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Messages from Iraq: 24 December 2002
I am sitting looking out over the river Tigris, feeling very strange and disorientated. I arrived in Baghdad late last night having driven over from Amman. I had been stuck in Amman for three days waiting for my visa to come in. The system is that you go to this little room in the Iraqi embassy at 9.15am and queue in front of the window on the far left. The room is packed with people but so far as I could see, only a few at my window. On the first morning the official waded through many pages of names and sent me away. By the third day he was all smiles and rushed through the processing - which usually takes 4 hours - in ten minutes. I think he had seen how disappointed I'd been on the previous days.
It had given me some time to look around Amman and even a trip out to Jaresh, a town half way to Syria, to look at the rather drab Roman remains. But I wasn't really in tourist mood. And it wasn't helped by the weather. It had snowed the night I arrived and we almost didn't get into the city from the airport because of the snow drifts. And the next two days were bitterly cold and windy - all too like Wellington on a bad day.
The journey over to Baghdad was 1000km. The car was a large 7 person vehicle doing 160km per hour for much of the way (a very good sixlane hignway). The scenery was desert and more desert ... but a bit like snow there are infinite varieties if you live here and know the differences. One part that went on for about 400km was just endless plains covered in boulders, dark brown about 3 or 4 hundred centimetres in diameter. I could have come on a bus but the Iraqi driver really needed another passenger and in the end it meant a 9 hour rather than a 15 hour jourrney. The border crossing was also made simple by Sattar, the driver, knowing the ropes.
I have met quite a few of the Voices in the Wilderness Team. A hugely varied group of people. Catholic worker, WRI, peace activists, from the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and Britain. I haven't yet discovered what people do although they include an attorney, a teacher, a photographer, a nurse.
There seem to be visits going on all the time and you tag along if you wish, to hosptals, clinics, schools, etc etc. I went to an orphanage this morning. Accompanied by an official. It was all a bit puzzling and I was left wondering how to appraise it. The children looked healthy and happy and the whole atmosphere was bright and cheerful, but it was clearly a show piece and it had an institutional feel to it. The direstor said that the mothers whose children were there would have prefered to have them at home ... we never got to the bottom of why there were there. But with only about 900 children throughout the country in these orphanages in a population of 23 million means that it isn't the problem it is in Eastern European countries.
Out and about in the city doesn't seem any different from Amman. But it is still early days. I plan to explore, even though a really good map seems impossible to find. It's hard to believe that in a few weeks this city could be being bombed. The Iraqi people I have asked have all said they believe it will happen. I am not sure if some of that isn't fatalism and cultural. But none I have spoken to has any plans of leaving or of going out of the city. We get a little news. The world service of the BBC. Iraqi TV and radio. The news we get doesn't sound good. It looks as if January 27th will be the crunch date and that inspectors will be recalled together with other UN and voluntary agencies. So far I gather some of the team are intending to stay, even if hostilities start. But many will leave.
It is strange to feel Christmas is about to happen. We are off to a Christmas eve service at a local church ... There is even the odd Christmas tree around ...
So, Christmas Greetings to you in New Zealand, John.