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Posted 09 March 2004 - 02:43 PM
I left Iraq with a feeling of sadness, but not the same sadness that I felt entering it. That was the sadness at the approach of the month of Muharram, but I left with the sadness that in this day and age, in the land of the Imams , still there are those who seek to extinguish the fire from the Revolution of Al-Hussain (S). They fear its remembrance, for it teaches all that blood shall always defeat the swords. And these swords are the same ones that belonged to the army of Yazeed, only their wielders now seek to mask their identity. The Shia have always been oppressed, be it by the poisoned pens or by the tyrant rulers, but under the wings of the imperial vulture seeking to overshadow Iraq, a false hope of respite and sanctuary had risen.
I arrived in Damascus International Airport at about 12.30am local time, but it took an hour to get through the bribe-prone officials manning the various 'security' controls. I was immediately greeted with bad news by my driver, who informed me that the border was closed, but a few people had managed to get through one way or another. He said that our best hope was to be there before sunrise, when there were fewer police and it is easier to negotiate a path into Iraq. On this information, I left immediately from the airport to the Iraqi border, without stopping. The Syrian roads are awful, their main highway is a single lane pot-holed road carved through never-ending hills and mountains. Needless to say there is no street lighting and only the most-experienced of drivers will do speeds over 120 km/h. We arrived at the Syrian control about 4.30am and I made my way to the passport control desk. A rather grumpy-looking man took a look at my passport, but threw it back rather roughly and said 'I'm off to sleep now, you will have to wait'. My initial disbelief was quickly set aside by anger and despite my pleading with him that only a small exit stamp that would take 10 seconds of his time was needed, he went into his room and locked the door. A two-hour wait inside this shoddy building surrounded by featureless desert with temperatures in the sub-zero range was not the best start to my trip. Needless to say there was no hospitality area, restaurants and cafes, but there were something resembling toilets. Thankfully, sleeping beauty awoke and duly smashed the stamp down on a new page in my passport (despite my telling him to do it on a partially filled one) and we were off. We paid the 'ikramiyah' (an almost official bribe) to one of the border guards to not search our car and hinder us any further and that was the last of the Syrian border. And that was the easy bit.
Having just entered the neutral zone, we came across what must have been a 3 mile queue of cars and lorries trying to enter Iraq. The driver swerved onto the rough and careered past hundreds of vehicles until we reached the border post. A small sign printed in Arabic and broken English read 'border closed due to security reasons, please return to Syria'. A crowd had formed around a weary looking official (it was 6.45am), everyone wanted to know if they would open the border soon. The reply was 'Maybe, the Americans have closed it, it is up to them'. In the language of corrupt officials that means 'I'll let you through for the right amount'. It was bitterly cold and some had complained that they had been sleeping in the border for 4 days with nowhere to go. They cited an obscure regulation by the Syrian authorities that meant their visas would be made void if they re-entered Syria. I realised that this also applied to me and became aware that if I did not enter Iraq at this opportunity, I wouldn't be able to again in this entire trip.There were heated exchanges with the border guards but to no avail. At one point things got so bad that they started firing their guns into the air to clear the area. We waited, but with no toilets, shops or rest area and freezing temperature, the desert is a graveyard. I saw women and children huddled together in their cars, condensation covering the windows. Apparently, things had got so perilous for one family that they decided to cross the border illegally, by driving across the sand. The Americans spotted them and fired on them with a helicopter gunship killing them all.
It reached about 3pm and finally some American soldiers arrived. I asked why we couldn't enter Iraq and they said that at the request of the Iraqi Governing Council, the border had been closed. This was because a few days earlier, 4 terrorists had entered through this border crossing and blown up a police station. I told them that there were families here who only wanted to return home, why couldn't they search them and then let them in? They shrugged their shoulders and said they were only following orders. A couple brought their young son who seemed to be very ill and asked only for medical attention, but they were turned back. A man brought his wheelchair-bound mother who had left Iraq a week ago to visit the Sayyeda Zaynab (S) to ask why she couldn't be let back in to her own country, but likewise they were waved away. Things got desperate, the night had come and some had decided to turn back and try their luck with the Syrians, to let them back into Syria. However, my instinct told me there was hope from the words of the guard we spoke to at dawn. We bided time, and by 11.30pm the Americans had withdrawn. This was our opportunity. Our driver sped to the post, handed over $200 to the guard and quickly made his way past. It happened so fast, I don't think anyone noticed what had happened. We then went to the passport control desk and placed $20 in each of our passports. The smiling official stamped our passports and warmly said 'Welcome to Iraq'. Another $10 ensured we avoided the car and luggage search and entered Iraq with relative ease. Now I understand how any terrorist could enter Iraq easily, with $200 you can buy both countries' border guards and enter with a car-load of weapons. We stayed the night in the car in one of the rest areas on the highway as it was too dangerous to drive at night. I arrived home in Baghdad at 9.30am, two days after I had set off from London. Although I was very tired, I set out to Al-Kadhimiyyah for Ziyara almost immediately because I had promised to do so if I got through the border, what is known as a 'nithir'.
I spent my first couple of days in Baghdad, which seemed to have improved only slightly since my previous visit in the summer. There was a heavy and visible police presence in the city, which seems to have replaced the Americans as the main security force. Indeed, the lack of speeding American Humvees and teenage machine-gun wielding soldiers was apparent. Even at the gates of most government buildings or American bases were scrawny ICDC (Iraqi Civil Defence Corps) guards. No wonder the majority of explosions on American targets have hit Iraqis, they pay them $200 a month to become sitting ducks. In some ways, the city looks more at war now than it did last year. Everywhere you look there is barbed wire and concrete-blocks mounted around all kinds of buildings: schools, offices, police stations, hotels, even internet cafe Despite the large numbers of Iraqi police now patrolling the city in their shiny new 4x4s, there are still areas you do not venture into after 9pm. We were returning home late night and had to cut across one such area and we promptly saw a car-jacking in progress. A gang with pistols and automatic machine guns had trapped a car on the road using their cars as road blocks. We sped away and informed the first police patrol we came across. They replied that they weren't being paid enough to risk their lives and they drove away from the area in retreat. For Iraqis, $300 a month is a sizeable wage, but the lawlessness gripping the country means that it has become the price of a human life, and some will argue it is even much less than that.
The city centre was a nightmare, the traffic was horrendous, drivers of newly-imported and unregistered cars competed with taxis over priority. Cars driving on the wrong side of the road on to oncoming traffic was now a normal thing. You even see a double decker bus manoeuvring on the pavement (sidewalk) to try to escape the traffic. To make matters worse, the poor souls employed as traffic police were having nervous breakdowns as every single one of their instructions was ignored. The only bright thing for drivers was that petrol was now available in abundance and queues had disappeared, the rate still being 20 dinars per litre (equivalent to 1.5 cents a litre). Police checkpoints were a regular sight but you felt that they were too unprofessional and under-trained to be effective. One evening, I was returning home from an internet café ©n an upmarket area when I heard a gunshot about 50 yards in front of me. I could see a car speeding off into the distance. As I got closer, I saw a middle-aged man lying dead on the floor with blood pouring from the bullet wound in his head. A crowd made up of the local shopkeepers gathered (I noticed they all had guns) and some said this was a feud over money while one man who claimed to know the victim said he was a Baathi and this was score-settling. The police arrived much belatedly and set-up a roadblock checkpoint in the area in the silly hope of finding the attackers. This was a regular event in Baghdad and typified the security situation.
Another was kidnapping, it has reached such highs that men are afraid to go to work and parents have withdrawn their children from school. One story doing the rounds in my neighbourhood was of a small girl who was abducted on the way back from school. A telephone call was made to her parents informing them that they had 10 days to gather the $10,000 ransom or they would never see her again. The mother fell into hysteria as their financial situation was so bad they had no hope of ever gathering such an amount. The poor father went round to his relatives and friends and managed to raise about $4000. On the 10th day, the kidnappers called and were told that this is all the family could raise. They slammed the phone down and the family were left fearing the worst. A few days later, one of the gang of kidnappers called the girl's home late in the night and told them where they could find their daughter. He gave an address of a house in an industrial area of Baghdad which is particularly dangerous to walk through at nights. Apparently an argument had broken out between the gang and this man had enough of a conscience to call the family. The father went straight to the police, but they told him they would not come out with him at this late hour (it was about 2am) because they were too scared. The father resorted to calling a few friends and relatives who armed themselves and went to the address given. Upon entering, he found dozens of small children and young women in a large, dark room. He started calling out his daughter's name and he heard her reply but as if being dragged away. He realised there was a staircase next to the room at the top of which some woman was trying to push his daughter. He got hold of his daughter and left the building, giving the police the entire details. Apparently some 20 families received their loved ones back when the police raided the building the next day. These stories are rife on the streets and provoke much fear, among the rich and poor equally.
Each area of Baghdad looked like a separate town, they contrast hugely. Enter Al-Aadhamiyyah, a mainly Sunni area with a reputation for being pro-Saddam. This was the place where Saddam made his last public appearance in front of a cheering crowd and the Imam Abu Hanifa mosque is where he fought his last stand against American troops before fleeing. It is a typical downtown area, masses of shops and restaurants, with pop music beating out regularly. An unveiled woman is the norm and you will frequently see spray-painted comments on walls about Saddam being the heroic leader. One such piece read 'Patience, Patience O people of Iraq, the great battling leader Saddam Hussain shall return'. Underneath it, someone had scribbled in Iraqi slang 'Return my arse'. That was the only smile I managed in this area, for most residents will tell you that the slogan is 'wa sa tabqa Al-Aadhamiyyah Baathiyah' meaning 'And Al-Aadhamiyyah will remain Baathi'. Black flags and banners are what greet you in the suburbs of Sadr City, with the voice of some Islamic speaker ringing out on cassette players. On each street corner there is a picture of some local martyr or that of the patron of the area, Sayyid Muhammad Al-Sadr. The sidewalks are crowded, little children crouched over their merchandise which they plead with you to buy. Beggars move between cars in traffic, hoping to receive a few dinars in their outstretched hands. A woman sits on the ground with two infants in her arms, she doesn't seem to have even the will to speak, her heartbreaking situation is ignored by all who stream past her. Suddenly the sound of drumbeats breaks out, a mourning procession comes into view. Men and young boys with zanjeels (chains) swing them against their backs in tandem, while marching in perfect order.
A relative of mine wanted to apply for a job in a factory that was opening soon, he had fixed an appointment with the manager and took me along. Apparently, the manager is a powerful man, a friend and deputy of the Trade Minister who oversees many new operations. Immediately upon entering his office, I felt uneasy, there was something that was not right about this man. His speech and manner was off-putting, his style was not that of a business manager. He said there were no jobs at the moment and that he could not even employ his son (an unlikely story) because his budget was so tight. He then digressed into how he had to look for poorly-paid jobs under Saddam because he spent his years in hiding. Somehow, this seemed a lie because his office was decorated with a style of someone used to a lavish lifestyle. We left without a result, but bumped into a worker who was off-duty. After some brief conversation, he told us that in fact the manager was an ex-Security official for the Baathi government in Basrah and had come to Baghdad under a new guise. He told us that no-one would say anything because they feared losing their jobs and feared him because of his connections. I was told that this was happening all over Iraq, Baathis taking up high-ranking posts because of their connections.
We made a few trips by car to Karbala before the walk and also to Najaf. It was there that I managed to meet with Sayyid Seestani. The little avenue leading to his house off Rasool Street had guards stationed at the corner. They were armed and one had a metal scanner in his hand. Standing with them was a young scholar who answered queries about the Sayyid and his office. After much negotiation I was allowed through to go to the Sayyid's house. The avenue is very narrow, with old houses lining it so that you cannot even look up and see the sun. A guard opened the door to the house and led me through to see Sayyid Muhammad Ridha Seestani, the Sayyid's son. I explained to him that I wanted a short audience with the Sayyid but he insisted that there were too many demands on his time and perhaps I should come back another day. I persisted and he finally relented in allowing me a 10 minute meeting. I was seated in a small waiting area adjacent to the main room. Eventually I was beckoned in, where the Sayyid was seated on the floor. I greeted him and apologised for taking up his time, then I rolled out my list of questions. The Sayyid was in good health, he smiled frequently and focused his attention entirely on what the speaker was saying. He never turned away when I was speaking and would not interrupt me until I finished talking. He does have a thick Iranian accent, but he does understand Iraqi slang and his replies in Arabic, whilst formal, were quite clearly said. He understood immediately what the question was and his replies were without hesistation. He was quite astute and his replies were said in certainty. He was seated on the floor and invited me to sit next to him. His voice was soft and his face quite warm and friendly. Even though this feeling of overwhelming respect was hovering inside, his humbleness relaxed me throughout the meeting. His house was very simple, we were served some traditional tea and offered biscuits. There were a few books piled in the corner and withstanding the electric ceiling fan, you would not be able to tell the difference between this house and one in 1904. The only sight of furniture was chairs for those in the waiting area. I conveyed the greetings of all ShiaChatters to the Sayyid who told me he was very proud of those who did not let distance stop them from gaining Islamic knowledge. I asked him a few personal questions such as his newfound voice in politics and his keeping himself in his house, and the Sayyid replied with a smile and short answer that 'you do what is best at the time'.
We began the walk to Karbala in the early hours on the 8th of Muharram. We were in Kadhimiyyah on the previous night where we attended the various majalis. Our group consisted of some of my relatives and friends from our area. We were a group of about 20 young men, each carrying a flag bearing Imam Hussain's (S) name and a bag containing provisions. We walked for about 2 hours at a time, stopping off to rest in tents set up by locals who lived along the route. We were invited to eat, drink and sleep, even shower before we set off again. The hospitality of these people was unbelievable and it made the journey almost easy. We stayed the night in a tent on the outskirts of a town called Iskandiriya and we set off again at dawn. By midday many of us had blistered feet, but the sight of seeing people walk barefoot made us ignore the pain.
We entered Karbala at 8pm on the 9th of Muharram, having passed at least three checkpoints where we were searched. But this was an under-prepared security operation, not able to cope with the millions of pilgrims whom we saw in Karbala. The zanjeel processions criss-crossed the area by the shrines, with latmiyyat blasting out from hundreds of speakers. We managed to find a suitable place to rest in the walkway between the shrine of Al-Abbas and Al-Hussain . There we left half the group with the bags while the other half went to do the Ziyara. There were officials who searched you rigidly on entry, but the crowds often surged past them. There were so many people that you dared not bend down to pick up your shoe that had come off, for fear of being trampled on. The atmosphere was supercharged, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. It was a miracle that I actually made it to the dhareehs (the graves), not only was it so crowded, but the crush on my chest almost made me faint. One old man next to me was picked up by his son and thrown towards the grave so that he could reach it. Majalis were being read by several scholars and we eventually decided to set down opposite the shrine of Imam Al-Hussain (S). We managed to find a small space next to a tent housing Iranian pilgrims, but it got so uncomfortable and crowded that we decided to find another place. Apparently, it was next to this tent that one of the bombs eventually went off. We found some space in tents further away and slept the night there. After Fajr prayers, breakfast was handed out and we watched the processions that marched into Karbala.
After about 8.30am, we decided to try to make our way back to the shrine of Imam Al-Hussain (S) so that we could hear the Maqtal (story of his death) being read out. On our way there, as we were opposite the shrine of Al-Abbas (S) coming from the Baghdad Road, a loud explosion went off. It came from the direction of the Imam Al-Hussain (S) shrine. Suddenly the crowd of people started running and were coming towards us. We had no option but to turn back with them, or be trampled on. After about 2 minutes, another explosion went off, it seemed closer. We had stopped by now to see what was happening and after about 3 minutes, we started moving forward again. A few seconds later another bomb went off, this was the closest yet. We walked into one of the hotel lobbies, fearing anything could go off next to us. It was like an air raid, you thought bombs were being dropped. There was smoking rising above both shrines and there was a lot of shouting and screaming. People were running in all directions, desperately clinging on to each other. We stepped out to see what had happened but then another bomb went off. This was the biggest one and it shook us. Glass from the nearby buildings started raining down and we ran for cover. A lot of smoke and dust clouded over the area and we done a head count to make sure we were all together. After a few minutes, I decided to go and see what had happened. My relatives were trying to hold me back but I insisted on going forward. I saw the first few people being carted away, blood covering their bodies. As I got closer, I saw police trying to carry away the injured. What was worse was that there were some bodies whom people simply covered and didn't move. These were the ones who died instantly. Small fires were burning and people calling out various names. A woman was hysterically looking for her child, she would inspect each of the bodies before going to the next. I tried to think how I could help, refer to my basic medical training, but when I saw the state of some of the victims, I knew I couldn't do anything. The closer I went, the worse the scene. I saw one man with his leg severed but hanging at the thigh by a tether. I saw a small child, his clothes drenched in blood lying next to what seemed to be body parts of his father. There was a head and torso attached, but no arms. The legs were missing as well. Ambulance crews were struggling to get past the crowds, so people resorted to lifting the injured themselves or wheeling them away on carts. Photographers from the media started taking photos of the bodies, but people soon became agitated and started threatening them. It was chaos, many Iranians were screaming and crying, a bomb had gone off next to one of their groups. Bodies littered the streets, those that weren't carried away were draped with a cloth. I counted over 30 dead bodies at the scene. Amazingly, after a short while, the processions started up again. People started coming into the shrines again and it seemed that the bombs were not going to stop the events of the day. Within half an hour, an incredible sight unfolded in front of me, ambulances carried away the dead, while mourners were marching into the shrines doing zanjeel. I eventually left about 11.30am, convinced by my relatives to go back to Baghdad to inform our worried family and friends that we were unharmed.
I was greatly hurt to discover that the Kadhimiyyah shrine was bombed too, because we had friends who were there that day. The next couple of days were spent attending funerals of those who had died in the blast. One of them was a man who had family members executed in 1991, and he leaves behind two small daughters and his wife. There were very few Americans on the streets, fearing a backlash against them. Most people agreed that suicide bombings were the work of Wahhabis but few ruled out American involvement. The common view was that America was at least aware of these attacks, if not the planner behind it. There was a lot of anger on the street, people speaking about using militias to control their areas and waging war against any foreign presence in the holy sites. I managed to make a visit to Samarrah, which was a depressing site. Some of the Iraqi security officials there wore the old uniforms of the Baath regime and the state of the shrines was miserable. There were no books in site and no Ziyara hung on the wall. The shrines and surrounding area were in need of heavy investment.
I had an uneventful journey back to London, stopping over to visit the Sayyeda Zaynab (S). It was a spiritually uplifting journey that was soured by the attacks, but they only reinforced my pride in being a Shia and determination to make our cause known. I too had thought that now Saddam had gone, we would see a golden era of freedom and education, but that is not what the powers that be want for us. For the first time, I really see the possibility of war in Iraq being close, not a civil one, but one against the occupying forces. If the Americans want to avert this, they should either drastically improve the security situation or leave and let the Iraqis deal with these problems.
The banner hanging on my house in Baghdad. The couplet at the bottom reads 'He belied death for Al-Hussain is alive, As time goes by his rememberance is renewed'
The graveyard at Najaf, where millions are buried
A photo of me on the way to Karbala
A photo of Al-Abbas (S) which I brought back with me. The first time I saw it, I cried
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