Banen Al-Sheemary ( @balsheem), a young Iraqi-American woman and activist, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Ten years today, I remember sitting in front of the television and watching the sky turn bright yellow because of the massive blasts. Silent, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction. Absolute silence. That was the first time my parents were without an opinion on something the news was covering. There was a sullen quietness as they watched their beloved country explode into flames. My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the simple good guy, bad guy mentality, to which many Americans unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had they 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 a confident George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon to be gone. What would become of Iraq? Under the guise of Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the complete destruction began of what had been known as Iraq.
My family had fled Iraq as refugees in the early 1990s. March 20, 2003, is a bittersweet date for me, since it marked the day I could return to the country. But it is also the day “Shock and Awe” began CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything like the attack on Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” warfare was a quick and easy solution, with no concern for civilian life.
The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. It is now home to 4.5 million orphans, two million widows, over four million refugees, while over half the population lives in slums. This was Iraq. As the Bush Administration boasted about its questionable accomplishments, all I could see was the Iraqi body count rise. 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 as it was before sanctions and occupation warped it. 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 away from this part of my life.
From Desert Storm, through the Clinton Administration, and into the 2003 occupation of Iraq, I still couldn’t trace the U.S. government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was sure of was every administration’s jingoistic attitude that shaped foreign policy and consistently disregarded human life. Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions. 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.” 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. This dangerous underlying notion, that certain people are more worthy of life than others, heavily shapes our 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 was and 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 falsity and absurd 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 back in their young adult years.
My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, Iraq 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. My mother enjoyed free transportation to work as required by the state 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, meant economic and social reform. The build-up of the case against Saddam Hussein’s actions can be attributed to sanctions and paranoia as international pressure mounted on the regime. My family resides in southern Iraq and we are a people, amongst others, that have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades.
Many of the conversations I have regarding Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” Sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation 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 choice and trite discussion of who Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.Ten years passed and in my privileged University of Michigan classes, discussions around this foolish debate and refuting the claim that oil was a decisive factor for invading, are still major topics. 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 manifestation of terror, supremacism and occupation. I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my critiques of America’s policies in Iraq and my nonexistent support for the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. People equated the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, completely disregarding 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; 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 a brutal and careless invasion show on the faces of the people that live everyday as a struggle. 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 become 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. The 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. 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. 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 and how America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of despair, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profiteer 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, rebuilding its economy, but Iraq and its people, must endure the harsh and 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 we stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, a means to an end, as valueless and unknown.
My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation made it too dangerous to travel there. 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 as if it was a past memory. I sense 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 citizens and Iraqi expatriates living in the US or Britain 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 solved by the resilient Iraqis who 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 of 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.” Indeed 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 that 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 for an event they’re sponsoring. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it and they will succeed. This is Iraq.
Banen Al-Sheemary has been active at the University of Michigan with Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, Iraqi Student Association, and Muslim Student Association’s Social Justice and Activism Committee