go back but one of those was talked out of it by the gang that supplies their drugs and solvents.

The three who came back were told they weren’t welcome by the child psychologist there because they said “nasty things” to him last night before they left. He was persuaded though. I know, I know, it’s difficult for the workers too, taking on a group of very troubled and needy boys when they’ve no experience of working with kids in a practical setting.

Good things are happening too though. We played parachute games with the boys, went through all the familiar ones and there was still some running under it when they’re not meant to and scrapping and stuff, but we gave them a try at lifting each other up on the parachute to run around on top of it and it worked. I got goose bumps, remembering them that first time in the crisis shelter.

They have to work together; they have to trust each other and look after each other, because all the kids round the outside, holding the parachute, have to keep it taut or the one running on it will fall. For sure, it was hard to keep them there, holding it for another kid after they’d had their own turn but Baghdad wasn’t built in a day.

The older Ahmed – Gypsy Ahmed, they call him – is learning karate at the Magreb youth centre. He showed us, a bit shyly at first but glowing with the attention and praise and his own achievement. It was wicked. Little Laith from Abu Nawas Street has a new haircut, really short all over and big tuft at front like a very small punk. Imad, they still remember the game you taught them with the hand clapping.

From there we walked to the main road for a taxi, bouncing and kicking the football with the kids we passed. On every street, every verge and every piece of waste ground there are boys playing football. There’s something sad about the dirt football pitches with metal goalposts and yet more rubbish piles stacked all around them. We picked up a grown up too, a man in his forties, or thereabouts, his amble home with shopping brightened and delayed by the meeting, absorbing a second man, in his dishdasha (the long garment some of the men wear) whose eyes twinkled as he abandoned his reserve and joined in the bouncing.

We went to Uzma’s “family”, who have adopted her. Mum’s in hospital for a hip operation after she broke it in a fall. She’s only 58 but looks about 80, deeply depressed since her three sons were detained by the Americans. I first met Yasameen and Baba (Dad) on the march for the rights of detainees. The first son, Younis, was taken in a raid on the house. When the troops burst into the house they came into the women’s room where Yasameen and Stobruk had been sleeping. They went to get their headscarves and the soldiers pointed guns at them. They said very firmly, no, we’re going to get our scarves, and they did it.

The second son was seized from his workplace and the third was detained when he went to enquire about his brothers. Though Younis has never left Iraq, the ostensible reason for his arrest was “plotting to kill Tony Blair”. Stobruk was back from work in the bank, but Yasameen was staying overnight in the hospital with Mama. The Americans promised to release a thousand of the people jailed without charge but so far only a hundred have been let out. Eid starts in the first couple of days of February. They’re still clinging to a hope the boys will be back with them for the holiday

The last few days have been busy. We went to perform in Hilla, invited by the National Association for the Protection of the Environment and the Child. About a dozen kids and maybe 60 adults filled the theatre – not the ideal ratio. The grown-ups got into it in the end but it was the least inspiring show we’ve done here – an unfortunate coincidence as it was also the one that Reuters came to. We weren’t let into Babylon, the ancient site itself, now occupied by the Polish and US troops. “They will shoot you.”

The Human Rights meeting was interesting: a recently formed coalition of Iraqi human rights groups and international organisations and individuals was joined by 25 – 30 relatives of detainees and shooting victims. It took a while to get through all the anger and emotion and make them understand that all the ten or so foreigners in the room already knew the situation, knew dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories of random shootings, house raids and property thefts, detentions without charge, etc, and to move on to what we were going to do about it.

Someone talked about the way photos were used in Central and South America during the disappearances there and the families decided to bring photos and other affected families to the next meeting to plan weekly demonstrations. The hope is that there will be a similar weekly protest outside US embassies all over the world. Most of the people searched or jailed and then released still have the bags that were put over their heads during the raids.

There was an earth shaking bomb last night as we walked to a friend’s place, then another a bit later, followed by the weirdest sounding sirens that made the air vibrate, which turned out to be from the CPA, or the green zone somewhere, though I’m not clear whether the complex was actually hit or not. The streets rattled with intermittent gunfire. The calm after the storm of new year seems to be over these last few days although here, at least, it’s not as intense as it was then.


Monday, January 26, 2004

FROM PEAT

Before I start this weeks report, a point about last weeks one, a point that some lost. The attack on the bunker was in the first gulf war, not the 3rd (the second being 12 years of santions that killed over half a million children).

DREAMERS

“WAAAAAAAAAA” She stands there, screaming out loud, fist rubbing eyes. “WAAAAAAAAAA” Around her 50 or more children listen, untroubled by her distress.
“WAAAAAAAAAA” In a second or two she will stop crying and lift the lid on the bin. The same bin that the other clown put her broken, smashed up and trampled music box in. When she opens the lid, the music will come from the bin, louder and better than before. With a big smiling happy face, she will skip once around the stage before leaving to loud cheers and clapping. (We hope).

Her name’s Jo and she’s a human rights activist who, in the hope that it would help her become an even bigger pain in the neck of the powers that be, is now a trainee lawyer. She has been here several times. Including during the last bombing. That’s when she dreamed up this crazy, stupid idea.

She saw how terrified the children we were bombing were. How withdrawn they became as their world was smashed around and in some cases, on them. And she saw how a man used bubble blowing to take a child’s mind off the horrors of war. And that’s when she first had the idea.

“What these kids need” she thought “is a circus. One with clowns, juggling, colour and magic. One that will make them dream of laughter instead of blood and guts. All I’ve got to do is find performers that care. Convince them to go to a war zone. A war zone where they are the target. Then just sit back and watch the fun. No problem”

Unfortunately for Jo, one of those performers was me. And because I’m me, there was no way that I was going to let her just sit back and watch. If I was going to play the prat, so was every one else. So I taught her, Uzma, a beautiful English lady of Pakistani descent, with a Yorkshire accent and eyes that shine with fire and passion born of the heart, and Amber, a cheery, young 20something year old stilt walker with a cute butt from penil……..pencilvain…..pen… the U.S.A., a couple of clown routines.

The rest was history.

We were performing in a place called Al Sha’ala. As soon as we got there we could smell the toilets, which was surprising as there aren’t any. Why should there be?

After all, Sha’ala is a state run farm, not a home for 120 families. Or at least it
was. But now, due to the troubles and problems of war, 12 years of sanctions, and occupation by several invading armies (Including my own). Iraq has a large number of what’s known as Internally Displaced Peoples (I.D.P.). Refugees in every sense of the word save one. For although they left their homes, they never left their country. This means that they don’t come under the protection of the united nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR). Instead they are protected and looked after by…………….well………….no one.

An N.G.O. called “Care Australian” started to help them but had to pull out after
they were bombed. The only other N.G.O. to go there since then was a heavily under funded but amazing bunch of dreamers called CIRCUS2IRAQ. (By the way. That bit about being “under funded” is what we in the U.K. call “a blag”)

120 families. Over 800 children and babies. No toilets, drains or sewers. Some of them, the luckier ones, live in cattle sheds. The others live in tents and makeshift huts (Although huts is too grand a word).

Those of you who know me or have read my other writings might be finding this familiar. Might well be saying “but Peat’s in Iraq, not Albania” (where I worked with children in similar conditions). I wish this was Bathore, Albania. I wish this place wasn’t proof of what I’ve always known. I.E. that places like this exist all over the world. But there is a difference between this place and Bathore.

The people of Bathore have lived in the cattle sheds for over TEN YEARS!!! And (despite my efforts), still don’t have clean water. This, poverty and lack of hope turned the children into hard, violent people. They are the only children to ever scare me, which made them so unique, so special, that I couldn’t help but fall in love with them.

Sha’ala has been a squat for 8 months. The children here were not just polite, but nice and helpful, a true pleasure to work with. But for how long? How many years or months does it take to change them into Bathore kids?
My thoughts on this were interrupted by the realisation that the clown routine was over and it was time for my favourite part of the day. PARACHUTE GAMES.

Parachute games are great fun and a good way of teaching kids not only self
discipline, but also team work. An important thing if they’re ever going to beat
poverty. I first learnt them when I went to Kosovo with CHILDREN’S WORLD INTERNATIONAL, a fantastic charity who taught me that ordinary people like you and I really can change lives. They also gave a large amount of money and their best parachute towards this tour. Quite a feat when you realise just how little funding CHILDREN’S WORLD INTERNATIONAL receive. ( Yes, you’re right, that was another attempt at a blag. This time for C.W.I.).

After a long game of parachute football (Baghdad united 8-Manchester united 6) came a more serious part of the day. A tour of the camp, and a chance to talk to some people about their lives there. The head man took Jo and me in his car to talk with some people. It was only a two minute drive. We could have walked it, but he wanted to honour us any way he could, and we could not find it in us to refuse.

Luis, a great clown, juggler, and didge playing French man followed with maybe 20 kids on a horse and cart. He has the ability to pull great facial expressions that allow him to talk without words. I’m soooooo jealous.

We spoke with an old lady. She was dressed all in black, her head was covered by a black scarf . Her face and hands, covered with strange, blue, tribal tattoos, had the look of a 70 year old, although she was probably only 50, maybe even younger.

Jo asked a question “What’s it like living here”?
The lady pointed at some fly encrusted dung. “That’s what it’s like” she said. There was no emotion in her voice or face, neither hurt, anger or humour, just plain everyday fact.

The head man (wish I could remember his name) tells us that he is trying to find 500,000 Iraqi dinar to pay for a drainage system. I stare at one of the many large, shallow pools of crap (it’s way too far gone to call it water) that frequent the area. It’s maybe 8 inches deep, and 20 by 40 feet wide. Its got more green bits to it than an American dollar and smells worst than my bottom after 3 months in India. A haven for mosquitoes, flies, and all the diseases I can think of, and a few more that I’d rather not.

As I stare at this disgusting filthy open sewer of a pool, I realise two things:
A) That 500,000 dinar works out at around 300 pounds.
B) That’s how much I charge for a weekend’s performing in Britain.
My eyes lock with Jo’s and in a language that needs no words we decide that we will buy these proud, noble people a drainage system. (No, that’s not a blag. I’m more than happy to pay for it myself).

We’re invited into a single roomed building made of bamboo and reeds. It’s cool and has a carpet on the floor, but little else. We sit and talk with people (all men) while enjoying chi and bread. I asked them what, if I could only tell people one thing, they most wanted for their children? I know what the answer will be and there was no hesitation in their reply.

“A school” They said. “We want to build a one roomed school where our children can learn”.

The Workers' Communist party had promised them chairs, desks etc. The education department has offered them 2 teachers. All they need now is a single room in which to place them. We said we’d ask around, see if we could find someone to help.

Jo wants the chance to talk with the women alone, so Luis and I ask the head man for a tour of the camp. He agrees and takes us to see the conditions in the cattle sheds. As we approach one I feel a slight tremor in the ground. Somewhere in town yet another bomb has gone off. More people have died. A few minutes later I feel another one.

Some where some one else has become a widow, an orphan, a grieving mother who will ask the question no one will ever answer. “Why was it my son? My daughter? My husband?

Saturday, January 24, 2004

January 24th
The Drain

There was a tent up as we drove back into the camp at Al-Sha’ala: long and semi-cylindrical, open both ends, with people inside drinking tea, eating together on the ground or sitting against the walls drinking chai. It’s a traditional Shia mourning tent for two month old Mariam. “She died of the cold,” Abu Ahmed said simply.

It’s been raining the last two days and the place is a quagmire of mud and shit, sluiced through the camp from the lakes it normally festers in. Barefoot and barely shod children waded through it with us, following Abu Ahmed to the spot where the pipes will go. They’ve managed to buy three six metre lengths of pipe, and need another three which, at 30,000 Iraqi Dinar each, makes 90 thousand for the second 18-metre line.

The first will go from the puddle where the waste water currently collects, the second from the shacks at the end of the camp, under the wall which marks the edge of the camp. It’s not the full link up to the sewage system but it’s the best available. The main expense is the machine to dig the ditches, at 250,000 Dinar a day for two days, because the ground is concrete and they can’t realistically dig it with shovels.

So the total cost for 120 families to build basic sanitation for themselves is $460 at today’s exchange rate, or about 300 pounds (for some reason there’s no pound sign on this keyboard). We told Abu Ahmed we couldn’t promise anything but we’d do our best to get them the money. He said even the government hadn’t bothered asking after them. If you can help us with it, please e mail and I’ll send you the bank account details and a huge cyber hug.

It’s not directly challenging the occupation. On the face of it, it’s nothing more than charity, although by giving them the money we’re empowering them to change their own environment and it’s impossible to stand in that place, among the animal sheds they call home, and not help in any way possible, knowing that a drain will save some of their lives; knowing it, because there can be no doubt about it, on a day like today when the sewage is flowing freely past the funeral tent for the tiny girl

We talked a bit more about the school with Abu Ahmed as well. There’s a farm building on the site with no roof, where several families are living, which would form one wall of the school house, so they’d save money by only having to build three walls. It’ll be for girls and boys from 6-10 years and the Workers’ Party will give them furniture if they can get a building sorted.

These are reconstruction projects from the people, without Bechtel, Halliburton and USAID, in solidarity with people who want health and education for their children and themselves. So in an indirect way, it is a challenge to the occupation and who knows what seeds we plant?

Friday, January 23, 2004

January 22nd
The Making of Legends

The meeting was supposed to be with the Environment and Foreign Ministers; the former was off sick and the latter abroad but dozens of journalists were there, nonetheless, to hear Kerim Hassan announce that his group, the National Association for the Protection of the Environment and Children, is about to bring one of the most famous circuses in the world to perform in Babylon and Diyalla.

And he smiled and gestured towards me.

And all the cameras pointed my way.

“Um… hello. Yes, we just came to meet the Environment Minister actually and talk about the organisation that Dr Husni and I are part of.”

It’s pure wilful exaggeration. He’s seen us perform. He knows we’re four people with varying levels of skill but plenty of colour and life, which the kids enjoy and get a lot out of and that’s the end of it.

Then we met the Iraqi journalist who saw us perform last week at the Al Talia theatre, Luis, who’s French, did an interview in Spanish with him. The reporter asked him how many countries have you been to. He used the word ‘tu’, which is singular. How many countries had Luis personally, individually been to? He gave a rough guess.

What he meant by the question, and the way he interpreted the reply, was the number of countries the circus group had been to, transforming us into an internationally renowned troupe of performers with a tour of 26 countries behind us.

Oops.

One might’ve thought the name “circus2iraq” would have given a clue to how many countries we’d been to but he’d hurdled the obvious by writing that we’d changed our name to that in honour of the Iraqi people. Now he wanted to know what our name had been before.

“I’ve no idea,” I said, in English. “He invented the international circus troupe, he’s going to have to invent a name for it as well.”

Husni declined to translate. He said he didn’t want to upset the man by telling him that he had his story completely arse-backwards. This is the stuff that news is made of. This is how I became part of a world famous travelling circus.

If you could turn this kind of comedy into a 5 minute clowning act without language, maybe we really would be one of the most famous circuses in the world.

January 21st
Sparks

You drive out the far side of Al-Ghazalia into Al-Sha’ala [Flame], through a thoroughfare of listless sheep and squashed chickens, pied fruit and veg stalls and rancid shit, past the man blowtorching a cow’s head, for no reason that was obvious to me, over a concrete bridge and you follow a dirt track into the farm compound. You ask the teenage boys whether there’s someone in authority, because usually there is and it helps if you go to them first. Abu Ahmed, they tell you, without hesitation, and go to fetch him.

You tell him you’re a bunch of clowns and would like to play with the kids for a couple of hours. He leads you to a patch of cracked earth with spiky plants here and there. A few of the men get shovels and hack out the thorny patches, scraping them out of the way, while the kids cluster around you, then you get them to help you pull a big red parachute out of its bag.

Some of them hang back, bewildered, till the excitement sweeps them up and they grip the edges of the parachute, the littler ones lifted off the ground, bouncing with the shaking of the parachute, shrieking with glee as they help to turn it into a tent, rocking it and themselves and each other with the movement of their own bodies.

This was the camp I came to a couple of months ago (see November 17th – Asking the Fairies). Marwa remembered my name when we arrived. I haven’t stopped thinking of her since the last time, over two months ago, the bright, beautiful little girl who wanted to go to school and become a doctor. Things are a little better than they were then.

The clinic receives a visit from a doctor once a fortnight but it still takes another five or six days to get the drugs prescribed. There’s still no one with overall responsibility for them. The German organisation, HELP, gave them blankets and other stuff and the Workers’ Communist Party has been giving them gas and other basics, but they have problems with ‘the mafia’, as Abu Ahmed calls them, stealing some of what they’re given. He wanted to ask the military for protection while the goods were being distributed but the party opposed it.

Abu Ahmed explained how they’d built themselves a small temporary bridge to make it easier to come and go, by collecting 1500 D from each family and making it themselves. I don’t know how it operates in practice or how much say women have, for example, but there’s a meeting every other day in a reed house where everyone can participate in decision making.

120 families live there, many of them from near Amara, from Maisan province in the south, Shia who left because conditions were so dire under Saddam and before him, under the monarchy, but weren’t allowed by Saddam to settle in Baghdad. They returned to Maisan, jobless and homeless, but came back to the camp after the war. Some said they would be into going home if there were jobs and security, but there’s more chance of finding work in Baghdad and now they want the security of knowing they can stay in the camp.

For the first time in Baghdad we played the game where one kid lies in the middle of the parachute and the other kids lift them off the ground by leaning back and pulling it taut. The kiddie in the middle stands up and runs around on the parachute. I think it worked because they’re already used to co-operating with each other. One time they started bouncing the boy up in the air by shaking the parachute. It looked really fun but we had to stop them doing it because it’s not safe.

It was hard to get the girls to join in the games, where either parachutes or skipping, a change from the day before at Magreb, the Childhood Voice youth centre, where a small tribe of pre-teen girls kidnapped me and made me play basketball, which I’m astoundingly bad at. Some of the Sha’ala girls played at the edges of the parachute but wouldn’t be a cat or mouse or run around on the chute. Dads encouraged their daughters to try jumping the skipping rope but there are cultural factors at work that will take more than a circus to sort out.

So, after a while you go for a wander around, between reed houses, tents and breezeblock shacks, living spaces cobbled together out of junk and the pre-existing farm buildings, like all the other camps, into the courtyard where Jamila is feeding Ali. He’s 9 months old with no nappies and torn clothes. Everyone’s clothes are torn, the kids’ and the adults’. There are only three goats left in the courtyard, the others sold for essentials. None of the kids has toys to play with and some have parents who work, so they’re on their own in the day. The rumble of the explosion seems to echo in the sudden silence which cuts through the clamour and chatter of the kids.

Amal is making bread balls of dough, tossed and spun between her hands until they’re broad and flat and round and then puts them onto a round cushion-like thing and presses them against the inside of the oven, with flames in the bottom. When they’re done she reaches in and retrieves them. She hands you one, warm, smoky, soft and gorgeous. She asks you to come back and perform again at Eid, in early February, because there’s no money to give the children treats at Eid and it’s important to them.

The kids are getting a lot of diarrhoea and other illnesses because there’s an open lake of sewage in the camp. There are no toilets. They just dig pits and cover them over when they’re full. They need a drain to take the waste outside the camp. As with the bridge, they’ve got a plan, but it would cost half a million Iraqi Dinars to dig it, cover it and pay some of the men to work on it.

That’s more than they can collect by asking every family to contribute but it only translates to about $300 so we’re thinking we’ll give them a real present for Eid as well as the show. It means an income for some of the men, from building it, improved health for all of them, but especially the kids, and it’s their project not something being done to or for them.

Abu Ahmed brought us to the home of one of the Sheikhs and we went together to the reed meeting house to drink sweet chai and discuss things. The place filled with people but still these two did most of the talking. Elections, they said, were a priority. Bremer is wrong to talk about delaying them. They will support Sistani. Whatever his policies are, they will follow him, but they don’t mind who wins, even if he is not a Moslem, as long as he is elected by the Iraqi people, not chosen by the Americans.

Less than 200 of the camp’s 800 child residents are registered in school. ‘Child’ refers to those under maybe 13, 14 years old. None of them go when it’s raining because they can’t get out through the mud. School and proper houses are emphatically at the top of the list of needs.

They’ve talked to the Ministry of Education, who say they will provide teachers if they can get a school built, but it needs to be purpose built and a brick structure. We talked through some other possibilities: what about a reed house, like this one? What about just a big tent to start with, so you can get moving.

Peat talked about a community in Albania who had no school and lived, likewise, on state owned farm premises. He got them a tent, someone else got them a couple of teachers and, when another organisation came along a few months later, they were so impressed with what the community had already achieved that they built them a proper school.

They said they couldn’t deal with the extremes of weather in a tent or reed house and didn’t think the Ministry would give them teachers for such a structure. There are issues over the desirability of building a permanent structure in a squatted place which is without proper services. It starts to create a permanence which has positives and negatives.

They don’t know whether they will be allowed to stay or whether the government will demand they vacate the complex. They don’t much care whether they stay all together in that place or split up and move into housing elsewhere in the city, just as long as they’re housed. There is a feeling that a permanent structure like a school building will help their claim to stay.

But if they remain where they are then, like the Palestinian refugee camps, the slums might remain so for decades without anyone taking full responsibility for their welfare. Jamila pointed out the tap that supplies them with water, cold only, and the electricity cables, amenities brought in for the farm animals which used to be bred here. “We don’t have any facilities for the humans. We are living like the animals.”

Unlike the homelessness problem in the UK, there actually isn’t enough housing in Baghdad for everyone, so there genuinely is a need to build houses to accommodate the displaced people, in which case a drainage system and a school will be a good start. A horse drawn cart trundled into camp. Luis failed to escape being hauled onto it and galloped through the bumpy farm.

We managed to get the BBC World Service on the radio last night just in time to hear about the Peace Rights case about to be filed to the Attorney General and the International Criminal Court. Phil, Di, Juliet, Mark, and everyone else involved, for what it’s worth, I’m really proud of you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

AL ALMIRYA
14/2/1991
R.I.P.

I was going to try to make this weeks report a funny one. Was up until gone one last night writing the draft for it. But today there is no humour in me, only shame. Because today I went to al Ameriya Shelter. If that name means nothing to you then don’t worry, it didn’t to me either. Although now, in hindsight, I remember seeing it on the news due in the first gulf war.

It’s a bomb shelter in Baghdad, built to house 400 people. But it’s amazing how many people you can fit into a space when their lives depend on it. The first bomb we put on it didn't’t explode because it wasn’t designed too. What it was designed to do was make a hole in the roof. It done that and carried on going, through people and the floor into the basement, where it ruptured the water tanks, flooding the lower level.

4 minutes later, while people were still trying to workout what just happened,
precision bombing sent the second one through the same hole. However, this one wasn’t designed to explode either. This one was designed to give off a ball of heat. So hot that the water turned to steam in an instant. Steam so hot it stripped skin from still living flesh. Others were incinerated or suffocated due to the fireball using up all the air. Out of over 400 people, 14 survived.

The shelter has remained untouched since the bombing. A monument to the dead. Here and there lay wreaths from fellow shamed westerners. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a poster-sized photo of a child. His curled up, blackened body reminds me of a Christmas turkey that’s been over cooked. Fixed to the floor, covered in dust, is some clear sheets of plastic. I brush the dust away to see what is under it, and wonder at the fact that I don’t puke.

Have you ever seen the photos of the shadows the dead left at Hiroshima in Japan? Today I knelt on the floor, brushed the dust away from sheets of plastic, and ran my fingers along the shadows left by innocent civilians, some too small to be adults. Their shape forever burnt into the concrete like an eternal silent scream. And it hurt, a lot. But not as much as what I saw outside.

Just after the war in Kosovo I was in a town called Gjakova. A higher percentage of people where murdered there than anywhere else in Kosovo. In the main street was a free standing wall made of white bricks, maybe 3 bricks high. If your husband, wife, daughter etc went out one day and never came home, you added a white brick to the wall. If/when you found their body, or proof of what happened to them, you’d go back to that brick and write their name on it. There were so many bricks there with names on, and so many without. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sadder sight ever.

We left the shelter and were shown around the side of it. There I stood for a long time, looking at grave, after grave, after grave, after grave. I remembered the white bricks of Gjakova, and how I prayed that I’d never live to see such an atrocity again, but we rarely get what we pray for.

In a side building we’re shown artifacts from the shelter. A bridesmaids dress
here, a babies socks there. Not the weapons of a mad dictator, just everyday
ordinary things that used to belong to everyday ordinary people. People like you and me, like our own mothers and children. People who died because they tried to hide in fear.

I returned to base angry and somewhat shaken by what I’d seen and, in-between silent tears, started to write what your now reading. That’s when Jo gave me the news that we’ve been asked to go to Babylon.

The thought of Babylon, birthplace of so-called civilization being just down the
road from Almirya was somewhat ironic, perverse even. All those thousands and thousands of years of civilization and learning, all summed up by white bricks and bombed out bomb shelters.

According to our great and glorious leaders, the bomb shelter had a military aerial on top of it and underneath it was a secret military base. According to the Iraqi government, it was a civilian communications aerial and no such military base existed.

According to me, we deliberately targeted over 400 innocent men, women and
children, contrary to the Geneva conventions on human rights, because if we didn't, the 20-minute drive you and I take to work each morning would, without oil, take an hour by horse and cart. And what’s a few hundred lives compared to an extra hour in bed.

So no, I’m not sending the funny one today. To do so would be to insult the dead. Besides, it’s like I said earlier. Today I have no humour in me. Today the clown is crying

EPILOG:
Civilians have special protections under Convention IV, Protocol I, and Protocol II.
of the Geneva conventions including the following

"If it becomes apparent that an objective in an attack is not a military one, or if
that attack could cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian
objects, then the attack must be called off". (Protocol I, Art. 57)

BUT, because history is only ever written by the victor, so no winning party has ever been found guilty of breaching the geneva conventions on human rights, nor will they be.


Yours
PEAT



January 19th
May The Farce Be With You

The first floor hallway was full, when I got in, of people who came round for a couple of drinks on Amber’s last night and men with big guns and Iraqi Police armbands, asking for beer and arresting Tom for having a beard. Well, you can have a tin if you let Tom go. Perhaps he could go for a shave while you’re drinking it.

“Lawyer,” It’s what Wisam calls me every time he sees me, even though he’s already a qualified lawyer and I’m not. “Lawyer, we need you.” Iraqis, even legally qualified ones, sometimes, are reluctant to question the police.

Tom was accused of looking like “an Israeli” by the Iraqi Police and “a terrorist” by the US authorities. He was arrested a couple of nights ago with Jim, a stencil graffiti artist, whose work he was writing a story about. They brought him back to the apartment to collect his press credentials, refusing to believe he was a journalist.

But in all seriousness, for all the freakish comedy of the episode, for all the fact it was easily sorted this time, because it involved two westerners, it’s also an illustration of the chaos and crisis of Iraq’s legal system, how the absence of an adequate structure leaves Iraqi people unprotected from the whims of people given power, such as the police.

Let me make this clear. If they were arrested for criminal damage, or some variation on the theme, breaking a law that said you couldn’t paint on walls in public places, that would be one thing. But the stencil of two boys, life-size, by a cigarette stand, next to a real bomb hole in a building, was of no concern whatsoever to them.

A particularly tense officer pointed his pistol at me, primarily because I was there. I started blowing bubbles and he relaxed a bit. It was, he said, a “six hour” pistol. It was a blip in translation. “It’s a Glock” had somehow morphed in his head to “six o’clock” and thus to “six hour”. None of this mattered much to me, as long as it wasn’t pointing my way any more.

It felt like a precedent was in process. One of the independent journalists was stopped and robbed by Iraqi Police a few days ago. If Jim and Tom’s arrest proved equally lucrative, then any of us might’ve been next. We needed to make this more trouble than it was worth.

It’s not just because they were fellow westerners and activists. If I was ever there when an Iraqi person was getting arrested, I’d try and do what I could to support them as well. But what happens to Iraqis is usually hidden. It’s not a tactic Iraqi people are realistically able to use, following their mates to the police station when they get picked up on suspicion of plotting to go for a haircut, or something equally bizarre, whether by Iraqi Police or the US forces, because they tend to find themselves sharing a cell with the friend.

So we all went in the pick up, a blue light flashing on the roof, two other cars following. Someone shouted. A third car was left behind. We banged on the back windscreen of the pick up. “Stop, stop, wait a minute, there’s another car.” Surreally, they waited, even though they didn’t want any of us with them.

Down Karrada Dakhil, the length of Sadoon Street, no other cars in sight, the four vehicles racing, weaving. under the underpass beneath Tahrir Square, aquaplaning through the flood, onto Rasheed Street, into Bab Al-Sherji, fires burning on the roadside, Outside Bab al Mouadam police station they unloaded us from the pick up and got us to walk the last 25 metres to the door so it wouldn’t look like they’d brought us.

Tom was put back in the cell with Jim and we followed, filming, shouting, chatting. Baffled, they let us get away with blowing bubbles and handing more in to them. The cell was clean and pleasant enough. The men in the next section stuck their heads out to watch. As we were shunted out we turned to see a cloud of bubbles billowing out through the bars.

“Officer could you explain to me what they’re being charged with?”

“They are under suspicion”.

“Suspicion of what?”

“They will be taken to court in the morning,” the police told Ahmed to tell us. “The judge will decide.”

“Yes, fine, but what charges will the judges decide on?”

I know there is no law. I know due process means nothing here. But something in me needed to argue the point that arrests ought to rest on a specific suspicion rather than some ethereal, generalised, theoretical expectation that they might have had a thought of doing something that could be disapproved of. Iraqi people are still being arrested this way: accused without anything to be accused of, so there’s nothing for them to demonstrate innocence of, much less for the prosecution to fail to prove them guilty of. Even if the discussion was inevitably circular, it’s worth planting the seeds of the idea that those protections, those structures are needed for the Iraqi people.

“Someone was shooting at the guards.”

“Do you have any reason whatsoever to link them with that? Was the shooting coming from where they were standing? Did they have guns? Ammunition?”

Apparently not, but they would be taken to court in the morning and the judge could decide.

The officers outside the station were busy waving their guns about, threatening and posturing, till I offered them pots of bubbles to blow. I sometimes wonder if I put more faith in bubbles than is really warranted by a few globes of soap solution, but the growls and grunts turned to giggles and the stiff presentation of rifles gave way to bubble popping, guns hung loosely at their sides.

The taxi driver in the morning refused to drive up to the police station, nervous enough even to pull over on Rasheed Street for us to climb out opposite the relevant side street. The court in Wazeeria had no translators, no idea what the men were being charged with, if anything, and no idea when the judge might arrive. They would call Judge Rabina, the American senior advisor to the Ministry of Justice, and ask him what was to be done with the two foreigners who nobody could think of a charge for.

Perhaps they were planning to rob the bank?

Perhaps they were planning to fly to Mars. Do you have any reason to suspect that they were planning to rob the bank?

But you see, nobody walks around at night, so when people see someone walking at night they are suspicious.

So that was it. The final accusation: walking around at night. There’s no legal curfew any more, but there’s still some sort of expectation, the court – CPA Liaison Officer said, in his green suit. So it’s OK to spray on the walls? Does that mean if they were stencilling by daylight it would be alright?

Yes, he said. As long as you do it in the day, you can paint on the walls.

So that’s alright then.

And then the same lawyer proceeded to take statements from both the arresting police officer and the two “accused”, although even he was unable to say what they were “the accused” in relation to. Tom gave his statement in English, which was transcribed into Arabic and then verbally re-translated into English for him to sign, by which time Jim had been transformed from a graffiti artist to a clown. Jim’s statement consisted mainly of the lawyer asking him whether his story was more or less the same as Tom’s, and the scribe copying the document for Jim to sign.

They’d gone out for Jim to paint and Tom to observe. There was a shout in Arabic, immediately followed by two shots. They began walking away. Several shots were fired at them and they started running, after which they were caught by security guards, held for a day and then turned over to the police.

“As I think,” the lawyer said, “there is no evidence, but we will take them to the judge and he will decide if they can be accused of anything.”

The traditional way is to decide what to accuse people of and then bring them to a judge to decide whether they did it, but here still no one is willing to be held responsible for a decision, especially one about foreigners.

“I think you are lucky,” Liaison Man said. “If your friends were Iraqi they would be in prison maybe one month before coming here.”

Eventually they went to a judge, who eventually noted that there was no evidence on which to base anything and gave back the stencil and the spray paint. This being his second arrest though, Jim’s friends and neighbours are hoping, as much as they like his artwork, that he will consider suspending the project for the meanwhile.

There is more than one way to run a legal system but here, instead of a system, there is a void into which countless people have fallen. I know, from interviews with families of detainees, that Liaison Man was telling the truth when he said an Iraqi person could wait a month in jail and more, under unspecified suspicion, without charge, legal advice or family visits and before getting to see the judge. It’s not working.

Monday, January 19, 2004

January 18th

Today’s bomb woke us with a sound the shape of a rugby ball, starting from a point, swelling to a full bellied roar and tapering again with perfect symmetry. It was surprising less as an alarm call than as a reminder. I haven’t heard one in a couple of weeks. Peat and Amber haven’t heard that sound since they arrived in early January, although the headlines on the internet daily list deaths and attacks.

It was at the CPA, across the river, which means it must have been huge to sound so loud from so far away. We thought at first it must be another blast on Karrada, just around the corner. Peat went to look. I stayed in bed. Eighteen Iraqis and two Americans killed was the first figure I was given. The US toll, officially at least, stayed the same. I think the Iraq deaths are now at 55.

A bus was passing when the car bomb blew up at Checkpoint One. It’s said that the Americans then opened fire, killing more of the passengers on the bus. Opening fire after an explosion is what they often do, hence the high level of random shootings of civilians by US troops here, although I’ve no direct evidence that it happened this time.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Hooray. The photos are posted. Only one power cut today.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

INTERNET MAKES CLOWNS CRY

Oh, woe is me, for I can't post a few $%&$#(# photos to the internet, because the connections are so rubbish and the power keeps going off at critical points. I could describe them to you, but I think they'd lose a little. Anyway you can see the ones I did post here.

And I'll try and get everyone else's posts up here shortly - having a few technical problems...

Grrr
January 16th
Pictures of Smiling Children

We got into our clown kit in Eman’s place behind the barrier made out of metal locker doors in the camp at the air force centre we went to a few days ago to arrange the show. There’s a curtain across the gap in the barrier and another across the doorway into Eman’s room. Inside are a couple of rugs on the floor, a gas cooker and a picture of Al Sadr on the wall, the Shia cleric killed by Saddam. The ceiling is a patchwork of pieces of wood, gappy, so the place is impossible to keep warm. The building houses an indoor swimming pool, no longer fully enclosed, and Eman’s family’s space is concocted out of such walls and ceilings as are left and whatever junk they could seal it with.

The space we picked last time looked better, more or less clear of rubbish, people leaning out of the windows in the accommodation overlooking the square as we started playing parachute games, 40 or 50 kids gripping the outside of it. The first thing is shaking the parachute, then lifting it and stepping in, underneath the red canopy. Next we turn it into a tent, by lifting it up, stepping in and sitting on the edges. Throughout all of this there were squealing, giggling children running under the colour and billowing noise.

The circle is split into Baghdad City and Baghdad United for parachute football. A goal is scored whenever the ball goes off the parachute over the head of a member of the other side. Usama became our helper, getting the other kids in order, explaining the game, a ginger haired seventeen year old with natural charm and gentle authority. With his guidance the kids were the first group yet to manage the game of rolling the ball round the circumference of the chute – near enough anyway.

We started the show with the music box act, a clown with a broom and a magic box that makes music when it’s opened, a mean, grumpy boss who keeps taking the box and making the clown carry on sweeping, lots of face pulling, the kids joining in with the shh-ing, nodding when the bad boss is out of sight, but still cheering when she jumps up and down on the box and squashes it into the rubbish bin, then again when the bin lid is lifted and the music still plays.

They loved Luis’s didgeridoo, especially when he made it sound like an elephant, trumpeting through its trunk. Peat and Luis’s juggling act went down a storm as always. Luis has the perfect face for a clown, sort of gnome like, with a pointy beard, the two of them stealing the balls from each other out of the air.

There was a near catastrophe as Amber and I made our way over to the “stage” on our stilts, on the rough tarmac, when one of her wooden legs snapped at a knot in the wood. Hayder, the driver, caught her as she fell, saving her head from hitting a metal stump sticking up, the two of them landing in unhurt in a comedy heap of arms and legs. To distract the kids from bundling the two of them, I started the chants of “Wo-oh” and “Boomchucka” that Peat brought us from Kosova (thanks Paddy, whoever you are) and added some “Oompah”s that went down well.

Peat stepped in with his solo juggling act, fascinating the kids with the devilstick and balancing Joe the stuffed clown on a stick on his nose. He chatted away in a mixture of English and nonsense all the way through and the children laughed at the sound of it. The BBC had arrived by then, delayed by a bomb somewhere nearby that none of us had noticed till someone pointed out the eruption of black smoke which wasn’t there before.

The kids danced the birdy dance with us, me on stilts, jostling for the camera’s attention, then swarmed for a go at skipping the rope, Amber on the ground this time after the stilt-snapping. Usama was the star skipper and the star organiser, keeping the other kids back far enough for the rope to turn and making them take turns. We finished with more parachute games, a few rounds of Cat and Mouse, where one of the kids crawls under the parachute, the others shake it to hide the mouse while the cat crawls on top of the fabric, hunting.

The women watched laughing, babies cradled inside their abayas, none of them uncovered, asking me to take their photos with their babies, tiny Abbas, a months old, with a woolly bobble hat, beautiful Sabreen, six months pregnant, barely more than a child herself, with shining brown eyes and a dazzling smile.

Husni always wants to protect us from the kids, ward them off from our stilt-bottoms; they’re wild, they’re crazy, those are not kids, but yesterday at last he got caught up in it, started to play himself. One of the women asked him to play with her kids while she went to make their tea. Two men hugged each other beside the locker-door wall, caught up in the atmosphere too.

The kids were still shouting “Boomchucka” as we left, chasing the car, asking us to blow more bubbles, to come back tomorrow. Arriving the way we do, we’re cushioned from the real grind of it all because people start to smile quite soon after we get there, but once you look at their surroundings, nothing really detracts from the fact they’re living in half destroyed complex of buildings without adequate walls and roves, never mind amenities and stuff to play with.

The day before, we met some Iraqis working in the IDP teams [Internally Displaced People – the official term for homeless people and refugees within their own country]. There are about 800,000 IDPs in Iraq.

In the Al Talia Theatre the day before, we performed with a group called Happy Family, who are doing theatre projects with kids and want us to work with them over the coming weeks. Another group called the National Association for Children and the Environment saw us there and wants us to work with them in Hilla / Babylon and Baquba, in Diyalla province. There’s soon going to be a website for Iraqi NGOs which are setting up, because its hard for them to set up sites without credit cards to pay for the registration.

The boys from the shelter and some of the kids from Childhood Voice’s Magreb youth centre were among the audience at the Al Talia theatre so we were already popular and got huge cheers from the kids. It felt wicked. The Happy Family group did a couple of play, which Laith was in, a long way, it seemed from his days sleeping on the road outside the Palestine Hotel. The karate group from the Magreb youth centre did a display, a small pony tailed girl among them.

Away from the theatre, an artist called Nasir Thamir has an exhibition of paintings inspired by the stories of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights: Alf Layla wa Layl, a thousand nights and a night. Two pictures hang side by side, one with incredible intricacy, gorgeous calligraphy and stunning colours, the other with holes in the canvas, the colours tainted and the detail destroyed.

The exhibition folder is not translated into English, as a protest against the occupation. Nasir was going to put a single sentence in English explaining that, but finally decided not to. Instead there is a passage in Arabic telling the story of Iraq, of how those Iraqis who collaborate with the occupation are betraying their history.

He explained the difficulties of buying materials and framing, paying for exhibition space, which have prevented artists from creating, never mind displaying their work since the war. There is no artists’ union or collective at the moment and the Ministry of Culture has no funds to support them. They don’t want support, he says, from the occupying forces and groups associated with them.

Sheherezade never cried in all the time that she was under threat of death from Shereyare, the King. She just kept telling him stories, fantastic stories, for 1001 nights, ending each night with intense suspense so that he couldn’t kill her. He had to wait for the next night to find out what would happen next. The picture was painted in the months after the war. When Sheherezade came back to Baghdad in 2003, she cried, a torn and dirty book beside her, from the national museum which was looted, Baghdad burning in the background.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

January 12th
Playing in the Street

There are those who advise keeping a low profile as a foreigner in Iraq and wisely so, I expect, especially if you’re a business contractor. But we needed to practise a new plot involving stilts and skipping ropes and even now the ceiling fan has departed there isn’t room in the apartment for spinning a ten metre rope, so we went outside to the forecourt.

We had all the kids from the street taking turns to jump over the rope, one at a time, in pairs, then threes. We gave Hussein a blindfold and told him to jump on the sound of the kazoo, then held the rope out of the way. The women didn’t come out on the street but laughed and waved from the balcony. Fatih and his little girl, Fadia, who we had chai and dolmas with yesterday, hung out of their window opposite, cheering everyone on. Men tried to get each other to take a turn, each with an excuse for not having a go himself – I’m too old, I’m too fat, until Coco braved it, managing 6 or 7 jumps over the rope before getting caught in it, giggling, to huge applause.

Peat stood on the balcony doing the thing he does with ping pong balls in his mouth, where it looks like he keeps taking dozens and dozens of them out, then he and Luis did their new juggling act. We had to go and get our kit together to go and see the street kids we worked with the other day, but when we left they were playing in the street, kicking a football between themselves, running about blowing bubbles, the men as well as the children. A bit of play transformed the street.

The boys were glad to see us in their new home, grabbing our hands to tow us on a tour of the building, run by Save the Children Kurdistan. This is my bed, this is the office, this is the garden. They’re in clean clothes, their hair cut and their faces clean. They’re starting to realise that there are stricter rules in the new place – they can’t just come and go like they could before. Smoking has been abruptly banned. Ali, a tiny 11 year old, hangs about outside, reluctant to detach himself completely from either the new home where his old mates are or the cloth soaked in thinners that he’s still addicted to.

Saif came with us, one of the boys who used to hang out outside the Al Fanar / Palestine / Sheraton part of town with Ahmed and Laith, both of whom are now in the new house. They hugged each other and ran off to play, none of them smelling of glue. We played rowdy parachute games, then Peat and Luis did their juggling act again. We had them skipping in the street between stilt walkers, along with the boys and girls from the other houses on the road, and little Ali, still a little high on thinners, joined in.

Perhaps it won’t influence his decision on which of the two worlds to commit to, the home or the drugs and the street and the gang that controls them. The hardness of the concrete he sleeps on has never changed his mind and there aren’t many chances left, if any, so the last hope is that something attracts him more to staying with the other boys than going back to the gang.

Peat taught them some juggling. The older of the two Ahmeds picked it up like he was born to do it. In the crisis centre he didn’t speak. He didn’t respond, he didn’t hug, he didn’t laugh, fight, anything. He was just there. When we arrived he was painting a sign. He hugged Donna and chatted happily.

There was an e mail from Tamsin, who went to Bosnia in 1993 and 1999. She talked about the mood of hope and enthusiasm she found there when the long war was over and the desperate disillusionment six years later with the international community, the politicians, the economic reforms. People were still talking, though, about the sound system convoy and the arts group that had come through years earlier, how much it meant just to know someone cared enough to come and play.

Then as we walked home in the rain from the internet centre a voice called my name from a doorway. Hussein appeared. “Bacher?” he asked hopefully: tomorrow? Would there be another circus in the street tomorrow. and the men popped out of other doorways to ask the same thing, still laughing, still playing. It was good.


FROM LUIS

Dimanche 11 janvier.

Apres le premier vrai petit dejeuner a l’Andalus hotel (hotel ou les boucliers humains etaient acceuillis avant la guerre), je croisa Walid, notre traducteur de la veille, sur la place Fardas ( Fardas Square). Cette meme place ou le 10 avril 2003, la face du monde a change pour toujours, en tout cas la face du pays.
La statue la plus celebre de Saddam a ete remplacee par une autre œuvre faite par les etudiants en arts plastique, qui peignaient la facade de leur ecole la veille, et qui par coincidence ( bien que je ne crois plus depuis longtemps au hasard) etaient des amis de Walid.
Walid m’expliqua qu’ils avaient juste eu envie de faire quelque chose a la place et qu’ils l ‘ont fait sans se poser de questions et sans que personne ne dise rien (autant profiter du chaos administratif pour la creation artistique !).
Cependant, ils leurs manquent 4000 dollars pour finir ce qu’ils ont commence et personne ne peut, ou ne veut, les aider.
C’est surprenant et amusant de voir Walid, la veille dans son costume de nanti et sa canne toute sculptee dans l’acier (que l’on aurait pu croire qu’il faisait parti de la mafia ou en tout cas des hommes les plus influents de la ville), en jeans avec un T-shirt « Ministry ».
Il m’expliqua alors qu’il travaillait pour la BBC, ou il se rendait d’ailleurs, et qu’il faisait parti d’un groupe de Hard Rock depuis quelques annees a Baghdad et qu’ils avaient donne un concert la semaine precedente.
Il m’eclaira sur le fait qu’il etait difficile de jouer une telle musique sous l’ancien regime. Ne chantant meme pas en arabe, jouant juste de simples reprises, certains des membres du groupes se sont fait arretes par la police et emmenes en cellule pendant quelques jours.
Il m’expliqua, par ailleurs, que beaucoup de jeunes sur Baghdad ecoutent ce style de musique, voire du Death metal et du Black metal surtout parmi les satanistes (et il y en aurait plus que l’on pourrait l’imaginer) connu sous le nom d’Hassidis.
Mais ces derniers, qui sont aussi des amis de Walid, ne sont ni des fous dangereux ni des illumines, ils croient juste que lorsque le demon, source de tous les problemes et les malheurs sur Terre, retournera au paradis aux cotes de Dieu, la planete et l’univers entiers, connaitront le bonheur et la prosperite.
Je l’accompagna jusqu’aux bureaux de la BBC qui se trouvent juste a cote de l’ambassade de France. Cette derniere est barricadee par des murs de 3-4m de haut sur plus de trente metres de long et est completement couverte de peintures faites par plusieurs artistes differents au vu des styles et des representations.

Dans l’apres midi, je fis la rencontre de Khalid. Etudiant en ingenierie environnementale, tres simple, intelligent, chaleureux, et qui va droit au but. Sa franchise et son humour m’ont tout de suite mis en confiance car il voulait que je lui raconte un secret. Je lui raconta mon secret mais je ne vous le devoilerais pas car c’est un secret !!
Nous changeames de sujet pour aborder le probleme de l’Irak. Il me dit qu’il etait Palestinien, ayant vecu en Jordanie et qui maintenant habitait a Baghdad.
Le seul veritable point positif de la chute de Saddam, selon lui, n’est non pas la fin de l’opression envers le peuple mais avant tout le fait qu’ils puissent sortir du pays bien plus facilement qu’auparavant . Beaucoup d’irakiens ont immigre d’ailleurs en Jordanie, dont les anciens membres du parti Baas ( ainsi que les generaux ayant trahi le dictateur pendant la guerre) ayant assez d’argent, fuyant les repressailles ou ayant trouve asile et protection par les Etats Unis, ce qui semble créer beaucoup de tensions entre les deux pays qui ne s’apprecient pas vraiment.
Les irakiens reprochent aux Jordaniens, surtout au roi, d’etre la cause de tout ce qui leur arrivent, qu’ils ont aider les USA a envahir leur pays et qu’on les traite comme des chiens a la frontiere Jordanienne en les faisant attendre pendant plus de cinq heures pour rien. Les jordaniens, quant a eux, detestent de plus en plus les nouveaux immigres car ils auraient plus d’avantages sociaux qu’eux, et que les irakiens les plus pauvres se mettraient a voler et a les agresser physiquement ( propos tenu par un jordanien rencontre dans l’avion entre Frankfurt et Amman, il vit aux Etats Unis et a cette logique mercantile et neo-liberale qui donne souvent a debattre. Il n’est jamais venu en Irak, il se basait donc juste sur ceux qui, mit a part certains pilleurs foncierement mauvais, tentaient de fuir leur pays et qui devaient parfois, voire souvent, recourrir au vol afin de survivre eux ainsi que leur famille).
Khalid me raconta egalement comment l’essence avait multiplier par 25 ou 30 en l’espace de deux ans.
Le litre etait estime a 30 dinars soit a peine 1 centime d’euros. Il est passe a 50 dinars soit environ 2 centimes avant la guerre. Il y a quelques semaines, le prix etait de 400 dinars a la pompe, soit avec le cours de la nouvelle monnaie (arrivee debut janvier), 25 centimes le litre. Huit fois plus cher et la population pouvait attendre plus de 12 heures a la station. Ils se levaient a 3-4h du matin, prenaient meme souvent un jour de conge, non paye bien evidemment, et parfois la queue etait si longue qu’ils n’etaient pas certains d’etre approvisionne avant la fermeture de la station.
Aujourd’hui, le marche noir s’est developpe sur toutes les routes du pays. Aussi bien en ville que sur les autoroutes. Les gens achetent de l’essence a la pompe ( parce qu’ils connaissent telle ou telle personne travaillant la bas). Ils la revendent ensuite a plus de 500 dinars le litre, et bien souvent ils ne nettoient pas les jerricanes ce qui donne une essence de tres mauvaise qualite et qui tuent les moteurs. Cela a permit de desengorger les stations, a la population de travailler sans prendre de conge, et de fournir de l’argent aux personnes, enfants comme adultes, n’ayant pas de travail.
Cela permet surtout au nouveau gouvernement en place, si on peut qualifier cela un gouvernement car aucun ministere ni aucune institution publique ne fonctionnent reelement mis a part les ecoles, de s’enrichir et bien evidemment d’enrichir le gouvernement Bush qui lui continue de voler le petrole aux irakiens et qui ose en plus augmenter regulierement le prix de ce meme petrole pour ces memes personnes.
Il m’expliqua aussi qu’auparavant, l’ecole, les hopitaux etaient gratuits, les loyers, l’essence, l’electricite, l’eau potable, la nourriture l’etaient pratiquement tout autant. Tout ce qui etait nationalise etait redistribue a la population, meme durant les douze ans d’embargo.
Entre le « ferme ta gueule ou je te tue » impose par Saddam et le « cause toujours tu ne m’interresses pas » etablit par le nouveau gouvernement en place et qui se voudrait plus democratique, les irakiens se sentent perdus dans leur pensees et reagissent en « y en a marre de parler dans le vide, on tire desormais dans le mille ». Ainsi de plus en plus de personnes rejoignent les rangs de la resistance aux cotes des anciens militaires de la garde republicaine de l’ancien regime, des Feydaines, et de tous ceux qui perdent quotidiennement de la famille, des amis, des maisons, lors des raids des envahisseurs. Seulement, l’autre partie de la population est lasse de cette occupation. Tout en la rejetant, elle tente de vivre tant bien que mal ( et s’en sortent plutot pas mal en considerant la situation actuelle) et ne cherche pas a se battre et n’attent qu’une chose : la Paix. Et si elle doit venir par la venue des compagnies occidentales alors elle l’acceptera probablement.
Peut etre ces dernieres sauteront avant meme leur ouverture mais une chose est sure : les USA ne sont pas prets de partir que ce soit militairement, ideologiquement, economiquement, socialement. Une question subsite quand meme : l’Irak va t-il devenir un nouveau Palestine ou un nouveau Jordanie, Liban, Egypte, ou Koweit ? Ou encore les Etats Unis vont ils vouloir diviser les irakiens, en rendant independant certaines regions d’Irak telles que le Kurdistan ( ou le petrole est tellement abondant) ou vers l’Iran ou la Jordanie et l’Arabie Saoudite, afin qu’ils s’entretuent pour mieux voler les ressources du pays en douce et que leurs soldats arretent d’etre pris pour cible quotidiennement. Personne n’a encore la reponse. Enfin presque personne…
Memes les protituees irakiennes acceptent les avances des soldats dans les tanks, les bases militaires, les chambres d’hotels. Plusieurs traducteurs m’ont dit que les soldats avaient un penchant certain pour les filles de 12-15 ans, pas etonnant qu’il y ait autant de kidnapping. Quel est ce monde dans lequel nous vivons ? Plus aucune morale ne semble exister lorsque l’argent parle. Meme Dieu deviendrait il moins influent que le billet vert de l’ennemi jure? J’ai parfois du mal a comprendre l’ame humaine en temps de guerre, Je veux bien admettre que l’on puisse etre prêt a tout pour pouvoir survivre, mais il y a quand meme des limites…
Aujourd’hui ce sont les prostituees qui vendent non seulement leur corps mais aussi et surtout leur ame, leur foi, mais demain ce seront peut etre des millions d’irakiens qui se prostitueront, qui accepteront les avances des compagnies etats-uniennes parce qu’ils apporteront ce qu’ils recherchent le plus : l’argent, le travail et le « reve americain » qui perpetueront le cauchemar non seulement irakien mais aussi de la planete entiere.
Ainsi prendront ils nos mains afin que l’on se jette tous ensemble dans le ravin de l’oubli, de l’ignorance, de l’egoisme, de la betise, du gachis ecologique et humain, de la destruction, de la mort. Ainsi nous rejoindront ils dans cette ultime danse, dans ce suicide collectif, dans cette mort programmee pour bientôt, il nous faut juste attendre desormais ce moment soit dans l’indifference, soit avec philosophie.
Je ne donne plus tres chere de la peau de cette planete alors autant faire ce que l’on veut dans la mesure ou l’on tente de ne nuire a personne dans chacun de nos actes quotidiens et d’arreter, en tout cas ralentir, ce processus qui nous menera droit dans le mur. Voilà pourquoi je suis ici.

Luis Miguel Fuste


January 14th
Haifa Camp

How did she come here? Asmaa sighed. “It is a very long story and I am tired and sick.” She lives in a tent with UNHCR stamped on the roof in the grounds of the old Haifa Palestinian Sports Club, among twelve thousand homeless families. “I was born in Iraq and brought up here, married here and had my children here, but my father was Palestinian so I am Palestinian. I have no nationality, no identification, no right to own property.”

After the war the landlord came to the house and threatened to douse it in petrol and burn it if they didn’t leave. Her four sons live there with her but her two daughters have been squeezed into a relative’s house. “There are so many young men here. I am too afraid for them here. But they had to stop going to school because of the situation. It is not safe.”

For a time they were supported by the UN and aid agencies, she said, but there has been no constant assistance for some months now. Half of the aid is taken anyway by the people inside. She and her friend gestured towards the buildings and offices of the club. “They sell it outside the camp. But Dr Qusay owns the club and if he did not let us live here we would be on the streets.”

Fifteen families arrived back at the camp today, Eman said. They were put in house and the UN promised to pay the rent but, after three months, without any rent being paid, they’ve been evicted. They returned to greasy puddles between the tents, no electricity and little gas. Gas heaters inside the tents are dangerous in any case but there are no other options for warmth. The kids can’t study when they come back from school because it’s cold and dark, Eman said.

Those who could sent their children to other relatives during the winter, splitting families, because it’s too cold for them to live in tents without even a hot water supply. “We go to our relatives every two weeks or so to do washing,” Eman says, indicating the lines of clothes drying between tents. “We cannot remember what it feels like to be clean.”

Our Iraqi colleagues were stuck in traffic and the kids were waiting so we started the show without them, then filled in while Haider and Fadhil and the others built the set for their play. We taught them the Birdy Dance, as if they hadn’t got problems enough, spared them the Macarena, started a Mexican Wave with sound effects around the room, played a game involving splitting the room in two and lots of shouting “Wo-oh” from one side and “Boomchucka” from the other.

The kids have a football and almost nothing else to play with. The swimming pool is best described as manky but then, it is winter. We were required outside for clown football afterwards and stayed, talking to the mothers, playing with the children, juggling, spinning them round, turning them upside down, dancing to imaginary music. They renamed Amber and me “Patata” and “Tomata”. I think I was Tomata. Helicopters and tanks pass frequently and the kids stopped whatever they were doing to look at them.

Dr Qusay says it’s a myth that Palestinians were better treated than anyone else under Saddam’s rule. “We weren’t allowed to own any property. It is not true that Iraqis hated Palestinians and that the Iraqi government protected Palestinians from them. It was the other way. Our Iraqi friends protected us from the government. Iraqi friends used to help us by putting a car or a house or a business in their names so that we could buy them.”

Still the kids showed me tatty pictures of Saddam from the old banknotes. “Saddam Zain,” some said. Saddam is good. I had to disagree. For me, I don’t like Saddam, I don’t like Bush and I don’t like Blair. One of the boys was angry with me. No, he insisted. Saddam was good. I suppose at least he had a home in Saddam’s day.

We went back to the boys’ house to negotiate a regular time to see them. The first man we spoke to thanked us for coming the day before. “It was beautiful to see them so happy with you.” The second man wasn’t so keen on us. It’s all very well but it’s something for later on. We need to educate them first. He wanted to know our backgrounds. Peat talked about the work he’s done in the Balkans and Ireland with Children’s World International, Balkan Sunflowers and others.

“Yes, but what’s your scientific background?” We’d been warned beforehand that the people running the place were well qualified academically but had no experience of working with kids.

“Well,” Peat said, “I lived on the streets for ten years. I get on well with street kids.”

Little Ali was inside the place, dressed in clean ironed clothes, a bright coloured T shirt and crisp jeans. He smelled free of solvents as he hugged me, already a change from the day before, hovering between the worlds in the street outside the home with a cloth soaked in thinners in his pocket.


Fadhil told us they’ve set up an actors’ union. We talked more, as we often do, about the need to explore through drama what’s happened and happening and for there to be an outlet for playwrights and artists. We talked about the possibilities of links with Equity, which Peat’s a member of, and other actors’ unions, theatres and performers outside Iraq. It will cost $2500 for them to produce Haider’s play, “Burning of Violet” by Jack Odeberti. We want to help them set up a website to publicise what they’re trying to do, exchange ideas with people around the world and find sponsorship for actors, writers and projects. There’s no bank account yet but one is in the pipeline. As ever, if you think you might be able to help, get in touch.



Sunday, January 11, 2004

January 10th
Small People on Stilts

Exhausted. Today I tied seven thousand* children to stilts, helped them up, walked them round, fended off the hordes of other kids dancing around my feet and their stilt bottoms and tried to remember which order I promised the next few kids a go in. Peat is a superstar. Luis did funny stuff with a didgeridoo and chains.

(* A small exaggeration for dramatic effect.)

One of the boys in the youth centre in the afternoon joined in with my tumbling show, taking a run up for a cartwheel that ended with a jump, landing in the splits, followed by a somersault, landing on his arse. When we left the kids were begging us to come back tomorrow and if not then when? In the morning we had dozens of kids playing parachute games on the roof of the Childhood Voice school. I think that counts as a good day.

It’s interesting having new people around, because they see all the things I’ve stopped noticing, like bombed buildings. We passed the remnants of the Ministries of Industry and Higher Education – you can see how the latter would be an essential military target – and the others were asking what they were. Strange how soon you would forget that bombed buildings weren’t always the backdrop to your life, which I suppose is why it’s so important to bring childhood back to the lives of kids whose entire existence has been war.

Nadeem came by for breakfast. He quit his job and went to university this year but, he says, he wonders whether there’s any point in being a biology student where there is no lab equipment. A couple of months ago, he says, people were torn between wanting to leave Iraq because of all the difficulties and wanting to stay to rebuild the country. Now, he says, people just want to leave. They’re too depressed, too sad, too tired.

Fadhil showed us the primary school near the Korean embassy, next door to his office. Now officially a target, the embassy is surrounded with concrete walls, sandbags and tanks. He acted out what he was saying, the way he always does. “The children used to come along here skipping and singing. Now they creep along with their eyes on the tanks.”

There are a lot of fighter jets overhead tonight.


FROM LUIS

Samedi 10 janvier,

Nous nous sommes produits au “ Season’s art school” tenu par “Childhood Voice”, un centre acceuillant les enfants avant et après l’ecole. Petit spectacle sur le toit avec le didgeridoo en entrée afin de capter l’attention d’une quarantaine d’enfants et de laisser Peat se preparer. Il arriva avec son magnifique costume de saltimbanque jaune et rouge digne des bouffons du moyen age. Tour de magie avec les balles de ping-pong, faux pouces lumineux, jonglage avec balles, baton du diable, et balle contact. Ce fut au tour de Jo et Amber sur leurs echasses de faire leur numero de bulles de savon et jonglage ( enfin y a encore du boulot a ce niveau la). Puis, Peat a ressorti le parachute sur le toit superieur ou tous les enfants se sont laches sur nous comme des fous et creerent une ambiance hysterique. Pendant ces instants magiques, plus personne ne se croyait dans un pays occupe.
Seuls les helicopteres survolant le quartier de Daura, les batiments aux alentours bombardes et la vue sur la centrale electrique, ou j’ai vecu la plus intense des experiences humaines il y a bientot un an, deja, me font ramener a la triste realite.
En passant par Daura, tous ces souvenirs rejaillirent: la vie a la centrale, les bombardements, le bruit et le souffle provoque par ces derniers, les enormes affrontements entre les forces etats uniennes, venus du sud du pays, et l’armee irakienne soutenue par les civils, sur l’autoroute situee a peine a 500 metres de notre habitation et sur laquelle, huit mois plus tard j’etais en train de passer, les carcasses de tanks, de voitures, de camions, de defense anti-char et anti aerien, completement carbonisees juste après la bataille, les bombes qui sont tombees a 150m de notre habitation, les amis irakiens nous emmenant chez eux pour nous proteger, et la colere contre ces agresseurs venus detruire ce quartier, ces habitants, cette ville, ce pays.
En me rememorant tout ceci et en voyant dans quel etat est ce quartier aujourd’hui, comme tant d’autres, une forte emotion se souleva en moi difficilement controllable: la tristesse et la joie se melangaient en constatant huit mois plus tard que la vie avait reprit un cours “normal”: les ecoles, les universites ( malgre la manque de materiel toujours pas renouvele depuis la guerre, les pillages et l’etablissement d’une base militaire pendant quelques temps) ont reouvert leur portes. La centrale electrique refonctionne, toujours avec la meme cheminee qui fume sur les quatres. Les commerces et restaurants tentent de nourrir tant bien que mal la population.
Mais au dela de tous ces sentiments, mon cœur se remplit de haine envers ceux qui ont cause ce chaos, ces ruines, cette pollution (en voyant les ordures s’entasser partout dans les quartiers et les terrains de jeux, seuls les grands hotels et batiments presidentiels ont les moyens de pouvoir s’en debarrasser quotidiennement), ces blesses et ces morts et qui ne font toujours rien pour ameliorer la situation. L'electricite n'est toujours pas retablie dans le pays. En 1991, Saddam n'avait mit que trois mois pour retablir le reseau electrique et hydraulique qui etaient en de plus mauvaises conditions, etant donne que les centrales et la raffinerie furent bombardees. Aujourd'hui, les forces etats-uniennes imposent un chantage inacceptable envers la population: l'electricite et l'eau contre leur securite dans certaines villes telles que Tikrit, Ballad, Fallujah, Baghdad, villes ou les soldats sont attaques constamment, on se demande bien pourquoi apres tout cela…
L'electricite nationale est aujourd'hui operationnelle toutes les trois heures a peu pres et cela pendant trois heures, ce qui veut dire que toutes les trois heures, la population doit allumer, et donc acheter les generateurs et bien sur acheter l'essence qui va avec.
Comment voulez vous qu'ils ne soient pas remplit de haine envers leurs envahisseurs.
Les ouvriers du batiments sont trop occupes a construire des bases militaires et des fortifications autour des hotels, des palais presidentiels, des residences des hommes les plus puissants du nouveau Baghdad. Welcome Freedom.
Cependant les irakiens rencontres me rassurent , qu’ils soient enfants ou adultes, car a la vue de ces militaires leurs regards et leurs paroles denoncent cette occupation. "meurtiers d’americains" lancent ils.

Ce fut une matinee magique ou tous les enfants se sont colles a nous afin de jongler, de jouer, de tenter de percer le secret des tours de magie, de tirer sur mon bouc, de nous embrasser. Les enfants restent toujours des enfants, aux quatres coins du monde.

Dans l’apres midi, ce fut au " Magreb Youth Center" tenu aussi par "Childhood's Voice" que nous nous rendimes. Sur la route, nous passames devant l’ecole des beaux arts ou des etudiants peignaient une enorme fresque murale. Des scenes de la vie quotidienne y sont representees.
A notre arrivee, ce fut plus d’une centaine d’enfants qu’il nous fallu affronter. Je commenca avec le didgeridoo a immiter les animaux, les mobiletes, les helicopteres, les bombes explosant a terre devant leur nez ce qui ne manqua pas de les surprendre et de les amuser, malgre quelques sons realistes et d’actualite mais l’habitude fait qu’ils ne se sont pas senti choques, ce fut meme eux qui m’ont inspire cela.
Bref, ce fut au tour de Peat d’arriver avec son costume de clown et de les emerveiller, eleves comme professeurs, suivi du numero de pseudo clownerie qui ne fonctionna pas tres bien. Leur numero sur echasses les laissa mitiges bien que « la danse des canards » les fit rire( il faut dire que Jo et Amber debutent tout juste dans le spectacle mais elles progressent vite).
Une cohue generale se souleva au moment ou Peat sorti le parachute : il y avait tellement d’enfants qu’il etait impossible a tout le monde de pouvoir se mettre autour.
Une bagarre entre deux petits se declencha, il fallu alors créer rapidement trois ateliers afin de desengorger cette foule immense : un atelier echasse qui connu un grand succes, un autre atelier didg, et le parachute.
Je fus meme bluffe par certains enfants ages de cinq a huit ans qui arrivaient immediatement a créer un overtone, mais surtout par un gamin de douze ans environ qui me sortit un overtone si aigu et que je n’avais toujours pas entendu sur mon instrument que j’en resta epoustoufle, de plus il ne joue d’aucun instrument de musique, ce qui me rendit encore plus sans voix !!
Nous restames bien deux heures de plus a faire les idiots avec eux. Ils tenterent de m’apprendre certains sifflements qu’il m’est impossible de reproduire, d’autres voulaient mesurer leur force au bras de fer (ils ont ete bien decu, je leur ai mit une raclee aux 10-15 ans !!!!!). Enfin, les plus ages nous inviterent a faire une partie de volley ball, les clowns ( en comptant notre traductrice pratiquant ce sport a l’universite et deux adolescents) contre les irakiens, resultat : une bonne partie de franche rigolade !
Nous les quittames dans la joie et la bonne humeur, certains continuaient a courir derriere la voiture pour nous dire au revoir. Que voulez vous dire apres cela ?
Sur la route, le soleil, en se couchant, passa a travers ce qui restait du ministere de la haute education ainsi que le ministere de l’industrie, tous les deux bombardes pendant la guerre, scene magnifiquement tragique.
Tandis que de l’autre cote de l’autoroute, le ministere de l’interieur etait encore vierge de toutes attaques etats uniennes ou des pillages, ce qui n’etait pas le cas du centre commercial proche de ce dernier qui fut detruit par des kowetis il y a quelques mois, soit disant en reponse de l’invasion de 1990. Ce n’etait pas le premier centre commercial que je voyais detruit de la sorte. Les compagnies etats uniennes le remplaceront surement par un superbe temple de la consommation, s’il n’est pas detruit avant…

BY PEAT - STREET KIDS BECAUSE

Because you were born a year into the sanctions that were to kill over ½ a million children, so all you’ve ever known is poverty.
Because, when you were six, your widowed mother’s new husband threw out any children that weren’t his, so you moved onto the street.
Because life on the street as a seven-year-old adult is so horrid, so you take the only escape route open to you, a bag of glue.
Because no one listens when a dirty thieving little 9 year old junky cries out for help and love, so you cry out in other ways, including self mutilation of your arms and body.
Because you’ve turned into a wild, angry violent critter, so you’ve managed to survive in hell.
AND YOU HATE YOUR SELF FOR IT.
Then comes the dawn of a new era. The war’s over. Illegal sanctions are lifted. Money and long over due aid arrives. N.G.O.’s open up children’s homes. But because you’re a junky, you can’t come in.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing them. They can’t risk the lives of the 30 other children just to help one child. You have to be hard, that’s life. And for an 11 year old junky that really is life. The only life you’ve ever known. And you deserve it, because you’re a messed up, scared, and sliced up lump of dog poo.
Every one tells you that. Every one treats you like that. And you don’t just believe it, you KNOW it.
To turn around to that child and say, “Come off the drugs. Clean up your act. Calm down and stop being so wild. THEN we’ll let you come and join us”, Just doesn’t work.
He won’t believe or trust you. Because trusting adults can cost him his life. And he won’t calm down. Because being wild and violent is how he gets his food, how he survives.
And as for leaving the squalor and dirt of the street, and moving to a clean, sanitized, loving environment. The idea is so alien to him. So scary and stressful. Just the thought of it will have him reaching for the glue bag, in just the same way as moving home will make you reach for your cigarettes.
There’s a group of people here working with those kids called “OUR HOME IRAQ” (O.H.I.). They’re just an ordinary bunch of people like you and me. People who were here before or during the war. People who, because of what they’ve seen, can’t close their eyes and ears to the fate of these kids. So they rented some rooms in an old warehouse and opened up a place where the children could come and hang out, eat, watch TV. Maybe even have a non-sexual hug from an adult. Their first one for years.
The place was dirty, smelly, unclean and definitely not child friendly. It was everything that U.N.I.C.E.F. deplores. Which is probably why the street kids felt at home there. So at home that some of them agreed to come off drugs. These children were allowed to sleep there at night. Safe from the dangers and temptations of the street.
Unfortunately, this affected the income of the local gangster types, who relied on the children for stolen goods etc in return for another fix. So, as you can imagine, they aint happy chappys. In fact, there’d been several confrontations between the gangsters and O.H.I. They needed to get the children somewhere safe, and soon.
A newly opened orphanage had agreed to take the children in as soon as their rooms were ready. That was meant to be 3 weeks ago. Every day they said “we’ll pick the children up tomorrow”, then not turn up.
I was in this place in the afternoon. So were the gangsters. As CIRCUS2IRAQ (C2I) kept the kids busy in one corner, so the gangsters were busy making threats to OHI in another. Worst still, they were threatening to kidnap the children and put them back on the street.
Now there’s something about me that messed up street kids like and bond with. And there’s something about messed up street kids that I like and connect with. That’s why I class all street kids as my own. And these bastards were threatening them.
As much as I wanted to do Iraq a big favor and pick up that lump of wood and bring it crashing down on the back of his head, I know I couldn’t. To do so would be too prove to the kids that they were right all along, violence is the only answer. (Besides, there was several of them and only one me). Instead, we stood there, arguing and reasoning with them until they left. But not before they told us that they’d be back, and “something bad will happen”!!!
I asked one of OHI what they meant by that. She said that they’d be back with knifes and weapons to kill us. We had to get the children out of there now, before they come back. Weather it was ready or not, the orphanage was going to get new residents.
We sent the C2I car home with all the equipment and the other team members. It would then return and pick up me, OHI, and the children, taking us all to the new place.
It took maybe half an hour for the car to return. That must had been one of the longest half hours of my life. Knowing that it was a race as to who turned up first, the car or the baddies. I don’t mind telling you that the fact that I only brought three pairs of y-fronts with me meant I had to keep my cheeks well and truly clenched, I was that scared.
The car won the race (Dear god of little kiddies, thank you for that) and we quickly loaded the kids into the back, and then drove to the new house. The owners were surprised to see us but once they knew the story, they were only too happy to take the kids in.
My driver and I returned to base where I had a large vodka, shower and a last check of the y-fronts (just to make sure). Then headed off for lunch with another N.G.O.
And that folks, was my first afternoon in Iraq, and my introduction to street life in down town Baghdad. The only city to come complete with it’s own chalk outline.

P.s. weather is lovely, wish you were here




January 9th
Glue

Zainab helped me sew a 2 metre long skirt for stilt walking, sitting in the garden waiting for the pick-up to crawl through the traffic to get us. The morning’s show was in a clean, pleasant orphanage, mainly for very young children, with some older girls staying to help look after the babies and toddlers. Fadhil, Eman and Zahra did the cat play, the one with two cats tormenting the chef by hiding all his fruit and playing with his glasses, then starting to blame each other for all the naughtiness, trying to get each other into trouble, before finally agreeing that love is better than war.

Peat did his thing, juggling and making balloon creatures, popping ping pong balls in and out of his mouth; Amber and I did ours, clowning on stilts. Along the way we acquired an accordion player, a Frenchman by the name of Matew, who works for the NGO Premiere Urgence, which supports Fadhil’s group. We got some of the kids up on stilts and they did some juggling. A gang of boys gathered along the railing outside the orphanage to watch and we wanted to give them a go too, sitting them on the car to tie them into the stilts, but it was already half past one and we needed to get to the boys’ shelter.

After the war, the US troops went into Baghdad’s children’s homes. Seeing children in military type uniforms, they assumed them to be prisoners of Saddam and set them free. Terrified, the kids fled to live on the streets and in derelict buildings. In all the chaos, there was no one to protect them from the violence of the street and each other, no one to feed them, no shelter from the searing heat of summer. A friend sent e mails about a horde of them living on the patch of grass near the Palestine Hotel, one of them with a broken leg, in a cast but without crutches.

Later, Iraqi groups and international NGOs started setting up orphanages and taking in kids who were without parents or without one parent, those who were thrown out by their families for various reasons and some whose families were simply too poor to look after them. Children are often referred to as orphans here when they have lost only one parent: if it’s the mother there’s no one to take care of them and if it’s the father there may be no income.

Ahmed, Laith and Saif used to live outside the Palestine, sleeping in the street on a blanket, all huddled underneath. Imad and I taught them a counting game which they loved. The staff of the hotels gave them leftover food sometimes. Journalists and sometimes the soldiers would give them money. Within the fortress surrounding the big hotels was a relatively safe place to sleep. Often they would be moving in slow motion, inane grins plastered over their faces, as they floated over for a hug.

Even as you told them that sniffing glue was no good for them, you wondered whether, in their position, you wouldn’t do exactly the same – fill your head with a solvent that made the ground feel less hard. Yet they couldn’t make the sudden transition from the complete freedom and independence of the street, the solvents they were addicted to and the dirt and the grime, straight into a pristine, sanitised orphanage with strict rules and controls, where they couldn’t smoke and swear and fight.

“Our Home” started taking some of the kids the orphanages wouldn’t or couldn’t. Some of them were turned away because of persistent glue habits or antisocial behaviour, others weren’t ready to live in them. Understandably, a lot of the groups prioritised getting girls off the streets and into safe places, so some of boys fell through the gaps. The crisis centre was something in between, in Bab a-Sherji, close to the basement where several were already sleeping. They took in 20 boys about 6 weeks ago and so far four have moved on to long term accommodation and care.

The cold, ramshackle building had a mezzanine level so there was loads of space for stilt walking. Some of the kids are without shoes because when they were given new ones they sold them. “Then they’d have tantrums because they had no shoes and they’d ask for more and we’d tell them if you sell your shoes then you won’t have any, and we’d leave them a few days without any and then when they get some more they don’t sell them.”

The rules include prohibitions on drugs and violence, enforced with breath tests to detect solvents. Sometimes they’ve kicked one of the kids out for a night for one reason or another. The majority came back the next day and asked to be forgiven. As we drove up Donna said they’d had trouble the night before with a local gang, threatening them and the boys with knives. They said they’d be back at 6.

In fact they were there when we arrived but the kids came racing out to hug us and carry our stuff in, even the stuff we didn’t want carried in and had to bring back out again. Ahmed was there, his eyes clear and bright, free from the glue that he used to sniff outside the Palestine. Now he’s one of the vigilantes, breath testing the other boys to check none of them are using glue.

We started with parachute games, shaking it, looking underneath it, creating a tent by sitting on the edges of it, playing cat and mouse with one boy underneath the chute that everyone else is shaking; another chasing him on top of the billowing cloth. The gang members joined in for a while, some of them, but they were mostly high on drugs and more aggressive than positive, so Peat started juggling and doing his act, silencing the chaotic kids with contact juggling one ball and when he inserted a long stick into Joe the toy clown, balanced the contraption on his nose and played a tune on the penny whistle.

The gang left and we had a short stomp on the stilts before getting the boys up on them. At first only a couple were into it, but then they all wanted to try, tying them onto bare feet. They have to be tied on tightly but they’re all too tough to make any fuss about the severing of their circulation. Hussein was the star, as far as it went. The queue of kids wanting a go was getting longer, but the gang was back making threats. “Yeah, OK, we’ll leave now, but we’ll be back later, and if we see any of these boys on the street we’re going to kill them.”

I promised Mortada and Ahmed with solemn handshakes that we’ll come back and he can do it then. We emptied the circus car of all the gear, packed in all the boys and moved them to the house that they were meant to be moving into for long term accommodation. The managers there had been saying the place wasn’t quite ready for some time, so the emergency forced the issue. “Maybe a few of them will drop out,” Donna said, “but I hope most of them will stay.” We’re going to see them in their new place on Monday and work with them all day.

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