Since March 2002, Mennonite Central Committee worker Edward Miller has been living in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, offering the solitary witness of an American Christian to the Iraqi people.
The child of MCC workers, Miller, 31, is a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College. He has worked with MCC in Quebec and Lesotho, and with World Concern International in Kenya and Somalia.
Miller’s online “Baghdad Diaries” at www.mcc.org have detailed the lives of some of the people he’s met in this sprawling city of 5 million. Miller has been in Amman, Jordan recently, where he answered questions about his life in Baghdad and what the future holds as a possible U.S. invasion draws near.
Could you describe the neighborhood where you live? Does one still see much lingering damage from the first Gulf War, or from subsequent cruise missile attacks?
Like almost all international NGO [non-governmental organization] workers, I am required by the [Iraqi] government to live in a hotel. My hotel is in the Karada district, a comparatively upscale neighborhood with relatively wide streets and big houses. . . .
The Karada suburb, like all of Baghdad, is full of people. Many of the houses have been owned by families for years.
These are former middle-class people, and many will still own a car from the boom days of 20 years ago, usually a now-groaning Toyota Crown or a Volkswagen Passat. Houses here are not small, and given Baghdad’s lively modern-art scene, architecture is creative. . . .
There is little real difference between a typical suburban street in Baghdad and one in Cairo. In both cities one finds dusty sidewalks, palm trees, a wide, winding river, roads choked with cars and people, decrepit parks.
Particularly in Baghdad, there is a sense of being in a time warp. Many cars are 15 or 20 years old, as are most buildings. Clothing fashions seem dated, 10 or more years old, though Iraqis make a concerted effort to be well-dressed.
Nothing that I’ve seen in Baghdad could be described as bomb-damaged, apart from the Amariya civilian shelter, which was hit by American missiles during the Gulf War, killing over 300 women and children. The damage there has been kept intact, acting as a sort of shrine for Iraqis and visitors alike. Those buildings, bridges, streets, etc., hit during the Gulf War 12 years ago have long since been repaired. But on most blocks one will see, or smell, a broken sewage pipe or pile of garbage, and a road may be full of muddy potholes – though most major roads are in good condition.
Throughout the city there is certainly a general state of disrepair. Often, this crumbling infrastructure is a direct result of the [United Nations] economic sanctions.
Outside of Baghdad, in small towns or even cities like Basra, the economic situation is very noticeably depressed. After the relative normalcy of Baghdad, the large southern port of Basra feels like a war-torn city with its open sewage canals, sagging buildings and ravaged, desperately poor neighborhoods.
What is a typical day for you?
I usually spend some time at the offices of our partner in Baghdad, Islamic Relief Agency, catching up on program issues and planning visits. In addition to visits within Baghdad, it is normal to travel to our project sites outside the city a couple times each month. Occasionally, I have meetings with other NGOs, like CARE. Many United Nations offices exist in Baghdad and are a good source of information on the health, agricultural and economic situation.
There are also professional contacts relating to the various MCC projects in Iraq. Apart from nearby shop owners and neighborhood fixtures I am acquainted with, I have personal friends I visit with regularly. Given the tight control by the government over Iraqi society, interaction with people is not always “natural.” Most often, visits take place in tea shops, restaurants or other public places.
Iraqi cuisine is exceptionally good, tinged with Indian and other Eastern influences. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, Baghdadis gained a reputation for extravagance and over-indulgence, a direct result of the country’s oil boom. Even now in mid to top restaurants, the portions are meat-centered and immense. Such a culinary experience is a hearty, drawn-out, formal affair. Of course, fellow diners in these places are drawn from the city’s elite. Given the economic decline, a lower-end restaurant meal of rice, beans, salads, chicken, bread and tea costs me a bit less than a dollar.
Come afternoon, throughout the neighborhood, streets are generally transformed into mini soccer fields, and both girls and boys are out playing or riding old bikes. Elderly [residents] often sit outside during the evening or visit with their neighbors. Families may dress up and stroll the shopping streets or head to a park or an ice cream shop. . . . Even cheap ice cream cones are an extravagance.
And of course, in the sprawling poorer neighborhoods that spread out from the downtown, life is mostly about day-to-day survival. The U.N. Oil-For-Food – OFF – program provides the funding for government rations, which are delivered to every Iraqi resident. Most rely heavily on this ration, about 2,000 calories per person per day, and 40 percent of the population actually uses the ration as their main income – selling or bartering the food for needed goods and services.
How do you judge the outlook on Americans among most Iraqis? How have you been received?
Though many Iraqis initially express disbelief that I am a real American, the first response is to extend a welcome. Often they will tell of a brother or cousin living in Detroit or Los Angeles. Almost always, people I encounter will tell me that Iraqis have no problem with the American people – only the American government. This is generally regardless of age or occupation.
Other opinions, for example those relating to their own government, are much harder to gauge. After many months in Iraq, my understanding is this: While Iraqis strongly desire numerous political and social changes within their country, they also do not at all trust the war plans and general intentions of the American government.
Do many Iraqis feel there is any chance of averting a war with the United States? With war impacting their lives for so long, are they more nihilistic?
Iraqis I have talked to do not feel there is a real possibility of averting a war. Though the prospect of war is indeed hanging over them now, it is important to remember that a state of war has existed in Iraq for years. Most Iraqis characterize the recent past as “22 years of war.” This is a reference to the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, beginning in 1980, as well as 12 years of U.N. economic sanctions and U.S. and U.K. bombing.
Coping mechanisms have been developed to deal with the situation. . . . Many may feel that eventually sanctions will be lifted, that eventually Iraq will have normal relations with the international community. But it is what happens between now and then that is worrisome.
Iraqis may want their situation to change, but who wants to see their children die, their country destroyed all over again?
Others look farther into the future. One friend told me that it is “what happens after the war that we are most concerned about.”
Please describe the atmosphere between Muslims and Christians in Baghdad. We have read, from you and others, that it is relatively harmonious.
There is peace between Christians and Muslims in Iraq. The secular policies of the [ruling] Ba’ath government have gone down well with the Christian community, and freedom of worship in Iraq only requires loyalty to the regime. Muslims I know have a high regard for Christians, saying they work hard and are honest. As a small minority and a successful business community in Iraq, Christians have certainly made a name for themselves. They have not had a uniquely Christian political or social agenda, and are thus not seen as a threat. Some would say, however, that genuine harmony is elusive.
Tens of thousands of Christians have left the country in search of greener economic pastures, settling in the United States, Canada, Australia. Some who remain complain of the growing influence of Islamic conservatives, of the social changes that can be seen in present-day Iraq. With an increasingly uncertain future given the rising U.S. war talk these days, many Christians in Iraq are only feeling more and more insecure.
Do Iraqis perceive a war with the United States as an attack on Islam or on Saddam Hussein?
Most Iraqis I have talked to would brush aside the ideas that the war is attacking Saddam Hussein or Islam and instead focus on two things: oil and Israel. The suggestion would be that the Israeli lobby in the United States has convinced the American government to attack Iraq to ensure Israeli security. A second reason for Bush’s war would be to gain access to Iraq’s vast oil fields.
With friends and relatives living in America, Iraqis do “understand” the United States and its declared ideals of freedom and democracy and economic opportunity. But Iraqis still will not endorse U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine and Iraq. . . . Given the ongoing suffering of normal Iraqis at the hands of U.S. sanctions policy and weekly bombings [in the northern and southern no-fly zones], few Iraqis would say they truly see the U.S. on their side. If Bush really wanted to only get Iraq’s Ba’ath Party leaders, say Iraqis, he could do so in a week. Why, they ask, does Bush instead insist on destroying the country and hurting ordinary Iraqis?
What are the obvious signs of the sanctions in Baghdad?
Just like Iraq’s particular political system, the economic sanctions infiltrate every aspect of life. If a salary is low or meat prices high or a certain medicine not available, there is a clear connection to the U.N./U.S. sanctions. At the same time, there is a fair amount of sanctions-busting trade, and certainly the Iraqi regime has been able to use the embargo to its advantage. . . .
Without economic normalization, Iraq will continue to experience massive inflation and skyrocketing unemployment rates, as well as a collapsing infrastructure and an almost complete reliance on the U.N. OFF program and the Iraqi government for food. Thanks to war and the U.N./U.S. sanctions, this is a nation that has gone from relative affluence to dire Third World poverty.
As an American, how are you viewed by most Iraqis? Do you feel safe moving around Baghdad?
I feel perfectly safe moving around Baghdad, in fact more so than in Amman. Iraqis know that an American in Iraq is there with the government’s permission and careful monitoring. So one is essentially seen as “sympathetic,” either to the plight of the Iraqi people or to the Iraqi government. These assumptions ensure one’s security in Baghdad. On top of this, Iraqis are consistently hospitable and friendly. I have never felt in any danger because I’m an American.
How do you assess the effect of your presence among the Iraqi people?
Iraqis have seen too many foreign delegations and antiwar protesters traipse through Baghdad, and too few tangible changes over the years, to feel that these foreigners actually make a difference in the overall scheme of things. Iraqis do express thanks for material aid, but will insist (and rightly so) that Iraq is a very rich nation, that the economic problem right now is U.S. foreign policy and the debilitating U.N. sanctions. The main thing I stress to Iraqis is that we as Americans need to educate ourselves about their country and the present situation. The only thanks I have personally received in Iraq is from one friend mentioning his appreciation that I was willing to listen to his views.
What are the contingencies in the event of war? Will you leave, or remain where you are as long as you can?
I have been in Amman since the beginning of 2003, waiting for a visa renewal [to return to Baghdad]. I hope this comes through soon.
Used by permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.