March 13, 2007
As the United States-led occupation of Iraq is entering it’s fifth year, living conditions for Iraqis continue to deteriorate. While most Americans acknowledge this, they are not propelled to take the necessary actions to put an end to our country’s involvement in such suffering. Why? A large component is our country’s corporate media, which ignores or conceals the true impacts of war and occupation while focusing on “American interests.” In reality, these supposed interests harm our lives and ruin Iraq’s stability. If the mainstream media showed the extent to which Iraqis are suffering as a result of our country’s actions, it’s likely that more folks would rise up to call for an immediate end to the occupation.
What can we as activists do to combat inadequate media coverage? We can emphasize a human-rights-based framework by creating and supporting the media of resistance, using reports from human-rights groups and testimonies from Iraqis themselves to disseminate information about the real impacts of the occupation.
As young American activists that are appalled by our country’s actions abroad, it’s important for us to hear directly from Iraqi youth of similar age. Youth aged 13 to 25 comprise more than 63 percent of Iraq’s population, and due to their lack of rights and resources are vulnerable during times of war and occupation. Hearing from these often silenced voices gives activists new insights into Iraqi society while illuminating the thoughts of the nation’s future leaders. Most importantly, realizing the extent to which the lives of youth are being harmed will hopefully inspire us to use the power and resources we have (that we often take for granted) to radically change the situation for Iraqis. America is our country and ultimately, it is our responsibility to ensure that our government is acting in agreement with the people.
Life in a war zone
The lives of “Ahmad” and “Qasim,” two Iraqi youth whom WireTap interviewed in 2006, illustrate the experience of young people living in Baghdad: insufficient and unstable basic services, a lack of security due to violence, and inadequate government representation. Deficient services and violent environments put youth lives at risk. Those who survive feel disempowered and inhibited, are psychologically traumatized and may be motivated to participate in acts of violence. Either by choice or because of poverty, the majority of youth remain in Iraq to face exasperating conditions. The two young men I interviewed represent a growing minority of those seeking refuge abroad. There are now an estimated 1.2 to 1.8 million Iraqi refugees due to the occupation.
WireTap interviewed Ahmad and Qasim in July of 2006 in Amman, Jordan, about their experiences under the U.S. occupation. Sixteen-year-old Ahmad moved to Amman in early July 2006 with his family for temporary relief from the occupation. His father, a lawyer, remains in Baghdad until he can find work in Amman. Ahmad hopes to go to college in Jordan, and with a perfect score on the comprehensive exams, it is likely that he will be admitted to any university he wishes to attend.
Eighteen-year-old Qasim also moved to Amman in July 2006 with his brother to attend medical school. His father currently works in Bahrain as a veterinarian while his mother and sisters remain in Iraq, but they all hope to eventually converge in Jordan.
Ahmad and Qasim both opposed the supposed U.S. mission of liberating the Iraqi people from its onset of the war. Ahmad made it clear, saying, “I wasn’t afraid of the Americans, but I hated them when they came. What do you mean ‘freeing’ us? Why are you [really] in our affairs?” Qasim echoed this critique, stating, “You can’t possibly think [the Americans] are going to free you from your own self.” Both youth are Sunni Muslim Arabs, and during Saddam’s regime, both of their fathers had well-paying jobs. These factors strongly influence their attitudes towards the initial American invasion, although 71 percent of Iraqis now view (PDF) the U.S. presence as an occupying — not liberating — force and would like to see U.S. troops withdraw within a year.
The war grind: electricity, healthcare and education
What were the living conditions during these three years of occupation, which turned even the most ardent supporters of the United States against it? Ahmad and Qasim described the realities of life in Baghdad from May 2003 through June 2006, giving more recent accounts of the worsening conditions from 2004 — 2006 that have not yet been covered by any official U.N. study.
In 2004, 92 percent of households in Baghdad reported unstable electricity supply. While it is difficult to imagine, Ahmad and Qasim reported that access to this vital resource has significantly decreased in the past two years. In Ahmad’s neighborhood, people were getting as little as 30 minutes of electricity a day in June 2006.
Another mounting concern for Iraqis is access to public health care. Qasim explained, “There are a lot of victims in the streets, and the hospitals are filled with bodies,” so it is almost impossible to seek public treatment. People living in neighborhoods where the resistance is concentrated are often required to go to private doctors. He explained that if a family cannot afford this route and a serious injury needs to be addressed immediately, the chances of death increase dramatically.
Although the public schools and universities have not closed down in these high violence areas, the quality of education has suffered greatly. Both Ahmad and Qasim gave accounts of the difficulty of attending schools in these areas. The physical act of going and returning to school is dangerous because of American checkpoints and the threat of kidnap. The boys explain that being inside the school is also dangerous because there are often militia attacks against Americans in nearby areas and American troops or the Iraqi police might retaliate by directly hitting the schools. Because of the constant threat of violence, students and teachers alike are often late to class or simply cannot attend. Seventy five percent of Iraq’s students attended school during Ahmad and Qasim’s final year in Iraq. A recent study shows that the increase in violence has caused attendance rates to fall to an all-time low for the 2006-2007 school year, with only 30 percent of Iraq’s 3.5 million students attending classes.
Ahmad described one of many shootings at his school: “The Americans got targeted [one day], so they retaliated by hitting [my] school. They shot through the window and a boy inside was hit … The little kids in the school were scared, yelling and crying from the fear and the Americans. The teachers took [the injured child]. He was 15. There was blood everywhere. We returned home and went to school the next day.” Qasim gave a strikingly similar account in which the Iraqi police fired at his school in response to a bomb that had targeted the police station. The police claimed a sniper was on the roof of the school, but Qasim said this was untrue. Either way, the people that paid the price were the innocent injured youth in the classroom, who were subsequently rushed to the hospital.
Unsafe and stolen lives
The testimonies above allude to a problem greater than lack of adequate education: the general lack of security. It comes as no surprise that Ahmad and Qasim had many horrifying accounts of insecurity to share beyond the incidences in school alone.
Qasim’s first encounter with violence directed at his family and friends came only a few weeks after the war officially ended in 2003. Qasim’s father was returning to his family’s home in Baghdad with his assistant and driver. Due to heavy fog, the driver did not see a checkpoint that had been set up by the U.S. troops and failed to slow down. The troops reacted by firing at the car, hitting both Qasim’s father and assistant in the leg and killing the driver. Qasim’s father was then taken by the troops to a British prison to be interrogated and treated and was sent home after almost two weeks. Qasim explains: “I was in Baghdad [during this time] and our family was expecting him, but he didn’t come. I was praying [one day] and I heard the doorbell ring, so I answered it and I saw my father with his legs covered with bandages. I thank God for this. For a week and a half, I thought he was dead.”
Another major source of insecurity and violence in Baghdad is kidnapping. The Iraqi Police Service reported in 2004 that abductions now account for 70 percent of reported crime. In 2006, a group of people in a car tried to kidnap Qasim as he was returning from his graduation party: “They opened their car door and tried to get me to come with them by pointing their machine gun at me, but I just ran away.” Qasim stresses that many people are not so lucky. Indeed, Ahmad’s story of the kidnapping of his friend’s father is an example of the unfortunate turn these acts can take. Ahmad explains: “Recently, [the kidnappers] took my friend’s father and requested a ransom of 40,000 American dollars. From here and there, [his family] collected it and gave it to them. [Then his family] asked, ‘when can we go get him?’ [The kidnappers] said, ‘tomorrow.’ They called [the kidnappers] again the next day, and the kidnappers said ‘we don’t have him anymore.'”
Ahmad and Qasim also told me of instances involving Iraqi militias. Ahmad tells me of the time his brother was driving his car during the evening and spotted his friend, who warned him to be careful because fighters had been seen circling the area. His brother decided to return home. Ahmad states: “On his way back, the fighters shot at [him]. One bullet hit the car and one hit his shoulder. He returned home and [our family] took him to the doctor near us. We couldn’t go to the hospital because it was night and we are afraid that [the American soldiers] would hit us if they saw cars. The bullet hit him and left [his body]. Thank God, it could have been worse.”
Qasim’s account also involves Iraqi militias of a different nature: the government sponsored Iraqi security forces. “[One of my friends] is a waiter in a coffee shop. The security forces came and took him and the other waiters to the prison and tortured them by using electric shocks and beating them with sticks.” The Iraqis often complain that the security forces torture and murder innocent people (often due to their religious affiliation). Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have recently condemned the security forces, referring to them as “interior ministry death squads” and calling on the Iraqi government to move quickly to prosecute all Interior Ministry personnel responsible for the killings.
Both Ahmad and Qasim concluded these accounts by indicating that there are many more stories left untold. This suggests that every Iraqi knows of a friend or family member that was injured or killed. It is saddening to think of the ways in which this violence has and will continue to impact the lives and opinions of these two youth, who seem too young to have experienced so much brutality.
Families like Ahmad’s and Qasim’s are leaving Iraq in droves if they can afford to, flooding countries like Jordan and Syria. There are now an estimated 1.2 to 1.8 million Iraqi refugees due to the occupation and an additional 1.6 million internally displaced persons within Iraq. About 700,000 Iraqi refugees now live in Jordan, more than 60,000 live in Sweden, and only 202 were admitted to the United States in 2006.
Ahmad, who had been in Jordan for only two weeks when he was interviewed, illustrated some of the common struggles displaced people face: “Will I continue school here, in another country, return to Iraq, will Iraq return to normal? One cannot decide now. I want Iraq to return to normal and for the Americans to leave.” Ahmad recognized that his desires and the reality of the situation were completely different and this discrepancy will probably be a main contributor to his feelings of homelessness and alienation as a refugee. Qasim also described this agonizing split between his desires and reality as he shared his dream of attending the prestigious medical school in Baghdad. “Right now I can’t. I would be killed the first day of classes because I have [a common Sunni name],” he told me.
It can end
These are only two stories, but they represent the lives of millions of youth who will be impacted, if not traumatized, by the severe living conditions and skyrocketing violence in Iraq. Will they ever be able to experience a stable and secure life? How has the American invasion and occupation changed their ideas about social relations between different types of people from differing countries or ethnicities? If these youth decide to have families in the future, what ideas about relations with others will they pass on to their children? Who will pass it on to theirs, and so on? These questions are left unanswered, but we can assume that the future of Iraqi youth will be unfortunate if no significant change occurs. Here is a question we can answer: As Americans, what can we do to ensure that the human rights of Iraqis are being upheld? One obvious but necessary step is to convince our government to withdraw our troops and bases from the country as a first action in a larger process (based on sincerity and commitment) that will attempt to reverse the detrimental results of our actions in Iraq.