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Iraq - the lost generation

Zaid Al-Ali
6 October 2004

It was just as people around the world started believing that the situation was improving, and were shifting their attention to other matters that I traveled to Iraq – my parents’ native country – for only the second time in my life. In effect, it was the first time, as I was still in my infancy when I accompanied my father on his last trip to Iraq before he officially resigned from his post as Iraqi representative to the United Nations. He was cast into exile for more than twenty–three years, and as a result, I also was prohibited from travelling to Iraq during that time.

Despite everything that I had heard, both from Iraqi and American governmental officials, despite all that I read about the changes that the country has gone through, I was not prepared for what I saw when I returned to Iraq in July 2004. Information provided by governments should always be treated with caution, particularly when it relates to their own performance. But in the case of Iraq, the situation has now become totally out of hand: life in Baghdad bears no relationship to the declarations that officials have been making, nor with the images that we see on our television screens, and that is something that I was only able to truly appreciate after visiting the country myself.

Iraq is a wealthy country, or at least it is supposed to be. It is one of the only countries in the region that had strong industrial and agricultural sectors and an educated class of professionals. All this is now wishful thinking. I caught my first glimpse of real Iraqis, as opposed to the comfortable members of the diaspora that I became so accustomed to in the west, when I crossed the Jordanian border.

As I stood in the administrative center of the border–crossing, amongst what are in fact my countrymen, each one of them seemed to be physically ill. It was unbearable. Without exaggeration, each was suffering from some type of deformity or severe facial blemish or had something wrong with a leg or an arm. Their skin was an awful colour. Their clothes were dirty and, when they weren’t full of holes, didn’t fit. Their beards were soiled and untrimmed. They all looked tired and somewhat distressed as they shifted nervously from one desk to another, waiting to be granted permission to enter Iraq.

I felt, more so than at any other point in my life, completely out of place. I have never felt so foreign, so unwelcome, so uncomfortable, and so guilty.

If any one of my compatriots had bothered to take a look at me, I have no doubt that he would have considered me to be foreign. It felt like standing in the waiting room of a rundown hospital rather than at a border–crossing. These people seemed to me to be clinging on to life only because they were forced to and not, as is the case in the western world that I am used to, because they enjoy it. This is something that was to be confirmed every day that I stayed in Iraq, and everywhere I went in the country.

How does the crisis in Iraq relate to its wider region? See Fred Halliday’s essay, “America and Arabia after Saddam” (May 2004)

A health care emergency

One of my reasons in going to Iraq was to try and determine how services such as public health care have been faring since the war. I was very happy to learn that relatives who work in public hospitals in Baghdad were willing to show me around. A few days after my arrival, I set out to visit the public Baghdad Teaching Hospital with one of my uncles.

On the way, my uncle told me of the damage war had inflicted on Iraq’s infrastructure, and of the things he had seen. He described how, immediately after the war, American soldiers broke into the hospital carpark and stole a large number of the staff’s vehicles. The soldiers, unable to move one of the cars, tore off the roof in order to steal all its contents. I later saw what was left of that vehicle: a charred carcass gutted of all its interiors, wheels and accessories – as well as its roof.

He also recalled seeing American soldiers smash the doors of government buildings and inviting Iraqis to enter and loot the contents. A number of Americans and other foreigners seem to have made off with a great deal of Iraq’s wealth, although at least one was caught in the act.

As we walked to the hospital from our parking space, we found out that American soldiers had cordoned off a bridge that we planned to cross because the hospital had been bombed – probably by insurgents – from the other side of the river; three people had been killed. My uncle struggled to understand why anyone would want to bomb a hospital, but when we learned that the shells hit the seventh floor of a particular building in the hospital grounds, he said: “of course – the Italians.”

A group of Italian doctors had for a year been providing free medical assistance at the hospital, working on the sixth floor of the building. My uncle believed that the attacks could only have been intended for them. The rise in the number of attacks on foreigners during 2003 had led to an increase in security measures. The concrete blocks at the building’s entrance, with armed soldiers standing behind stacks of sandbags, made it resemble a military bunker.

These defensive measures are apparently not enough to stop attacks by Iraqis determined to expel all foreigners from the country, whether or not they have come under the banner of occupation.

As we walked through the hospital, I spoke with some of the staff. I soon realised that all the things that I had read during the embargo years relating to the condition of Iraq’s hospitals – the lack of investment and basic medicines, the inability to replace defective equipment, and the general inadequacy of treatment available – is still true today, and that there is no prospect of this changing soon.

I visited a large number of departments, including the x–ray department, the children’s unit, the radiology and cardiology departments. Only one in five of all the machines in these departments was in working order. The x–ray department had only one piece of equipment that functioned properly. Most of the examination rooms had not been used in years.

As soon as a machine breaks down, there is nothing to be done. It is impossible to repair, as spare parts come from abroad and are beyond the hospital’s purchasing power; buying new equipment is out of the question. The children’s department had what looked like a sophisticated scanner in use; although I was initially impressed, it was soon explained that the machine had been taken from the cardiology department because there was nothing left in the children’s department that could be used.

Sanitation is a serious problem. Everywhere I went – in the hallways, operating and examination rooms, staircases and elevators – there were inexplicable black stains and in places even dark puddles in the middle of the floor. At one point I saw what looked like cleaning utensils and wondered what point there was in cleaning a building with something so dirty. In the hallway of one department, I saw a sink so filthy that it defied imagination. I was so surprised at the sight, I decided that I simply had to take a picture, for no one would believe how dirty it was unless they saw it for themselves.

Patients or their relatives sat or slept all over the hospital floor – sometimes so many that you had to step over them to cross the hall. Many looked like they had been there for days. And what patients they were! Old men suffocating; children bleeding, with burns, broken limbs, tears; old women walking in circles, crying and crying – no one knew why or seemed to care.

Through all this, the hospital staff stood idly by, incapable of doing anything to relieve the suffering around them. And, just about everywhere in the hospital, there are posters of the Imam Ali (the 7th–century religious figure revered by Shi’a Muslims), Grand Ayatollah Ali al–Sistani and Muqtada al–Sadr. How such displays possibly contribute to the patients’ well–being was not immediately obvious, nor was it clear who actually places these posters on the walls. In any event, they could also be found in the medical staff’s lounge.

At the end of the day, I sat in the hospital’s cafeteria in disbelief at the filth, misery and despair that I had seen. We were joined by three of my uncle’s colleagues from another of the hospital’s departments. We spoke of many things, mostly in Arabic, but I slipped into English in order to better explain my field of work. I was struck by how well they all spoke the language and then learned that in fact medical studies in Iraq are carried out entirely in English.

They asked why I had come to the hospital, and I answered that I was curious to see the state of Iraq’s medical facilities and had asked my uncle to show me something that was representative. All three then reproached my uncle for bringing me to their hospital, which was in their view the cleanest in the country.

But I was most disturbed when I learned how little it would actually take to make a difference. My uncle’s colleagues asked if I was in a position to gather a group of donors able to contribute either medicines or the money to buy them – the hospital was desperately short of both. I listened, and thought of any contacts I had who might help contribute to what I expected to be substantial sums of money. They eventually told me that what they needed would cost $300 a month.

Three crises: economy, energy, security

The question all Iraqis asked themselves after the 2003 war was whether the arrival of the American army was a good or a bad development. From my observations, many families – even those that had prospered during the Saddam years – were split down the middle; while some argued vehemently that nothing could be worse than Saddam, others could not stand the thought of foreign occupation.

As far as I could tell, this schism has for the most part subsided – with a definite shift in public opinion against the occupation. This development probably has several causes, but from my conversations and encounters three are uppermost: nothing irritates Iraqis more, nothing more convinces them that the occupation is designed for reasons other than to serve their interests or improve their living standards than mass unemployment and rampant corruption, the constant electricity supply breakdowns, and the failure to establish security and the rule of law. Iraqis cannot accept that these continuing problems are unavoidable; from that starting–point, they inevitably conclude that the Bush administration is secretly plotting to keep Iraqis in a position of poverty and insecurity.

These three factors – economics, energy, and security – have together caused ordinary Iraqis to lose faith in the current political process.

First, high unemployment levels have a very depressing effect on the population. Most Iraqis remain economically inactive, and although there has been an upturn in several business sectors, the vast majority of people are still unable to find work.

I met unemployed engineers, construction industry experts, teachers, journalists, and former members of the armed forces; many of them asked me if I could help them leave the country. Several businessmen told me of approaches by foreign investors immediately after the war, most of whom had subsequently abandoned their proposed projects out of fear.

One computing engineer I spoke to worked in a company that had the occupation authority as one of its clients. After he and a colleague had been warned twice by insurgents that they should resign, the colleague was killed in a drive–by shooting, prompting my contact to resign his own position.

The blame for all this, all these people told me, rests entirely with the Americans; they are either incapable or unwilling to make Iraq secure – something that Saddam Hussein, I was repeatedly reminded, was certainly capable of doing. Soon after fighting broke out in Samarra, with many dead on all sides, I was stopped by an Iraqi police checkpoint in a nearby city. When one of the police officers discovered that I live in western Europe, he shouted at me that I must be crazy to have come to Iraq, screaming: “Goddamn this country and all its wars!”

Each week in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers assesses the latest developments in Iraq and the wider “war on terror”

Second, the continuing failure of the electricity supply cripples Iraqis’ daily lives. Most people have access to electricity far less than 50% of the time. In the Baghdad neighbourhoods I frequented most, power is supposed to alternate on and off for three–hour periods, but this schedule is rarely observed. In most other areas of Iraq, the supply is even less favourable. One family I visited in Baghdad did not have access to electricity for two whole days; another in Tikrit had only one hour of electricity in every five hours.

Many houses have private power generators but these are powerful enough only to allow televisions and lights to function. Air–conditioning units almost always require too much power for a private generator, something that infuriates Iraqis even further, particularly at night when heat and humidity can be at their most extreme. The electricity supply was a problem every single night I was in Iraq. At an individual level, this affects everything, particularly people’s overall disposition and sense of well–being; but on a national level, the results are even more serious – without electricity, there can be no water treatment, hospitals are vulnerable, and the impact on public health can be disastrous.

Public officials have cited a number of different factors to explain this away, including insurgent attacks on the power grid and power plants. Before going to Iraq, I believed this to be the principal factor for the lack of electricity; in fact, the main reason seems to be under–investment, as the vast majority of the monies promised to Iraq have not yet been spent.

One Iraqi responsible for the rehabilitation of the power grid explained the problem starkly: “So what if the insurgents attack the grid? All they can do is launch a few mortar shells, and we can repair that type of damage in just a few hours. The real problem is that there is no money. We only received 10% of the funds that we were supposed to get. We could finish all the work by the end of this year and reach full capacity if they gave us what we wanted.”

Iraqis are not persuaded that lack of investment is due to the failure to establish a safe environment for foreign investors and workers, and cite as evidence the way that their national oil revenues are being used to disburse American sub–contractors appointed in no–bid contracts.

Here, the second problem melts into the third, security. In the intense summer heat, Iraqis cannot breathe or sleep – and as they jerk their heads backwards in exasperation their cry is “Goddamn the Americans!”. I told them of the Americans I knew, that I had studied, worked and lived with, but they were not interested. Every Iraqi I spoke to regarded Americans as criminals, thieves, hypocrites, perverts, liars – and, of course, foreign invaders.

Iraqis need not look far to find the focus of their hatred. Even after the occupation officially came to an end on 28 June 2004, there were Americans everywhere I went. I saw hundreds of American tanks, helicopters, Humvees; patrols and checkpoints; military vehicles stationed at almost every bridge in Baghdad. American military forces occupy a huge number of buildings across the city, protected by massive concrete slabs and sandbags; they have uprooted a huge number of palm groves in the city to prevent insurgents from hiding there, thereby transforming what were once elegant parks into horrible wastelands.

It was not unusual for members of a very slow American patrol to point their guns straight at me when I tried to overtake their vehicle. The Humvees often drive on the wrong side of the street, in order – say Iraqis, who are absolutely convinced of the point – to spite them.

Once, after waiting over an hour in sweltering heat for an American convoy to move to allow traffic to proceed, the driver next to me opened his window and shouted: “Saddam is the medicine that will cure us of them!”

On another occasion, a relative’s house was searched in my presence by overexcited American soldiers who said that they were looking for insurgents, and a further visit occurred after some young cousins exploded extremely small firecrackers in celebration of Iraq’s (soccer) victory over Uzbekistan in the Asian Cup.

A few days later I was in Amman on the day that Jordan defeated Kuwait in the same competition. The Jordanians celebrated with massive fireworks; the mood was jovial, with people congratulating each other. What a contrast to the atmosphere in Baghdad, I thought, where it seemed as if it was somehow forbidden to celebrate at all.

The collapse of education

These three problems are serious enough but underneath them is an even more serious and deep–rooted one that threatens Iraq’s long–term future: education.

From the 1950s until the first half of the 1980s, there was a surge in Iraq’s educational standards and potential. The country had some of the Arab world’s best higher–education facilities, and attracted students from many parts of the world. Thousands of Iraqis completed their postgraduate education in west European and North American universities in this period. A great number of Iraqis of this generation are well–educated, well–traveled, politically and socially sophisticated, bi– or trilingual, “worldly”. They are also at least 45 years old, and often much older.

The situation is very different for Iraqis born after 1965. They have lived the greater part of their lives under wars, political oppression, and a stringent economic sanctions programme. During Saddam Hussein’s twenty–four years as president from 1979–2003, political debate was forbidden. This was even the case within the ruling Ba’ath party, where attempts to instruct its membership in the doctrine of socialism and freedom from colonial oppression were replaced by incessant praise for Saddam.

No country can hope in the long run to survive without the free exchange of political ideas. The combination of four elements – Saddam Hussein’s rule, the impoverishment inflicted on the country by the 1980–88 war with Iran, the devastating onslaught of 1991, and the slow–death sanctions policy of the 1990s (the last two the work of the international community) – has created a “lost” generation of uneducated and, in global terms, isolated Iraqis. The Herculean effort made by the earlier, worldly generation that lifted Iraq out of poverty and ignorance has been undone in extremely painful and tragic circumstances.

The means at Iraq’s disposal to remedy this situation are pitiful, especially since the ransacking of Iraq’s universities in the aftermath of the 2003 war, involving the burning of many libraries. Public universities and schools have almost no facilities, and their staffs are discontented with everything from their working conditions to their pay levels. The standard response from the president of Tikrit University to complaints of this nature is: “The country is poor. Nothing can be done.” Teachers and professors are demoralised and students have been quick to take advantage of the situation – paying as little as $100 (in some universities) to successfully complete all their exams in a given year.

During my stay in Iraq, I visited a number of educational institutions in both Baghdad and Tikrit. It would be impossible for the uninformed visitor to guess that these were educational establishments. One law faculty in Baghdad had no books in the libraries to study the country’s legal system. There are very few new books anywhere, despite well–publicised donations from western institutions. In schools in Tikrit and Baghdad, teachers told me that post–war programmes designed to “rehabilitate” their schools merely involved a fresh coat of paint on the walls; teaching standards and facilities, they said, have not improved in any way.

Some school classrooms serve as storage facilities for debris; but much more depressing are those actually in use, which are usually completely bare and filthy. In short, Iraq’s contemporary education system is a disaster, both in absolute terms and in comparison to what it was like before the Saddam years.

A lost generation

The by–product of this catastrophic educational environment is deep disillusion among the Iraqi people. This has three aspects.

First, no political party in the country truly represents the interests of Iraqis. The entire political class in Iraq is today made up of people who have lived outside the country for at least fifteen years (far more in the case of Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi), and parties like the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord – considered important in the west – are divided by personality and ambition rather than ideology.

Neither party subscribes to a particular political ideology (entailing, for example, support for health–care reform or tax increases), nor has contributed anything to Iraq’s political development. Each is led by a strong–willed character who is the constant target of accusations of corruption. Why would an Iraqi who is genuinely interested in the political future of his or her country be attracted to such institutions?

Second, the real failure to improve the living standards of many Iraqis has made people even more disaffected. The electricity and security problems have caused already cynical Iraqis – even those hopeful of real change in 2003 – to become convinced that the United States does not have their interests at heart, and to regard any notion of improvement through the political process as a mirage.

Third, Iraqis are neither given the means to become politically and socially active, nor invited to do so. Free elections at an early stage might have galvanised the population, but the idea was rejected by the occupation authorities, who were much more preoccupied with reforming the economy instead. The result is a tragically artificial political situation that is devoid of any real relevance to the fundamental problems the people are facing.

I saw the sad effect of all this when I met some young members of what is supposed to be Iraq’s new political class. We discussed the parliamentary elections scheduled by the end of January 2005. I asked them what measures are being taken to ensure that they will be free and open; although they assured me that they are making utmost efforts in this direction, they said they had had only had two meetings with American officials to discuss the matter – nothing else.

I mentioned the possibility of contacting electoral observers from the European Union or the Carter Center. They had never heard of electoral observers. I explained the concept and invited them to contact these or other similar institutions. They had no idea where to start; they did not know how to obtain their contact details; none of them spoke any languages other than Arabic. In the event, they asked me to contact the relevant authorities on their behalf.

How do other Iraqis who have returned to their country since the 2003 war see its future? Read openDemocracy’s roundtable discussion, “Iraq in the balance” (June 2004)

Elsewhere, a provincial governor in an area I happened to be visiting issued an order to release two suspects who had been arrested on suspicion of crime. At the local courts where the order was delivered, lawyers argued bitterly against its legality. But government officials could not even understand the nature of the disagreement; they had, apparently, never heard of the concept of the independence of the judiciary or the separation of powers.

Some observers have asked why Iraqis who oppose the military occupation of their country do not use non–violent methods, which can be regarded a more efficient form of resistance than guerrilla warfare. One answer is that the vast majority of Iraqis have never heard of non–violence, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

The lost generation of Iraqis (in effect, almost everyone under 45 years old) feels that political discussion is utterly pointless; not only because politics was forbidden for so long, but because the result of politics in Iraq, of all the efforts made by the thousands who worked for the country’s social, economic and political evolution from the 1950s onwards, is the American occupation of Iraq – that is to say, total failure and humiliation.

This disenchantment with politics is reflected on three levels – practical, emotional, intellectual.

First, during my time in Iraq, I asked every person I met under the age of 40 whether he or she was a member of a political party, and if they knew anybody who was. I did not receive a single positive answer. Such questions were often met with derision; I even encountered violent reactions from people who shouted that nothing good could come from political discussion.

I did not see even one poster or political symbol in favour of a politician; only religious figures benefited from such attention. The images of various political events – signing of treaties or handovers of sovereignty – are routinely broadcast on al–Jazeera, but no one pays any notice. It is probably fair to say that much more importance is attributed to these events by the average American than by the average Iraqi.

Second, the depth of cynicism among Iraqis is such that they are unwilling to make any effort to improve the lot of their country; they are convinced that no matter what they do, the situation will not improve. It is widely known in Tikrit, for example, that a four–ton generator recently purchased by the city municipality actually weighs two tons. Yet no one is willing to initiate a prosecution of the vendor responsible for the overcharging, to report the matter to the police, or to press the municipality to conserve public funds. Why bother, people ask, if someone else will just steal the money?

Third, a middle–aged Iraqi who spoke perfect English (having graduated in the 1970s from a prestigious British university) told me that Iraq had no future, and that there was no point in putting any effort into it. “I hope”, he said, “that this visit of yours to Iraq will be your last. Stay abroad and live your life there. There is nothing for you here.”

The reason for his pessimistic outlook was that “the young have no education”. But did not the generation before his also lack basic education; hadn’t his generation pulled itself out of ignorance through its own skill and zeal? The response was a broken smile and a shrug.

A time to decide

Iraqis are a dead people. I saw them as they sat in the souk, as they walked through the filth that infests every inch of every street, as they lounged in the luxury or the poverty of their homes. Wherever they were, no matter what their station in life, they breathed the heavy and dusty air of the country into their lungs and sighed in relief every time they expelled it from their bodies. Their despair is constant and all–encompassing; it embraces them when they laugh and when they argue. The only place I did not feel it was on the east bank of the river Tigris, near Tikrit – a place that bears almost no sign of having evolved beyond the Babylonian era, when the people of this country may very well have been happier than they are now.

Iraq is in the throes of a serious crisis, and this is not the type of thing that can be remedied through investment, occupation, or even by a war of liberation. It is probable that the lost generation of Iraqis can never be revived, and that the worldly generation that existed before it is too tired and disillusioned to contribute much that is positive. In these circumstances, the best thing to do at this stage may be to focus on those whose spirits have not been totally eroded by war, sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s rule.

An entire generation of Iraqis is still young enough to be inspired towards some kind of political consciousness that could serve as an active driving–force for the reinvigoration of Iraqi society. Its members are in desperate need – of books, other new educational materials, and (more than anything else) teachers. Iraq must be put back on its feet, it must become self–sufficient again, and the only way that this can be done in the long run is for the people to stand up and educate themselves. It has become painfully clear over the past eighteen months that Iraqis can depend on themselves alone.

After the 2003 war, I believed that there was nothing I could do to influence the course of events in Iraq. Today, I realise that everything in the country is either at a standstill or moving backwards, and that only individual efforts can change this situation.

If it is true that young Iraqis have not been taught anything useful over the past twenty years, then the old must – individually and collectively – return to teach in schools and universities; and if it is true that members of the huge Iraqi diaspora have benefited from social and educational systems abroad, then they too now have a duty to restore some dignity to Iraq and help guarantee that the country will have a future for generations to come.

And if this applies to others, then it also applies to me, which is why there is no choice but for me to resign from my current life of comfort, and to embark on a life that will hopefully be of some use to someone other than myself.

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