By Banen Al-Sheemary, University of Michigan alumna
Follow Banen on Twitter @balsheem
Ten years ago today, I remember sitting in front of the television watching the sky turn bright yellow from the massive blasts. Slowly, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction: absolute silence.
That was the first time I had seen my parents watch the TV news without voicing an opinion. I only saw their sullen silence as they watched their beloved country explode into flames.
My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the quintessentially American good guy / bad guy mentality, to which many unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had we done wrong? Why is it America’s right to invade and change it? I looked over at my parents again and I could tell their hearts were reeling.
“Believe it. Liberation is coming,” said an arrogant George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn, a city in Michigan with the largest Iraqi diaspora community in the United States. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon be gone. But what I didn’t know was what would become of Iraq.
Soon I would find the answer: under the guise of cynically named Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the Iraq I knew would be completely destroyed.
March 20, 2003 marked the day I was able to return to the country from which my family fled as refugees in the early nineties. It was the day “Shock and Awe” began (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8OkP5yHArM). CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything as severe as the attack on Baghdad. With no concern for civilian life, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s genocidal “shock and awe” bombardment on the people of Iraq was America’s quick and easy solution to its imperialist intent for the country.
In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. Now, it is a nation of 4.5 million orphans, 2 million widows, over 4 million refugees, with over half the total population in the country living in slums.
This is the new Iraq.
As the Bush Administration boasted about its murderous accomplishments, all I could see was the rising Iraqi body count. The post-2003 Iraq is not the country my parents longed for.
Barred from returning to Iraq until 2003, I will never know the country in which I was born. I was too young to remember my family fleeing during the first invasion of Iraq. Before we fled, we got rid of all our belongings. My baby pictures were burned to ensure that when Saddam’s thugs checked, there would be no proof of my existence. It was as if my identity was erased, and until March 20th, 2003, I was locked from the this part of my life.
From Operation Desert Storm, to the sanctions of the Clinton Administration and the 2003 occupation, I still couldn’t decipher the US Government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was consistently sure of was the jingoistic attitude that pervaded every American administration and that shaped a foreign policy meant to degrade human life.
Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions to date. Iraq was broken and denied any ability to thrive, even in the most basic of ways. These brutal sanctions led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. My older sister recalls Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine K Albright’s infamous interview in which she was asked if the price of half a million Iraqi children was worth it. She simply said: “We think the price is worth it.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PgpbQfxgo).
It was an easy decision for the Clinton Administration to make on behalf of all Iraqis, because Iraq was forced to pay. As young as I was, I understood that people of different religions and backgrounds weren’t treated as equals. The dangerous underlying notion that certain people are more worthy of life than others heavily shapes American foreign policy and is upheld from one administration to the next.
In retrospect, the amount of propaganda that fueled and attempted to legitimize the war is staggering. I recall watching the news and being angry at the distorted images of Iraq and its people. I now understand how the media engineered public opinion to justify the invasion. Maintaining the “us versus them” binary was crucial in validating the administration’s agenda and furthering the so-called War on Terror. Soon enough, I heard my classmates echo these falsities and other absurd made-for-CNN headlines. I’ll hold back on the silly names I’ve been called as a result of this.
Hearing my parents’ stories about Iraq helped me put the pieces together. The story starts in their young adult years.
My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, the country was a powerhouse of academia with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. As was required by the state, my mother enjoyed free transportation to work and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world resulted in economic and social reform.
My family resides in southern Iraq and we, amongst others, have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades. Many of the conversations I have about post-Saddam Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” However, the sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation all left millions of Iraqis with broken homes, empty fridges and bleak prospects for the future. Whether under totalitarian rule or a foreign occupation, millions of Iraqis are still suffering. The meaningless discussion of which regime Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.
Ten years passed. In my University of Michigan classes, discussions about Iraq still revolve around that same foolish debate. The outright denial of the claim that oil played a decisive role in the invasion is still somehow considered a legitimate stance.
It was time for me to return and experience the Iraq of today.
January 2012 marked my first return to Iraq. Before my flight, I sat in the airport reading as the time passed. Hundreds of American soldiers returning from Iraq were received by family and friends, applause, and even a news crew. I shook my head because of what the soldiers represented to me. For many, they symbolize freedom, nobility, and honor. To Iraqis, they are the physical embodiment of terror, supremacism and occupation.
I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my criticisms of American policies in Iraq and refusal to support the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. Most Americans equated support for the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, with a complete disregard for the consequences of war and foreign occupation.
Iraq has become fragmented and pieced. I think of how long it will take to assemble the pieces back together, and to try to bring together those shards of glass that once made a beautiful piece of work.
Nowadays, the occupation dictates every aspect of Iraqi life. The remnants of the brutal invasion manifest themselves on the faces of the people that continue to live and struggle there everyday. Suicide and car bombings, fighting between armed militias, kidnappings, and snipers result in a feeling of despair and no sense of security. Simple everyday tasks like walking to a local market or sending children off to school became impossible.
On my first day back in Iraq, massive explosions rocked Baghdad. I was awakened to the realities of this so-called newly democratic country. Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. They could not even fulfill this basic necessity. Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day. Birth defects will continue for decades because of the depleted uranium weaponry used by American soldiers (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/2013312175857532741.html).
This was Iraq.
“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history” stated Barack Obama, in an address marking the supposed end of the occupation of Iraq. America will remember it as history, but Iraqis live through it every day.
I shy away from reading articles on the commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, written by journalists who don’t understand. I become frustrated and always stop after reading just the headline. I laugh at every mention of the ‘lessons to be learned’ so that America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of sorrow, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profit off of an occupation that cut Iraq from any lifeline it had. The fortress called the U.S. embassy, staffed by thousands of foreign soldiers, stands as a permanent reminder of the occupation. America is able to move forward and rebuild its economy, but Iraq and its people must endure the harsh realities of the unwelcoming decades to come.
A lesson to learn from Iraqis is one of human dignity and perseverance through trying times. Have we learned? In a new documentary covering Dick Cheney’s legacy, he mentions, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” And today, mainstream media outlets and the government aggressively continue to build a case against Iran, eerily reminiscent of what we saw ten years ago.
We will never learn until they stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, as means to an end, as valueless unknowns.
My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation had made it too dangerous to travel there in earlier years. One afternoon, my uncle and I drove through Hilla. I forced him to speak about the occupation. After an hour of hearing horrendous stories of crimes committed by American soldiers, he tiredly says, “We are nothing to them. To America, we are simply strategic. Through their eyes, our lives aren’t worth anything.” That was the end of the conversation.
I noticed that Iraqis never speak of the occupation. It was like a faint, unthinkable memory. I sensed that Iraqis have perseverance built within them because of the decades of unrest that they have lived through; they keep on living every day as they can. These are the Iraqis that are reconstructing what is rightfully theirs.
Everyday Iraqis have been partaking in reconstructing Iraq after a destructive occupation in which they were robbed of their agency, future and country. Iraqis create and expand projects as the current government continues to neglect the citizen’s needs. Upper class Iraqi citizens and expatriates living in the West play a role in funding these projects. Many social service facilities are being rebuilt, with a focus on widows, orphans, the elderly, and disabled. Whether it is building bridges or starting up a water filter company, these projects are opening doorways for job opportunities and steadily decreasing unemployment rates. Despite the lack of security and political and economic turmoil, the hardships that Iraqis face are slowly easing and will be ultimately resolved by the resilient Iraqis that continue to resist and struggle for a better life. Iraqis are forging a path of their own to recreate their Iraq: one away from the government’s corrupted plans and free from the American occupation’s stifling grasp.
Ten long and painful years have passed. The orphan Mustafa from Baghdad says “I feel like a bird in a cage here. I wish there was someone to listen to us.”
Iraqis are listening. I see the same resilience and perseverance in Iraqis that I see in my parents. Years will pass before Iraq will prosper, but I see a future for Iraq because of the millions who are working for it.
When I visit Iraq I smile and blink the tears away. The anger from my heart dissipates when I see shops open for business, human rights organizations assisting widows and orphans, and college students organizing an event for Iraqis. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it- and they will succeed. This is Iraq.