Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Daily Life in Iraq: Before and After the War

Selma Sevkli

Wednesday , 04 October 2006 (published on Turkish Weekly Journal)

The 9th International 1001 Documentary Film Festival started on 29th September 2006 in Istanbul. There are 127 films under 12 subtitles including the Middle East, Portraits, Cultures, and various country profiles such as Poland, Finland and Bangladesh, etc. The screenings take place at the Ataturk Cultural Center, French Cultural Center, Italian Cultural Center, and Nazim Hikmet Cultural Center until 5th October 2006, all free of charge.
I had a chance to see four of the documentaries so far and I was especially touched by one called “In the Shadow of the Palms: Iraq”. Wayne- Coles Janess, a young Australian director, started shooting the film before the attack, continued during the invasion until it ended.
During the war, we mostly saw officials making statements about the war, and the suffering of ‘ordinary citizens.’ But what did they think? What was their opinion? How did all of this affect their lives and hopes about their future? Janess got into the midst of brave action and went to Baghdad two weeks before the war, and for six weeks he lived with locals and talked to them. Most of these ‘ordinary’ people were very much aware of the situation. They knew the war was coming, but they knew it was not coming to ‘liberate’ them. One teacher from a high school gives his opinion: “It is not about democracy, it is not even about oil simply, it’s US’ new world order plan and Iraq is the second stage of it after Afghanistan. US made its decision long time ago, and for people who it wants to ‘democraticize’ we haven’t been asked our opinions.” Then the camera moves to one of the classrooms in the school and we see one Christian and one Muslim student sitting together. They both clearly state that religion is not a source of conflict for them and continue: “We know the war is at the door, but we are not afraid. We are not going to leave school until it is bombed and we are not going to leave our homes either.” Apparently, students are very angry with Mr. Bush, as one starts cursing at him badly.

After the school scene, Janess takes us to one of the Wrestling Clubs, which is a popular spot for the young boys. Wrestling and winning medals seem to be a good motive for them to deal with such hard time. They keep going to the club every day for training until the war starts. They are not as aggressive towards America as the students. These young boys like the way they live, and they simply want to maintain their lives. They do not complain about a lack of facilities, they don’t complain about having to buy the uniforms themselves when needed. Would it be too much to ask not having a war after all?
Then we see a traditional coffee house where men hang out, sometimes all day long. There is a group of guys discussing philosophy and literature. One explains that they get together every week, set a topic and discuss it. Although they know the war is only a few hours away, they are calm and confident. One of them makes a joke: “Do not record me boy, you want the Americans to kill me?” and everybody laughs. As some think, Middle Easterners, Iraqis in particular, are not bunch of suicide bombers that make plans for ‘jihad’ all day long. Iraqis do not only live for after Friday prayer demonstrations either. Even though they are “Arab”, even though they are “Muslim” they have the ability to think, question, and have a great sense of humor.
Unfortunately, the war begins and we face one of the bitter faces of it: A big bomb blast in a house full of civilians. Women cry, men curse, firefighters try to get in, crowd runs around without knowing what to do. Images flash of two girls under the wreck, trying to be rescued by neighbors grabbing pieces of their house that collapsed onto them. They finally get one out, we do not know of the other, but this is just the beginning. We get used to it so much that hearing death and bomb news from Iraq becomes just a regular routine by now. As Stalin said: The death of an individual is a tragedy, the death of a million is statistics.”
During the war, some people continue their daily lives despite everything. They cannot get into military action, especially the old ones, but they express their resistance by not escaping. Some women get their provision, some defend Saddam, and somehow life continues.
War is not only difficult for Iraqis, but also for Americans residing in Iraq. Janess lets the soldiers express their point of views. One says, he has four children back home and he didn’t tell them that he is at the war zone but somewhere else at training. The soldiers trying to provide security in the city have a hard time; they have to keep eye on people very carefully. They obviously are not enjoying their duty. War is not a joyful event for anybody. Attacking or defending, winning or losing, liberating or dehumanizing, both sides are human beings that have families, hopes, worries, needs, etc. States and authorities make it look like a terrible game: There are sides, there are goals, and there are big words like democracy. But it is not that simple. There are human beings, there are feelings, there are dead people, there are injured children, there are lost futures. It is not two states debating on a table. Big men make the plans and ordinary suffer.
In the end we see refugee camps outside the city in a miserable situation. People after bringing all their documents, dealing with bureaucracy even under attack, get into tents under rain and in mud. One complains to the camera: “Is this liberation? Is this democracy? Saddam was not the nicest man in the world but we at least had jobs and houses. What do we have now?” It has been 3.5 half years by now and the number of refugees increase while the hopes decrease.
Wayne- Coles Janess did an excellent film by giving us the chance to see what happens during the war on a humanistic basis. It is not easy to deal with war for people of Iraq just like anywhere in the world. They try to keep the hopes up and be strong. I hope the teacher is wrong for America’s new world order. I hope the Iraqis get their lives back soon and democracy if that what it takes. I hope that we do not see one more tragedy, one for shame for humanity and big black stain in the history.