Centre for Research on Globalisation
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'This is no good, sir!'

by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Guardian, 5 September 2003
www.globalresearch.ca   7 September 2003

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/VAR309A.html

There are no police stations or banks, the American troops are scared and hated and anything that isn't guarded is stolen or destroyed. Is there hope for the people of Baghdad? The distinguished Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa reports from Iraq

Iraq is the country with the greatest freedom in the world, but since freedom without law and order is chaos, it is also the most dangerous. There are no customs, nor customs officers, and the CPA (coalition provisional authority) governed by Paul Bremer has abolished all tariffs and duties on imports until December 31. As a result, the Iraqi borders have become strainers, through which all kinds of goods - except weapons - are pouring in without difficulties or costs. At the border with Jordan, the US watch officer assured me that just this week an average of 3,000 vehicles a day had entered Iraq with all types of merchandise. That is why the two large avenues Karrada In and Karrada Out, which zigzag through Baghdad like conjoined twins, present an immense variety of industrial goods, clothes and food. The innumerable shops that flank them have spilled out on to the streets, turning the pavements into a plethoric bazaar - and into a paradise of pirate records, compact discs and videos. However, the one product that citizens of Baghdad are buying most eagerly is parabolic aerials, which allow them to see television broadcasts from all over the world, something that had never been possible before, and that infuriates the conservative Islamic clerics, who see this television frenzy as an invasion of the corrupting western pornography. Now Iraqis can also surf freely over the web, which in the days of Saddam Hussein was considered a crime. It is amusing to observe, in the internet coffee shops which have mushroomed throughout Baghdad, the passion with which the Baghdadis, especially the young, indulge in this new pastime that connects them with the rest of the world.

The active street trade has more in common with primitive bartering than with modern dealing. As there are no banks, nor cheques, nor credit cards, all transactions are made in cash and, given the plunge of the dinar (the rate was approximately 1,500 dinars to the dollar on my last day there), buyers, in order to make a purchase, must bring bundles of notes with them, at times suitcases full, which can be nicked from them at any moment by the scourge of the day: the omnipresent Ali Babas. For on top of the lack of customs officers, there are no policemen, no judges and no police stations to report the robberies or outrages one suffers. The ministries are closed, as are the public registers and the postal service; the telephones don't work, and there aren't any rules and regulations that stipulate what a citizen can or cannot do. Everything is left to each individual's intuition, boldness, prudence and instinct. The result is reckless freedom, which makes people feel helpless and frightened.

The only authority is represented by the tanks, the armoured cars, trucks and jeeps, and by foot patrols of US soldiers who cross and re-cross streets all over, armed with rifles and submachine guns, making the buildings shake with the power of their war vehicles. Soldiers who, on a closer look, seem as helpless and frightened as the citizens of Baghdad themselves. Since I arrived the attacks against them have been increasing systematically, and have already killed 30 and injured around 300. It is not surprising that they seem suspicious and in bad spirits, with fingers on triggers, patrolling streets full of people with whom they cannot communicate, amidst a hellish heat, which for them, dressed in helmets, bullet-proof jackets and other war paraphernalia, must be even worse than for the average local. I tried to talk to them - many being adolescents not yet capable of growing a beard - on four occasions, but I got only very concise replies. They were all pouring sweat, eyeballs perpetually moving, like distrustful grasshoppers.

But Morgana, my daughter, succeeded in conversing on a more personal level with a soldier of Mexican origin who suddenly opened his heart from atop his tank: "I've had it! I've been here for three months and I cannot stand it any longer! I ask myself what the hell I'm doing here every day! This morning they killed two buddies. I can't wait to go back to my wife and child, damn it!"

Endless stories about the US soldiers who patrol Baghdad are spreading all over, the majority of which are, without doubt, exaggerations or lies. One example is that, in their desperation against the growing attacks, they burst into houses and abuse their authority under the pretext of looking for arms. I tried to verify some of these charges and they turned out to be unfounded. The truth is that nobody knows what line to take. For the first time in its history there is complete freedom of press in Iraq - anyone can buy a newspaper or magazine without having to ask for permission from someone - and currently more than 50 news papers are being printed in Baghdad alone (where, since April, 70 political parties have emerged, some made up of only one person). Still, the information they publish is so contradictory and imaginative that everybody is complaining of living in complete uncertainty.

I went to the home of Kahtaw K Al-Ani, in the Sadea neighbourhood, because I had been told that in the house next to his there had been a very violent incident the night before which resulted in various casualties. It actually took place five houses beyond his. The patrol entered by breaking the door down with a kick. "This is no good, sir!" And there was one dead Iraqi. But did they find weapons there? Did they fire at the soldiers? He does not know, and does not want to know.

Al-Ani lived in Reading for three years and has good memories of England. He was a technician in the ministry of agriculture and now, like all other civil servants from the fallen regime, has been fired by the CPA. Is this not totally unfair? He and his colleagues hated Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party, which they were forced to join, and they were happy that the Americans freed them from the dictatorship. But what kind of liberation is this that puts you on the dole, for no reason, leaving in poverty tens of thousands of families, who previously felt like victims of the regime? "This is no good, sir!" Al-Ani is old and dignified, with close-cropped hair, and is dripping with sweat. His children soak up his perspiration with paper serviettes and he constantly apologises for the fan not working as a result of the lack of electricity. Before he hated Saddam and the Ba'ath party, but now he hates the US soldiers. As I was saying goodbye, he showed me his car: he never takes it out just in case it gets stolen, and he does not dare to leave his house for fear of it being attacked or burned. "This is no good, sir!"

Three wars, 12 years of international sanctions and 30-something years of Ba'ath satrapy have turned Baghdad, which in the 1950s was famous for its beauty, into the ugliest city in the world. Saddam's strategic centres of power, the ministries and official organisations, and many of the residences which belonged to the dictator and his accomplices now display their open jaws and insides gutted by the impact of the US precision bombing. And one can see everywhere the homes, shops, buildings and installations looted and burned during the criminal pandemonium that took over the city in the days that followed the arrival of US troops, and which has not entirely died down yet.

The Ali Babas ransacked everything that came their way and left half of the population in the street, with no possessions or roofs over their heads. Who were these plunderers? Saddam Hussein, in order to celebrate his re-election as president with 100% of the vote, opened the country's prison doors on October 15 2002 and set free all the common criminals (while sending the majority of political prisoners to their deaths). How many did he set free?

I'm given dislocated figures that run from 30,000 to 100,000. It doesn't explain all the outrages committed, but it does explain a good number, the Archbishop Fernando Filoni, Nuncio of His Holiness, assures me. (An expert in catastro phes, he began his diplomatic career in Sri Lanka when the Tamils started their decapitations and throat-cutting.) "The lack of practice of freedom initially spawns catastrophes. That is the reason why the Pope, who is very wise, opposed the war. Wanting to rush into things so fast, the US quickly came across something unforeseen: widespread vandalism."

But it is also true that the built-up hatred towards the ruling clique has incited many victims into destroying residences belonging to the people in power and all other buildings related to the regime. Still, why did they destroy the factories? Nagi al-Jaf, a veteran industrialist with business in the Iraqi capital and in the Kurdish city Suleymaniya, told me that the huge and mixed-regime Farida brewery in Baghdad, in which he owned shares, was mercilessly razed by the Ali Babas. "I could understand robbing things that they could consume or sell, but I can't see why they would destroy all the machinery and then, as if that were not enough, burn the whole thing down."

How many industries in Baghdad have been victim to similar forms of havoc? The answer is categorical: "All of them." I ask him not to exaggerate, to be objective. He looks at the stars in the Suleymaniya sky for a long time and repeats: "All of them. There's not a single industrial plant left in Baghdad that hasn't been wiped off the face of the Earth." How can we explain this? Maybe it is because people cannot live castrated and subject to abjection, terror and servility, as the Iraqis have lived in the three decades under the Ba'ath dictatorship, without reacting on feeling completely and absolutely free, which is just how the Iraqis felt on April 9, with that explosion of anarchy, profligacy and savagery that has destroyed Baghdad and left an open, bleeding wound in the soul of all of its citizens.

As none of the public services works and there are no traffic police on the corners, driving in Baghdad is pandemonium. (Petrol is dirt cheap: filling a tank costs less than half a dollar). Every driver goes wherever he or she wishes, so traffic-related accidents are rife, and the traffic jams can drive people mad. But, at least in this regard, I did notice some indications of the famous "spontaneous institutions" that Hayek sees as the most representative and long-lasting, those which emerge naturally from civil society and are not imposed by power. When the traffic jam reaches paroxysm, volunteers will always emerge who, armed with a whistle and a stick, set themselves up as traffic controllers. And the drivers stuck in the jam heed their instructions, relieved that someone is finally giving them orders.

The same thing happens in the neighbourhoods, overwhelmed by the insecurity that reigns over the city, where people are organised into watch groups to defend themselves against robbers or to cart the rubbish accumulated in the street to the corner to burn it. It is for this reason that the passer-by wanders through Baghdad not only surrounded by rubble, ruins, burned buildings, piles of rubbish and vermin, but also by the foul- smelling clouds of fire with which the citizens of Baghdad try to defend themselves against the rubbish that threatens to flood them.

For the long-suffering population of the Iraqi capital, the lack of electricity and drinking water is perhaps the worst ordeal. The power cuts are constant and in certain parts of the city they can last for whole days. Neighbours are left with no defence against the stifling temperatures, which never go below 40C (104F) in the shade and sometimes top 50. Being subject to this scorching heat, in complete darkness and without running water, is a form of torture.

In the home of my Spanish friends from the Iberoamerica-Europa Foundation, where I stayed during my first week in Baghdad, I experienced first-hand the hardships that the Iraqis have suffered over the past three months. Electricity came every now and then, but there were times when the blackout would last so many hours that it was impossible to cook, wash or cool oneself. And in order to avoid burning up in the oven-like bedrooms, my hosts took their mattresses to the garden, preferring cockroaches over suffocation.

The disheartenment that all this generates is just one of the obstacles the Iraqi people have to overcome so that their country, which has just come out of one of the most corrupt and brutal experiences of authoritarianism that mankind has known, can leave behind the long night of despotism and violence that makes up its history and become a modern, prosperous and democratic nation.

 © Copyright El Pais and The Guardian. Translated by News Clips 2003  For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .