Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Bye to Baghdad

Goodbye to Baghdad

Caroline Hawley

BBC: From Our Own Correspondent 17 December 2005

Caroline Hawley has been the BBC correspondent in Iraq since before the fall of Saddam Hussein, but is packing her bags to move to Jerusalem to take up a new role as Middle East correspondent. As she leaves Baghdad, she reflects on the memories she will be taking away with her.

It has been a nostalgic business packing up.
Sifting through all my belongings I found little reminders of the chaotic days of spring 2003 just after the American-led coalition arrived.
You would still hear a lot of gunfire then but it was not until the summer that the bombings began - the Jordanian embassy first, then the UN, and the Red Cross.
Later it was Shia civilians who were massacred in their market places and mosques.
But that spring was a heady time for millions of people, relishing the toppling of a hated dictator and able to talk without fear about the brutality they had been through during the long years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
But how quickly the resentment of the coalition crept in.
And no wonder.
It took weeks before a single public service worker was paid. Doctors and nurses turned to their savings to pay for taxi rides to work. Garbage festered in the streets.
The civilian administrators, who had followed the soldiers in, were ill-equipped. One senior coalition official admitted to me: "We can't even organise ourselves let alone a country."
The American troops were struggling too.
Once, in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, I had to help translate for them. There was a suspected bomb, and they had blocked off a road.
But they had no means of communicating that to an increasingly angry queue of drivers. Another time, a soldier shouted at me to "get off my road".
Imagine how Iraqis feel being treated like that in their own country.
As the people of Baghdad tried to make do with little power, and in some areas no water, coalition officials were settling into Saddam Hussein's marble-floored palaces, complete with their chandeliers, and gold-tapped bathrooms.
But on the streets outside, American soldiers were increasingly being targeted and when they hit back, Iraqi civilians were often killed.
They still are.
Go to the main emergency hospital in Baghdad at any time, and you are likely to find Iraqis injured by mistake by US troops.
I remember in May last year standing in the rubble of a house in Falluja, where I was told 36 members of one family - including five children - had been killed during an air bombardment.
They had been crushed to death and you could still smell the decomposing bodies as a neighbour shouted: "Is this George Bush's freedom?"
Earlier I had been on an American military base, where I had read the words "Die Raghead" written on the side of a portable toilet.
But American soldiers have been dying here, too, and been horribly maimed.
At a field hospital north of Baghdad I saw a 19-year-old brought in with half his face blown off - the day after his birthday.
Amid all the shooting and bombs there have been lighter moments, too.
You cannot help but have a smile with an emergency room doctor who is called Doctor Coffin. And it was with a Captain Gherkin that we arranged a visit to the Burger King on the main American base in Baghdad.
I never met him but a commander in charge of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib jail, the prison at the heart of the scandal over detainee abuse, was called Colonel Foster Payne. You could not make it up.
There is a lot I will miss about Iraq.
I will miss the radiant smile of Hanan, the little girl who lives next door - one of four children growing up fatherless in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
I will remember with admiration the brave Iraqi doctors who deal every day with horrific injuries from a conflict that has killed tens of thousands.
But I am relieved to be escaping a city where it is not unusual to be woken up by bombs.
Over the past couple of years, when I have been away on holiday, I have jumped out of my skin when I have heard thunder or fireworks, even doors slamming.
Imagine what it is all doing to the collective nerves of Iraqis who cannot get out of the country.
Plenty of well-off Iraqis have been quietly leaving.
A few days ago, we went to the wedding party of a young Christian couple who danced the afternoon away.
It was the afternoon - not the night - because most people in Baghdad make sure they are safely home by 8pm.
But as we watched, with glasses of champagne in hand, I noticed that there were a lot of empty chairs. Many of their relatives had emigrated.
Then I think of the determination of the little girls we met, competing in Iraq's first national junior gymnastics championships since the war.
The winner, a nine-year-old called Mariam, smiled between her somersaults and told us she wanted one day to be an Olympic champion.
There was a different kind of determination on display at polling stations on Thursday, as Iraqis voted for their first proper parliament since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
I watched as an old man with an artificial leg shuffled in on crutches. A heavily pregnant Iraqi dentist called Suraa told me the elections would draw a line between the suffering of the past and the good life that must be coming.
For her sake, and the sake of her baby, I hope she is right.
The parting words to me from an Iraqi friend were: "Pray for us."


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