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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Baghdad
Baghdad returning to normal
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003

Baghdad — Returning to Baghdad after six weeks away was surprisingly wonderful. Surprising, I say, because the six weeks I had spent reporting here before were unbearably hot, very tense and extremely dangerous, but this time its different.

Unlike my previous time here, there is now a return to normalcy in the city that had descended into near chaos.

The last time I was here, the situation literally began to explode in that period and when the UN headquarters was bombed, all foreigners — not just soldiers — suddenly felt like possible targets. Not only did I feel then that some militant might pull a gun on me in order to 'take out a Westerner', I also feared being robbed or kidnapped or both by criminals running loose around the city.

Crime was very high in the city after the war, higher than the most dangerous cities in America. 'Ali Babas', as criminals are called here, were everywhere. Police were rarely seen and many of them lacked guns to get their point across. Drivers drove the wrong way down streets, up exit ramps, and around traffic circles and the poor newly-hired traffic policemen had no power to stop them. A quiet chaos ruled the streets of Baghdad, except at night when it got a little louder as gunshots of soldiers, militants or thieves filled the air — sometimes right down the street from the hotel.

I rarely exposed myself during that period. I was warned never to walk or take a taxi by myself anywhere. As a Westerner I too became responsible in the eyes of many for the disasters happening to the Iraqi people. When a car bomb went off in Najaf in August, I was just metres away. Some Iraqis pointed at me, the foreigner, and yelled, "She did it". I quickly left the scene with my translator.

I relied on my driver and translator who were, first and foremost, my bodyguards. They picked me up every morning and took me wherever I needed to go. But they preferred I didn't stand on the street unnecessarily. And if they weren't near me as I interviewed people outside, I felt vulnerable.

The nightly curfew left no time to have a relaxing meal outside the hotel and, anyway, everyone tried to be home before dark.

Obviously, I was apprehensive about returning. But the first thing I noticed as my taxi from Amman drove into Baghdad was that the cars were stopping at the motion of the traffic policeman's hand. As irrelevant as that may seem, it implied a sense of order in the city. I was later to learn that my impression was right — things have improved.

The second thing I saw was that the ancient Arab capital now looks like a divided city as tall blocks of cement and barbed wire surround the hotels and other offices where the U.S. contractors, occupation leaders and military live. More streets are closed to traffic as the fortressed enclaves take over land for safety. The walls look just like those that Israel is putting up in East Jerusalem and inside the West Bank.

As I write this I hear gunshots in the distance. The U.S. soldiers here tell me they are still at war, although their president said hostilities ended on May 1st. And although they have gotten friendlier as the weather has cooled, they are also more scared as attacks on them have at least doubled.

But by far the most remarkable event was to occur as I walked into the Flowerland Hotel. The doorman, the bellboys, the guard, and the receptionist, all approached me delightedly and warmly welcomed me back. "It's great to see you, Miss Orly." Upon seeing me enter, the owners of Internet 4 U, where I would file my articles at night, announced an Iraqi fish party at their Baghdad ranch in my honour. I felt like I was coming home.

Nowadays, fewer robbers are running around, and even though the Red Cross was just bombed I still feel relatively safe walking down the street to buy some bananas. The U.S. military has recently lifted the night curfew and people are again going out in the evening.

Still, after 35 years of despotic rule six months of US freedom-occupation has not given Iraqis the ability to take initiative or form opinions. They are afraid and untrained to do either.

Husam, a young genius who is both a computer engineer and a nuclear physicist, works with computers at a trade company from 9AM till 4PM. At 8PM he goes to Internet 4 U where he works till 8AM. He works unreasonable hours because he needs money to get married. But, the going wages are a pittance.

Still, unlike most Iraqis, Husam, 24, knows how to use the internet. But, he has never used it to find a job.  When I showed him a job site for computer engineers, he said, "I didn't believe that this was real. I thought it was just a dream." When I recommended that he advertise his computer fixing services in the hotels, he looked at me dumbfounded. 

"Orly, in Iraq we would finish university and the government would give us a job. Whatever we got, that was it. I never learned to try to attain things myself and I don't know how."

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