Also in War on Iraq
Media Spin on Iraq: We’re Leaving (Sort of)
"In violence we forget who we are" -- Mary McCarthy, novelist and critic
1. Statistically Speaking
Having spent a fair amount of time in occupied Iraq, I now find living in the United States nothing short of a schizophrenic experience. Life in Iraq was traumatizing. It was impossible to be there and not be affected by apocalyptic levels of violence and suffering, unimaginable in this country.
But here's the weird thing: One long, comfortable plane ride later and you're in Disneyland, or so it feels on returning to the United States. Sometimes it seems as if I'm in a bubble here that's only moments away from popping. I find myself perpetually amazed at the heights of consumerism and the vigorous pursuit of creature comforts that are the essence of everyday life in this country -- and once defined my own life as well.
Here, for most Americans, you can choose to ignore what our government is doing in Iraq. It's as simple as choosing to go to a website other than this one.
The longer the occupation of Iraq continues, the more conscious I grow of the disparity, the utter disjuncture, between our two worlds.
In January 2004, I traveled through villages and cities south of Baghdad investigating the Bechtel Corporation's performance in fulfilling contractual obligations to restore the water supply in the region. In one village outside of Najaf, I looked on in disbelief as women and children collected water from the bottom of a dirt hole. I was told that, during the daily two-hour period when the power supply was on, a broken pipe at the bottom of the hole brought in "water." This was, in fact, the primary water source for the whole village. Eight village children, I learned, had died trying to cross a nearby highway to obtain potable water from a local factory.
In Iraq things have grown exponentially worse since then. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that 70% of Iraqis do not have access to clean water and 80% "lack effective sanitation."
In the United States I step away from my desk, walk into the kitchen, turn on the tap, and watch as clear, cool water fills my glass. I drink it without once thinking about whether it contains a waterborne disease or will cause kidney stones, diarrhea, cholera, or nausea. But there's no way I can stop myself from thinking about what was -- and probably still is -- in that literal water hole near Najaf.
I open my pantry and then my refrigerator to make my lunch. I have enough food to last a family several days, and then I remember that there is a 21% rate of chronic malnutrition among children in Iraq, and that, according to UNICEF, about one in 10 Iraqi children under five years of age is underweight.
I have a checking account with money in it; 54% of Iraqis now live on less than $1 a day.
I can travel safely on my bicycle whenever I choose -- to the grocery store or a nearby city center. Many Iraqis can travel nowhere without fear of harm. Iraq now ranks as the planet's second most unstable country, according to the 2007 Failed States Index.
These are now my two worlds, my two simultaneous realities. They inhabit the same space inside my head in desperately uncomfortable fashion. Sometimes, I almost settle back into this bubble world of ours, but then another email arrives -- either directly from friends and contacts in Iraq or forwarded by friends who have spent time in Iraq -- and I remember that I'm an incurably schizophrenic journalist living on some kind of borrowed time in both America and Iraq all at once.
Here is a fairly typical example of the sorts of anguished letters that suddenly appear in my in-box. (With the exception of the odd comma, I've left the examples that follow just as they arrived. They reflect the stressful conditions under which they were written.) This one was sent to my friend Gerri Haynes from an Iraqi friend of hers:
No words can describe the real terror of what's happening and being committed against the population in Baghdad and other cities: the poor people with no money to leave the country, the disabled old men and women, the wives and children of tens of thousands of detainees who can't leave when their dad is getting tortured in the Democratic Prisons, senior years students who have been caught in a situation that forces them to take their finals to finish their degrees, parents of missing young men who got out and never came back, waiting patiently for someone to knock the door and say, "I am back." There are thousands and thousands of sad stories that need to be told but nobody is there to listen.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who has covered the Middle East for the last four years, eight months of which were spent in occupied Iraq. Jamail is currently writing for Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera English, and is a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com. Jamail's forthcoming book, "Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Independent Journalist in Occupied Iraq" (Haymarket Books) will be released this October.