x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

No one counted the casualties in those dark days of war

After a corkscrew landing at Baghdad's airport in mid-2006, I began work at an international aid organisation operating from the Red Zone.

The first thing I was told upon arrival was that the death count was incorrect. How do you know? I asked. We have access to the morgues, was the reply. After a corkscrew landing at Baghdad's airport in mid-2006, I began work at an international aid organisation operating from the Red Zone. Before I arrived, I had campaigned in futile against the war. My taxes had still funded it. In New York, before moving to Iraq, I met with a friend at the United Nations. Don't go, he told me, you'll be seen as a prop of the occupation.

@body arnhem:But the truth is always more complex. As of today, the US has met its latest deadline to draw down combat forces in Iraq, seemingly leaving Iraqis to their fate - and their sectarian divisions. But Iraqis are more than just Sunnis and Shiites and the myriad of minorities that so many dismiss - as the media so often dismisses everything about Iraq. They share a common bond, united by experiences of tragedy.

Not one report out of Iraq while I was there was accurate. Even anti-war activists reported from the safe haven of Irbil with little knowledge of the facts on the ground. "Iraqis are warrior-like, they only understand violence," a US official told in my first meeting with her. Everything I had believed about Iraqis and the US military was found wanting. During the Baghdad security crackdown, no one reported the 10 US bombs falling every minute that I could hear. How could the victims have been counted?

Every day brought more pain, involving yet another person. "We will burn half of Baghdad. In six weeks, Saddam could stabilise this country," a Sunni Baath pilot, a member of the insurgent 20th Brigades told me, when asked what would happen when Saddam faced the gallows. "Democracy and freedom are not what we need here." I asked him how things were going to change as neighbourhoods divided along sectarian lines. He described in detail how anyone entering his neighbourhood would be shot or arrested, but his Shiite neighbours had left their keys with him before they fled the country. "We may no longer wear the army uniforms that only criminals do now, but we have never lost our abilities to protect and defend ourselves. You show weakness and you are lost."

Right after Saddam was executed, I spoke with a Christian Iraqi friend of mine. Her shoulders were hunched and she would jump at loud noises. "I cannot sleep," she said, "I am so sad." Another two Iraqis in the room spoke about the state of their country. The anger filled the room slowly like a cloud.   Outside were the guns, but it felt more dangerous in that room. Their voices sometimes wavered, sometimes were restrained. As I left the room, I said: "Inshallah khair" - hopefully, things will be better.  

"What khair?" they responded. Among our other colleagues was an extraordinarily gentle Shiite man, married to a Sunni, who overnight had become an IDP, an internally displaced person. He had to sleep at our workplace in Baghdad. He had the money, but Christians in the safer neighbourhoods refused to rent properties to a Muslim. One morning, he was not at his desk. He'd gone to visit his two young brothers in prison who had been held without charge for the last six months in Basra. They had been tortured and lost a lot of weight. "My brothers proved that they were not guilty; they showed all the evidence to the Americans," he told me, "but they have not faced trial. They are innocent." He is a kind man, and I believed him.

Shortly before I left Baghdad, there was further trouble. Based on a report I had written on the IDP crisis, I had designed a programme for the United Nations so that the Iraqi government could manage refugees more effectively. One senior Iraqi official, a Christian, was killed while working on the programme, shot dead with his driver at point blank range. It hit home. What if I hadn't been involved? Would it have happened? We had heard how kind and dedicated he was to his job. Other Iraqi officials refused to abandon the programme out of sheer determination. We will not give up, was their message, in his honour. But his name did not appear on any body count.

A day later, an Iraqi guard was killed outside our complex by an unknown sniper, who had taken pot-shots at our guards before. No records remember his deeds. And then, a colleague was arrested, a disabled Iraqi man. The police had rounded up residents on his street, examined their ID cards and, at first, let him go. Then he disappeared. Eventually the police let him go again, but not before they tortured him.

On May 5, our bodyguards were shot dead. The two brothers, Muamer and Wathab, had protected us with their lives. I had said my salaams the night before, and by morning their babies (one was three months old) had no fathers. But on the way to take the bodies to the morgue, their friends were being watched and followed by the same assailants. The janazah, or burial prayer, was conducted in haste at a site south of Fallujah; no one could attend.

That night was extremely difficult for all. These men spent their lives protecting people whom they didn't even know. What was most unexpected was that, as I went to sleep, instead of hearing men laughing and joking, the recitation of the Quran drifted across into the night from the rooftop. These men were a secular bunch and it was the first time I'd heard it in nearly nine months. But, still, no body count has accounted for these men.