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 Notes from Iraq

May 1, 2003
No. 2

jeff Mahasen

Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin are in Iraq for National Catholic Reporter.

Their reports will be posted to as they become available. Check the Web site regularly for updates.

Since 1998, Guntzel has helped coordinate Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the sanctions against Iraq. He has led seven fact-finding missions to Iraq.

Nasser-Eldin, fluent in English and Arabic, has traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, has studied the Iraqi educational system for UNICEF and as a researcher for Human Rights Watch studied the Kurds.  

Crossing the Border; Now let us see the destruction

By Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin

Crossing the Border

We left Amman yesterday at 3 a.m., which put us at the Iraq/Jordan border at dawn. Since the collapse of the regime, daylight is the safest time to travel. Still, roadside robbers have been stripping carloads of journalists and aid workers of cash, equipment, and supplies.

The Jordanian border was crowded with cars bought by Iraqis in the free zone at al-Zarqa, with no license plates, queuing to get into Iraq. After having our passports stamped by the Jordanians we drove off to the Tarbil Iraqi Border, where we were met by American soldiers and their Kuwaiti assistants. The Kuwaitis were organizing the long queue of cars and threatening travelers by shooting in the air and swearing at Iraqis. As we pulled towards the front of the line, an American soldier greeted Razzaq, our Iraqi driver, in Arabic with a lousy accent saying, "Sabakh al-kir (good morning)". Razzaq mumbled, "They have destroyed us."

"Don't tell me there are Americans in the car." the soldier remarked. "Where are you from?" he asked Jeff with a concerned curiosity.

"Chicago," Jeff replied.

"You with the press?" the soldier asked, head cocked.

"Ah …yeah."

"Why did you hesitate?"

"Here's my press card. I write for the National Catholic Reporter."

"What are you really here for?"

"I'm here to write."

Then it was over. The soldier handed us back our passports and we were on our way. Once through the American checkpoint and inside Iraq, cars and trucks gather at the side of the road and leave in convoys for Baghdad -- safety in numbers.

Razzaq, our Iraqi driver, is an old friend. A gentle man in his late 30s, he knows the road to Baghdad like the back of his hand. We learned from Razzaq that cars with Jordanian license plates are more at risk of being looted than cars with Iraqi license plates. That gave us a small sense of relief and six hours later we reached Baghdad safely.

To say that a cityscape ravaged by war is "surreal" is a cliché. Still, no better word comes. Burnt out tanks and anti-aircraft guns littered the shoulder of the highway. Buildings were collapsed or sliced through the middle by bombs and missiles. Others were stripped and burned by looters and arsonists. There were people around, but the city felt empty.

As we passed up slow moving U.S. military vehicles, Razzaq looked straight ahead. It was the same "nothing unusual here" face Iraqis once made when passing Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces.


Now let us see the destruction …

"Now let us see the destruction," Dr. Othman al-'Ani said softly as we made our way to the obstetric ward of the al-Yarmuk Teaching Hospital. Fortunately there were no patients in the obstetric ward when it was hit either by coalition bombs or anti-aircraft ordnance falling back to earth. The hospital's administration evacuated the hospital after receiving word of an advancing column of more than 100 American armored vehicles.

Today, despite the absence of the Ministry of Health and a city in a state of chaos, Baghdad's second largest medical facility is functioning again. Patients, students and staff fill most wards and the U.S. Army is parked at the hospital gates.

"When they want to protect any corner in our city, they can do it," Dr. al-'Ani told us. "And they did that for the Ministry of Oil. They put their forces there. [The looters] could not touch it." It was five more days before American forces showed up at the hospital.

Later we spoke with a woman resident, Dr. Nagham, at the hospital who had come daily to work until just before the fall of Baghdad, when the bombing in the area surrounding the hospital was too heavy for her to make the commute. Living under a regime that never showed weakness, Dr. Nagham expected war but not occupation. Now, she struggles to look forward.

"I hope that they will fulfill what they told us they'll do," Dr. Nagham said. "We hope … but until now we haven't seen anything. In fact, if they were worried about the people they would not have done what they did. If they cared about the people they would not have killed all of the people they killed. We were receiving dead bodies and body parts delivered by private cars. The ambulances were not enough. I have never seen anything so appalling and dreadful."

Tonight, gunshots ring out from many corners of the city and tanks rumble down the street outside our hotel. An Iraqi man told us today that he no longer feels safe walking the streets, "Some shoot to kill, some shoot as a warning, and some shoot to let you know they have guns to sell."

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