Four Iraqi bloggers describe what the war has done to their country—and to them.
By Paige Austin
It has been years since the media has paid as much attention to the war in Iraq as it did to the present one in Lebanon, a few hundred miles to the east. Yet one media source has never wavered in its coverage: Iraqi blogs.
Since the U.S. invasion spelled the end of Saddam’s iron grip on the media, the Iraqi blogosphere has flourished. In 2004, the trend garnered notice in both The Washington Post and the BBC, and the popularity of blogging has only grown since then: at last count, a monitoring website called Iraqblogcount listed 209 blogs maintained by Iraqis. Following a few of the links provided there reveals a telling story: Many of the authors featured are no longer in Iraq, having sought refuge abroad. For those who remain, the tragedy engulfing their country is a constant theme.
Treasure of Baghdad, an Iraqi journalist working for an American newspaper, describes grieving for his friend’s mother, killed in a mortar attack. Sunshine, a 14-year old girl living in Mosul, relates the deaths of friends’ families at the hands of insurgents and the shooting of her own uncle by American soldiers. These accounts, in their attention to personal, even mundane details, offer a perspective largely absent from mainstream media reports. Treasure reports that his friends have stopped carrying identification with them anywhere, lest their names serve as a pretext for murder. Sunshine describes being prevented from reaching her biology final by a mine planted in the road. Iraqi Roulette, a third blogger, describes how at one point she swore off political conversation entirely and sought solace The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama.
These tales of anguish are interspersed with reflection, news, and even jokes, often deeply personal. But violence is never far away. “I’m watching my country being destroyed little by little: its holy places attacked, its people killing each other,” writes 22-year old girl named Morbid Smile, who will soon depart Iraq to study in the U.S. “A great civilization of more than 7000 years is going to waste.”
These four bloggers recently discussed their blogs, their lives and what the war has meant for them with Mother Jones. The interviews were conducted via email.
Mother Jones: Why did you decide to start your blog? How much time do you spend on it each week?
Sunshine: I started my blog to tell people about real life in Iraq from a teenager’s point of view. Many people have the wrong idea about us, and I wanted the world to know more about our lives before they judge us. I also wanted to make friends from around the world.
Iraqi Roulette: I think it was a kind of reaction to fear. When awful things happen, you just have to tell someone. And that is what most of us used to do on daily basis when all of this started. We would exchange all sorts of horror stories about things we experienced… I remember writing a message to my friend in which I gave her an update on what I had experienced in a period of weeks. She wrote back to me saying that she had read it over and over again and she thought I ought to publish this stuff somewhere. And that is what I tried to do.
MJ: Are people keeping blogs in English more likely to be pro-American?
Morbid Smile: That’s not necessarily true; I’ve known some Iraqi bloggers who are against the presence of the U.S. in Iraq yet they write in English… Keeping a blog in English is a way to be read by as many people as possible, and to have our voices reach American society as well.
MJ: What do you hope will come of your blog—better-informed foreigners, new friends, new American policies?
Baghdad Treasure: All I want is to derive some relief from what I write and to let others in the world know that Iraqis are not criminals: we are educated and modern and we adore life. I want them to know that Baghdad was one of the world’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities. It was destroyed because of the successive wars that America was involved in, directly or indirectly.
Iraqi Roulette: I think that when one hears about people who are actually experiencing genocide, one tends to conceive [of] them as mere numbers or even as herds, but imagine that these people are writing to you and telling you all about it—then you will involuntarily start to say to yourself, “Wait a minute, this person likes the same rock group I like, and she has just the same concerns I do… They are not some sort of a lower form of evolution.”
MJ: What sorts of Iraqis have suffered the most from the situation there?
Morbid Smile: Iraqi people in general suffer from the explosions, heavy traffic jams caused by the blocked roads everywhere, stroll bans [curfews], and other obstacles on a daily basis. Workers are threatened, kidnapped and killed just because they work in governmental services, the army, or any other job. Even bakers, barbers and shop keepers are not safe from the assassinations and abductions.
MJ: Several bloggers have described the war’s devastating effects of on Iraqi women—particularly due to a lack of safety. Can you describe more of these?
Morbid Smile: Since the war started, Iraqi women have been forced to live with restrictions that make it impossible for them to have any independence… As a girl, I cannot leave home without my father or another family member with me. It is very hard, because there are times when I’d like to be alone or stay with friends or people of my age. The same thing goes for my parents: they can’t be available all the time to drive me where I want to go and then come back and pick me up later. Women rarely drive cars now and this is such a terrible thing. We had to give up many things in order to stay alive, though we are still not safe.
Iraqi Roulette: Yes, it is ironic because under dictatorship women walked around dressed in whatever they wished. It was never a problem in Baghdad and in other city centers for a woman to go out or to drive around alone, and I am talking here about my mother’s generation not mine. Yet now in free Iraq every group is imposing their own laws in each area. Women not wearing scarves have been beaten up in some areas or even shot. Also in some workplaces discrimination is practiced against such women… Most women who have to go out to college or work are wearing scarves just to stay safe and keep all sorts of fanatics from attacking them.
MJ: Morbid Smile, another thing you write about is how many university professors have left or been killed since the war. What effect did this have on your own education?
Morbid Smile: I talked in one of my posts about how many university professors have left the country or gotten killed since the war. It has meant the decimation of higher education in Iraq! It really affected the students, professors and education in general very badly. The lack of professors in some departments or colleges has led to the closing of Master’s or doctorate programs in some universities. And this has made students in those departments move to other universities in hopes of getting their Master’s or Ph.D. degrees there. This result is that there is no space for all of the students applying to the few remaining programs.
MJ: Sunshine, you have talked about the awful state of both your school and the emergency room you visited. Have conditions been this bad for your entire life? Are they getting better or worse these days?
Sunshine: This has been the situation since 1990. In the schools in Iraq, the books are very old and they are missing pages. The hospitals don’t have supplies: they don’t have medicines, beds, fuel for the ambulances; sometimes they don’t even have electricity or water. These are appalling conditions—and many nurses and doctors are merciless, because no one will punish them if they don’t do their jobs correctly, even if they cause a patient’s death.
MJ: What newspapers or TV networks do you think are the best sources of information about Iraq today?
Baghdad Treasure: I think the Washington Post and the New York Times cover most of the incidents in Iraq objectively and accurately. Reporters of these two newspapers are very close to the people.
Iraqi Roulette: Some events just go uncovered. For instance explosions, abductions, vandalism: it is too dangerous to go out there and cover these events whether you are an Iraqi or foreign journalist. There is some inaccuracy in reporting causalities too. Eye-witnesses tell you that they saw, let’s say, at least 50 corpses while the news reports 15. They simply cannot cover it all. But in general the BBC and Al Arabiya, an Arabic station, have a professional approach to events. Al-Zaman newspaper, which is in Arabic and English, is also widely read over here.
Sunshine: I like to get news from al-Sawa, and Radio Monte Carlo—I think they are the best media sources.
MJ: Many Iraqi bloggers say they see bias in the news coming out of Iraq. Do you agree?
Morbid Smile: As a matter of fact, I don’t fully trust the newspapers and TV networks for telling the news about Iraq today… I live in the middle of the turmoil and see almost everything that is going on around me, and several of the news networks don’t tell the news as it is. For example, I hate the references to sects. When a reporter says, “A Sunni group of insurgents kidnapped another group of Shiite officers,” it seems to me that there is a hidden message—that there is a severe conflict between [all the] people of both sects, or more likely that they are killing each other as part of a civil war, which is not true. I know that it looks like a civil war and that all Iraqis are killing each other, but this is not the case here.
Iraqi Roulette: The problem is that there is a shortage of journalists working on the spot, which means that verifying news can be difficult. It also means that one may skew the subject in the desired direction. The local newspapers—and there must be hundreds of them now—are usually financed by parties and it is natural for them to be biased or, to put it mildly, to pursue their own party’s interests.
Sunshine: Also, that the media tends to show uneducated and poor people, so their viewers think all Iraqis are like that.
MJ: Baghdad Treasure, you’ve said most foreign journalists don’t appreciate the work done by Iraqi reporters like yourself. Can you describe how the work of Iraqi reporters is different from that of American or other foreign reporters?
Baghdad Treasure: Today, the [free] Iraqi press is young; it needs lots of training and practice. The Western press, by contrast, has been professional for a long time. So reporters who come here from America or Europe, for example, cannot be compared to Iraqi reporters… I never thought of being a journalist until I worked with foreign reporters as a translator. I learned many things from them, beginning with the way they ask questions.
MJ: How do you handle the dangers of working in a foreign news organization?
Baghdad Treasure: I take many precautions before going to work and after I finish. None of the people in my neighborhood, including my neighbors, know where I work. I told them that I run my own business, an internet café. I had to do this because if insurgents discover [where I work], they may kill me. They consider Iraqis working with Westerners to be “infidels” or “spies.”
MJ: What do you think is the best thing you can do to help your country, now and in the future?
Iraqi Roulette: You see, that is part of the tragedy: that is exactly what is causing me and my friends so much suffering. It is this feeling of impotence. We feel helpless, in spite of the fact that there is so much to do. We are just reacting to danger; we can’t afford to act. What is a human being to do facing weapons?… The absence of security paralyzes any project. After three years, Iraq is still not enough for people to even go out shopping let alone do something useful.
Morbid Smile: Being a good person and having good and genuine morals in the simplest way to help my country and stop the bloodshed.
MJ: Have you had contact with American soldiers? What impression did you get of them and of their behavior?
Sunshine: Soldiers from the USA killed my uncle—an innocent old man—and no one punished them for it… But, that said, I certainly do not think that all soldiers are bad. There are good and bad soldiers in all armies, and I have met very nice and friendly American soldiers. And on the other side, the insurgents keep killing innocent Iraqis and creating chaos and panic among Iraqis, because the government has done nothing to stop them.
Iraqi Roulette: I personally have only seen the soldiers in the streets racing their vehicles and crashing into any car in their way and that is all because, praise the Lord, there have been no major military operations where I live—apart from what you might call “the usual bombing.” I think they do not know much about us. Maybe they think we are barbarians. Maybe they think that we always lived like this in filthy, damaged streets, with no electricity and clean water, queuing for petrol for hours, piled in hospitals wards of wounded civilians … I don’t know. Maybe they are just as frustrated as we are.
MJ: Have any of your own friendships suffered as a result of the mistrust and violence that have become so rampant since the war?
Morbid Smile: The widespread violence and mistrust in Iraq has affected many of my relationships with people since the war. It became very hard to get in touch with some of my friends who live in far away areas. Now I have to use the internet and cell phones to communicate with them because we can’t meet on a regular basis. I haven’t seen my close friends in a year now, and some of them have fled the country or moved to other cities for their own safety. I can describe it as lonely and unjust to live this way, without having my friends around.
MJ: How about the sectarian differences that the fighting seems to be exacerbating?
Sunshine: Personally, I didn’t know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis until three years ago. My best friend is Shiite; we have been friends since we were 6 years old. Neither of us supports what is happening now. My grandparent’s neighbors are Shiite; the mother has been my grandma’s friend for over 35 years. We like their family very much, and we both feel very angry about this ridiculous segregation. You see Shiites and Sunnis married and living in the same house—many relatives of mine are married to Shiite men or women, and they won’t get divorced because of this silly segregation. They are Muslims before they are Shiites or Sunni, and in the end we are all Iraqis, no matter what our religion or denomination.
MJ: How has your experience of witnessing so much violence affected you? Does writing about it on your blog help?
Morbid Smile: Witnessing so much violence and death has affected my life in many respects; fear and anger are emotions that I have to deal with constantly. There is always fear and anxiety when it comes time to leave the house, approach dangerous places or do almost anything else. Living in the middle of circumstances like this is very frustrating and tiresome. It can simply kill all your dreams. We laugh, we tell jokes and we still go to work; we are trying to live like normal people and keep sane, but deep inside we feel afraid and uncomfortable. It’s hard to be hopeful and optimistic about anything here, and many people have given up dreaming about anything. Our main goal now has become trying to stay sane in an insane place. Writing about all of this on my blog helps a bit to process the loss and fear. It also helps in telling the rest of the world about the truth here.
Iraqi Roulette: Yes, [the blog] does help. It is as I said a message in a bottle, just to say I am—or was—here, and that this is my experience on planet earth. Also, the mere hope, or dream, that the things of which I write will not happen again is a comforting thought. It eases the pain.
Sunshine: Of course these experiences have a huge effect on me and on my lifestyle. I have become more distrust and afraid from being alone…I can’t leave my house alone; I used to ride my bicycle with my grandpa and visit relatives, but I can’t do that now. I really miss those days. Now we never leave the house, and there are no picnics or parties. I keep hearing such awful stories; too many even to write in my blog, since I don’t want to be morose. I have nightmares and I am stressed most of the time; I have become more nervous; I feel angry for very silly reasons. I don’t want to live my life like this, I want to have fun and feel secure like other teenagers around the world.
MJ: In one post, Baghdad Treasure wrote: “I kept asking myself, Was the war worth it? I found no answer.” Do you still feel you can’t say whether the invasion was worth the price?
Baghdad Treasure: Yes, I do. I am torn. On one hand, I wish the war didn’t happen and on the other I regarded it as the only way to get rid of the tyranny. So I still feel that.
Morbid Smile: I don’t feel that the invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were worth the price the country is paying now. I know that freedom is very expensive, but in my opinion there could have been other ways than war to get rid of Saddam and to achieve liberty. So far, Iraq is not free, and I don’t think it will be free one day if the situation continues this way. But as long as the past can’t be changed and time can’t go back to undo what had happened, what has been started has to be finished… and the road is still long ahead.
Iraqi Roulette: The thing is that Saddam has been replaced with another sort of dictatorship: the dictatorship of militias, street gangs, corrupt officials, fanatics, and terrorists. You are not free to contradict anyone you want. You have to tiptoe around any subject, so as not to say something you should not. The common joke in the Iraqi street is that at least Saddam was one obvious lunatic; now it is too hard to recognize and count them all.
MJ: Will you follow in the footsteps of so many Iraqis who are emigrating? Why have you decided to stay now—and how bad would things have to become to for you to leave?
Baghdad Treasure: Leaving Iraq for me would be like cutting a piece of my heart. I will leave Iraq but not for good. I am leaving Iraq to study in the US and then I will come back and help in rebuilding my beloved Iraq with the knowledge I will have gained there. It’s my responsibility to rebuild my own country, not any other.
Morbid Smile: I don’t think that my family will stay in Iraq. We’ve been planning to leave the country for some time now because the situation is not getting any better, and the danger is getting close to my neighborhood which has been a safe one for the last three years. The only reason they can’t leave now is because my sister still has another year at the university before she graduates. Many students have shifted their fields of study or moved to study abroad because they can’t live in Iraq anymore, but the cost of studying abroad is very high and not everyone is able to afford it.
Iraqi Roulette: Emigration and refuge seems to most of us a humiliating necessity. You see, we are supposed to be the rich oil-producing country. People should be coming over here to seek work and not the other way round. It is a bitter spoonful of poison most Iraqis are swallowing slowly and coming to terms with gradually. But even that choice is a luxury most of us cannot afford… Many people here are being driven out of their houses, including now very close to my area. You just have to receive the one threatening letter or bullet in the envelope to know it is time to move. I think it is a choice between immediate death and slow death.
Sunshine: Now that life in Iraq is so tough, many relatives of mine—especially those who lived in Baghdad—have left Iraq and gone to Syria, Jordan or other countries. My family always talks about the possibility, but we don’t have enough money to travel and even if we did, where can we go? Many countries don’t accept Iraqis, and how can my parents be sure that they will find a house and jobs? And what about our education, when schools and colleges are so costly abroad? … It is hard to even think about. How can I leave my own country? My family and I have so many good memories here, and we can’t simply leave our beloved relatives and friends. How can I leave my house, my room, my stuff, my school? My grandparents won’t leave Iraq: how can I leave them? And how can I leave my neighborhood, my relatives, and friends?
MJ: What would you most like Americans to know about the situation in Iraq?
Morbid Smile: What I would most like Americans to know…is that a whole nation is being vanquished. But at the same time I would like them to know that Iraq is not all violence and terrorism: there are many bright sides to the country. Iraqis are educated people with free minds who strive for normal and peaceful lives. It hurts me a great deal to see that news and TV channels show only the dark side of the country. I know this is what makes people abroad think that Iraq is all negative, and that’s not true at all.
Sunshine: I want the Americans to know that the situation is getting worse and worse. Many Iraqis die every day, and I have read that forty percent of the war’s victims are children. I also read there that 90 to 100 women are widowed every day. Hundreds of good people are getting killed in Iraq every single day, while the politicians have bodyguards to protect them.
Iraqi Roulette: I think most Americans know by now the real state of things in Iraq.But if I had to explain it to them, I think I would say: Imagine that hurricane Katrina is to go on for ever and ever and ever, and yet you are expected to live and function in that exact state of destruction, death, looting, abduction, loss of your loved ones and lack of medical and general services. That is the closest parallel I can draw to help them understand the situation we are living or dying in.
Paige Austin is an editorial intern at Mother Jones.