Wednesday, October 13, 2004

October 13th 2004
Clowns to Kurdistan

We made a load of plans for the Boomchucka Clowns to go back to Iraq this autumn, compiled an info sheet for people who wanted to join the circus, planned for some fundraising, made a list of useful stuff and people to blag it off, agreed who was going to do what.

And then Ghareeb was dead; Ghareeb who took me to Falluja, who took countless foreigners to the places he thought we could make a difference, Ghareeb with the fiery temper that drove me nuts, who sometimes liked to exaggerate, who always loved to gossip – Ewa used to say a big bird told her everything, Ghareeb whose cigarette end lit the way through the pitch dark streets of Falluja, who drove the ambulance that was shot at with us in it, who I called Azzam in the stories from there, who doesn’t need a disguise any more, who seemed to know everyone, who’d fled his native Palestine after working for freedom there, making his home in Iraq instead, is dead.

Surely someone so big couldn’t die, but it seems like bullets don’t discriminate. He was driving with the convoy that included foreign journalists and activists and Italian Red Cross workers in late August. Enzo, a Red Cross volunteer, freelance journalist and blogger, was kidnapped and killed. Even though I spoke to him on the phone only a couple of weeks before and he was fine, all it took was a bullet and now he’s dead.

And then the two Simonas, Mahnoaz and Dr Raad were kidnapped, seized in broad daylight by unmasked, smart, well-fed men, apparently working on some kind of covert operation rather than the usual chaotic opportunistic roadside bandit episodes, and we knew there was no way the clowns could go back as planned.

The current Iraqi government, under Ayad Allawi, is aping the last in terms of information control. Foreigners are to be kept away, their interactions controlled. Visas are coming back into use not to protect national security but to filter the opinions of those admitted. Journalists who write the wrong thing are shut down or threatened and NGO workers who consistently make sure medical supplies get through sieges to the populations of Falluja and Najaf are to be forced out.

Allawi was a Baathist, turned CIA operative sent back to Iraq to destabilise the Saddam government with covert bombing campaigns that included a cinema and a school bus. He hasn’t changed. My friend Abeer, one of the Baghdad University girls, wrote me a desperate e mail. Confined to her home, she begged me to call the embassy and find out if, having been born in the UK while her mother was a student here, she can come and live here.

Even Zaid, the King of post-occupation optimism, e mailed today to tell me things are very bad. Zainab, his sister, got married two weeks ago, he’s got a job with a newspaper, Mimi is in pre-school. They carry on as best they can. Farah we haven’t heard from and can’t reach.

Waleed is out and safe. He got a scholarship to Canada, as did Majid. For months the Canadian embassy in Jordan refused him a visa, for months until he missed the start of term and we all bombarded them with phone calls and e mails. The objection was primarily that he’d been in a metal band. I’m sorry. A teenage boy band might be a bit noisy, might even be slightly bizarre when it can only play in a bingo club with streamers on the ceiling but it’s not a threat to anyone’s national security or public order.

He says Canada is quiet. It feels all the time like it must be the calm before the storm but the storm keeps on not coming. There’s water everywhere and loads of animals. Waleed isn’t keen on little animals. He’s worried about waking up one morning to find that a raccoon’s peed on his desk.

Layla says the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq is getting a lot of threats from political Islamist groups. The squatter camp at Shuala – the one the circus went to a lot, where we built the drain and still hope we can build a school – is in the middle of a lot of fighting, helicopter gunships and tanks from the US side, Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers from the resistance.

So the clowns are not going back to Baghdad and the south but we will be despatching two, maybe three, to Iraqi Kurdistan in early November. Anyone who’s been reading a while might remember the villages near Erbil and the refugee camps of Iranian and Turkish Kurds, the deaf boy at Maxmur who had never heard music in his life till he felt the sound of Luis’s didgeridoo. Things are not as desperate in Kurdistan as elsewhere in Iraq but they still suffered a lot under sanctions and Saddam and we still found a lot of kids and adults who needed to remember what it felt like to play and laugh.

The plan, initially, is that Peat and Luis will go there for a month, perform, teach and identify projects and solidarity work the circus can usefully do. It might end up going on for longer, as it did last time, if the results are positive and it’s – relatively speaking – safe to work there, both for them and the local people who work with them.

If anyone wants to help – yes, it’s time for the blag – what we want is as many parachutes as we can get for parachute games, ideally so they can leave a few in appropriate places with instructions translated into Kurdish, as well as some magic tricks and such like. Peat tells me it’s £66 a parachute. They’ll travel in through Turkey and it’s relatively cheap to get there – about £180 per person for a one month return flight, more by train. The cost of living in the Kurdish area is pretty low and the main expense over there will be paying translators and drivers.

We also want them to be able to identify and fund small scale projects created by local people – like the drain in Shuala – which allow people to empower themselves and improve their own living conditions. If possible they’ll also train some local folk to teach circus skills and look into setting up a youth centre or two through other organisations which can give the kids a chance to play all year, not just in Boomchucka season. OK, it’s possible that this is all going to take longer than a month.

I won’t be going this time, sadly. I’m in university now, for a year. I’m studying to be a barrister and rally really enjoying it, really appreciating being alive in a gorgeous autumn and having the chance to be a student. It’s fully full-time though, which is why you’ve heard nothing from me in a while and, typical student, when you do I want money, but the circus last time around was incredible so please be part of it this time. Check out some of the pictures and stories on www.circus2Iraq.org if you missed it.

Speaking Dates:

October 16th – at the SchNews conference, Camden Centre, near Kings Cross station

November 5th – Peace Party in Bristol, fundraiser for Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Union of the Unemployed in Iraq. I’m talking about 9pm. Not sure of venue.

November 18th – London, evening. Not sure of the venue and time yet.

December 5th – Iraq Occupation Focus one-day conference, London

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