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Baghdad Holiday

This is a guest post by Seja Majeed

The mere mention of Iraq evokes many reactions within people. Some people feel sheer anger about our reasons for going to war in the first place, whilst others feel an obligation for us to remain there. This week the Daily Telegraph will be conducting its own enquiry into the justification of the war and the actions that subsequently followed it. Whether you agree with the war or not, it cannot be disputed that Iraq has undoubtedly had an affect on all of us. Perhaps the greatest lesson we have learnt in this never ending struggle, is how important liberty, justice and freedom is. It is the lesson that many rarely wish to admit that they have learnt because of the sheer simplicity behind it.  But no doubt, history will certainly remind us of this lesson in the future.

When I journeyed to Iraq during the aftermath of the war, I saw Iraq in a painful state. I had gone there with the intention to deliver humanitarian supplies. I had heard much about Iraq from my parents. They had told me endless stories about how they used to have picnics next to the river Euphrates with their friends and family. Basra was once a holiday destination for many, with lavish hotels and swimming pools.

But as I journeyed from Kuwait into Iraq, the beautiful image had disappeared somewhere beneath the rubble. It was a surreal feeling to leave Kuwait, with its clean roads and soaring towers, and enter into Iraq. The air smelt polluted and the faces of its people were pained by grief. I remember looking out into the dusty jeep window and seeing bombed vehicles lining the desert. I had asked my driver why no one had removed them; his reaction defined the whole experience.

“They’ve been here since the Iran war. We’ve learnt to live with it. It’s become part of our landscape.”

His words struck a chord with me. I had only been into my journey for a couple of hours and I was already starting to understand the mindset of an Iraqi. They had gone through so many wars, that the sight of bombed vehicles lining the desert floor stirred little upset within them. They had bigger problems to deal with i.e. would they be able to survive this harsh climate what with all the terrorism, corruption and poverty.

Throughout my journey in Iraq, I made sure never to speak to anyone unless I felt confident I could trust them. Everywhere you go, you constantly hear stories about how someone has been kidnapped and beheaded. Eventually these stories take their toll on you. You become overwhelmed with paranoia. After a while, I wanted to take my mind off things. I remember taking a stroll down a canal in Basra, which was not too far from my late Grandfather’s house. It was not a very pleasant sight to be frank; the canal was filled with waste and was a bright bottle green colour. I remember talking to my cousin, who then told me that the canal had been nicknamed “The River of Death”. It was given this title after so many dead bodies had been found in the river, many of which had been beheaded by kidnappers and terrorists. My relaxing walk had certainly altered in mood and I could not help but wonder what lied beneath the cloudy water.

But my journey in Basra was not always filled with gloom or worry. I was lucky enough to meet many inspirational people, with moving stories worthy of a film script. I visited a church on Christmas day and was able to meet wonderful Iraqi Christians and Muslims celebrating together. It seemed that the sectarian violence would not crush the festive mood of unity. It brought a smile to my face to be apart of this celebration, particularly, when I saw about thirty children all of which wore little Santa outfits and were singing together. Even though there was an armed vehicle with about a dozen Iraqi soldiers holding AKA 47’s protecting the church, the festive mood was not dampened at all. It was clear that the Iraqi’s were standing up against the sectarian violence.

By now I had lost weight and developed dark circles under my eyes – but I was still at the beginning of my trip. The nights in Iraq were particularly difficult. You constantly hear gunfire coming from all directions, and sometimes, you are unfortunate enough to be woken up by the house shaking from helicopters flying above your head. It was like trying to sleep with a full blast of surround sound playing in the background. What made matters worse was the electricity shortages. It was a frightening experience to be completely blind and susceptible to danger. I could not understand why the electricity problem had not been resolved. I asked my Cousin about the situation regarding the electricity shortages. She told me that terrorists had often targeted electricity cables in order to prevent Iraq’s development. It was there way of reminding the people that they were in control.

After spending two weeks in Basra, it was time for me to travel to the infamous capital, Baghdad. The most obvious problem in Basra was the risk of being kidnapped, but the road to Baghdad was filled with a different danger – suicide bombings. The worst thing was entering into the gates of Baghdad – the entrance to the capital was literally a scrap metal heap. There was destruction everywhere, with bombed cars, tanks, demolished concrete structures. They were the remains of all the suicide bombings that had exploded in Baghdad and dumped on the fringes of the city. It was obvious that Iraq no longer had enough places to hide its destruction from the eyes of its people.

Eventually we reached Baghdad, all the while passing security check points – none of which really served any value. The Soldiers would hardly stop any vehicles; they would simply look at the driver’s face then let them pass. It was now obvious why so many suicide bombings had exploded in Iraq. As we passed through Baghdad, I finally realised that Iraq was under the control of the Americans. Huge tanks rolled through the capital. There was mixed feelings about the Americans. Many Iraqis said they were doing a good job in terms of protecting the city from terrorists; others disagreed and felt angered by their presence. It was obvious that the common enemy was the suicide bombers.

My journey in Iraq was slowly coming to an end. But before I leave, I would embark upon the most emotionally draining part of my trip. I was heading towards Najaf, the holy site revered by Shi’a Muslims. The area was troubled by religious rivalry, what with religious clerics like Mugtadar Al-Sadr trying to gain power and seize the area. I was going there in the hope that I could pay my respects to my Uncle, Naeem Fadel Al-Taki, who was unjustly executed by hanging in 1980. He was only 21 years old at the time – he was literally the same age as I was. I had never met him but I felt like I knew him. My Grandmother would always cry at night and talk about this tragedy. What made matters worse was that this would not be the only tragedy my family had endured. My other Uncle, Helme Fadel Al-Taki, was imprisoned in 1986 in Abou Graib Prison and disappeared in 1991 during the Gulf war. We now believe he is lying somewhere in a mass grave.

As I entered the Najafi cemetery, my heart sank through my chest. I could not believe what I was seeing. Row after row was endless grave stones that had been embedded with endless bullet wholes. There had been a battle amidst the grave yard between the Sadri’s and the Americans. It was hard not to feel angry or upset. Instead of seeing green grass and flowers, I saw destruction. Life in Iraq offered little kindness even in death.

Whilst I walked through the graveyard, I saw a stretch of graves that went on for some distance – all of which possessed no names upon their headstones. These were the victims of suicide bombings; unfortunately, their bodies were too unrecognisable to know who they were or detail their lives. It was hard to see this and I would never forget the sight. Despite this, I was still pleased I went to the cemetery. Finally, I was able to whisper a prayer for my uncles. It is through their unjust death that I have become empowered and inspired to continuously stand up for freedom, justice and democracy.

Even though Iraq is no longer at the grip of war, the battle has not yet been won. And history will certainly remind us of this. No doubt our efforts and our failures will be judged by tomorrow and hopefully learnt by today. It is clear that too many people have died in our pursuit of bringing freedom and sometimes we forget why they have. Nothing I say can reassure those who have loved and lost – just as nothing anyone can say will reassure me or my family of our own loss.

Perhaps, the greatest lesson that I have learnt from this whole experience, is that freedom and justice is a precious gift worthy of sacrifice. Freedom can inspire us, empower us and fill our hearts with hope for the future. Without it, we become nothing more but empty souls living broken lives. Whether you agree with the war or not, we should never forget the value of our actions and all those who have admirably given up their lives in the pursuit of upholding these ideals. The moment we forget their sacrifice, is the moment this war will be lost in vain…