After a one-month visit in January 2008, FRANCE 24 senior reporter Lucas Menget is in Iraq once again. Read his impressions about the situation in Baghdad in his reporter's notebook.
Baghdad, April 8
Sadr City. ( yet again?!)
In just a few hours, it’ll be five years. Five years that this war has failed to end. Five years that I’ve been interested in it. Five years that I've been counting the dead, that we've been trying to understand the details, measure the change and constantly rediscover the absurdity of it all.
We’re about to spend our second night of editing, to try and show with just a few video pieces what Iraq looks like five years later. The task is near impossible. You would need to explain both the complexity and the attachment, the drama and the laughter, the Shia, the Sunni, the Christians, the more or less crazy ones. The suicidal and the visionary ones. Those who are realistic and those who are lost. The sand and the oil. The foolishness of a few mad men in Washington and the naivety of their successors. The dreams of Iraqis when, five years ago, speech became free for a few months. The disillusions now that words need to be whispered again.
Five years later, Sadr City isn’t Saddam City anymore. But it’s not doing any better. We finally managed to go there for real. We’ve had to circle obstacles, to follow the steps of those who break the curfew. We’ve had to ask for our way, to cross dumps and find the men from the Army of Mahdi. They were expecting us. Narrow streets, low houses, garbage everywhere. A few silhouettes leaving houses. Women in black. Men hiding. The ceasefire is a big joke. Showers of bullets ring out above the roofs. The city’s entries are closed. Two million people are waiting, waiting for a calm they no longer believe in anymore. So they support the fighters.
One of them is leading us. Right, left and right. Houses look the same. The portraits of Moqtada, too. The streets lead to an avenue. There are no cars, no noises. On the other side, there’s an office of the Sadr movement. The militant walks slowly, with a limp. He lowers his head against the wall, turns it to the right, then to the left. His friends wave at him on the other side. We start running at his signal. In a few seconds we’ve reached the other side of the avenue. At the end of it, the American snipers haven’t shot a bullet.
We get a warm welcome. “Rat-a-tat! Snipers! Welcome". We’re embedded with the Mahdi army, we’ll see what happens. We don’t have to wait long. A thick black smoke emerges from a housing block. As always, the crowd hurries as close as possible to the fire. Oil drums explode. Kids step back a meter then move forward again. The habit. The madness, too. Screams.
There’s more smoke further down the road. Tires are burning. This is an artisanal smoke screen to blur the vision of American snipers and facilitate the crossing of an intersection. A car parks at high speed along a dust-swept squalid sidewalk. A crowd gathers. The back trunk isn’t locked. A leg sticks out from a dirty blanket. Or what is left of it. It is riddled with shrapnel. It’s not wounds we see, but holes. Looking at the man’s body, you can’t tell whether it’s dead or alive. Today’s body count: 18. Screams.
Very near there, in an office, the Baghdad representative for Moqtada Sadr looks impeccable. The man sports a fine beard and his thin body is cloaked in a white dishdasha lined with a grey veil. On his head, the sayyed’s turban. “Sir, what do you think of those five years of war?” His answer to my stupid question is simple. “The Shia are still suffering. But Saddam was the student and the Americans are the masters.”
Damn, five years.
Baghdad, April 7
The water of the hotel’s pool is known for being cold. Even in the summer when Baghdad melts under the 50 degree heat, the pool stays cold. In the summer, it’s ideal. The hotel could get the star it never earned out of it. Right now, the pool is ice cold. Just plain ice cold. The hotel employees look at me in my bathing suit night after night, startled. They look at me looking at the pool and not knowing whether I should dive in or not. Behind the restaurant’s window, they smile, talk to each other and point me with their finger.
The pool is deep. At night, the water turns dark. The muezzin sings. The birds that hide in palm trees grow silent as the sun sets. It’s time to take a dive. There’s no way to go in slowly. I wonder whether it would be shocking to have a bath at prayer time and whether the waiters disapprove. At the same time, they can’t be angry at a mad man. I dive in.
I’m gripped by the cold, almost suffocated for a few seconds. To swim, swim and not stop. To warm up and relax. To think about nothing else but the water and count the laps. 10, 20, 30, 40… After 20 laps, I don’t feel the cold anymore, just the pleasure from swimming.
Swimming in Baghdad is something shameful. Beyond the hotel’s wall, I can see the light from weak, yellow lamps or the rapid bluish reflections of a television in apartments. Sometimes, a silhouette emerges in the window frame. In two days, it will be five years since Saddam’s regime fell. Before that, swimming pools used to be reserved to the rich. It’s still the case today. Privileges just changed hands.
To swim longer. Power cut. The hotel disappears. I swim in the dark. The power generator starts again. The light comes back. There are nice lamps around the pool, broken arm chairs and giant ash trays. Useless. The hotel’s glory days were in 2003, at a time when the country should have switched to democracy. There have been very few customers since.
Two huge Chinooks fly over the neighbourhood. They’re big, slow and very noisy twin-engine helicopters. I can make out their shadows. And when I plunge into the water, I can’t hear them anymore. They’re there when I’m out the water but they’re gone when I’m in. It’s actually quite easy to make two war choppers disappear.
The fog is back later in the night. It’s a fake fog but it looks like a nice thick fog wrapping itself around the city. The halos of the few lights left are vanishing. It looks almost poetic. But it’s more like dust and sand being blown from the desert even when there’s no wind. A smell of earth sweeps through the air. In a few hours, everything will be covered in yellow dust, inside and outside.
Maybe to better dampen the lights of the fifth anniversary’s candles.
Good night, good day
Najaf, April 6
It’s impossible to nap in the car as checkpoints dot the way south. Sometimes it’s the police, sometimes the army. Sometimes all you need to do is smile and call everyone “habibi”. Other times you have to turn off the engine, wait around while a soldier calls his boss, reads your invitation, shows it to his friends with a grave look… and then you smile and call everyone “habibi”. Other challenges greet the travellers: holes in the road. Back-breaking of course. Especially because our vehicle hurtles its way down south. Iraqis don’t drive, they forge ahead. There are no rules. Faster, stronger, heavier… We forge ahead. Not to mention drivers’ use of the horn. If an Iraqi doesn’t use it at least once a minute, in short blasts, he feels inferior. The left hand is also very useful. To show where we are going, when we are speeding up, to show irritation, or to say ,“it’s okay, my friend, I don’t mind. That’s life.”
But when you meet a lorry head on, with its lights on in the middle of the day, you have no choice but to make way. With regret of course. Then you catch up. And if there are traffic jams in your lane, use the other…. Napping on our way to Najaf is a bit like trying to fall asleep watching a video game at full volume.
As we cross the least agreeable areas of Iraq, the “death triangle” famous for its abductions and other expressions of neighbourly goodwill, roadblocks become more and more serious. A strange comparison springs to mind. “Doesn’t it look like the West Bank.” The checkpoints are built on the side of the road, with lanes. Several queues of cars await inspection, separated by concrete parapets. A large awning protects them from the sun. In other words, the checkpoints look like big sheds – Israeli fashion. With walls everywhere which remind us of other walls. Could it be that the Americans sought council from neighbours in the region?
It’s getting hotter and hotter. The water level of the Euphrates is low. It’s not dry but almost. Ezekiel’s grave is somewhere in a grim village overlooking the river. But the poor old man is far less popular than the Shiite imams and the ayatollahs whose portraits hang on surrounding buildings. Sistani, Sadr father and son, Hakim, they are all there. And others, less known, but probably just as feared. Much of the future of the country depends on them. Some refuse to meddle in distasteful politics, while others take it head-on. Non-violence versus violence. Pragmatism and conservatism.
Through the streets we see the dome, the mausoleum of Imam Ali, the focus point of one of the most important fights of the last five years. In the offices around it, discussions among religious men and politicians are constrained. Everyone says they are against the war. Najaf is calm. Very calm. A safe stroll through the city is possible. A unique opportunity in Iraq. And very agreeable one too. “Najaf is a model town,” explains the governor. Thanks to a factional agreement not to fight over the holy city. Diplomacy here is an art. And hatred between rivals a way of life.
The governor of Najaf asks me to invite Nicolas Sarkozy to visit the town.
One shot, a single shot. This is worrying. The silence is wrenched by a loud bang. Where is it coming from? Heads duck down to dodge the shots. People start running for shelter. A shot: it's a sniper. In Baghdad, snipers are replacing the kamikaze in the latest competition to catch on: who is going to kill the most? Though rarely frightened, Iraqis fear the snipers. They've a reason to be scared. "No, no, mister. Sniper", they say with a telling look, and furrowed brow.
One o'clock in the morning - and the rooster wakes up. What does he do during the day? Does he sleep? How does he do it? Today, three people were killed in one of the city's biggest commercial streets - three women shot dead in a mobile telephone store in the central Kerada district. The armed men fled in a car while the women were sent to the morgue. A little further out, in a Shia area, an Iraqi cameraman took one step more than he should have - and lost his leg. He survived the blast, but faces the rest of his life with just one leg.
And the rooster slept. Or maybe not. Maybe he has insomnia at night. Too many helicopters. And these lights, which come on and go out depending on the generator's will. Maybe it disturbs his sleep. Have experts thought of analyzing a Baghdadi rooster's circadian rhythm? I'm sure we'll learn something - about the rooster, about others, about us. But no one cares about roosters in Baghdad. That's OK - after all, people aren't even interested in the three women killed this afternoon in the mobile telephone store.
But it's strange to find a rooster awake at 1 am. You have to keep looking at the time to make sure the rooster is mistaken, not you. That you haven't missed the liveshots for the 8 am news bulletin. You confirm that it's still night, the streets are still deserted. Helicopters are flying lower and faster. Helicopters at night are normal, but the rooster....
We're forced to hear him crow, because that's all we can hear. But thousands of stray dogs seem to respect it. The rooster crows, the stray dogs stop howling. These dogs enjoy following police patrol vehicles. At night, no one is allowed in the streets except for roosters, dogs and the police. And when there isn't much to do, the troops shoot at a stray dog to keep the upper hand. A single shot normally does it.
This calms the rooster. A gunshot or a burst of Kalashnikov fire keeps the the rooster quiet for a few minutes. And then he starts again. "Rise and shine Baghdad!" I guess he falls asleep at 5 am or he goes into hiding. He clearly doesn't want to witness the events of the day.
Go on, keep quiet, rooster, get some sleep.
Monday morning, Amman, in the departure lounge for the flight to Baghdad. There are only a few of us, so it will be the small Falcon, Jessica. There are only Americans, and us. The Iraqis telephoned: the curfew has been prolonged. It’s impossible to get to the airport without armoured escort. Those who were headed there have to remain in Jordan until things calm down. Muthanna calls to confirm. They can’t do anything. Neither they nor the security team can leave their quarters.
Date created : 2008-04-09