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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

February 23rd
A Postcard from Jordan

Would you believe it? My first morning out of Iraq, I was woken up by an earthquake in Amman. With every crash and thump, Simona and I looked at each other, shook our heads and reminded ourselves we were in Jordan now. There was no reason to think that noise was a bomb. The building started to shake and I was about to remark on the gale that must be blowing outside when the roar stopped me.

“That one was definitely a bomb.”

“Why would there be a bomb in Jordan?” Tommo asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, mentally computing how far we were from the blast. “See. There’s the helicopter coming to the scene,” I added, identifying the familiar thudding sound of the rotor blades. Walking past the road works later I realised my error.

Amman was cold and grey but the Mecca Mall was all glitz. Really, it’s called the Mecca Mall, a less than spiritual shrine to shopping and cinema screens. We only went there because I hadn’t seen Lord of the Rings yet. As Denethor stuffed his face with the finest foods while the men of his city perished in the stupid mission he’d sent them on I found myself muttering, “Nothing changes.”

Near where Jamil lives there are loads of ministries and government buildings, among them the “Directorate of Education and Military Culture”. What’s that all about? I thought it was bad enough the way the British government has started letting the army infiltrate schools, allowing kids in some places to drop a couple of GCSE subjects in favour of military training, but it seems worse is possible. How can you have education and “military culture” in the same department?

It made me curious so I looked the human rights reports for Jordan on the internet and they weren’t great. There’s a law that allows for lenient treatment of men who kill female family members because they disapprove of their behaviour – you can get a 9 month sentence for an “honour killing” and the only protection the state gives the girls and women is to lock them up under “administrative detention” for their own protection, which no option to choose not to be imprisoned for safety, although the father of a 17 year old woman was allowed to take her into his custody and then he killed her, more or less with impunity.

Journalists who don’t follow the official line, i.e. what the king says, are fired and so are academics and so on. They’re kicking out Palestinians who are refugees there and also closing their borders to refugees from Iraq.

I asked L about it because he’s originally Palestinian and he was saying a chant in Arabic which was something about “Don’t you know we love Saddam?” I said surely you don’t really, and he said yes, he was a good man, and talked about all the things he did for Arab countries, for Palestinians, for Sudan, Syria, Jordan, etc. He was, says L, the best Arab leader. He protected Arab people. I pointed out that he also killed lots of Iraqi people for saying they didn’t think he was a very good man or for criticising his government.

Obviously one man’s opinion doesn’t represent everyone in the country, much less the whole region, but L’s answer was that it made Saddam angry that people were being so ungrateful for all the money he gave for hospitals and stuff and that was when he started killing lots of people. It seems to me a weird kind of justification.

He said the Jordanian king doesn’t care at all about Jordanian people. He’s always off abroad and buying nice things for himself and his wife and putting up taxes so people earn only 80-110 Dinars a month, working 13 hour days, and you want to eat, you pay tax, you want to go to school you pay tax, you want to go to the toilet, you pay tax. If you earn 100 Dinars they tax you 115.

There’s a prime minister, he says, as well as the king but he’s only there to do as the king says and if he doesn’t he gets sacked. The newspapers are only allowed to print what the king tells them as well. He says the last king was a bit better but really they’re all the same. He says the UAE leader is the best in the Arab world now – he cares about his people and gives them money, housing, education, etc. I don’t know. I’ve never read anything at all about UAE.

The capital is built on hills so you walk up a slope on the road and the ground rolls away from you on one side so when you look down there are loads of buildings nestled in the dip and the buildings seem to be carved out of the hillsides, built to fit the contours. There are some dramatically shaped tall buildings – one is sort of cylindrical with Batman-like pointy bits on top. The rooves are a mushroom field of satellite dishes. From the back room in Raed’s house you can see across the entire city, as different as it could be from the small towns, villages, deserts and valleys around.

The Bedouin have moved out of Petra itself, the ancient city literally carved from the mountains, caves cut into striped, curving rocks woven out of dozens of colours, stalks and limbs and pillars pouring down the mountainside. Ida said the King, the last one, moved them into a village nearby. Life was fine there, she said. They keep goats and make crafts and come into the ancient site every day to sell to the tourists. Ida’s eighteen and unmarried. “Some of the girls are married at fourteen and they have three children by my age, but it’s too young.” She learnt her English from the tourists.

Fahima sells jewellery beside the Lion Fountain, the creature carved into the rock under what appears to be a waterfall when there’s enough rain to flow down it. As we came round the corner, the wind slicing through our layers of clothes, she asked for a lighter. Huddled round the fire she made in a corner, rock towering over us, she softly told us she’s got three children, her husband keeps camels for trekkers through the city and they’re happy living in the village. The queen helps the women and now they have co-ops to sell jewellery and other crafts and to get a bit of education.

A woman joined us for the last stretch of the way up to the High Place of Sacrifice, wheezing like a steam train, losing her court shoes on the rocks, apparently just so she could climb into a hole in the rock and play something tuneless on her whistle. An old man sitting at a table of odds and ends by the Urn Tomb invited us to look: “This from Hong Kong, one week old.” He gestured towards the other side of the table: “These ones, these are antiques from Petra.”

Ali found us traipsing down the mountain, his donkeys clattering ahead. In the gorges, the sounds around the next corner echo and ricochet so it sounds like the walls are singing and calling. “Every day I run up and down this mountain. I have about 100 JD a month, about 3 Dinar a day, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow I am going to town for photographs and papers to join jaish [army]. It will be easy life in jaish. If I have to run for three days, no problem. I do this already.“

Ali opened his wallet to show us a picture of his girlfriend. “I think in your country you don’t have to pay money to the bride’s family to marry. I can’t marry because I have no money for her family. I have no money for a house. It’s maybe 6000 Dinar. In jaish pay is 350 Dinar a month.” He was planning to sign up for sixteen years. What if he had to go to war, to fight, to kill people? He shrugged. It’s the same everywhere: poverty forces young people into the military and, once there, they’re the tools of the wealthy and powerful, whether they agree with them or not.

Further south in Wadi Rum, tourism is also run by co-operatives, of 4 wheel drivers, camel owners and villagers. Here and there in the desert is a camp, a small rectangular enclosure, partially covered. Aodeh’s description, on the bus up from Aqaba, of his camp a couple of hours’ walk from the village, seduced us with stars and red mountains, blue lizards, eagles, immense beetles, purple and yellow wildflowers and endless quiet, this last splintered by the ubiquitous beeping of the two Bedouin men writing text messages on their mobile phones. Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps you can’t stand in the way of progress.

I knew Hussein was Iraqi before he told me: he’s got the look, the sunken cheeks, the worry lines around eyes that look too young to look so old. Before he got off the bus at the miserable building site, hundreds of miles from home, the only place he could find work, he wanted to know, how is it now in Iraq? Is there work? Is there petrol, electricity, water? Are there still explosions?

The drive home to Baghdad was a little wild. Gales and hail slowed the drive out of Jordan. Bureaucracy slowed the passage through the border. The time was that Iraqi drivers were finished with the formalities in minutes, while we foreigners sat waiting for interminable hours in a room full of tinsel, a giant Saddam portrait and a TV, generally playing something like Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Now it takes a few seconds to get a European passport stamped and interminable hours to bring the driver with you.

On the Iraqi side of the border a sandstorm was obscuring the white lines in the road until you were on top of them, dunes in an ongoing process of creation and obliteration in the middle of the highway. Between Ramadi and Falluja, with visibility clear again, we went to pass the middle vehicle of a three-humvee convoy. It was in the centre lane and we moved to pass it in the outside, not an unusual manoeuvre on Iraqi roads. The gunner on top whipped round and pointed his gun at us. He gestured furiously at the inside lane. Hussein and I both shrugged. If it made him happy, we could pass them on the inside instead.

Behind us he was flapping his arms even more frantically at the next vehicle, which wasn’t going fast enough to pass them. A burst of gunfire behind our wheels rattled the air inside the car, and me. The humvee sped past, then slowed down and we had to start the whole performance again. In spite of everything I got home in one piece. The news is as follows.

Someone threw a grenade into Safa’s garden, where Happy Family is based. No one was hurt although the cat got a bit singed. He says he knows who it is, it’s a personal vendetta, nothing to do with working with foreigners and the same person threatened a couple of schools and orphanages not to bring their kids to the show in the National Theatre.

I missed the big show. The date had to be changed because there’s a festival commemorating the death of the Imam Ali and performances like ours are not acceptable, so it had to happen earlier. I also missed the Romeo and Juliet wedding. A young man from a powerful tribe but a poorer family and a young woman from a lesser tribe but a wealthy family fell in love.

His family didn't want him lowering the status of his tribe; hers opposed her marrying into 'poverty' and tried to marry her off to the first candidate they thought suitable. She refused them all and was mistreated. His relatives threatened to wipe out hers if they married. They talked about eloping to Yemen; they even concocted a plan for him to kidnap her but it's impossible for an unmarried couple to cross the border without her father's permission.

Eventually, faced with worse disgrace, her family agreed to, but refused to attend, the wedding. His, if they know, are in denial. Boris, a Hungarian journalist with a longstanding interest in the right of Iraqi people to choose who they love, arranged a wedding reception in lieu of their families and asked Peat to perform. When they visit their families, they'll each go alone and hope in time the sides will accept it.

The happiest news is that Abbas, the four year old boy who was badly burnt at Al-Sha'ala camp, is OK. When Peat went to take him to the hospital, they were turned away because of a bomb nearby. The place was full of more casualties than it could handle. He's written in more detail about the frustrations of trying to get a doctor sorted (see above - he's about to post it). Eventually one was found who could get out to the cam. He said Abbas was only days from losing his leg to the infections.

Peat saw him a couple of days ago and he's walking about, sleeping at night, smiling and laughing, wearing trousers, still whole, the look of exhausted agony and despair gone from his eyes although I doubt Peat or I will ever forget it. He took Alaa with him to translate when he brought Abbas to the hospital and she couldn't sleep until she knew he was alright.

It horrifies me to know how close he came to having his leg amputated, to think of how many we haven't reached and won't reach, that eight and a half months and billions of dollars after the war ostensibly ended, lives and limbs are so precarious that they can depend on a bunch of clowns arriving at the right moment.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

February 9th
Reflections

The reed hut used to stand at the edge of the water, its wendy house shape reflected in the sludge at the edges of the pool. Now there is but a puddle, several metres away. The drain at the Sha’ala camp isn’t completely finished yet but already there’s an enormous improvement. Huge tanks from me and them to everyone who helped build it.

Still not everything is well. Abbas is four, his legs a bloody, pus-oozing mess, the breeze block and canvas home stinking of his infected flesh. He burnt his legs three weeks ago on the paraffin flame from the stove and hasn’t been seen by a doctor or a hospital yet. He lies under a blanket, eyes huge and glazed, unresponsive except when they crease and spill tears. We went to take medicine today, antiseptic and antibiotic creams, but it’s worse than yesterday. Raed and Peat are bringing a doctor first thing in the morning.

I’m going to Jordan for 12 days. I’m tired and burnt out. It’s been three months now, just over. Tommo’s coming to meet me in Jordan. It’s been over three months since we last held each other’s hands. Mama and Damia gave me some beads for Tommo and a cardboard package.

“You must not open it until you are with him, but I think maybe you will need this.” It says ‘lingerie’ on the box. Iraqi women mostly dress extremely conservatively on the outside, in the same way that their homes often have very plain exteriors. What’s inside, or underneath, is much more elaborate. Mama says I’m to tell Tommo about my Iraqi mum and family, to tell him he’s welcome any time, he’s one of the family already.

The circus is sorted, working out better than I dared to dream and well able to go on without me for a few days. Luis, with his didgeridoo, gave a deaf and dumb teenager his first ever music, feeling the vibrations when he held it to his ear. They’ll keep working with the boys from the Kurdish House, keep rehearsing and doing shows with Happy Family, go and play in the camps a few times. After I come back, if all goes to plan, we’re going to the north, to Suleimania, with the boys from the Kurdish House and Happy Family.

A young French photographer came with us to a show the other day. Safa said when he saw her, his heart jumped a beat. We all started teasing, as you do, till he explained why. Her face reminded him of Wafaa, his girlfriend, the woman he thought he would marry. She was killed in the war.

There’s still an incredible volume of sadness, of trauma, of suffering. The circus, the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been with it has made me realise that rehabilitation of Iraq is a matter of much more than rebuilding a physical infrastructure, as vital as that is and as badly as it’s being handled.

And I love this place and its people, in all their bewilderment, their anger, their fierce hope and depression. I love the kids on the roof opposite and on our street, Fatih on his balcony like an anchor, the bright lights of Karrada Dakhil and the flames of the barbecues when all the other lights go out, the gossip in the women’s rooms. I’ll be back, fresh, in a couple of weeks, to carry on. Speak to you then. Take care.

Friday, February 06, 2004

February 5th
Back to Sha’ala

The Sha’ala kids came running out to meet us, arms out. The girls joined in with the parachute games this time, asked to be picked as cat or mouse, lying on the fabric to be lifted up and run around on it. The women watched through the reed fence of the house next to the concrete square where we performed. They wanted the scarves that are tied to the broom handle for twirling but I didn’t have enough for all of them.

Tanks came by blasting out some message over a loudspeaker and throwing brightly coloured leaflets behind them. A couple of the boys ran to pick them up, cartoons depicting a man planting a bomb in a newly built school, while the kids were happily dancing about. An Iraqi person sees him, finds an Iraqi Police man and reports it. The bomb gets safely removed, the school is saved, the criminal is arrested and everyone but him is very happy.

“We think probably half of the bombs are planted by Americans,” Abu Bassim said. The recent party office bombings in the north they are sure were the work of American provocateurs trying to create divisions; likewise the bombing in Najaf of Al-Hakim a few months ago. “There is no division between us and Sunnis. We are all Moslems, but the Americans trying to create divisions. They have done it all over the world, everywhere they go.

Marwa came to me with her eyes shining. I think you already know how much I love this child. She wants to be a doctor. It seems impossible because she hasn’t been to school in months and she’s from a very poor family, without even a real home, and I don’t know how long free university education will continue, but I can’t bear the thought of her becoming a housewife like the other women there, hidden under a headscarf, producing child after child and trying to keep them all alive, looking out through a reed fence and hoping her daughter will have better chances than she did.

We were meant to be meeting a sheikh this morning who represents the 4,500 families or about 25,000 people, living in 35 squatted former government buildings. They’re expecting that the new government, when elected, will want those buildings back and will evict them. There’s no housing for them to go into, so they’ll be on the streets. There are some rights for squatters, which is what we were going to talk to the sheikh about – the rights they have and what support they want, but for various reasons the meeting was to be in the Convention Centre and was cancelled because of ‘an important ceremony’ in the Centre – apparently more important than people’s right to have somewhere to live.

Still Abu Ahmed and Abu Bassim say they want elections as soon as possible. Like all the Shia people I’ve met in the camps, they follow Sistani . an Iranian, he won’t be a candidate himself, but they will vote for the man he backs and if he calls for jihad, they say, they will leave their families and fight. Over lunch in Abu Bassim’s compartment, made out of a corner of a roofless farm building, they said they’re not backing the current resistance because it’s killing innocent people and, as Abu Bassim explained in response to the leaflets, they are convinced that a lot of the attacks are American-perpetrated.

Jihad, they said, would include attacking the Americans, with bombs aimed at their bases, not at convoys in the street, where innocent Iraqis get hurt, but the main focus, Abu Bassim said, would be unarmed jihad: refusal to work with the Americans, total non-cooperation and so on, that all Iraqis could participate in.

“The Americans are the same as Saddam,” Abu Ahmed declared, “They are from the same line. We can criticise the Americans, that’s true. We went on a big demonstration a few weeks ago and chanted against the Americans and the British and the Governing Council and we were not stopped. We can complain, but that is all.” They’re not represented by anyone at them moment but there are four section to the camp, each with its own sheikh so, with Abu Ahmed, there’s a committee of five.

We gave them the money for the drain at the end of the show and explained it was from ordinary people, in solidarity. The place was full of smiles: they will start preparations straight away and then get the digger in. It will be built within a week.

Today is the long awaited day off. There’s been no electricity for most of it and no internet throughout the city because of the thunderstorm, apparently. I did my washing in the dark and hung it out in the rain. It was even cold and wet enough to drive Fatih off his balcony opposite.

February 1st
Happy Eid

Lack of electricity was delaying the start of the Eid show at the Happy Family base so I climbed up on my stilts and we started clowning and boomchucking. The kids and the Happy Family lads all shout it at us when we arrive now. I nicked Luis’s hat and, as I was posing and strutting about with it and he was finding a child to put on his shoulders to try and reach it, the power came back on, the music burst out and the kids jumped up and danced with us.

Not surprisingly, HF thinks a generator is the top item on the kit wish list. The boys from the Kurdish house started break dancing and took turns wearing the Sylvester and Tweetie-pie costumes, performing for the smaller kids. It was wicked seeing them using their creativity, playing, doing something to make other children happy. I’m hoping we can get them on stage during the show at the National Theatre. Applause must be life changing when you’ve been a drug addicted street beggar refused by the whole world.

Laith was already there when we arrived at 11 to practise. The other boys didn’t arrive till later. He was looking a bit sad, so I put my hands out, palm up. His eyes lit up and we played a couple of rounds of the counting game, which made me wonder what it must be like for them, to move from the street into a house. Food tastes different, wilder and sweeter, when you weren’t certain there would be any.

Whatever you find or get given is something special, something you never could’ve bought or made for yourself, the feast of kings and queens, but the ground is still hard and there’s no one to cuddle you before you go to bed on it, unless some semi-stranger you’ve befriended from one of the hotels comes past to give you one.

There’s only the glue to soften things, to make them look funny and feel less harsh, and meeting people who come from strange countries you’ve never heard of, who look strange and sound strange and teach you bits of English, or play games with you, and give you blankets and jumpers when you’re cold, and the kind of excitement that goes along with the exhaustion of living on your wits and knowing that what you need will come along, or that it won’t but you’ll tell yourself you don’t need the things you didn’t get, like warmth or medical care or a hug, that the things you did get mattered more.

Glamour attaches to the violence and drugs of the gang members, the appearance of power that comes with their weapons. Mortadha and Akan went back to the street and the gang and both decided after a couple of days that they wanted to go back to the orphanage, but Akan was scared out of it when one of them showed him a big knife and gestured, pulling it across his throat as a threat.

I remember myself moving into a house after months of living outside and finding it weird, too small, too square, too restrictive; I thought I’d never see anyone anymore because there was a closed door in front of me.

Uzma and I have been adopted by Safa’s sisters. Mum cooked us breakfast when we got there and Damia and Mariam whisked us off for beauty treatments, clearly the most important preparation for the show. I’m all for mutual grooming, the more so if accompanied by gossip and kids as cute as Ayu, Noor and Abdullah, but had to escape having my eyebrows ripped out of my head by pleading the needed to rehearse my dance.

For those who are interested in such things, Iraqi women use a length of cotton, one end held between the teeth, the other end in one hand, with a loop in between, that’s pulled tight around the offending hair to wrench it out of the skin. For non-facial areas they use an abrasive sugar solution.

Damia’s a dress maker. She wants to find a husband but she’s so shy she won’t even go out and talk to the Happy Family boys when they come to the house. She only knows their names. Mariam is married to one of Safa’s brothers. There seem to be dozens of brothers and I can’t keep track, but her first baby is Abdullah, a wide eyed sweetheart of six months. She parked him on the windowsill, legs out in the sunshine, one either side of the window bar, fixed in place with her headscarf so he could wriggle but not fall. I taught Mama to juggle scarves, yellow, pink and blue, the only thing I can juggle, after Peat taught me how in the morning.

As for the show, the dance was a bit shaky, because Uzma and I don’t know it very well, but the kids who go there a lot know the song that goes with it off by heart and sing it loudly. There’s a bit which I can’t really describe by e mail that needs an “Oy” so we imported one. Raed’s keen as long as it means he gets to re-record the song. He’s the sound engineer, co-founder of the group along with Safa and completely obsessed with recording and playing music.

He’s also taken the dubious decision to idolise Peat and wants to be just like him. He comes to our apartment to bring grapes and kiwis for Peat, talks endlessly about him and has adopted him as a brother. He runs a music shop full of bootleg CDs – the only kind you get here – of film soundtracks, Arabic singers, western boy bands, Britney and Britney clones and eighties classics.

He showed us the drawing of their plans for the garden. They want to turn the waste ground part at the end into a play space, plus a library and dressing room. The existing dressing room is the uncovered concrete space adjacent to the toilet. As well they want to extend the stage and cover it because it’s too small for the dance on: your fingers hit the wall when you spin with your arms out. The games were cut short by rain and in the summer it’s too hot for the kids without shade, so they’re planning a cover for the garden as well.

It was meant to be a day off, because there hadn’t been one for about a hundred years, but there was a women’s delegation over with good fundraising contacts so we agreed to do the show in the hope it will get the group some financial support for their plans. Someone had sent 50 quid via Peat for them. Safa got upset. He thought it was Peat’s money he was giving them, said we don’t do this for money.. It took ages to explain, and when we managed it they were really touched, that someone would really send money for something and someone they’d never met, just because they thought it was a good project.

I had to teach Mustafa a new word – ‘poser’. He’s always checking himself out in the mirror, wetting his curls, making sure they’re in the right place, making sure he’s still tall and dark and handsome and elegant. He’s a professional singer and dancer, so we got him to show us some folk dances. The National Theatre repairs are finished and the date for the Big Show is set, February 25th at 11am.

There’s still no sign of Esam, no word from the Americans about where they’re holding him or why. Amanj’s brother has also disappeared. No one seems to know whether he was arrested, kidnapped or something else.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

It was the last thing I heard before I slept, unfolding the spare mattress for Ahmed, sleeping off the alcohol he drowned his sorrows in, and the first thing I heard in the morning, when Hamsa opened the door and sat on the end of my bed.

He is dead. He is dead. Four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad.

His name was Durayd. His four year old son is called Ibrahim and his wife is known as Umm Ibrahim.

She’s too young, Hamsa said. She can’t deal with it. They ask her does she want to see the body. She doesn’t know. How could she know? Hamsa says if she waits until the body is cleaned then she can’t hold him. If she holds his body it will have to be cleaned again before burial. But if she sees his body before it’s cleaned… Four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad.

Durayd was a presenter on Shebab FM, the Voice of Youth radio station, before the war. That’s how Ahmed got to know him. Hamsa knew him from the College of Languages first and then they worked together at CNN, as translator – producers. A lot of the young people with good English got jobs with the western media after the war, supporting their whole families, English being one of the few skills that could get you employment in occupied Baghdad. She said he looked after her, helped her get her packages finished.

Who killed him? Whose was the finger or whose were the fingers that fired the bullets? Who determined that CNN should be the White House, so hated that they were targeted? Who decreed that there should be this chaos and destruction? And when you thought enough about it, tied enough knots, it made perfect sense to target the Iraqis who worked with the Americans, rather than the Americans themselves, because they’re less protected and the supply of Americans who will come is probably limitless but the number of iraqis prepared to risk their lives for US wages may be fewer and if no one co-operated with them, no one collaborated with them, no one worked for them, the occupation would be far harder to maintain.

Husni said Hamsa didn’t eat for two days, didn’t sleep, just cried and cried and cried. We dropped her at Durayd’s home and went to Premiere Urgence to meet Fadhil and the others and go to the camp at Rajdiya. Fadhil was on a downer, crushed under the weight of his everyday sadness, even before he knew.

“How are you?”

He shrugged. “You know, we are tired. We don’t go out and meet people. We lock our door. Even we don’t see our friends. I am depressed.”

Then came the knowledge that Durayd was dead, his skull destroyed by four bullets on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad. And he always tried to help everyone, had time for everyone, loved his son like there was no tomorrow and then there wasn’t.

Today the funeral process began, delayed from the traditional and important next-morning burial by various requirements and rigmarole.

Today we went to Mahaweel, a small town in Babylon governorate. I didn’t notice how dirty the stage was till I started sweeping, between dancing about with my magical music box, and the audience disappeared spluttering in a cloud of red dust. The kids seemed to come to life as the show began, like Bagpuss waking up and bursting into colour. In the middle of the first act, the lights went out. No one noticed, nor when it came back, part way through Peat and Luis’s juggling extravaganza. The downside was that the Iraqi TV crew’s very bright light suddenly dazzled the jugglers.

At the end, as we were leaving, one of the men came to Peat and me. “I want to thank you for coming. This is the first time since the war that I have seen the children laugh this way, from their insides.”

The youth centre hosts about 750 kids a day, mostly boys, for sports and games and drama. It reopened in June and the youth workers say the children are visibly scarred by the war. Explosions still shake them and their play is more violent, their concentration disrupted. “They are fearful,” Ali said with a shrug. They are full of fear.

Coming home, along the road from Hilla back to Baghdad, burnt tanks mark the kilometres, some tucked in among the palm trees, some stark at the roadside, for some reason not thrown into the tank cemetery at Al-Dora, a huge expanse of wasteground where burnt out tanks and vehicles are piled.

Aala goes there to cut bits of metal off the tanks to sell to the Kurdish men who come to buy from the people who scavenge a precarious living there. It’s divided into territories within which a particular group or family has the salvage rights. His mum died when he was still in nappies. He can’t remember anything about her. His dad’s left them now to marry a new wife and the older brothers and sisters take care of them.

Now sixteen, he’s fairly independent but, tiny and powerless, he’s only paid 1000 Dinar – about 40 pence, for a day’s worth of metal. His older brothers get a better rate. He mustered a small smile. The oldest brother provides food for them, so sometimes he has enough money to go and play billiards. He stays there till his money runs out and then he comes back to the wasteground. There are five families living in the houses immediately bordering the cemetery on their side.

I asked him if anyone had warned him it was dangerous to cut metal from burnt out tanks. No, he said. It used to be that a lot of people died from explosions there, but those are not so many now. A memory caught him: there were some journalists who came with a machine and they said there was a reading on it, that it was dangerous to climb on the tanks and take the metal, there was something, what was it called? Radiation. But he didn’t know anything about that.

Esam’s been arrested. He’s an independent Iraqi film maker. His house was raided at 3am on suspicion that he had video CDs of footage of the resistance. Nothing was found but Esam was taken. The Iraqi translator is well known in Adamiya, Mohammed Saddam. He gave the Americans the “information” and arrived with them to make the raid. He told Noor that he’d make sure her husband was released in half an hour if he could hold her hand.

All day Noor and Uzma and some others have been going to the CPA, the bases, the police stations. At the military-run police academy near Al-Shaab stadium Paola and Jodie were allowed in to enquire while Noor was barred. Still they don’t know where he is. I don’t know whether it needs saying that Noor is distraught. People disappear for months into that system. Younis, who he was working with, was arrested six months ago and his family haven’t seen him, haven’t received any information about him.

And so the early nights are filled with listening to bereaved friends and so are the morning lie-ins and so the days or hours off are filled with traipsing around the city looking for arrested friends and so the computers are destroyed by viruses

And one more is dead, after four bullets destroyed his skull on the road from Hilla back to Baghdad, and one more has disappeared after someone sold him to the Americans for a few dollars, buried in the system, and another couple of hundred children laughed as if it was bubbling up from their bellies and Aala cut some more sheets of metal off tanks contaminated with depleted uranium.

January 30th
The Workhouse

“Workhouse for Orphans and Parentless Children” is scrawled in spray paint in English on the wall outside. Uzma was melodramatically bawling her eyes out when Afra tiptoed past her, pig-tails bouncing, picked up the broom and started doing Uzma’s sweeping, possibly the cutest and most charming act of solidarity I’ve ever seen. She’s seven and a resident of the Dar al Banaat [Girls’ House] orphanage a few minutes’ walk from our house.

There are 85 girls, babies up to 18, living there but today there were only about 20 of them because some go to their families or other relatives on Fridays. Eid starts in a couple of days, so these were the ones who have absolutely nowhere else to go or are completely unwelcome there, which made it all the more important to go and bring them some laughter.

Some have lost their mothers and their fathers can’t cope with bringing them up. Some have lost their dads and their mothers are too poor to keep them. Some are rejected by the new step parent when one remarries. Of all the agonising stories of the war, there are girls who were raped in the post invasion chaos, who were thrown out by their families as unmarriageable, a source of shame. We didn’t ask the girls their stories but there was one, a beautiful twelve year old, who wanted to marry Peat. She hated Iraqi men, she said.

A crowd gathered to hold the make up for Uzma and me in front of the mirror in the corridor. The girls’ rooms either side had posters of boy bands and Shakira and pretty knick knacks hanging on the walls. One of Uzma’s stilts has got a screw loose so she was on the ground blowing bubbles while Afra clowned for me, taking pictures from my stilts. I am Tawila [tall lady] in multi-coloured extra long trousers and a silver dress.

A new act was born yesterday when I stole Luis’s hat off his head during the “boomchucka”s. He jumps up, trying to reach it, picks up a child to try and reach my head, puts another one on his shoulders, staggers about, fails again, begs, pleads. I strut about, taunt him with the hat, pulling it away as he grabs for it, fanning myself with it, raising it on and off my head, out of the reach of the kid on his shoulders. Eventually he bursts into tears, howling and wailing so the kids and I start feeling sorry for him and I give it back. We’re mates then and dance together, off the stage or out of the semi-circle of kids.

The girls became part of the show, warning Uzma when the Boss clown was coming, nipping around the corner to check he was still out of the way, skipping over the rope. I think I’ve said before how hard it can be to get the girls to join in with stuff. Here the only boys were a couple of workers’ sons. The older girls were in jeans and close fitting tops or long straight skirts and heels. None of them was wearing a headscarf. I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t got families to tell them what to wear, because nobody expects them to marry so there’s no reputation to protect or because the managers prefer to let them make their own decisions but that’s how it was.

Parachute games with them were a joy. They worked as a tribe, they laughed a lot, they played parachute football with the passion of a world cup tie, held the fabric with all their might for each other to run around on. When, at the end, one of the juggling balls was missing, they came and told Peat none of the girls was an Ali Baba. They wouldn’t tell on the boy, the manager’s son, who had it, but while we were out of the way getting changed, they got it back from him and passed it back.

Back in normal clothes, Uzma and I were singing with them. We didn’t know any of the Backstreet Boys / N-Sync / Shakira songs that were their favourites and could only manage the chorus of “We Will Rock You”, which they requested over and over. Heba started dancing, Arabic dancing with the wild hips and swaying that I couldn’t get at all, till Heba took my hips and moved them in a figure of eight motion. Oh yeah, that was funky.

We were already buzzing when we got there from the kids at Happy Families’ base. We went for a rehearsal for the gig at the National Theatre and the kids from the street outside the other day were playing in the garden. The lads were taking turns to entertain them. We told Raed about the “boomchucka” part of our show because we wanted to include it. Even the thought of a thousand laughing kids yelling it back at us gives me goosebumps.

He was sceptical. “I don’t think the children will join in.”

“Oh, yeah. They always do.”

He wasn’t convinced. Come on then. We took him outside to the patio stage where a couple of dozen children were lined up. Peat started: “Hello.”

“Hello” came the echo.

A few times over, then all four of us shouted, “Wo-oh.”

“Wo-oh,” all the kids yelled back.

“Boomchucka.”

And all the kids repeated it, loud and gleeful. Raed was so excited he came with us to the orphanage in the afternoon to see if it would work again. It always does. He had a wicked afternoon. Yesterday in the IDP camp in Rajdiya, the children from the marsh villages and nearby towns were probably the loudest yet.

There are about 400 families there, from the Maisan and Amara areas, living in an old army base. It was a bit of a timewarp for Husni, having been based there for three years in the army. Crushed buildings and barbed wire, reed houses, donkeys, cows and chickens knocked about the place.

There are a few different stories: Eman moved up from the south when her husband was sent to Baghdad with the army. Layla came north when her husband, the sheikh, started being abused by local government officials. The mayor, a relative of Saddam, burnt 65 houses which were alleged to belong to people resisting Saddam. Mohammed went to Saddam to complain. Investigators, headed by another relative of Saddam’s, found it was true but the mayor gave out a few irrigation pumps to influential individuals and the matter was hushed up but local government officials started persecuting Mohammed.

Informers accused the Sheikh of supplying weapons to the resistance and he was arrested, jailed for two months, questioned, denied blankets, denied food except bread and beans, mistreated, his family not knowing where he was. A lot of the tribe were fighting Saddam, retreating into the marshes for cover. The marshes were drained so there was nowhere to hide. The fish and birds died.

All those reasons, plus a lack of work, electricity, facilities, drove people from the south to Baghdad but they weren’t allowed to settle here. Unless you were registered as a resident of Baghdad in 1957, or a descendant of someone who was, it wasn’t legally possible to buy land or property. Of the squatters, some were evicted from rented houses having stayed in Baghdad; others returned to the south and came back after the war. Here they have next to nothing. In Amara, they said, it was worse, but still there is no hospital or secondary school, electricity is a rare commodity and they don’t know how long they will be allowed to stay before the new government demands the land back.

Layla looked away when I asked about the women’s health. To the floor, she said, “For myself, I feel very tired. I do not feel that I am settled here because it is not our land. It is hard to find the energy to do things around the house when we might have to leave. Most of the women feel the same, depressed and without purpose. The children are sick, especially now that it is winter, with flu and diarrhoea. I just want a place to settle, to know that we can stay on this piece of land and make our home here.”

“We have seen nothing so far,” her husband adds. We had hope before the war that things would improve but nothing is better. We are jobless, unemployment is high, there is so much crime and more religious division than we have ever known. Divisions existed before the war but they were limited. Now they are encouraged by the Americans. We need elections. Wee need to choose a government that reflects Iraqis. The Governing Council reflects different denominations, which is unjust, because we are all Iraqis.”

He and all these people are Shia so this is emphatically not the bitterness of a member of a formerly powerful group. “The Governing Council is weak and the US wants it this way. It’s imposed. We want elections, for a real government that will stop the suffering , give us security, food, give our children a future after the sanctions they imposed on the people. Those never affected Saddam, only the people. We refuse the occupation. They cannot stay here.”

On the wall of Layla and Mohammed’s house are an elaborate drawing of a tree, each leaf bearing the name of a male member of the tribe, Al Bou Mohammed, the branches depicting the family tree, and a painting of a man called Faisal Ibn Khalifa firing a cannon. The grandfather of the sheikh, he was known as Abu Tuwab – Father of Cannons. He made them to fight the Ottomans. After he died his son used the same cannons to fight the British occupiers.

Ali Kamel, a grey haired retired school teacher, lived in a rented house in Hoseinia, a wave of his arm indicating an area nearby, again because he was not allowed to buy a home in Baghdad. Several of the squatters were evicted from houses in that area after the war when they couldn’t pay the rent. He’s now headmaster of the site school for about 250 – 300 of the residents, aged 6 – 11, with seven teachers, all squatters from Hoseinia. The kids wanted to take me to see their school but it was closed for the day because they were all at the show, organised by Fadhil’s group.

Ali Shalan is a doctoral student in Baghdad University mechanical engineering college. His studies are more or less on hold at the moment: “I have become lazy,” he said, clearly the wrong word for the man who is constantly refining his system of distributing emergency humanitarian aid in the camps. Formerly an assistant in the Internally Displaced Persons team at Premiere Urgence, he founded Malath Relief to help.

“We make the assessments by going to the houses and then request the goods from IOM, the International Organisation for Migration. Food comes from the ration, although we are working on providing more fresh food as well. Today we are giving blankets and plastic tarpaulins. I record in the book what is to be given to each family and then I write out tickets for each household.

“We used to have the head of each household come and collect the goods but yesterday we tried giving them to a representative from each part, so they take the goods, and we go with them to see that they go to each household, so it works more as a web instead of everyone having to come and queue for their things. It involves the people more and it’s less chaotic,” he explained, while juggling questions from half a dozen directions at once.

Then Emad and Odai came round to take us to be entertained by someone else at the theatre in Al-Wazeria. Two rows of immaculately dressed young men, arranged in a semi circle, played the oud, a stringed instrument not unlike a guitar except that the body is oval and there’s a ninety degree angle at the other end. The second half was a group of women in long extravagantly embroidered dresses, a couple in headscarves, several wearing cream headbands, playing oud, hand drums, something I’ve never seen that makes tuneful twanging sounds when struck and an incredible sounding stick-like thing playing with a bow. It was gorgeous.

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