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Sunday, March 28, 2004

March 26th
The Girls’ Day Out

“This was a Baath party building. The girls have never been in this hall before,” Maha said by way of explanation for the ones who burst into tears and went and hid. “Only three girls come to the youth centre and they only come for sewing lessons.” For the last couple of weeks she’s been visiting the girls’ schools and talking to their parents, negotiating and reassuring for them to be able to come to see the show. Still she was surprised at how many were allowed to come.

“Some of these girls, I have not seen them smile since the war and today they were laughing. It makes me think there is still hope.” Maha is the computer teacher for the centre, which has two computers. She’s well respected in the community for her honesty which is why she was able to persuade the parents to let their daughters come to the show and also why she’s able to convince the manager to let the girls use the centre. Less popular with the staff and community, he’s known as “Little Saddam”.

The girls, like they always are, were excited to see a woman in the show, like the women who work there, mostly as cleaners and cooks, clustered at the back of the room. Maha is hoping today will be a precursor to more of the girls coming regularly. There’s nothing else for them apart from school. There’s some kind of plague that claims them around 11 or 12 years old. They disappear.

A lot of them have very poor coordination and spatial awareness because the physical side of their development is neglected. They don’t get to run around and become aware of their bodies and the space around them and consequently they have trouble even with things like writing, arranging things in a room, stacking stuff against a wall, convinced that it won’t fit in the space available. The kids in the kindergartens are developmentally delayed too by the lack of activities and materials. They just sit in rows with their hats on while the teacher talks.

There’s a youth centre in every town in Thi Qar province, around Nasariya, run by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, every one exactly the same, from the basketball hoops in the yards to the layout of the rooms and backstage area. The only difference between the stages in each of the identical theatres is the precise location of the holes in the floor underneath the standard burgundy carpet.

In each of the first two, Al-Nasur and Al-Rifa’ie, about 130 kids, mostly boys, use the centre each day after school. The director of Al-Rifa’ie came and whispered nervously to Rifaat, whose eyebrows shot up in alarm. “There is an important religious man here,” he said and launched into a list of things we mustn’t do in case we offended him.

They wee worried the kids might jostle him and make him angry, worried that a woman on stage with uncovered hair might provoke him. He crept out a little before the end, still laughing, leaving a message thanking us for coming, for making the kids happy: the official approval of the Sistani camp.


Qala Al-Suka has one sewing machine, two computers, a sparse library and, alongside the basketball hoop, a lone football goal frame, denuded of its net. War Child has just had a grant awarded for the youth centres in Thi Qar, so they’ll be able to raise the standards in all eight centres.

Maha said she’d been thinking of leaving because of Little Saddam but now that new resources are coming she’ll stay. Otherwise stuff will disappear. Besides, the girls might not be allowed to come back if she left. It’s not just about giving the kids something better to imagine than guns and bombs, it’s also about bringing hope to the adults who live and work with them.

Women’s Centres are the latest thing with the CPA. Since the US decided it was losing too many people and was after all going to hand over power when it said it would, all the funding is for ‘democratisation’ and if a project couldn’t remodel itself to include that then its funding was cut. Likewise there’s money for projects in the marshes because they’re politically hot but much less for the other towns and villages in the province where there’s more malnutrition and poverty.

Democratisation means teaching people, women particularly, about voting and why its important. The local women don’t use the centres, don’t feel they’re representing them, see them as Western-imposed things with no relevance to their lives. Meanwhile women’s rights are getting worse. Women have been receiving specific threats for being seen without abayas and hijabs, even for wearing a hijab that’s not black. [The hijab is the head covering and the abaya is the loose cloak over the body.] Conservatism and restriction are tangible and increasing.

People start off by only telling you the good things, giving you the positive. Anyone who’s been here a while will tell you that it only lasts until they’re sure you’re going to stay. After that they tell you about the problems, both those which have carried over from the old days and the new set. Nasariya was badly bullied and badly neglected by the old government. Sattar, our driver, spent two years and four months in jail for being part of the 1991 uprising against Saddam before being released as part of a general amnesty.

Azzam left Iraq for the US years ago and continued opposing Saddam through a group called the Iraq Foundation, a human rights group. His uncle used to get arrested every couple of weeks. His jailers would phone Azzam so he could hear his uncle being tortured, begging him to stop his political activity. Azzam refused. “I did not want to let them intimidate me and if I gave in then next, well, probably about 99% of people did give in and keep quiet.

“Now my uncle won’t speak to me. I have lost that relationship. But I had to carry on. I did not want to have to do everything under a pseudonym like some people did. Maybe that’s why he won’t speak to me because I did not protect him.”

He hates war but couldn’t see any other way of getting rid of Saddam. He said dropping sanctions would not, alone, have been enough to empower people to get rid of Saddam by this time last year. Arming the Iraqi opposition groups would, in his view, have led to more deaths. He talked about lightly armed people facing the Iraqi army, whereas the army just disappeared as the invasion happened. I suggested that, given support, given a population in revolt, the majority of the army would have turned against Saddam. For him, none of it matters now Saddam is gone.

He’s working now with an international group on the re-flooding of the marshes. An Italian consultant and a French engineer are among the experts training Iraqi workers to break the dams which were responsible for the draining of eighty percent of the marshes between 1991-97.

Nasariya’s press consists of a friendly group of men who are also actors, directors, film makers, academics and writers. What began as a press conference around a long table ended with an exchange of ideas and e mail addresses. Mr Yassir is a drama director and a founder member of the Nasariya Group for Acting, set up 12 years ago to produce drama in the city.

He wants to make links with drama groups and theatre companies in the UK, is setting up a puppetry programme for the children over the summer and hopes to increase the output of the Acting Group. Mr Ahmed is a cinematist and the only one with e mail, so he will be the intermediary for all the communications. Mr Amir is a translator. He translated the Acting Group’s 10th anniversary booklet into English and will help with translation for any link set up with acting groups overseas.

Also a linguist, interested in the relationship between words and democracy, his most recent article is about the need for people to use precise expressions, saying what they mean rather than using vague and emotive language as was favoured by the old regime.

Mr Haider is head of PR for Nasariya University which has just had a computer centre opened by the Korean ambassador, one of six new centres in the city courtesy of the Korean government. The centre makes it possible to establish links with universities in other countries for the existing colleges of education, science and arts and the two new colleges, of medicine and engineering, which will open in the next academic year.

Yassir said his seven year old son Ammar saw our show at his school. “He talked about you the whole day and he does not only talk. He tries to imitate the clowns. Always when you give the children things to draw with, their pictures have tanks and aeroplanes and guns in, but now he is drawing pictures of clowns.”

Our last show in Nasariya was at the old aluminium factory compound where War Child’s overseas workers and dozens of families live. Just before the show, an old man outside started haranguing Luis and the kids, trying to send the children home, telling Luis to go away: “You’ve got nothing to do here. You’re Jewish. You’re all Jewish. Go home.” It seems that’s the first assumption about every NGO and every foreigner.

The kids, though, loved the show and the parachute games that followed, despite being a bit squashed between the house and the empty swimming pool, the garden being off limits because of the aforementioned landmines, the road outside because of the grumpy old man and the football pitch because it was too dusty for shaking a parachute on.

There are thirty nine political parties in Nasariya now and a significant split between the followers of Sistani and Moqtada Al-Sadr, the former apparently commanding the more support; the latter, son of the revered cleric killed by Saddam, commanding a militia brigade. Sistani though is said to be an old man. “We will only have him for a short while,” Rifaat said. “It all depends who takes over from him.” Some of the possibilities are more moderate than others.

Already in Nasariya it’s sweltering by 9am, unbearable in the middle of the day, and it’s only the end of March. But I think I’m coming back. There’s something about the place and there’s something about Maha and all her girls. I think I’m coming back.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

A sign on the wall opposite says “Idle Association Thi Qar”. Thi Qar is the southern governorate which includes the city of Nasariya and the road in front of the Idle Association is closed off every morning by a couple of vehicles of Italian troops, dark blue carabinieri in tight trousers and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes out of the roof hatches, a few more on foot and some Iraqi police, while hundreds of men gather outside looking for work.

Next door on the other side of the hotel is the police station. Within a minute of the front door we were accosted by an Iraqi police officer and told to come and speak to his superior who told us we couldn’t walk down that road. Why not? Because it’s dangerous. OK, no problem, we’ll go the other way. No, the officer said. Go back to your hotel and stay there. Don’t walk anywhere.

Less than an hour in Nasariya and I was already being sent to my room. Disobediently we carried on past the hotel door and into town. The hotel manager said it was safe to walk anywhere in Nasariya. As ever, people were curious, friendly, protective, asking were we Italian, what were we doing here and did we want chai. In the streets of Baghdad you don’t see a lot of foreigners but here we’re properly rare.

Another time police came over to the bench we were sitting on outside a tea shop and asked what we were doing. I held up my glass of tea and stated the obvious. They demanded our passports. “It’s in the hotel,” I lied, because otherwise they’d wander off with it, pass it around, find things to ask pointless questions about. “Is there a problem?” No, the first one conceded, eventually, there was no problem, except that by now his colleague was eyeballing the men on the bench and had to be coaxed away.

In Baghdad people told us not to go to Nasariya. It’s dangerous, dirty, full of Ali Babas and all the rest, but everyone in Erbil told us not to go back to Baghdad, for precisely the same reasons. Nobody’s fighting the soldiers down here, Rifaat says. It’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about them – in fact I haven’t managed it yet - but people just want to get on with things, to live in peace now Saddam’s gone

Over tea and narghila, Yusef said things are better now Saddam’s gone but he doesn’t trust Blair and Bush either and doesn’t like the Italian troops. He thinks they’re arrogant, rude and treat people harshly. Worried about offending me, he added that he was sure the British soldiers in Basra were better.

In the playground between here and the shops there’s a hand-turned big wheel with all its pods hanging off at awkward angles, a peeling eagle standing guard in the entrance. The streets are filled with heaps of rubbish, festering in the heat, emitting clouds of black flies when a child or a flock of sheep tramples through. A small boy stood in one, picking at the bits and pieces, raising a piece of pipe to his open mouth as he gawped at our passing. Like everywhere, there are children traipsing between the cars selling things.

Mustafa claimed us and is very particular about who he will admit to our company. We’re his friends, he says, but still there’s a point in the road when we’re nearly home where he starts asking us for money. He waves at the troops as their vehicles pass but then tells me all the things he doesn’t like about them. He just waves because then sometimes they give him sweets. Even the young boys here, from about nine or ten years old, start out by shouting sexual insults and suggestions before they find out I can speak a bit of Arabic and then they come and chat.

The big roundabout in town is surrounded with tea and narghila shops where the men sit smoking and playing dominoes. You don’t see the women unless they’re hurrying from shop to shop, fully covered. They stare as if they’ve never seen a woman smoking a narghila before and in all probability they haven’t, at least in public. Rifaat says about a million people live in Nasariya, but he calls it a small town where everyone knows each other.

Certainly everyone knows Faisal, a man with Down’s Syndrome. Delighted to meet strangers, he stopped to say hello while the young man with him tugged at his hand, a bit embarrassed. Another time we were smoking a narghila on the roundabout and he stopped, in kaffiyeh and dishdasha, no one to chivvy him along this time, and sang us a song. People tease him a bit but I haven’t seen anyone being cruel to him as so often happens to people in Baghdad.

Everyone knows us too now. The first couple of shows were in the schools in the centre of town and we were also on that evening’s local television. Plenty of the kids are not in school, like Duha and Wafaa, two wild haired little girls in sparkly frocks who accompanied us to the internet, but they’ve heard the stories from the other children.

The first school was all girls, really excited girls. Most of the teachers were women and also really excited. I was bombarded with questions, trapped in the toilet while they all asked at once about the circus, England, me, everything. It’s getting too hot to have kids sitting in the playground watching the show. It’s getting too hot to be out in the playground doing the show. A couple of the bigger girls crept away from the audience and peeped around the door where I was getting ready for my next bit and sneaked me away to their classroom upstairs, from where you could sit in the shade and see over the crowd.

The second school was all boys. It was looted after the war and though things are better there’s still a bit of a void where the chairs and tables and books ought to be. We had to cut the show short because the parents were outside waiting to collect the kids. They come even if it’s only a short walk home because of security worries and equally the women were scared to be standing waiting.

The third school was very poor, a few kilometres out of town, the playground guarded by armed police for the duration of the show, no pictures on the wall except Sistani, the religious leader who advocates separation of church and state whom most of the people here seem to follow. It’s a strange gap. Some people will tell you there are no problems even as they stand among a load of armed guards who they will also tell you are necessary for protection.

Rifaat is one of these. He’s a water engineer who teaches English to subsist. His wife, Rafaa, teaches at the fourth school we worked in, where his eight year old daughter Zaineb is a pupil. While I was off stage, Alia, the PE teacher, came in to talk to me. There were bits I couldn’t understand so later I asked Rifaat to translate for me the problems she was talking about.

“No, no,” he said smiling. “There are no problems in this school.”

Alia contradicted him with a litany of difficulties much the same as every school faces. There are not enough books, they are the old text books, there are no teaching materials, no art materials, no pictures on the bare walls, there is not enough furniture, there is no running water at school so the children bring water in bottles from home and the teachers bring flasks because the children can’t carry as much as they need for a hot day.

She does the security patrols around the school. “In front here, always I get bad words shouted at me, even here.” A lot of teachers have been attacked, threatened and killed throughout the country. “Because they are free now they can do anything. If the school says we do not have room for your child, or if the child fails the exams and has to stay another year in the class, sometimes the family come with the gun and make the teacher change it.”

Rifaat said it’s safe to walk on the streets. Alia said no, women don’t go out on the streets unless we have to. Rafaa agreed with her colleague. Rifaat said there were no health problems. Alia told me she got typhoid from unclean water. A lot of the children are depressed, she said, and the women are very very tired. Again Rafaa agreed. Passing two bits of grafitti addressed to Paul Bremer, he told us that “We will rise up” was not the prevailing feeling in the city. He wants to focus on the positive, to show other people the positive. Saddam is gone and that, for him, is enough to outweigh any other problems.

Alia explained that she doesn’t expect or want the rights of women in other countries, just security, just a government. “We are religious,” she said. It’s difficult to discuss things like that through a male interpreter so we didn’t go into that fully. Rafaa, though, when there are no men around, likes to take off her hijab and abaya and do cartwheels.

The only international NGOs working in Nasariya are War Child and the International Medical Corps. There are a couple of others in Amara and a few in Basra. War Child organised the shows for us and also runs a bakery which employs several people and bakes bread each day for thousands of people through a couple of hospitals, some orphanages and other avenues for reaching poor people. They’re soon going to open a street kids’ drop in centre, as well as a whole pile of other projects.

Nasariya is much more conservative than Baghdad, Alex says, tangibly so. Before coming here she worked in Haiti, where the infrastructure was less developed. Among other things, they brought physiotherapists over to do short courses of training for those working with disabled people. She said all the alcohol shops in Nasariya were targeted and closed down so now the wine supply depends on the schedule of meetings in Baghdad.

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.

Friday, March 26, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

A sign on the wall opposite says “Idle Association Thi Qar”. Thi Qar is the southern governorate which includes the city of Nasariya and the road in front of the Idle Association is closed off every morning by a couple of vehicles of Italian troops, dark blue carabinieri in tight trousers and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes out of the roof hatches, a few more on foot and some Iraqi police, while hundreds of men gather outside looking for work.

Next door on the other side of the hotel is the police station. Within a minute of the front door we were accosted by an Iraqi police officer and told to come and speak to his superior who told us we couldn’t walk down that road. Why not? Because it’s dangerous. OK, no problem, we’ll go the other way. No, the officer said. Go back to your hotel and stay there. Don’t walk anywhere.

Less than an hour in Nasariya and I was already being sent to my room. Disobediently we carried on past the hotel door and into town. The hotel manager said it was safe to walk anywhere in Nasariya. As ever, people were curious, friendly, protective, asking were we Italian, what were we doing here and did we want chai. In the streets of Baghdad you don’t see a lot of foreigners but here we’re properly rare.

Another time police came over to the bench we were sitting on outside a tea shop and asked what we were doing. I held up my glass of tea and stated the obvious. They demanded our passports. “It’s in the hotel,” I lied, because otherwise they’d wander off with it, pass it around, find things to ask pointless questions about. “Is there a problem?” No, the first one conceded, eventually, there was no problem, except that by now his colleague was eyeballing the men on the bench and had to be coaxed away.

In Baghdad people told us not to go to Nasariya. It’s dangerous, dirty, full of Ali Babas and all the rest, but everyone in Erbil told us not to go back to Baghdad, for precisely the same reasons. Nobody’s fighting the soldiers down here, Rifaat says. It’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about them – in fact I haven’t managed it yet - but people just want to get on with things, to live in peace now Saddam’s gone

Over tea and narghila, Yusef said things are better now Saddam’s gone but he doesn’t trust Blair and Bush either and doesn’t like the Italian troops. He thinks they’re arrogant, rude and treat people harshly. Worried about offending me, he added that he was sure the British soldiers in Basra were better.

In the playground between here and the shops there’s a hand-turned big wheel with all its pods hanging off at awkward angles, a peeling eagle standing guard in the entrance. The streets are filled with heaps of rubbish, festering in the heat, emitting clouds of black flies when a child or a flock of sheep tramples through. A small boy stood in one, picking at the bits and pieces, raising a piece of pipe to his open mouth as he gawped at our passing. Like everywhere, there are children traipsing between the cars selling things.

Mustafa claimed us and is very particular about who he will admit to our company. We’re his friends, he says, but still there’s a point in the road when we’re nearly home where he starts asking us for money. He waves at the troops as their vehicles pass but then tells me all the things he doesn’t like about them. He just waves because then sometimes they give him sweets. Even the young boys here, from about nine or ten years old, start out by shouting sexual insults and suggestions before they find out I can speak a bit of Arabic and then they come and chat.

The big roundabout in town is surrounded with tea and narghila shops where the men sit smoking and playing dominoes. You don’t see the women unless they’re hurrying from shop to shop, fully covered. They stare as if they’ve never seen a woman smoking a narghila before and in all probability they haven’t, at least in public. Rifaat says about a million people live in Nasariya, but he calls it a small town where everyone knows each other.

Certainly everyone knows Faisal, a man with Down’s Syndrome. Delighted to meet strangers, he stopped to say hello while the young man with him tugged at his hand, a bit embarrassed. Another time we were smoking a narghila on the roundabout and he stopped, in kaffiyeh and dishdasha, no one to chivvy him along this time, and sang us a song. People tease him a bit but I haven’t seen anyone being cruel to him as so often happens to people in Baghdad.

Everyone knows us too now. The first couple of shows were in the schools in the centre of town and we were also on that evening’s local television. Plenty of the kids are not in school, like Duha and Wafaa, two wild haired little girls in sparkly frocks who accompanied us to the internet, but they’ve heard the stories from the other children.

The first school was all girls, really excited girls. Most of the teachers were women and also really excited. I was bombarded with questions, trapped in the toilet while they all asked at once about the circus, England, me, everything. It’s getting too hot to have kids sitting in the playground watching the show. It’s getting too hot to be out in the playground doing the show. A couple of the bigger girls crept away from the audience and peeped around the door where I was getting ready for my next bit and sneaked me away to their classroom upstairs, from where you could sit in the shade and see over the crowd.

The second school was all boys. It was looted after the war and though things are better there’s still a bit of a void where the chairs and tables and books ought to be. We had to cut the show short because the parents were outside waiting to collect the kids. They come even if it’s only a short walk home because of security worries and equally the women were scared to be standing waiting.

The third school was very poor, a few kilometres out of town, the playground guarded by armed police for the duration of the show, no pictures on the wall except Sistani, the religious leader who advocates separation of church and state whom most of the people here seem to follow. It’s a strange gap. Some people will tell you there are no problems even as they stand among a load of armed guards who they will also tell you are necessary for protection.

Rifaat is one of these. He’s a water engineer who teaches English to subsist. His wife, Rafaa, teaches at the fourth school we worked in, where his eight year old daughter Zaineb is a pupil. While I was off stage, Alia, the PE teacher, came in to talk to me. There were bits I couldn’t understand so later I asked Rifaat to translate for me the problems she was talking about.

“No, no,” he said smiling. “There are no problems in this school.”

Alia contradicted him with a litany of difficulties much the same as every school faces. There are not enough books, they are the old text books, there are no teaching materials, no art materials, no pictures on the bare walls, there is not enough furniture, there is no running water at school so the children bring water in bottles from home and the teachers bring flasks because the children can’t carry as much as they need for a hot day.

She does the security patrols around the school. “In front here, always I get bad words shouted at me, even here.” A lot of teachers have been attacked, threatened and killed throughout the country. “Because they are free now they can do anything. If the school says we do not have room for your child, or if the child fails the exams and has to stay another year in the class, sometimes the family come with the gun and make the teacher change it.”

Rifaat said it’s safe to walk on the streets. Alia said no, women don’t go out on the streets unless we have to. Rafaa agreed with her colleague. Rifaat said there were no health problems. Alia told me she got typhoid from unclean water. A lot of the children are depressed, she said, and the women are very very tired. Again Rafaa agreed. Passing two bits of grafitti addressed to Paul Bremer, he told us that “We will rise up” was not the prevailing feeling in the city. He wants to focus on the positive, to show other people the positive. Saddam is gone and that, for him, is enough to outweigh any other problems.

Alia explained that she doesn’t expect or want the rights of women in other countries, just security, just a government. “We are religious,” she said. It’s difficult to discuss things like that through a male interpreter so we didn’t go into that fully. Rafaa, though, when there are no men around, likes to take off her hijab and abaya and do cartwheels.

The only international NGOs working in Nasariya are War Child and the International Medical Corps. There are a couple of others in Amara and a few in Basra. War Child organised the shows for us and also runs a bakery which employs several people and bakes bread each day for thousands of people through a couple of hospitals, some orphanages and other avenues for reaching poor people. They’re soon going to open a street kids’ drop in centre, as well as a whole pile of other projects.

Nasariya is much more conservative than Baghdad, Alex says, tangibly so. Before coming here she worked in Haiti, where the infrastructure was less developed. Among other things, they brought physiotherapists over to do short courses of training for those working with disabled people. She said all the alcohol shops in Nasariya were targeted and closed down so now the wine supply depends on the schedule of meetings in Baghdad.

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Twinning Opportunities

The circus has made contacts with lots of groups of kids in schools, youth centres and orphanages of various kinds. We want to set up twinning links with groups of kids in the UK, so the kids can get to know each other, talk about their lives and their countries and their ideas.

Possible activities include exchanging letters, via a translator, which I can organise, exchanging drawings and photos, maybe doing fundraising at the UK school to buy art materials for the kids in the Iraqi school as a lot of them are too poor to have any – even pencils. I think making peace depends on people getting to know each other and future peace depends on the children getting to know each other.

There’s also a need for teachers here to be in touch with teachers outside, to know about the teaching methods in other countries, to find out more about independent trade union organisation and to build friendship and solidarity.

There are a number of schools in and around Baghdad which are interested in twinning, lots of them very poor. I think it will also be possible to make links with the schools in Nasariya, in the south, perhaps also further south, and with those in and around Erbil, in Kurdistan.

As well as the schools there are the youth centres like Bayaa and those run by Childhood Voice, which might suit after school clubs or youth groups. For example, one link is progressing with one of the Childhood Voice Centre and a children’s arts project in the UK.

I’m not sure what groups in the UK might be interested, but I was thinking a link would be positive for the Mother Teresa orphanage for disabled kids in Baghdad – see March 19th, Sanctuary. It’s all open to ideas – I can put groups in touch and coordinate contact but the way it develops is completely up to the groups involved. I don’t envisage mayors shaking hands once a year and a signpost on the edge of town.

Regarding practicalities, there’s no postal system here at the moment, though it is possible to send things by DHL. There isn’t internet access in most of these places but in some cases someone who works there has e mail access; otherwise stuff can be e mailed through an intermediary – me while I’m still here, a whole network of people once I leave and through the circus people again when it comes back in the autumn. Materials can be also be brought to and fro by people travelling in and out of Iraq and by the NGOs in the area.

March 21st
Bayaa

The kids painted a mural on the wall outside what used to be a Baath party building, a harp, the tower in Samara, a lion and now it’s a youth centre. There are three different age groups who use the centre on different days: six to ten, eleven to thirteen and fourteen to eighteen. The Children’s Council consists of four boys and three girls elected by the other kids from all the age groups.

Marwan adopted me on arrival. A 13 year old member of the Children’s Council, he’s enormously proud of the place. Khatar gave him the bunch of keys: “He’s the only one who knows which one is which,” he shrugged.

Shiny, beautiful multicoloured fabric covers protect the six computers from dust. They’re networked, with a printer, but there’s no internet because viruses would plague them. The covers were made next door in the sewing room where a dozen black sewing machines sit on work benches along the walls. The work benches were made in the carpentry room another door along, as were the display shelves for the pottery room. The kids all pointed out a horse’s head, painted gold with wild green eyes and flared nostrils.

“Saddam made this,” they said, showing us the picture of the boy modelling the head on the centre’s leaflet.

“And this is me,” said Omar, a thirteen year old boy with strikingly blue eyes, indicating the photo of a couple of kids learning some martial art and then they all took turns to identify themselves in the football team photo.

The last room off the yard which serves as volleyball court, football pitch, play space and anything else is the music room. Marwan and Omar picked up hand drums and fell into rhythm together, the other kids diving in to join them. Opposite the youth centre is the theatre where we did the show, where the kids do drama. It was a holiday for the Kurdish festival of Nawroz, the Tree Day, the Goddess Day, the beginning of the year and the spring, so no one was in school.

If anyone ever doubted the value of creativity for kids, the smiling faces and shining eyes at Bayaa ought to make it clear. I wish there were enough of these for every child in Iraq.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

March 20th
Peace Prayers

Part of the experience of Baghdad immediately before the war and often since has been the unexpected meetings with people from all over the world: the students from Congo and Chad, a young Serbian woman with stories of war and peace, the Vietnam vets, the refuseniks, the African American reverend, the Buddhist monks, the Japanese with their drums and the South Americans with theirs and yesterday the Siberian Shaman, the Native American chief, the Mexican Keeper of the Mayan Prophecy, the Kenyan mother and traditional teacher, the Israeli Jew, the Sufi men with their loud and soft rhythms and plaintive song for peace, the Shia and Sunni Muslim clerics and the Chaldean Christian preachers all in one room, all on one stage, all repeating together the words, “Assalamu aleikum,” [may peace be upon you] and “May peace prevail on earth.”

I think the bravest man in Baghdad on the anniversary of the start of bombing was Eliyahu McLean, a Jewish man from the Holy Land: “I refuse to use the politicians’ names for the land, to divide it into Israel and Palestine.” He talked on the stage about the need for spiritual solutions, that it won’t be politicians with their agreements who make the peace in the region but people reaching some kind of spiritual accommodation with one another.

He knows, of course, that the politicians have to be dragged along, that they have to withdraw their armies, knock down their walls, respect human rights and so on, but knows too that it’s the people who have to lead. He’s just come from the UK talking to various groups about what needs to be done.

I carefully mentioned that there’s a lot of prejudice against Jews here, as in, “We welcome anyone to our country. You’re not a Jew are you? Because you can leave now if you’re a Jew,” and as in, “Ya Yahud [Hey Jew] Mohammed’s Army is coming back” on banners in the street and Raed getting threats at his shop because someone who saw Luis arriving thought he might be Jewish. That’s before we made Luis shave his beard off.

Eliyahu started laughing. “Prejudice. That’s an interesting thing to call it. I’d say it’s more like intense hatred. Yeah, I have to admit I do feel a bit nervous here.”

But that’s what it’s going to take, in the end: brave people to walk into the places where they know they’re hated and say let’s talk this through, let’s not be divided and ruled by fear anymore. Let’s talk this through and work out a solution and not wait for a politician to sign his name on the bottom of another politician’s “peace plan”.

Jose is a Mexican man who has spent the last 50 years translating the Mayan Prophecies after their rediscovery. He talked both on stage and off about the cycles of time, about the ending of the current cycle in 2012. That’s not the end of the world, but a time of enormous change. Looked at in this context, Jose says, the increasingly intense rate and nature of events in the last few years is understandable and explicable.

The Mayan calendar, like a lot of others, has thirteen months corresponding to the average cycle of the moon: thirteen months of 28 days and a ‘Day Out of Time” on July 25th. Zabibu, the Kenyan woman who is the keeper and teacher of her people’s spiritual traditions agreed that living by a 13 month calendar fundamentally changes your way of thinking, releases you from lots of constrictions in your creativity and allows you to live much more in touch with natural cycles of time.

The use of a calendar which artificially splits the year into twelve sections of unequal lengths with random names is fundamental to the distancing of people from nature, the Mayans’ successors say, which destroyed our harmony with the world around us and allows us to pollute and abuse it.

I don’t know. I don’t know whether thinking in terms of a thirteen month calendar would change anything, anything within for the individual or anything global if it was widespread: I’m not sure whether a global consciousness shift is the end of the revolution or the beginning, but from Jose flows the kind of calm that seems to take what’s happening to the world in the certainty that positive change is coming, that we’re about to evolve, ready or not.

“What an extraordinary time to be alive on Earth,” he said. After four and a half months in Baghdad it feels good to sit next to someone like that.

It’s a short visit – they arrived the day before the anniversary and are leaving the day after so I didn’t manage to talk to any of them as much as I wanted, to Chief Looking Horse, like a man from a storybook in his full feathered headdress in Baghdad, and his daughter Grace, to Zabibu, to Jose and to Stephanie who works with him, about their lives and stories as well as their spiritual beliefs and practices and to Anis, the Siberian woman who travels the world as a translator for the Shamen from the Russian Academy of Esoteric Happiness.

I can neither pronounce nor spell the name of the Shaman she was travelling with so I’m just going to call him Alan. Born in Siberia in 1970 he first healed someone when he was about five years old but didn’t realise for several years that it was a talent, not something everyone went about doing. “In the town I came from you didn’t boast about what you could do. It was dangerous to boast.”

On stage he was in full costume, a thick fur coat covered in bells coming down close to his knees, fur boots also covered in trimmings and a tall fur hat with fringes and decorations so that when he moves he jangles and rattles and when he dances and drums he seems like a ball of furious energy in the middle of a whirl of flying stuff.

Healing is a big part of his life and work now as well as teaching. All Shamen do different things, he says. Some run businesses, some marry and have children, some live in monasteries. “You could not have two Shamen working together on something. They would have different ways of doing it, they would disagree and fight each other. But we have understanding. I have never met Chief Looking Horse before but he is a Shaman from the Americas, Jose too, and we understand each other without words.”

Someone once asked him how he knows which herbs to collect. He described leaving the city for Lake Baikal, an immense fresh water lake where the air is clear and cold and fresh and he can be alone, fast and clear his mind for two weeks and then he knows which herbs to pick. He can smell, he can feel.

There’s no elected or hereditary head of Shamen but when you meet someone who is stronger than you, you know and you respect them. He loves telling stories to illustrate the point and his blue eyes smiled as he started. “Once another Shaman met a man at sea who used to be in a circus. He could juggle 5 clubs but there was a man there who could juggle 7 clubs and to him this man was a god. Every day he practised for 16 hours a day but he could never do 7 clubs. There was no elected or hereditary head of jugglers but you just know when you meet someone stronger.”

And no, he doesn’t drink reindeer piss.


To find out more about Jose’s work: www.foundationforthelawoftime.org and www.tortuga.org

To find out more about the Siberian Shamen: www.bogomudr.org

To find out more about Eliyahu’s work I’m afraid you’ll have to do a Google on Eliyahu McLean as I’m rubbish and I’ve lost his card.

March 19th
Sanctuary

After the carnage of the bomb, after the much smaller bomb in the electricity box in the next street, our feet drew us to the Mother Teresa orphanage, maybe more for our sanctuary than for their entertainment, to a small group of children who are mostly, I am sure, unaware of the blood and screaming that daily happens outside their walls.

Sanctuary it hardly seems when you walk into a barrage of screams from three rows of cots, but they’re screams of glee. Only one of the children can walk, though Yasser can climb out of his cot and crawl after you. They called out our names, asked where was Donna, where was this or that person.

But I knelt down by Nana’s cot and waited. First her eyes widened and then she moved her body to the side of the cot where I was. Her hand began the journey, reaching for my face. Her small strong fingers arrived at my forehead and stroked, an odyssey from centre to temple, brushing my hair across to the other side and it was then that the smile started, spreading until it was as wide as her face, as wide as outstretched arms, wide enough to blot out the sight of the cracked walls, flooded craters and mangled metal as her hand made its way back to my forehead to stroke again.

Yasser came to be picked up, no longer able to walk on the braces on his legs but still at a crawling advantage over the others in attention scoring. When I put him down to hold Melaak’s bottle for her, the newest and tiniest of the kids, he sat beside me on the floor, undoing the Velcro on my sandals, shaking his head as I closed it again. After I left it undone a while he closed it himself, tutting as I undid it again and the roles reversed. He and Omar hoover up phrases of other languages, talking to me in English, throwing in bits of French and German.

The door flew open and a young Iraqi woman shouted, “Marhaba, atfal!” The kids bellowed and shrieked a welcome and she bounced from child to child, lifting Hussein out of his cot and over her head while he giggled, the same for Noor, an eighteen month old girl born without arms and legs, who uses the stump of her left shoulder, the closest she has to a limb, to point at the person or place she wants to go to.

We tickled, blew bubbles, made balloon dogs, elephants and giraffes while Maisan took one child after another to be cleaned and changed. A small girl called Zaineb sat quietly in her cot until it was her turn. Unable to look straight at me she played with the hand I offered, weaving fingers and weighing the touch.

Undoubtedly the children there are loved. They’re clean, healthy, happy. Omar and Yasser have some tuition. There are toys in their cots, a blue doll for the boys, a pink one for the girls and Winnie the Pooh hanging onto his balloon and Humpty Dumpty. But the fact remains that Omar, at twelve, spends most of his time in a child’s wooden cot because he can’t walk. The fact remains that Yasser has to crawl on the floor because he hasn’t got the right leg braces and crutches to prop him up.

The place and the people who work there do an extraordinary job in the circumstances but there are no wheelchairs, no physiotherapists, no specialists in helping children with perhaps only mild cerebral palsy to fulfil their potential. There are no materials, no spaces for them to come out of their cots and wriggle and roll on the ground, no art activities.

In a few years, perhaps four, Omar’s going to be too old for the orphanage. The only two places for him to go are the street or the mental hospital. On the street he will be unprotected and destitute in a country where it’s thought best to throw stones at anyone who seems ‘subnormal’. In the hospital he will be a child with enormous capacity to learn, to love, to grow, locked up, stopped up, halted in the company of old men who have been there a lifetime, no teachers, no future.

Anyone thought of setting up Physiotherapists Without Borders? Iraq needs you.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

March 18th
The Bomb

I set off for the internet. I’m wearing the poker face I’ve learnt from the Iraqi women to deflect harassment, staring straight ahead, slightly fiercely, not responding to any shouts or remarks, even greetings, because as soon as one man sees you say hello to another, you’re fair game.

The air seems impossibly full for a second and then bursts with a roar, sending a tremor through the ground that shoots up the leg my weight is on, unbalancing me slightly, but the poker face doesn’t flinch. Young men start running past me towards the direction of the explosion. That’s when the shock hits me: I’ve learnt to ignore things blowing up behind me.

A burst of gunfire sends a crowd of children and young men running back the other way. “Wayn? Wayn?” people are asking. Where? “Kahromana,” someone says, referring to the sculpture of Ali Baba’s wife pouring hot oil into the barrels where the forty thieves were hiding, which stands at the junction between Karrada Dahkil, Karrada Kharitj and Saadoon.

The shopkeepers scoop up the boxes of electrical goods, fruit and toys from the array on the pavement and haul down the metal shutters in front of the windows, if they’ve still got any. The less fortunate sweep and shovel the splintered glass. Towards Kahromana most of the windows even on Karrada Dakhil are destroyed; on Karrada Kharitj there’s barely one intact.

“Wayn infijar?” someone asks me. Where’s the explosion?

I don’t know but you can see smoke from the road towards Simona and Paola’s house. A raw clatter of gunfire, very close and very loud, drives another crowd of young men running. They’re saying it was a car bomb, saying it’s a hotel.

I carry on towards the internet, the old men ask me the same question. “Wayn infijar?”

I tell them the shebab say it was a hotel.

“Al-Sadeer?”

I don’t know, but they say it was a car bomb.

No, they insist straight away. It wasn’t a car bomb. It was a missile. One of them points to the sky and traces the arc of the thing just to make sure I understand.

It’s weirdly dislocating to find the next street live on TV, Al-Jazeera bring on the scene almost instantaneously because the hotel where they live and work is behind the one blown up. The men in the internet say it was the Funduq Burj Lubnaan - the Lebanon Tower Hotel, an apartment hotel used mainly by families from other Arab countries. No one can think of a reason why it was targeted. People speculate that the bomb was being taken somewhere else and blew up there by mistake.

Sam comes back in shock. He’s never seen the flames, the panic, the craters, the impossibly copious smoke. The mobile phone network is jammed so I can’t ring anyone to see if they’re OK, say we’re all OK. In the morning we walk over because Sam needs to see it in daylight, to know that the flames are out.

There’s no front on the hotel, the street a mire of bricks, puddles, foul stinking mud and craters filled with water. Smoke still limps out of windows and doors inside houses, their front rooms exposed to the world like dolls’ houses, men with shirts wrapped around their faces sweeping out the debris from a first floor room, the side wall split like a rotten trunk.

When they discover I speak a bit of Arabic, everyone wants to talk. I can’t find anyone who accepts that it was a car bomb. The US soldiers say it was a thousand pounds of plastic explosive wrapped in some kind of artillery. It’s impossible to see what’s in the crater, whether there’s any part of the skeleton of a car, because it’s full of water from the fire hoses.

Unanimously people insist it was a missile. It came from the air. I ask everyone, did you see it yourself? No, no, they all say, but as we’re leaving there’s one who says he saw it. He points to his right, my left, opposite the demolished hotel, but behind the row of buildings which faced it. He says he was standing close to where he is now and he saw it. He thinks it was the Americans, as do all the men around him, all the people who came to talk.

Of course, it could be denial, scapegoating, wanting to blame someone and something else, something foreign for all the problems, to avoid having to address them from within. It could be. Like the Ashura bombing, like dozens of smaller explosions, a lot of people think it’s a tactic by the US troops to foment troubles between Shia and Sunni as a justification for prolonging the occupation.

Either way it’s going to be hard to find anything out because a US military bulldozer rolls past us scooping up whatever forensic evidence there might have been. A CNN reporter swoops on a small child carrying a plastic doll, bereft of several limbs, and arranges them for the camera. Where is the truth?

A year after the war, where is the truth? Bulldozed and arranged for the camera, dead and buried under the rubble.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

March 16th
Schools

Headmaster Mohammed looked out at the horde of kids outside the school gate and mused that quite a lot of them might come back now they’d seen the circus. They wouldn’t want to miss it if it came back again, he said. Loads of kids dropped out because of poverty in the family, the dangers and difficulties of getting to school or the poor conditions of the school itself. Kids from other schools have been kidnapped for money or attackers have come into the school. There’s nothing to keep anyone out, Mohammed said, looking at the feeble gates.

Part of Mohammed’s problem is the lack of text books. They’re still working with the old ones, with Saddam’s picture in them and they haven’t got nearly enough for all the kids, so the teachers can only lecture. Unicef was close to giving contracts for the printing of new books to local Iraqi printers, who had started buying the inks and materials, before Unicef pulled out leaving nothing but ill-feeling between the different companies.

They’ve got no other teaching materials at all. There are a thousand boys in the morning shift and a thousand girls in the evening shift so there’s no time or space for any sort of training for the 30 teachers. Each child is allocated twelve pencils per year, an average of one and a half per month of school. “But the children do not keep a pencil for a month. They keep a pencil for a few days and then it is broken or lost or finished.” It goes without saying that there are no art materials in the school.

Mohammed has a masters degree in education and was studying for a PhD but the programme has been stopped so it’s on hold for now. To me, in pigtails, face paint, a silver dress and extra-long green, purple, yellow and orange trousers, he asked, “What are the latest methods and systems of education in the UK?” I did a few modules of education in a degree I finished almost eight years ago but that’s my limit. Part of Mohammed’s problem is that he’s so starved of professional support that he’s got to ask a clown.

Then there is the lack of running water, so that even the single hole-in-the-ground toilet is unsanitary. Classroom furniture is scarce. But Mohammed’s problems don’t end there. The teachers are only just, in mid March, being paid their salaries for February, which has left them broke for the last couple of weeks. As headmaster, working full time, with a masters degree, he is paid only the same as the cleaner; all the teachers struggle to live on their wages.

We talked about Unions and he said there have been thoughts of setting one up but nothing is yet established. I promised to bring more information and we talked about the kind of support he would like from teachers outside Iraq. “We need a teacher exchange with other countries, especially the UK, for a few Iraqi teachers to visit the UK and spend time with teachers there, spend time in the schools and learn about the latest methods and curricula. Those teachers can share the information with others when they return. It will be more effective than bringing teachers from the UK to Iraq because we need to see the way they work.” At the moment he does not even have internet access to communicate with teachers abroad.

We hadn’t expected to do a second show, hadn’t realised a second shift of children would be coming, but Adnan came in laughing, telling us the departing boys were all talking about the very tall woman and the men who made things disappear. We checked with Saba, Mohammed’s counterpart for the girls’ shift and began a second show.

The girls were incredibly loud. The noise of them shouting “Boomchucka” was immense, a huge buzz, a thousand little girls happy and excited. In the end they got a bit too manic and we cut the show short. The ones at the back, standing, were pushing forward, the ones sitting at the front and those squeezed in the middle looking likely to get hurt.

I thought the teachers would be furious with us but they weren’t at all. “They have never had anything like this, something happy, something fun in this yard. In this yard they used to have to sing songs praising Saddam. They are especially happy to see a woman in the show. They have never thought a woman can do this,” Saba said.

Bremer, she said, is not at all interested in women’s rights. He hasn’t done anything for women and nor has the Governing Council, overturning women’s paper protections. Too many groups have only lobbied for 40% representation of women on the Governing Council rather than taking on grassroots work with women. All urban schools have been segregated since 1999 when Saddam was trying to appease religious leaders. There’s no sign of that law being dropped under the new leadership.

She also talked about attacks on the school straight after the fall of the old regime, armed men storming in, making threats, accusing her and other teachers of being Baathists. Like Mohammed, she has seen a high drop out rate among her pupils because of security problems, both on the journey to school and within the building, which is unprotected. They would like an armed guard, one who could escort the pupils to school and mind the place while the kids are there. With a thousand children coming from a wide area of narrow streets, a school bus is impractical.

The “Green Zone” is the name given to the part of town occupied and fortified by the coalition forces and the accompanying civilian-military administration, the only place they feel safe and most commonly heard in the sentence, “They’re attacking the Green Zone.” Our contacts were unable to tell us whether there is or is not an Amber Zone but the Red Zone constitutes most of the rest of Baghdad and Sadr City is the wilderness, the Black Zone.

It’s not because I’m fearless or have some idea of my own invincibility that I’m so flippant, but just because it’s ridiculous. The people who are making the decisions and guiding the policies do so from the far side of a dozen checkpoints from Sadr City, or any other civilian district. Constantly under attack and barely allowed out of their own Zone, a lot of the people in there start to fear the Iraqi people.

And if our contacts were right, that Sadr City is really known as the Black Zone, then it’s a measure of how twisted this situation has become. Densely populated, entirely Shia, extremely poor and persecuted by Saddam, this district might reasonably be expected to be called the “We Love America” Zone but apparently it’s not.

Monday’s school in Afdhalia, likewise, had no windows, nothing at all to work with. A tank is graffitied on the playground wall. Teachers say the 800 or so kids won’t listen to anyone except the headmaster. They carry little blue Unicef backpacks, presumably given out to get them to come back to school if their parents couldn’t afford a bag for them to carry their books in. A woman in an abaya stood watching the show with one of the backpacks on her head. A dog barked in the school and small crowds of kids gathered at the ends of the corridors to look out over the barriers, high enough to see over the crowd. As I took off my stilts a boy came down the steps carrying a colourful cockerel to show me.

As we arrived at the school in Diyala Bridge on Tuesday, a teenage boy wheeled a barrow past full of neon squeaking things. I took them to be fluffy toys that squeak when shaken till a younger boy picked out a handful, paid a little money and left with his dyed chicks. It must make good business sense to colour them for the young ones who get sent out to fetch the chicks for the family.

As with the last two days there were dozens of primary school age kids on the way there, not in school. Skinny dogs scavenged in the rubbish heaps, the pickings still not rich enough even among all this debris. The toilet here had running water; constantly running, so the toilet was overflowing. Several of the women teachers had tiny babies like six month old Zahra in Soulav’s arms, her four year old brother Abdullah leaning on their mum’s knee. The English teacher has no choice but to bring them to work.

Away from the schools, a thousand bank clerks, mostly women, have been threatened with arrest over the money that’s been lost in the currency changeover. When the old Saddam notes were being phased out for the new money - Bremer’s money, as everyone called it in Kurdistan - the clerks were told to exchange all the notes, even those they suspected were fakes. In any case there was no real way of knowing which were fake because it was all just printed on ordinary paper without security marks of any kind.

Sixteen clerks have been arrested, fifteen women and one man. There’s no suspicion that they stole money or committed any fraud but there is a discrepancy between the amount of genuine money received and the amount of new money given in exchange. Now the clerks are to be forced to pay for the difference. Some have already, under threat of arrest, signed papers agreeing to ‘pay back’ the money in instalments from their wages.

The families of the jailed women and man have been trying to get all the papers signed, all the procedures fulfilled for bail. A Baghdad traffic jam prevented them getting the papers to the judge in time the day before yesterday, the judge was on holiday the next day, nothing has happened today either so they’re still in prison. Arrest, however wrongful, is shameful for a woman. Their families are devastated.

The Minister of Finance is a close associate of Ahmed Chalabi. His deputy is Chalabi’s driver, a former associate of Saddam. Chalabi is the man with the proven track record of embezzlement, defrauding Iraqi people of millions through the Petra Bank, convicted in his absence when he refused to attend court in Jordan and now a member of Iraq’s Governing Council.

Faleh Maktuf, the lawyer acting for the arrested clerks, says the legal procedures for bail are nearly done but it’s a tortuous process. There’s no legal basis whatsoever for the arrests but the still flimsy framework, without real laws and guidelines, allows police, ministers and judges almost unconstrained power to do as they like. Many, especially the judges, were part of the old regime.

Several of the squatter camps are under threat of evicition. There was a rumour that Shuala is one of them so we went to find out. Abu Ahmed at first said there was no threat at all but then told us a contractor came but they didn’t let him near the camp, threatened to kill him or his colleagues if they came back. He said they will fight for the place, they won’t leave just because they’re told to.

He said the man was from an animal welfare dept of the Agriculture Ministry. He believes the land belongs to the Ministry of Finance but is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture. Abu Abdullah, at the Workers’ Communist Party which has been supporting the squatter groups, explained that the land, which used to belong to Saddam’s son Uday, has now reverted to the Iraqi government, under the auspices of the Government Lands Department, part of the Ministry of Finance.

Abu Abdullah agreed there was no specific move to evict the camp though all the camps are under a general threat. The people at Al-Sheikh Nasser al-Sa’adi camp in Thawra were given till 10am on March 16th to leave. The building on Mudhafa Square used to belong to the Fedayeen. Hamed Selman Majid, a 33 year old father of ten, went out looking for alternative accommodation for his family but couldn’t find any. He came back, collapsed and died of a heart attack.

Proper housing, a legal framework, justice, security and schools with windows, sanitation and teaching facilities have still not been established.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

March 12th
Maxmur

His eyes sparkled with joy and tears. For the first time in the eleven years of his life, a refugee for all of them, Nuredi was hearing music, holding Luis’s didge to his ear. Bright brown eyes, amid the freckles, sunburnt nose and a huge smile of disbelief and delight which didn’t leave him the rest of the day. Rindo kissed the top of his head as he gazed at us like we were some sort of magicians.

Almost ten thousand people live in the refugee camp at Maxmur, Kurds fleeing repression in Turkey. The camp has existed, in different places, since 1979, more and more people joining, moved on, from time to time, by Turkish troops, the Iraqi government or the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Medya, a German woman who has lived and moved with the camp since 1994, explained that the UNHCR forced them to move saying the camp had grown to big for the organisation to provide for them. “But really the UNHCR is just controlled by the US military, the same as everything else.”

The last move, to land outside the village of Maxmur, was in 1998 because of attacks by Turkish troops, destroying the camp despite the ‘protection’ of the US and UK imposed No-Fly Zone, set up to prevent the Iraqi army attacking the Kurds. There were countless reports of incursions by Turkish troops into the areas along the border with the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone, under the conspicuous absence of the usual allied air patrols.

Speaking Kurdish, like the use of Kurdish names, was not allowed in Turkey, Britain and the US’s ally and favoured client for arms and torture equipment. More recently, after the enactment of dozens of reform laws aimed at securing European Union membership, the language has been legalised but still, Medya says, for public speeches or approaching elections, anything important, the police are likely to interrupt and prevent it.

Many thousands of people are still missing, still being imprisoned for political opinions or party membership. They say they won’t go back because they’re scared of the Turkish government. The reforms exist on paper only. There’s no practical improvement. Lots of them have nowhere to go back to anyway because their homes and villages have been destroyed or the grazing land that used to be their livelihood is a minefield.

Around the camp, too, there are walls with “MAG” painted on them: the Mine Action Group. They’ve cleared lots of places but still the residents say they hear some explosions. Inge, the German doctor who’s lived at the camp for the last three months, says four children were killed recently by unexploded cluster bombs blowing up at the Al-Tash camp of Iranian Kurdish refugees in Ramadi, in central Iraq.

Inge plans to stay long term, having spent two weeks at the camp in the summer, working out what the main health problems were. Malnutrition is a big one, the food ration being devoid of vitamins and fresh food. The kids don’t eat enough because they hate eating the same things every day, the same rice, beans and flour. Although it rains, the land isn’t fertile. There were no trees at all when they arrived there and there aren’t many now. “Look,” Arjin pointed at the bare slopes of the mountains behind the camp. “It is desert.”

There’s a water supply for one hour a day and erratic, infrequent electricity. The nearby village has a bit more electricity but still only one hour a day when water comes out of the taps. That’s not so bad in winter when it rains as well, but in summer it’s a nightmare. It’s hot and there’s no other source of water. A tank on the hillside supplies water from the river, heavily chlorinated and cloudy.

Infectious diseases, especially typhoid and brucellosis, are rife and malformation of broken bones is common. As well, Inge says, there are huge psychological problems because of the living conditions, depression and women, many, many women, suffering from trauma after being raped with impunity by Turkish troops.

The women’s centre was founded about a year and a half ago as a venue for education and empowerment of the women. Men are allowed to use the facilities and visit but it belongs to the women. There haven’t been any real problems from the men objecting to the centre and its work but Medya says the women there are very strong. They don’t take any problems. “It took a long time though. They used to ask why would you bother sending girls to school, when they are only going to get married and have babies.”

A young woman walked through in tight jeans, another one in the balloon-like trousers worn by Kurdish men and a slim fitting long sleeved top. I haven’t seen women in those clothes anywhere else and Medya says you don’t see it anywhere else in the camp. “Here is a sanctuary.”

The centre holds classes in music, English, writing, women’s health and so on. A group called Mothers For Peace meets there, a row of women with deeply lined faces, who have lost sons or brothers, sick of war and repression, shaking hands with the lads, kissing me on both cheeks, four, five, six kisses: the circus was welcome. Within the camp they visit the lonely ones, take part in the general organisation of the place, but they’re part of a wider network of Mothers For Peace as well.

Just after we arrived, unexpected, a loudspeaker announced that at 2pm there would be a show for the kids on the stage. We went out to look at the theatre about an hour before we started and already the steps were full of children, waiting to see what was going to happen. We couldn’t resist playing, Peat letting the kids stroke Woodbine the raccoon, who wriggles his tail when his chin is tickled and jumps up Peat’s arm now and then, making them squeal and laugh.

We started out on a huge stage at the front of an amphitheatre, a thousand or so children yelling “Boomchucka” back at us, hardly believing there was a red and yellow man juggling in front of them, an eight or nine foot tall woman, a wooden tube that roared and trumpeted, a big man who made multi coloured pictures appear in a book. Bit by bit the stage got smaller till we were performing in a broom cupboard sized gap, one of the doorways onto the stage completely closed off by the crowd.

There was no translator to do the usual pie in the face act so we improvised, Fisheye and I plotting conspicuously, getting Luis, the bullying clown, to hold Peat as he juggled, believing that Peat was the target of the pie. Just as the pie began its arc, Peat dropped a ball and the pie got Luis. The kids howled with laughter, Luis howled with rage, we all ran away, the pie foam went everywhere and we had to sit in the Cultural Centre behind the stage for ten minutes while they persuaded the kids that it was the end.

The centre’s walls were hung with banners quoting Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Turkish Kurds. “Without victory, there is no life for the Kurdish people.” His words are on the walls of the women’s centre as well and the youth centre. They speak the Kurmanji dialect of Turkish Kurds rather than the Sorani spoken in the surrounding area. They also run on Turkish time, an hour behind the next village.

It looks permanent enough, like any other village. The houses are made of bricks and stones. A couple have even got satellite dishes on poles, for when the electricity is on. There are a couple of shops, one selling clothes, one with fruit and vegetables, a cigarette stall. Women gather between the houses, one standing knitting beside a younger one baking bread in the fire barrel. About 3000 pupils are enrolled in the schools, one primary, one secondary. Some families moved to Mosul, but even if they can afford to move out, a lot of families prefer to stay, to be in a place which is like home.

There aren’t many jobs on the camp. A few people have found jobs in Mosul lately, about an hour and a half away, depending on checkpoints. There are dozens of checkpoints so it can take longer, can be impossible, but it’s easier than it used to be when the PKK and PUK were fighting each other.

A small and beautiful eight year old girl stood watching us in the women’s centre after the show, too shy to come to us but too spellbound to leave. Woodbine the raccoon charmed her and she wanted to learn how to make him wriggle and jump, shyness forgotten as she posed in Peat’s sunglasses and baseball cap, on sideways. Her name is Tekoshin. It means Resistance. Over the last few days we’ve met several little girls called Kurdistan as well.

For the holiday on Thursday we went to Shenoor’s house for lunch with her dozens of sisters. Dilana graduated in geology last year and now works in the Directorate of Education in the geography department. Jwana is studying in the college of law and Dilhosh in the college of economics. Senar is in high school and will go to college next year.

She doesn’t know what she’ll study. You submit an application stating your preferences but the government makes the decision, based on your grades and the numbers applying for a course. You can turn down that offer but it means going to a lesser college. The brothers, Ari and Ala, at 16 and 13, are the youngest of the family but there were Jwan and Jila, daughters of one of the married sisters, and baby Rosh, 14 months old, wide eyed and fussed and petted and cuddled constantly. Their dad runs a shop, so he was working and their mum was having a day off.

After dolmas – stuffed vegetables – and rice and gorgeous cucumber soup and salad the boys showed off. Luis wants to marry all the sisters, if only he could decide which one to propose to first. He thought perhaps he could marry four at once. Lots of men up here have two wives and they’re allowed up to four, but they don’t seem like the kind of women who would accept that.

Baba, the father of the family, has a piece missing from the top of one ear, indicating that he was tortured at some point. Luis had brought photos for Shenoor to give to Mr Daoud to pass on to some of the teachers and kids we met in the villages. The photo envelope made out of re-used paper and when someone looked inside it turned out to have a picture of Saddam. The envelope was passed round and everyone looked in. Mama started crying. Just the thought of Saddam, just his picture, were enough.

On Wednesday we went to a village called Perpidan. As ever, Mr Daoud sat at the headmaster’s desk. Again we were invited for lunch with the chief’s family, segregated like the day before in Jejnikan. The women teachers, Senur, Banas and Ishtima, came with us. They live in Erbil and travel in by bus each day, those with children bringing them to the village school. One of them asked what I thought about the situation of the women here, in this village. I talked about the women imprisoned in their home in Jejnikan.

“We are related to them. Our aunt is one of the wives of the chief, but it is not so bad here as it is with them,” Kamar said. “we are allowed to go out and the girls can go to school.” Thirteen year old Chanas was in school and chose to leave. “It is because she is lazy,” her mum and the teachers agree. She was wearing a long skirt and a blazer, untraditional clothes the Jejnikan women were not allowed to own.

There’s a television in the room and they asked whether we were going to do the show again, so they could come and see it. Kamar’s eighteen year old daughter is not yet married. It’s visibly different from the situation the women are trapped in in Jejnikan. Even the air in the room is less oppressive. They laugh. Still there are two wives, restrictions on their freedom, but about a century away from Jejnikan.

The river sparkled as the boys waded across with their school books and bags. Birds were building nests in the pits in the side of a building. Mela drove the bus into the mountains. He knew a place where you could stand on the crest of the hill, wildflowers tumbling down purple and red and white between the white painted stones marking the graves, down to the rectangular plot of land the farmer was ploughing with the tractor while the cows chewed idly.

The kids and women came out to see us, Khadij in a long purple dress and black headscarf playing Luis’s didgeridoo, a woman with hair grey before its time from raising too many children and losing her husband, her face alight as she remembered what it felt like to play. And here and there, in the soil, empty shells lay half buried like a reminder of the battles between the rival parties, 1994 to 1996. “It was shameful,” Shenoor said.

In this part of Kurdistan, at least, it’s spring. In Maxmur you can’t see it yet. In Maxmur it won’t be spring until our governments stop supporting the Turkish government which is persecuting them. In Maxmur it won’t be spring until they can go home.



DO STUFF TO HELP THE PEOPLE OF MAXMUR…

Check out Amnesty International – www.amnesty.org for campaigns on specific victims of the Turkish government, Campaign Against Arms Trade – www.caat.org for action on arms sales to Turkey and the Kurdish Human Rights Project – www.khrp.org for more information about human rights violations against the Kurds.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

March 9th
The Dictator

Thursday is a holiday, a celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq shortly after the end of the 1991 war when the Kurds who had risen up for freedom were betrayed by the ceasefire and massacred by Saddam's army. It's a celebration of their freedom.

Four teenage girls sat on rugs by a heater under shimmering chandeliers, minding the children. The oldest granddaughter of the village chief is fourteen. Silver glitter around her eyes sparkled like the tear she wiped away, explaining that she had never been to school. Her mum and dad wanted her to go, at least for a few years, but her grandfather wouldn't allow it. Zainab and Ashti went for three and four years respectively.

These days they get up at 6, with the rest of the women in the household, to bake bread, then to cook breakfast, then to begin cooking lunch and when lunch is ready and served and cleaned up it's time to start preparing dinner and in between and after there's washing to be done, cleaning, looking after the children.

They're not allowed to go out and meet with the other women in the village, about 70 families altogether. They're not allowed to go to the market. They're not allowed to watch the television the grandfather bought last year to watch the war coverage. They're not allowed beyond the edge of the courtyard to the broad patio where the men sit in the sun. They can't read because they weren't allowed to go to school. Liberation never came here. Their dictator didn't flee, wasn't arrested.

They couldn't have stared more incredulously at me for the first half hour if I'd been a space alien. They'd never met a foreigner in their lives, much less a foreign woman. Finally one of them found the courage to whisper to Shenoor, "How is she allowed out of her country?" The house, of course, for other women; even the village, but the country? Everywhere else I've been in Iraq, I've been able to mix with the men but allowed to go into the women's places as well. Not here. Here Shenoor, her sister Jwana and I were segregated from the men at the door of the bus and taken out of sight.

We went there to do a show, the second of the day, but the primary school was over for the day, the building now populated with teenagers. Mr Daoud was wrongly told that primary school was in the afternoon in that village. We were invited for lunch and agreed we'd do a show for the younger kids on a bit of open space after we'd eaten. Shenoor asked Arjin, the exhausted looking wife of one of the chief's sons whether they'd come out and watch the show.

"No. We would not be allowed." In the event the men started singing religious songs after lunch, beating a drum, and Mr Daoud decided it was time to go.

I'm too shy to be stared at so intently – I expect anyone would be, so I hid behind faces and bubbles, making the kids laugh. The women, weary, just watched. Zainab and Ashti smiled, laughed a bit with the smaller kids. I started chasing the little ones, going "Grrr" and pouncing on them, tickling their bellies and bare feet so they squealed and then the women laughed. They laughed at Kala's face and her yelps as she jumped out of the way, laughed at her pushing her little brothers into my clutches, laughed at the helpless squeaks. I carried on for them not the children. It was the only entertainment they had.

At fourteen, Arjin is already thinking of marriage. It will come within two years, to a close cousin of her grandfather's choosing. It will be no escape. Grandfather controls the whole village and the husband will be under direct family control. Her grandmother, one of the two wives, came in bent ninety degrees at the waist, held up with a stick.

At a message from Mr Daoud, we left them, the young ones following us out as far as they dared, halted at the edge of their world waving with a longing that almost suffocated me too, trying to smile for us, left them to the misery, the drudgery of their lives amid so much wealth, so much opulence, left them in the prison where they're losing their minds, the older ones as bent, inside, as the old wife of the chief.

I'd love to say perhaps they're happy. Perhaps their lives, though not what I'd choose, are fulfilling and satisfying for them but it's not true and the things they said weigh on me, the simple wishes to go to school or even out to the market, along with the pain of knowing there's nothing I can do. There's no one to write to demanding their rights, no one to boycott, picket or hang a banner on, nothing I can do but hope Grandfather dies before he can marry Arjin off and force the smaller girls out of education.

The Iranian refugee camp has been there seven years, though some of the residents fled to Iraq back in 1979. A sign on the wall says "PDK Iran" – the Kurdish Democratic Party, persecuted in Iran. Unicef gave some assistance with the school but mostly they're independent or helped by the Party. The houses are built of stone or breezeblocks, basic but safe and they say there are no problems.

In 1996 an Iranian plane was able to bomb the camp despite the no-fly zone in force and, in the chaos of the struggle between KDP and PUK a few years ago for control in Iraqi Kurdistan, they were attacked by Iranian ground forces as well. The kids are healthy, there's water and electricity, it's just like living in any other village. The only problem is that they can't go home. Still the people were nervous when a group of strangers arrived and a man with a big gun stood guard on top of the school building throughout the show, but perhaps that was just for the view.

After the high of the show and games there, after the low of lunch and the imprisoned women, we went to another school. It, too, was closed in the afternoon. Mr Daoud wanted to keep going, village to village, till we found a primary school with kids in. We saw boys sliding down the hillside on metal trays and knew we were in the right place.

"But there are not enough children," he insisted.

"They will come," we assured him.

By the time we'd got them to help us pull the parachute out of its bag and spread it out the village telegraph had spread and a stream was beginning to flow towards us, a crowd of little girls running, kids carrying smaller brothers and sisters, to see the clowns.

Mohammed stood on the outskirts, clutching a bunch of red flowers, overcome with amazement and too small to join in. A small girl in a dress that looked like it was made of gold tinsel jumped up and down with the shaking of the parachute, spangling in the spring sunshine; another in a long pink velvet frock, another in a shiny green and black ballgown, the three princesses on the hill.

Dara laughed and laughed, his one foot tucked underneath him at a right angle, his missing leg no disability when it came to cat and mouse. Parachute football was harder, trying to grip the fabric when it was being shaken by standing kids around him and he was sitting, or to hold that and his crutches and stand up. He gave up and just sat on the fringe of the game. I sat on the ground beside him, playing at his height, and he made the save of the game with his head.

We taught them Boomchucka before we left, following Peat as he played his whistle, the kids skipping down the hill after us waving. Fisheye was walking backwards videoing them, tripped over a stone he hadn't seen and fell head over heels like a clown. It was magic.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

March 8th
The Federal State

Drums announced the coming of the parade, men and boys, the red, white and green of the Kurdish flag, with a many-pointed gold star in the middle, the placard featuring Mustafa Barzani, the murdered Kurdish leader. The Kurds have been stateless people in the empires of others more or less forever, ruled by the Ottomans, the British, the puppets of the British and, until 1991, the Baathists. Winston Churchill authorised the crushing of their demand for an independent state in Kurdistan in the 1920s with poison gas.

Today, with the signing of the interim constitution, there is a federal state of Iraqi Kurdistan. At last. At long, long last.

"Maybe they don't understand us," a voice behind me said. "I think perhaps they are Russian."

Sinan and Selim are studying English at Salahudin University in Erbil. It's a strange thing, but a lot of Kurdish people are unaware that the weapons they talk about, the weapons Saddam used against them, were sold to him by the UK, the US, Germany, France and so on, paid for with funding granted by the US in the full knowledge of what he was doing to the Kurds.

I suppose the Baghdad government was exerting control and censorship (in the form of execution) over the Kurdish media and I suppose the Iraqi controlled media didn't care to broadcast that it needed the help of other countries, much less that it was persecuting the Kurds with that assistance.

And Blair? What did I think of him? I told him Blair was the man who introduced tuition fees for universities, so higher education isn't free anymore, that he privatised hospitals, that his government is approving arms sales to countries which are known to be abusing human rights.

We talked about the war, why it happened. Kurdistan wasn't the target of much bombing and there are no troops on the streets, no house raids, no detentions without charge, no random shootings. People here know as little about what's going on in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq as people in Jordan do. It's another country.

Two shots were fired, I think in celebration of the new federal state. A whole street of heads turned: all but ours. In Baghdad, no one looks around at the sound of gunfire. In Baghdad, everyone laughs at you if you do. It's another country.

"You know Kirkuk?" Selim asked. "Kirkuk is Kurdish. It is part of Kurdistan, but it was not included in the area that was given to us. Why do you think they did that? Is it because of the oil?"

Sinan shushed him. "No, Kirkuk is not really Kurdish."

Selim looked shocked. "How can you say that Kirkuk is not Kurdish? Well, we are different there." And although the war ended the sanctions for the Kurdish people, Selim tentatively wondered whether the reason for it might have been oil, more than concern for human welfare. They knew nothing about the vast sums of money going to US companies in reconstruction contracts which could have been fulfilled more cheaply, with more benefit to the Iraqi economy, had they been awarded to local companies.

Peat muttered to Luis, "She's talking politics," and they sneaked around the corner for a cup of tea. I didn't notice. The owner came out of the camera shop whose window we were blocking with the crowd that had gathered to watch two local men talking to a foreign woman. We shuffled round the corner and the crowd spread to block the tea shop as well, whose proprietor came out. We shifted to the edge of the pavement and the crowd went on growing. Eventually the police came and dispersed us as a security risk.

While Luis did magic tricks in the coffee shop, Peat and I smoked a narghila and watched the signing of the constitution on TV. The men made no noticeable response to Masoud Barzani, the big cheese for this bit of Kurdistan, laughed at some joke when Jalal Talabani, the big cheese for some other bits of Kurdistan, walked up to sign.

The signing was followed by patriotic songs and footage, a military rhythm accompanied by shots of dramatic scenery, old film of Peshmerga on the march and images of the persecution of the old Iraqi government. It happens every day, several times a day. Television is government controlled.

In the first school we went to today, Shenoor came out saying there was no place in the school for the show, but not to worry, we could go somewhere else. We were standing in a big open space that stretched a few hundred metres to the farms and mud brick houses one way, to the horizon the other.

"Here would do."

The kids gambolled out of tiny classrooms hardly believing their luck and the rest of the village crept around desperate to see what was happening but reluctant, for the first little while, to be seen childishly enjoying a kids' show. The girls were awesome. One of them stood up facing Luis as the bullying boss.

"Bash nia," he was insisting. No good. Clowns ought not to be dancing with music boxes instead of sweeping the floor.

"Bash," she replied firmly, not about to be intimidated by any dictator.

When, for the third time, I was in trouble for capering instead of cleaning and Luis was about to explode with fury, another girl stood in front of me, spreading her coat to protect me. I wished there was time to play parachute games with them but there wasn't if we were going to make it to the second school in time. we arrived in costume, again doing the show outside the school with the whole community gathered round. The teachers had to leave for their afternoon school but the kids played with us for ages.

The school opened in 1993 after the people came back to the village, Girdesory, in 1991. The people of the area fought Saddam's army but they never took the area. It was the helicopters that defeated them in the end: the village was destroyed and the people chased away. Attacks carried on after 1991 in spite of the no-fly zone because the village was so near the border with the government controlled area that they could bomb from tanks.

The headmaster Mohammed has got two wives and twelve children. Mr Daoud, our guide, has got two wives and thirteen children. At their mother's direction, Rawa, Ahmed and Selim chased the sheep around their pen with much arm waving to position them appropriately for a photo, alternately fussing and persecuting the lamb, yanking his floppy ears in a kind of good shepherd – nasty shepherd routine.

The drive home was bordered both sides with mine fields, marked with red and white tape, red triangle flags, small rock piles and white stones. Peat started telling us about landmines, just in case.

"If you ever find yourself in a mine field, never, never retrace your steps. Some are designed to blow up with you step on them, some when you step off and some when the fourth person steps on or off them."

"So you might have been the third on your way in?"

"Exactly. And some fly up in the air and explode. And then there are the new 'intelligent' mines, which give off a radar signal when they're disturbed, like when the minefield is being cleared, which triggers all the other mines in the area to explode or to fly into the air and explode.

"They're supposed to have a metal ring on them so they can be detected but all the manufacturers make them detachable so they can be taken off before they're planted."

What kind of twisted mind sits in an office or a boardroom or wherever those freaks sit to invent those things, thinking up that kind of murder, while someone else works out ways around the flimsy export controls. Go home, kiss your children, tell them you're going to repair some of the damage you've done. Crawl on your belly through the mountains and let one child or one mine clearance worker live instead of you. You won't be missed.

Monday, March 08, 2004

March 7th
Clowning in Kurdistan

The boys' orphanage looked better on Saturday morning: there was still broken glass and heaps of half-furniture but a woman with a mop was making Jihad against the dust. The dust was still in control, on the whole, but the grime from the floor had gone and there were more workers about, the morning shift already gone to school and the afternoon shift milling about hoping Peat was going to regurgitate more ping pong balls. Mr Dilshad said 2pm would be fine and we went on our way, still without a translator.

We found a fellow clown, though, in the Ministry of Culture. Anwar was brought in from his own department to help translate. Offered a sweet, he took the entire bag and stashed it in his jacket, chuckling. Many years a refugee in Iran, formerly a Peshmerga fighter against Saddam – "Our revolution started in 1961" - he walks with a stiff, short step, claims to be 93, but young at heart, claims to be 19 but mature for his years, laughs often.

All over the Ministries of Culture and Education are pictures of Mustafa Barzani, killed by the Baathists, father and predecessor of the current Kurdish Democratic Party leader and Governing Council member Masoud. The Culture Ministry's 2004 calendar features him on the front cover and, youngish, smiling, in January, as well as seated, in military uniform, in June, next to a picture of members voting in the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly, the outside of which is on May's page.

Other photos of Kurdish beauty spots and musicians are interspersed with, in March, the bodies on the ground in the aftermath of the chemical attack on Halabja and, for December, a Kurdish man hanged by the neck. It's hard to imagine you would voluntarily look at it for a month.

Anwar said he was grateful to the US for finally getting rid of Saddam but angry as well, for all they did to keep him in power. "We had weapons from the First World War, old British rifles, and they had all the technology that America gave them."

He took us to meet the Minister of Education, begged us not to do any magic tricks or weird faces in the ministerial waiting lounge, a wish that was defeated by the boys' overwhelming need to flirt with the beautiful secretary. Still the Minister seemed to like us well enough because he not only permitted us to go into any schools we liked within the Erbil governorate but also gave us a guide, translator and tour bus from the Ministry. Result.

Hyperactive after a dozen or so Turkish coffees, for such was the hospitality of the Ministries, we made a scene outside the falafel shop. Now every child on our street in Erbil knows us as well, just like in Baghdad. They were all on their way home from school, buying falafel sandwiches with their lunch money – at 150 Dinars, 6p or 10 US cents, it's the cheapest ready food there is.

The crowd grew, each new child drawn in by another's gestures, a closed fist, an invisible item disappearing into it, the hand empty, the vanished item then miraculously popping out again. How? The first child would shrug and the new one would squeeze into the doorway to look. The girls were a bit reticent at first but couldn't resist and were even enticed into a street chorus of "Boomchucka"s.

Mr Dilshad having told us that 2pm would be fine, we turned up to find half the boys were at school and wouldn't be back till 4. We found this out after the remaining group were seated, waiting in the garden, and we were plastered with face paint, so the show had to go on.

The next challenge was playing parachute games with no translator. I somehow got the job of miming instructions, which worked surprisingly well. It helped having all four of us around the fabric as examples, no one filming or taking photos, and as well, when there are lots of kids, it's sometimes hard for them all to hear the instructions anyway but they could all see the clown in the middle of the parachute. We even managed to roll the football a few laps around the parachute.

I was teaching a few of the boys to do cartwheels after the games were over when I realised that one of them only had one and a half arms, so now there's a small band of one handed cartwheelers tumbling around the garden.

As Omran, one of the workers, was driving us home we met a school bus full of kids. We can't help ourselves. It happens every time. One or other of us starts, blowing bubbles, pulling faces, making things appear or disappear. All the kids pile against the windows. The boys selling stuff in the traffic queue are drawn in as well. Omran couldn't stop laughing. We couldn't hear the laughter of the kids in the bus, but we could see it and it made us completely high.

Then Omran started telling us about his only other experience of the British. "Uhuwye," he said, my brother. "Tiyara Biritanee", a British aeroplane. "Papapapapa." He gestured firing. "Mat" – dead. He was in his home. He wasn't with the army, wasn't with Saddam, just waiting it out at home. Somehow, and we didn't have the words between us to explain it, in Kurdish, Arabic or English, seeing us making the children laugh was important.

His foot has entry and exit scars from two bullets, courtesy of Saddam, whose prisons he spent two years in, 1988 to 1990. there are other torture wounds as well. I think it was because he was a member of a political party that opposed Saddam. His brother fled to Canada, married a Canadian woman, has a child. Tortured by Saddam, bombed by Britain, resisting oppressors armed by Britain, America and too many others, seems to sum up Kurdish history. The man at the front desk was a political prisoner for 17 years.

Shenoor is our translator, a young woman whose family was forced out of Kirkuk in 1989. They were driven from their home into another quarter of the city and later 'dismissed' from the entire area. They're settled here in Erbil now, working or in school and Kirkuk is still dangerous, so there are no plans to go home. Relations between Arabs are Kurds are no problem, she says, but there are still disputes over property that was seized.

It took almost an hour to get to Bistana, a village of 35 houses, about 300 people, 40 children attending the sand coloured primary school next to the sand coloured mosque. The village was burnt down six times by Saddam's forces between 1963 and 1991. Ahmed, the headmaster, and Daoud, our guide from the Directorate of Education, hugged each other like old Peshmerga comrades. All the village men and some of the women were Peshmerga, and if they weren't their fathers or older brothers were.

"The kids were shy at the beginning," Shenoor commented afterwards. "If you go back I think they will eat you." It was only 40 minutes before the end of their shift when we arrived so we dived straight in, finishing on the dot of 12 as the secondary pupils from all the surrounding villages arrived. Both shifts followed us on foot and a few on a noisy motorbike, up to the cemetery for parachute games.

It's the best grassy space in the village, free of mud, with plenty of space. Lots of the graves are Peshmerga. "One woman was burnt here," Shenoor told us, "for helping the Peshmerga." You can make the parachute into a dome by all lifting it up, pulling it down behind you and sitting on the edge. Jwan, next to me, in school blouse and skirt, gave me a huge grin, put out her hand to squeeze my arm in excitement.

We filled the hillside with laughter, the very thing, I suppose, that those people died fighting for, the men joining in as well, joyfully bouncing the football around the fabric, some unable to work because of wounds from their time in the resistance. They really needed to play like children.

Habitat – the UN agency, not the furniture chain – funded the rebuilding of the houses and they've been planting trees but still there's not enough electricity and the water isn't clean. What was it like in Baghdad, they wanted to know? How did things up here compare. I told them about people struggling to get on with things amid traffic jams, explosions, pollution and erratic electricity. There were some explosions here too, they said, in the city, at the political party's buildings. People were frightened in Erbil too, but not here in the villages. They think Al Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam were responsible for the February 1st bombings.

We took the scenic route home. Literally: I don't mean we were lost. We went the slow way, through the mountains, diving into landscapes of green slopes, clear streams, red flowers, still just buds, somewhere between a rose and a poppy, and Shenoor says when they open, it's spring; a mud hut by the water with a few ducks around, air you could breathe, really breathe, cool and soothing for lungs brutalised by the Baghdad atmosphere which assails them with a hailstorm of particles and ming.

I don't think I've ever been anywhere more beautiful in my life.

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