I will never be happy in this lifetime

Recently I received an email from a friend that has been on Iraq since the beginning of the war. He keeps us up-to-date of his experiences on the front and every email from him brings amazing details and interesting perspectives of the daily life on the liberated Iraq.

This last email was specially interesting because, as he mentions, it brings a part of Iraq that our news sources seems to have forgotten about, they haven’t picked up or they, simply, do not care to tell us about. After asking for his permission and deciding to mask out certain names, I decided to post pretty much his email on its entirety, to give you a glimpse, through the eyes, mind and heart of a friend, a fellow American and a military man of a side of Iraq and it’s people you may not know about.

I moved out of Iraq about ten days ago to a Marine base in Kuwait. We had been supporting the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in Iraq but this unit has now turned over its area of responsibility to two multinational divisions in southern Iraq and has all but disappeared from Kuwait. We had originally expected to be starting the process of redeploying home at the same time since the multinational divisions brought their own Civil Affairs troops with them. You may have heard, however, of the recent Army decision to extend all forces in Iraq, including Reservists, to one year “boots on the ground” tours. Where I had previously expected to be out of the Army and back at […] by mid to late November I am now looking at returning at the beginning of March at the earliest. Meanwhile I am at Camp […], Kuwait, (just west of Kuwait City) and waiting to see if I will remain here or flow back into Iraq. I have to admit that the policy change, coming within days of when I had expected to be leaving the Middle East, came as a personal setback.

While I am here, I seem to have a little more time than I’d had available before. One of the things I’d like to do is send some observations on things I’ve seen here, especially things that we don’t see covered on the news –we are often able to see either CNN or Fox News and I see The Economist, Time, and Newsweek irregularly and a few weeks late.

One theme that I’ve seen covered just a little is the psychological burden that the people of Iraq have born and its impact on their present and future. I’ve seen indications of this personally and I want to tell you about the way this theme has presented itself to me.

I met a friend named Basim at a small swap meet or bazaar that grew up outside the camp gate near Al Hillah/Babylon. He had a small table of trinkets that grew to include other odds and ends as people at the bazaar came to realize what the Americans would buy (I need to write about the bazaar later as it was a fascinating economic laboratory with an incredibly efficient information flow). Basim is a big friendly guy and spoke some English and it was easy to spend some time with him. He never had anything that I really wanted to buy but I would make small purchases just to pass some money around. A dollar goes a very long way in Iraq where gasoline costs about 5 cents a gallon.

Basim’s booth was just a table in the very hot sun and he didn’t have a sun shade like some of the other vendors had. I ended up with a large tarp that I didn’t need so one day I took it down and gave it to him. At first he didn’t realize what it was or what it was for but when he did he started to cry. Then he started to gush out his story through the tears. It was a little distressing and nothing like the jovial guy I’d seen before but it was also fascinating.

Basim had been arrested several years ago along with 31 other men from his town. He was imprisoned for seven years and he said that over the course of this period thirty of the men he’d been arrested with were hung. He was also tortured repeatedly and described being hung by his wrists for days on end. On the other hand, it was in prison that he started to learn English. Basim was released as part of the general prisoner amnesty that Saddam declared last fall.

Basim and I talked several more times after this before I left Babylon. At one point I asked him if he had any children and he replied, “How could somebody like me have children? I have been in prison most of my life and I have no money. I need to work to make money for my family and only then can I think about having a wife.” The most common statement that Basim has ever made to me was, “Every day I thank My God and the American Army for coming to Iraq.” (In an interesting note, whenever an Iraqi mentioned God using English, which was quite often, they always used the phrase “My God.” This wasn’t used as an exclamation as we would use this phrase in the U.S. but in place of where we would use the noun “God.")

In a later visit Basim told me that he had never known happiness as an adult and did not think that he ever would because of the memories that he had in his head. This is the theme that I have seen elsewhere in Iraq and wanted to share with you.

One of the things I did over a period of several weeks was oversee a crew working on improving the supply of fuel in our five governorates of Iraq. I met an Iraqi translator in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Oil Ministry office who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Britain before the 1991 war and received a master’s in petroleum economics from the University of Cairo. Two of us had a long talk with Mohammed and the conversation wandered far away from the original topic to many aspects of life in Iraq. He spoke about the repression that he had lived through for his entire life. He had a cousin who was arrested and executed by the regime and described how helpless everyone felt in the face of injustice that seemed to touch everyone in Iraq, and certainly everybody that he knew. He also told how he risked his life to bribe international truck drivers to hide Western news magazines in their trucks for him.

At one point, Mohammed, who seemed to be about 32 or so, made a statement that haunts me now. He said, “…I will never be happy in this lifetime but I work and pray that my son will know happiness…”

This same theme also came out in a meeting I attended in early September. The meeting was between Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Commander of US forces in Iraq, the Iraqi governors of the five governorates of the I MEF sector, the senior CPA representative in the area, and some other Iraqi leaders in the area. The meeting was to give the Iraqi leaders the chance to raise issues directly to General Sanchez which is both a custom in this part of the world and a good way to establish direct communication.

One of the speakers was a senior Imam from the An Najaf area. The cities of An Najaf and Karbala are the two holiest cities to the Shia branch of Islam and the Imam was an influential moderate cleric. Whereas most of the politicians spoke about economic issues, the Imam spoke about spiritual and, interestingly, psychological issues. He said, “Of course you will repair the electricity, the water, the bridges, and the roads. But you must all remember the damage to the spirit of the people of Iraq from 35 years under this oppression. This damage will not be so easily repaired and will be with us for years to come. It may very well be that the spirit of this generation is lost forever and it is only the next that will realize the fruits of these times.” What a powerful statement. One of the governors also spoke briefly along the same theme.

Finally, the place where I am working now was involved with a conference sponsored by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health on psychological problems in Iraq. Most of the conference focused on the lack of trained counselors or facilities but it did dwell on conditions. One conclusion was that, in general, the entire country was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. It was caused by decades of war (don’t forget the Iraq-Iran war) and more than three decades of living with secret police, arrests, torture, and widespread executions. You may have seen the mass graves in Iraq mentioned in the news. They were real. One was just outside the town where I was stationed and they uncovered 10,000 bodies before the local leaders said that was enough. They reburied the remains they had found and let the rest lay. Other reports, both classified and open source, report horrible tortures inflicted on prisoners.

Things in Iraq are improving and there is hope. There are tremendous resources there and the people are one of them. But there are also problems beyond the electricity, fuel, and attacks. Please keep these people in your prayers.

Incredibly sad. I must say his writing touched me. My wife is unemployed and life for us has become harsh. But no matter how bad I might think our situation is, the people of Iraq has it worse. My problems are nothing in comparison with theirs. Yes, whether you believe in a God or not, please keep these people (Iraqi people) in your prayers and thoughts.

See also: An entry posted back in January 18th, 2003, named Iraq, are we going to war?.