Iraq is Beautiful

but what does that have to do with anything?
Mary Trotochaud and Rick McDowell

Jon Alvarez, formerly a dogged “anti-Peace Council” activist and currently a US Army soldier in Iraq, recently sent the accompanying postcard to SPC. In case you have trouble reading his note, his basic message is: everything is wonderful now that the US has liberated Iraq. Jon ends with the message “It’s great to see it all first hand and to see how truly wrong you all were.”

There is one part of this message with which we and Jon can agree: Iraq is beautiful.

Mostly, his message is disturbing. It misrepresents Iraqi reality. It claims a success for this war that is untrue. Our own experience in Iraq and recent phone conversations with Iraqi friends portray a much different picture of what the war and occupation has brought to Iraq.

Displacement of Freedom and Security
When we speak of security in Iraq, one thing is certain – security is relative. Every Iraqi we’ve spoken to in the past few months says that security has improved. People are able to get out and move around a bit more…but.

These statements are always qualified. In Baghdad, where blast walls have gone up around government buildings, schools, markets, hotels, banks and other buildings, and concrete barriers surround each neighborhood, some walls are coming down. Our friend Rashad spoke to us of the concrete walls coming down in her neighborhood, which means that she no longer has to walk for blocks to visit her nearby neighbors. But she cautions that the walls that separate one neighborhood from another remain and Baghdad is a segregated city.

The ethnic cleansing that has taken place over the past couple of years has resulted in a very different city than six years ago. Few neighborhoods remain mixed and an estimated 2.8 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq. For many, their family homes, in the neighborhoods where their parents and grandparents grew up, are inaccessible. The shared ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq which made the society culturally rich is shattered. Can this wary calm of displacement and segregation be called freedom?

Much of the violence that has wracked the country has abated. But again this is relative. During the worst period (2005), the estimate of suicide bombings was 478. In 2008 there were over 115. A substantial decrease, but to those who are in the “wrong place at the wrong time” these statistics are meaningless. Our good friend Samir was dining at a restaurant in Kirkuk before last Christmas when a suicide bomb gutted the building, killing at least 61 and injuring 75. Samir and a friend were among the lucky ones who survived with injuries. Samir wrote: “It was a truly horrific scene to see with your own eyes: flying bodies that were scattered here and there, including parts of your own, and the smell of gunpowder filling the place. People who only moments before sought only happiness were suddenly bleeding, mutilated, burned and their bodies dismembered.”

When we ask friends if we can return to Iraq, they joyfully respond yes, return… but.

Fr. Yusef says, “It is safer for us Iraqis, but it is not yet safe enough for you to return.” Our former neighbor Ramsey asks us if we remember what Baghdad was like in 2004 and 2005 when the ethnic cleansing started and suicide/car bombs and kidnappings increasingly forced thousands of Iraqis out of their homes and country. He continues, “Today is better than last year or the year before, it is more like it was in 2005 when you were here and forced to leave.”

The enormous displacement of people from their homes is catastrophic. In addition to the internally displaced, an estimated 2.4 million Iraqis are refugees, living predominately in neighboring countries. Since 2006, only 290,000 internally displaced or refugees have returned to their homes. Much of Iraq’s educated middle class has left.
Iraqi widows receive food handouts in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah District, November 19, 2008. Photo: 2nd Lt. Brendan McNichol on

It is impossible to completely understand the impact this diaspora has on a society. When families are forced to flee their communities, they leave behind homes which are often taken over by other people. Friendships are destroyed and families are split apart. Children’s education is disrupted. Family income is lost as jobs become inaccessible. Access to the food ration is disrupted. In a country where most people are unemployed or underemployed, the government food ration keeps an estimated 7.5 million people from hunger.According to a doctor we spoke with last week, the food ration has dropped from 10-12 items to only three.

The enormous exodus of health and education professionals from the country has left hospitals with few senior staff and schools without teachers. This means that new interns, like our friend Mohammed, are doing rounds with few if any senior doctors to train them and are treating casualties from car bombings without any emergency room training. He, like many other young educated Iraqis, is looking for educational opportunities and jobs outside of Iraq, not by choice but by necessity. Who will rebuild the most important systems in Iraq?

Of the 2.4 million Iraqis who have been forced to flee their country, only a tiny fraction will be relocated to new countries. For them, the daily fears of death and destruction are past but at the cost of separation from family and friends. Many struggle to find work and deal with depression and loneliness. They are still the lucky ones as millions remain refugees in countries where they cannot work and will not be given citizenship.

Increasingly, Iraqis in exile live in poverty spending the last of their savings to survive. They will not be given asylum. They look at a future that holds two probabilities. They could end up like the Palestinian refugees unable to return home and unable to become citizens elsewhere. Alternatively, if or when they return to Iraq, many will be homeless as they have sold their homes or others have taken them over.

Iraqis Piecing Iraq Back Together
There are over 1 million widows in Iraq struggling to feed and raise children. There are countless women whose husbands have disappeared or been imprisoned. Over a million Iraqis have died since the US invaded. Each person was a mother, father, sister or brother or child to someone. Untold numbers have been injured and will bear emotional and physical scars for a lifetime.

Violence against women and girls is widespread and increasing, with 21% of women reporting experiencing physical violence in the home. In Baghdad, less than 30% of children aged 6-11 have regularly attended school in the past two months. Only 31% of homes in Iraq’s second largest city, Basrah, have reliable access to clean water.

 After almost six years of war, no Iraqi has been left unscathed. Many have lost homes, jobs, friends, neighbors and family. For the children of Iraq their future has been gravely or irreparably compromised because of the violence and death they have witnessed or suffered. The poverty and lack of food and clean water they’ve endured, the injuries borne, the disruption or end of education they will live with.

Displacement, separation, bereavement: how long does it take for people to heal and go on with life? What measure of peace or freedom can come from this kind of suffering?

In the end, Jon is right about one thing: Iraqis “are working to make this a better place to live.” They, of course, are the only ones who can make Iraq a better place to live. They are doing this not because of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq but in spite of it. They are working around the obstacles of occupation. They are working over the sorrows of loss. They are working because it is their country, their homes, their families and their lives.

It is time for the foreign soldiers to come home and get out of the Iraqis’ way so they can rebuild and move on.

Mary and Rick were in Baghdad from 2003 to 2005, then lobbied Congress to end the Iraq war for the Friends Committee on National Legislation for two years. They live in Maine