My life in the Red Zone

Nothing can lift the mist of sadness of this excruciating, painful year I spent in Iraq.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'I only know of one duty. That is to love." One particularly threatening day in April 2006, I had this quote by Albert Camus printed in large capital letters and hung over my desk in my new office in the red zone of Baghdad. I had arrived in this city in agony just weeks after the withdrawal of the majority of Arab diplomats to Jordan after the assassination of the Ambassador of Egypt. Camus' humanity was an antidote to the inhumanity I saw all around me. It came unconsciously but voluntarily, to become a shield from the horrors that haunt me still. My house, which served simultaneously as an office and residence, was surrounded by concrete blocks that only rose and multiplied as the security situation deteriorated, until all that I could see were my Peshmerga security sheltering behind the walls. This dwelling became a metaphor of my frustration and despair. Nothing in this world can lift the mist of sadness of this excruciating, painful year I spent in Iraq, where everyday brought its promise of worse to come. I couldn't get out of my head a verse from a CD of Jacques Brel: 'We don't forget, we just adapt. That's all.' There is much that I don't forget. • The chopped-off head given as a soccer ball to young boys, while the adults watched not in horror but in approval. The head had belonged to a driver from another sect. • The easy smile of our thick-moustachioed baker, who was killed by an armed group that had decided to kill all bakers who refused to close their businesses. • The hysterical joy of my neighbor the night a Katyusha rocket fell in the garden separating our houses but did not explode, as he repeated over and over "we have a new life!" • The innocent smile of my guard, Mekdad, a 29 year-old, father of six, including one severely disabled, who was killed in an ambush on his way home from protecting me. • The incredulity on the faces of my local staff when I sought vaccine for my adopted dog, Caramel, when they could not find vaccines for their own children. • The eyes of the children in the mornings as they came upon the bodies of neighbors killed in the night. • The grief of a father, who lost two brothers to Saddam's butchery, and had two daughters raped in front of his eyes by marauding militia. • The brutalization of Iraq's minorities unable to mount militias to defend themselves. • The Kafkaesque contrast of transient US army helicopters skimming the rooftops with the solidity of the maze of concrete blocks. I always wondered what would happen to all these blocks if one day peace were established. The list of such tragic events is virtually endless. But the tragedy is worsened by the failures and self-dealing of those who should have led. • The contradiction of the comparative luxury, in which the inhabitants of the Green Zone lived, and continue to live, with the primitive conditions and misery of those in the Red Zone, more precisely, the rest of Iraq. • The contrast between the enormous suffering I saw daily in Baghdad and the persistent indifference evident in the Arab League meetings in Cairo, meetings that were never interested in my testimony but only in a ballet for the media, a ballet that lacked all purpose, and one that no longer fooled the public. If it were not so sad, it would be funny, that the Secretary-General's personal envoy to Iraq never set foot in the country in my time there. • The headlong rush for advantage of the Iraqi elites, most of whom no longer believe in Iraq, and the surprising amount of embezzlement of public funds, $20 billion in just over years according to their own estimates. • THE POLICIES of the US government that have made democracy more remote than ever. The democracy established in Iraq has resulted in the appointment of an extremist Shi'ite bent on revenge as prime minister and an extremist Sunni as speaker of the parliament. And the legislators, many elected, by illicit means, including fatwas, share with ministers a taste for travel to foreign capitals. In the year I spent in Iraq, my only preoccupation was doing what I ever I could to address the misfortunes of people in agony. That's what led me to incur risks and tolerate logistical insanities that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. For example, the Arab countries, who were so determined that I go immediately to Baghdad, withdrew security protection on the eve my departure. I was expected to rely on Iraqi security with all of the dangers that would have entailed. The Arabs of the Iraqi government (Shi'ite and Sunni) never lifted a finger to protect or help the representative of the Arab League, an irony that seemed lost on my sponsors. The Kurds were the only ones who did help. I was sent to Iraq without even the most rudimentary protection. Despite uncounted threats and dangers, it took the Arab League seven months to provide an armoured car. A European colleague initiated a security audit on my behalf, which found my conditions almost suicidal. It is telling that the Secretary-General never thought it necessary to give me a single call of support. No international insurance company would cover me. None of those contacted in New York and London by my friend, Ron Bruder, were willing to run the risk of insuring me. The only company that would insure me was in Cairo and it insisted that the policy not cover kidnapping or untimely death. At least, I had the illusion of being insured. I AM satisfied that I succeeded in conducting an open dialogue with all parties in Iraq, save al-Qaida, from politicians and religious leaders, to tribal leaders, and representatives of civil society. I met with members of the government and the opposition, inside the political process and out. But gaining their respect was not enough. If national reconciliation were ever to be reached, it would only happen with serious investment of political will by all concerned, not least the Arab League and its states member, who ignored numerous opportunities to make a positive difference. I ran personal risks because ordinary Iraqis desperately needed help. But when it became clear that my sponsors were uninterested I had to acknowledge reality. For my own sake and for that of my family, I had to stop the mission, which I did. I received no thanks from my employers. Despite the Secretary-General's confidence that he would soon appoint a successor, it is 10 months after my departure and he is still searching. The invasion of Iraq, launched in certitude, continues in disarray. Has the US government reached the point of no return in Iraq? Has the administration discredited democracy in a region that so desperately needs it? It seems quite unlikely that in the course of the remaining months of the Bush presidency, the president will be able to regain enough moral standing at home and abroad to convince his own country that it still has a constructive role to play, and to persuade the people of the region to believe in the integrity of US policies. CERTAIN ARAB governments have profited from the American nightmare in Iraq to evade the New Middle East Project and its strong pressures to democratize. The Bush administration has had to postpone this project sine die. Meanwhile, Iranian influence is becoming more and more palpable. Iraq has become a winning card in the hands of the theocratic regime of Teheran. As the French saying goes, "little by little the bird makes its nest." The consequences are worst for ordinary Iraqis. One third of the Iraqi people have been forced to leave their homes and estimates of the innocent lives lost surpass more than a half a million. Meanwhile, the centuries old social mosaic of Iraq has been destroyed. The tragedy of the Iraqi people seems of little consequence to its phantom government and self-serving elites, to its self-interested neighbors and its uncomprehending occupiers. Unfortunately, spilled water cannot be retrieved from desert sands. The writer is IDRC Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a former Special Representative of the Arab League to Iraq.