Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Ice Cold in Sule

We stumbled out of the mountains, into the city and past the guards at hotel security. Unshaved, unwashed, with straggly hair and covered in animal waste we marched straight to the bar and ordered a cold beer. I had been thinking about this moment for the last few days and had been dying to relive that scene from the classic film, Ice Cold in Alex; as John Mills staggers out of the desert to his long awaited reward.

However something wasn’t the same and I was finding it hard to put the last week out of my mind. Something inside felt different that not even a cold beer could fix. Perhaps the realisation that I would soon have to reconcile what I had seen with what I would be returning to was bothering me.

This was our last day and a large part of me didn’t want to leave. I will be returning to Iraq soon, but not until I have faced the cocktail parties and dinners of London. “How was it darling” they will all chime, as if an adjective or two could describe the poverty and the knot in your stomach. I have been saying for the last couple of weeks that people in Iraq seem to be emotionally underdeveloped, but in retrospect perhaps it is the other way round. So many people in the West are unable to grasp lives so different from their own – and perhaps that’s precisely what our large armies protect us against having to do. Feelings are all relative.

Let me return though to the previous day and to other awakenings - even on the eve of departure I am still learning. It began with a furious phone call from a fixer, angry that we had hired a different translator for the day. “He is spy, he will ruin us, and I will then beat him” he cried in his rather silly high pitched voice. It took some time to calm him down when we met later that day and even then his podgy fists remained clenched tightly. Ironically it is he who has connections to the powers that be, so perhaps what he really meant was “Only I can be the spy here”. If this is true then he has much work to do and many other people to beat.

For spies here are everywhere: following you in cars, working in hotels, even teaching at schools - this is simply an accepted part of life in recent history. Under Saddam many Kurds worked for the regime, often turning in their neighbours, even helping with the slaughters. They are called Jash and like in so many other parts of the country they have still not been brought to justice – tragically many of them are still in positions of power and are flexing their muscles.* We spoke to one family waiting to receive their ‘displaced family allowance’ ($10,000) and were told they had been sidelined while families of the Jash got their payoffs first. In recent months people have become vigilantes in order to right these wrongs, and the murder rate is growing yet again.

Fighting for both sides like this however was not always about preservation of the individual, but about preservation of the family and hedging ones bets. In many cases (just as in Scotland during its wars against England) families fought on both sides of conflicts thus guaranteeing the survival of at least half the family. This led to people switching sides at the final moments and to stories of soldiers turning their guns on each other when defeat was imminent. It has also led to a sense of kinship that is rare to see.

Today we popped into the gun shop – sandwiched between the baker and the butcher in the bazaar’s main street. It is really just a concrete room with guns lying in piles and covering all available wall space. It is here that you come to have your trusty friend repaired or to pick up your sons first weapon. Everything from immense sawn off shotguns to 1920’s British rifles are on offer, and they do a lot of business. It is illegal here to carry weapons but nobody pays attention. Everyone has lived so long with one by their side that they have become like extended members of the family – and family here is everything. Family protects, family punishes and family guides. In the West it is just one more value that has begun to disintegrate.

We have been fortunate enough to eat many a dinner with local families, indeed so hospitable a people are they that it is hard to eat alone. What I have discovered is a respect and a bond between them that is enviable. They all have opinions and are usually only too happy to share them, questions they would rather not answer are replaced by a simple shrug of the shoulders and a polite hand to the heart.

So how do I feel sitting here, with my western beer and my own home just a flight away? Having seen both good and bad in both East and West? Well I feel privileged in every way and grateful everyday for what I have. If only everyone could understand how fortunate we are and what we lack.

See you all in England.

*There are other high profile Baathists who have not been brought to justice including Ali Hassan al-Majid’s (chemical ali’s) second in command and other senior intelligence chiefs. They were given immunity by America in exchange for testimony in the top few token cases.

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