Journalist's Random Notes From The Ground - Baghdad -- Are American Troops Defecting?

Date: 7/22/03 6:01:22 AM Pacific Daylight Time


Dear friends,

I´m still in Baghdad, safe and sound. The conditions of life are intense
and the security situation is tightening up as tension mounts, but the
challenges of being here generally, (including my work with street
children), are invigorating for want of a better word!

Life is a battle; even breathing in the 50C degree air is a challenge . .

Both writing a cohesive email and actually being able to send it can
also be very difficult so I´ve resorted to tapping in a few notes now
and then in the hope that I can send it sometime!

Anyway, here they are - not a logical progression but I hope it gives
you some impressions of what I´m seeing and experiencing.

RANDOM NOTES FROM BAGHDAD - end of June/early July 2003

Newspapers and Arabic language satellite news have been reporting that
significant numbers of U.S. troops have been deserting and heading to
Syria! It is reported that between 150 and 250 soldiers are there, some
of whom have been interviewed on TV.

This number might sound small but if you think of the huge personal step
it is to desert while still on combat duty . . to mentally break out of
the artificial construct of the war machine and the indoctrination that
goes with this . . to face a life on the run or to go home to a court
martial . . this is huge stuff!

I have a suspicion that this story isn´t making the news at home . . the
propaganda war continues on all sides while the body count goes on . .

Our NGO keeps a curfew of 8.30pm which means even if you´ve been in the
office all day at night you´re still stuck there; the only way around
this is to be in a secure location and stay the night so the other night
I went to Rick and Mary´s; great folk who I met in Amman and now here
working with AFSC (Quakers). They are suffering under the same
conditions as the locals without a generator so after walking down the
street for an early dinner we sat in the garden where it was a lot
cooler than inside. As the evening progressed several of their
neighbours joined us. This is typical in Iraq but for me it was a
beautiful change from night after night in the same house that is also
our office.

Tonight I went to hear the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra play their
first concert since the war!! It was a bittersweet experience that had
tears welling in my eyes . .
Beautiful proud musicians, crippled in their art by war, sanctions,
looting and suffering - now playing to their occupiers. The audience
was perhaps half Iraqi, thirty percent occupation forces and the rest
made up of NGO staff, the UN , etc.
Stirring to hear the Iraqi audience break into song - ´Our Nation´ - for
now at least their replacement for the National Anthem as decreed under

Bremer was there with his security honchos looking like something out of
a bad Mexican movie . . where do they find these guys? I don´t mean the
tough guys - they´re everywhere but Bremer and co? I still don´t get it
- the guy and his actions are a joke (or would be if the consequences
weren´t so horrendous).

Caught a taxi, and in the broken English that we could manage I asked
the driver about the war and America:

´America good, and America bad . . good that saddam is gone, bad that
they are here´
. . .
K: So Saddam is bad but so is Bush?

´Bush is ten times as bad! Saddam is a baby; Bush is the big daddy . . ´

As write this it´s the 4th of July - US independence day. Feels
incredibly ironic given that I´m in Iraq where people were promised
independence from Saddam Hussein, and freedom and democracy. Instead I´m
in Baghdad, a city living in chaos, increasing tension and conflict and
with a population suffering under the new US regime . .

The people are frustrated and tense . .
Very little power and then water problems as well . .

Bush and his spin doctors are still trying to characterize the incidents
as Baath party loyalists or extremists . .

Then on the 3rd of July he virtually goes looking for a fight - ´Bring
them on´ is his response to the ongoing conflict . . Not only a stupid
comment but one that put him offside with his own troops, who saw this
comment as inviting attacks on them.

The same day a Humvee is attacked in Baghdad. Some soldiers are injured
and the vehicle is damaged but as the soldiers go back towards it it´s
set on fire by some children; the soldiers then abandon it and a
jubilant crowd of locals stream out and celebrate it s destruction. This
is not a media circus, simply a real response of Iraqi people happy at
the literal destruction of this vehicle and what it represents.

If Bush still really believes it isolated groups of extremists against
him and his Coalition he needs to think long and hard about what it
means when this sort of spontaneous reaction is occurring around Baghdad
, let alone what is happening in towns like Fallujah where the whole
population is strongly anti-US and hostile . .

Did I mention the heat? It´s intense; no regular temperature details
though occasionally I hear or read that its 46C or 48C; by general
consensus it´s been high forties most of the last couple of weeks. Last
day or two has been cool by comparison; probably about 43C or so.
(BBC tonight said it would be back up to 46C next couple of days . .
August promises to be hotter). This is mad! Sometimes I wonder what
quirk of fate or history brings a people to settle in a place, whether
its Iraq or Mongolia or any other places with extreme climates . .

It´s Friday night as I write this - the end of the weekend for us as
opposed to the beginning of it like for many of you (Friday being the
day off here). I´m very tired but keen to get some news to you all.
Life here continues to be challenging in almost every aspect but that´s
also what makes being here such a powerful experience.

Baghdad, along with lots of the rest of Iraq, continues to be a mostly
chaotic mess; power is still limited, the water situation seems to be
getting worse (some areas are now forced to fill buckets at the well!)
while some streets are flowing with sewage, and the population is
increasingly resentful and frustrated, especially as the summer really
sets in; the heat is just intense . .

More and more attacks on the Coalition, with increasing boldness, and
apparently greater organization and strategy. Security is a farce, with
massive shows of strength by the U.S. troops in their armed gunship
convoys, but its not stopping them getting killed every day, and its
certainly not providing the people with the day-to-day safety and
security they need.

Anyway, so much to try and write but before I collapse into bed let me

Formerly a public holiday along with the 17th; both days celebrating the
Baath party revolutions. Considered as probable days for big
demonstrations or attacks, most NGOs are not going out so we will be
home-bound for at least 48 hours this week (as well as our regular
curfews and restrictions).

Sure enough, the resistance shows some strength; they are moving from
machine guns and hand grenades to RPGs (rocket propelled grenades),
mortars and now on the 14th Surface to Air Missiles have been reportedly
used in Baghdad. (eight at last count).The Coalition now has a real
situation on its hands . . While the security situation is worsening,
apart from some random robberies and isolated incidents, the NGO
community doesn´t feel targeted so most are continuing their daily work
- we continue to keep a low profile though.

We opened a Drop In Centre this week! Having been working on the streets
and met over a hundred homeless kids over the last weeks we are excited
to have a centre where they can get off the streets at least for the
day. One of my first proposals was emergency accommodation at night, and
i´m frustrated that we´re not acting on this but for now its beyond us
for a number of reasons. Still, this centre is a good start; 10 - 15
kids first couple of days; it was great! They can shower, get a meal,
talk to social workers, do activities and most importantly get some care
and relax off the streets; away from the heat, the gangs, the drugs, the
shooting, the rapes . . yeah, it´s a positive move.

A new Social worker from France has arrived and he (Cyril) will be
taking over most of the Baghdad work regarding street children from me;
I´m moving across to a different project for several weeks then heading
home - insha´Allah. (´God willing´ - a very common phrase here,
especially when so much is unpredictable or uncertain!)

>From the 15th July through to the end of August I´m doing an assessment of street children in three other cities (though currently which three is still a little tentative!)
The starting date has arrived and I´m still working with UNICEF and some
relevant NGOs to decide which cities are most appropriate to survey
after some last minute complications . . Anyway, tomorrow (190703) I
leave on a six day trip to the North for some exploratory visits to
Kirkuk and Mosul; two cities high on the list of possibilities. ON the
way I will meet with several NGOs in Erbil (Monday) and by the time I
return to Baghdad I hope to have a clear idea of the rest of the

It will mean at least four more trips of around 6-8 days each and its an
exciting short-term project trying to identify the street children and
their needs. I´m really looking forward to seeing some of the country as
well; I just wish the danger factor hadn´t increased so much in the last
month. There are many attacks of the Coalition all the time, especially
on some roads and there is always a danger of getting caught in a
skirmish, becoming ´collateral damage´ in an attack or driving over a
mine or booby trap. Given the lack of security there are also many armed
groups hijacking or robbing cars in open country though mostly the
victims are unharmed - we just have to be prepared to give up our
belongings and maybe even the car! Some areas have been described as Mad
Max country - literally no-one can drive alone through these parts - I´m
planning to avoid them altogether despite UNICEF wanting me to go!

Anyway, though the risks are there we take the precautions we can, and
try to be as sensible as we can in this totally mad scenario.


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