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Out of a city ruled by fear and into the fresh air of freedom

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#1 porky


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Posted 03 April 2003 - 12:42 PM

Out of a city ruled by fear and into the fresh air of freedom
Gethin Chamberlain

UNTIL the bombs began to fall on Basra, the man sitting in the low, white building on the western edge of the neighbouring town of Az Zubayr had been a teacher, struggling to educate the young people of Iraq's second city and struggling to keep a roof over the heads of his young family.

He worked long hours, 6am to 6pm, for little money and less thanks, lucky at least to be an educated man with a chance of finding a job, lucky enough to be able to afford to build a couple of extra rooms on to the two-room building that served as home for himself, his wife and three young children.

But he would never be as lucky as some, those who joined the Baath Party or those who had always supported the regime of Saddam Hussein. Only they enjoyed the benefits of Saddam's largesse. Only they could buy the meat and vegetables and eggs he and his family craved, only they could fill the top jobs and earn the big salaries and collect the perks that made life in Iraq bearable.

And when the bombs started falling and the Fedayeen took over the schools and the hospitals and the mosques, he knew it would only be a matter of time before there came a knock on his door, a rifle thrust into his hands and he would be told to fight.

So he ran. With his family, he ran out of the city towards the bridges over the Shatt al-Basra canal, like the 1,000 who fled the city on another day, running from the guns of their own soldiers, past the British tanks and on to Az Zubayr, where the British had set up camp and where he believed they could be safe.

He went back, to try to save what he could, but it was too late. They had lost everything.

Now, nearly three weeks after the bombing began, he is trying to start again, frightened of what the regime will do to him if it regains control, frightened of what will happen to his family. But there is an anger there, too, anger at what has been done to his country, anger at the people he says have stolen Iraq from the Iraqi people.

"The Baath Party has occupied our country and destroyed it," he says. "It is the Baath Party that has done all this, they put us in this situation to control us, to force us to go to the militia and the army.

"The Baathists in Basra are making checkpoints where they stop you and make you fight. I left Basra because I did not want to be a Fedayeen. If I stay, they will give me a gun and force me to fight for them. They will give me a gun and stand at my back and if I don't go, they will shoot me, so I will die sooner or later anyway."

Those who refuse to fight have been killed. He knows of three already dead, shot in the head for refusing to pick up a gun. "You can't say you won't go, you will be a traitor," he says.

He will not give his name, too scared, but he is happy to talk, in his heavily-accented English, about the times before the British and Americans came, and about the people he blames for destroying his country.

"Ninety per cent of people hate the Baath Party but it is a psychological thing now. The Baath poisons are in our blood and in our minds and we can't eliminate them."

Conditions inside Basra have deteriorated since the start of the coalition attacks, but even before the war began, he recalls, life was hardly worth living.

"Education is getting lower because people leave schools and universities to find work," he says. "Even the educated people like me have a low level of life. Salaries are very low, maybe $20 or $30 a month for a professional person.

"We don't have good houses and the families are large. There are often 20 people living together, including the children and the older people. Because of the size of the families, the education is lower. Life gets worse.

"People are forced to work in addition to their normal work. You see the tomato carts here? The main crop is tomatoes and we deliver them to other cities and sell them, or work in garages to repair cars. That is what I did. We are forced to do that, work from early morning to night, six to six we say here, that is the rule here, but there is not much extra money from that either.

"We want to run our own lives and to have items for our homes. We don't have extra items - not every house has a refrigerator and air conditioning is only for the rich. We have radio and TV, but that is all.

"There are two rooms in a normal house with 15, 16, 17, 18 people in that house. It is not a home, it is somewhere to stay. We feel misery."

But the Baath Party has been clever in the way that it has imposed its grip, using food as a potent weapon.

"The ration card is the main thing here. We depend upon it. It is as necessary as the water and the air," he says.

"They give us all we need of foodstuffs. If they want anything from anyone they don't give you your rations, so to maintain your family's life you have to do what they want.

"We depend upon the family system and the tribe. Your family's life is more important than yours. You must keep their lives and to do that you must do what they want."

Each person receives a ration card which must last them ten days, he explains. It entitles them to 8kg of flour, 2kg of rice, 1.5kg of cooking oil, 2kg of sugar, 0.25kg of powdered milk and detergent powder. Anything else - meat, eggs, vegetables - is seen as unnecessary or is reserved only for the wealthy. But at least the water in the city still works and there is electricity, he says.

There are two kinds of Baathists, the teacher says, those who were always with the party and those who have been forced to join to survive.

"The original Baathists are the heads of companies, ministries, universities, schools. Those people who are forced to be Baathist are teachers, doctors.

"They force teachers to teach the children what they say. We have to say that America was built on the skulls of red Indians and if America comes then Iraq will be built on the skulls of Iraqis. They force us to teach our pupils that the British will occupy their country and steal their oil and do bad things to their families. They use religion to tell us things they want us to know.

"The ones who are forced to be Baathists are at the bottom. The others have the better jobs, the better salaries, the better gifts. It is only the Baath Party that rules the country."

Before the war started, many hoped that the arrival of troops from Britain and the United States at the entrances to the city would convince the people to rise up again, as they did in the last Gulf war. But the people of Basra have remembered what happened when they did rise up, and no help came, and many died. This time they are waiting to be sure that someone will come to their aid.

"The Baath Party has warned us not to rise up and co-operate with the British. They say Saddam Hussein will not be eliminated, that the Baath Party will return and you would be treated as a traitor and killed.

"People would like to co-operate with the British but the Baath Party is in our minds and blood and Saddam Hussein is not yet eliminated.

"If Baghdad falls, then we will turn, but the Baath Party is not eliminated yet."

He still fears the Fedayeen, believes they are operating even in the areas controlled by the British troops.

"The young men in Iraq are not like the young people in the US and Britain. They don't have contact with the world, how other people live. The Baath Party has controlled them since they were children and filled their minds, their education is low, and they are given gifts. These are the reasons they still fight."

The British have been pounding Basra for days, encircling the city. This morning, they destroyed six tanks which fired on the British positions. US planes dropped 16 JDAM bombs, 2,000lb of high explosive guided to their targets by satellite navigation, on to Fedayeen positions. Up to 200 Fedayeen may have died, they say, but still the militia are holding out, hiding among the houses and institutions, emerging in their civilian clothes to take on the British before slipping away into the crowd.

"They use the term 'hit and run' - they hide between houses, in their own houses, they appear as normal citizens," he says.

"The Baath Party has stored weapons between the houses. That is common. The schools have been converted to military regimes. Everything has stopped since 17 March. The children are in their houses, the universities have closed, we are afraid to go to the hospital. What if military equipment was stored in it?

"They have converted our schools, our hospitals, our mosques, they hide inside them as normal people. We won't forget the Baathists because of these bad things."

When the bombing started, people were afraid, he says. "We were scared at first, we thought that it would be a big battle that would destroy all our buildings and kill us, but now we are beginning to trust the armies."

He knows of four families who have died in the bombing - killed, he says, because their houses were next to places where the Baath Party had stored weapons. But he does not blame the armies encircling his city. "We feel that the British and the American army is better than the Baathists. Our old people know the British, they say the British are better than the Baathists."

When the British arrived on the edge of the city, he gathered up his family and fled over the bridge towards Az Zubayr.
"I was thinking only of my family's safety," he says. "When we stayed in Basra we were afraid. We got in our car and drove to the bridge. We were stopped by the tanks and we walked towards them and they checked us and we went across the bridge.
"I went back after. I was afraid of people stealing my things but I was more afraid of the regime so I left everything to come to Az Zubayr to feel safer. I feel safer here, I trust these people."
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#2 xexon


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Posted 03 April 2003 - 01:25 PM

I think the joy will be short lived. After all the dust clears, we come down to the problem of infidel troops on Muslim soil. The Arab world has never been tolerant of that for any length of time.

The Americans better get in and get out as fast as possible. There is a very small window to install a stable government in Iraq. If this leader turns out to be a failure, cleanup will take a long time.

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#3 lynn


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Posted 02 February 2005 - 09:11 PM

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