March 30, 2020
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Baghdad Diary

The people are quiet: is this the silence of graves recalled or of peace emerging from hope and confidence?

Baghdad Diary
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Progressive Decline

A day before I reached Baghdad, over a hundred people were killed in bombings across the country. According to news reports, members of the Shia community had been specially targeted and Al Qaeda elements were suspected. I first came to this city 35 years ago as a second secretary in the Indian embassy, my first regular diplomatic appointment. I was back 20 years later, in 1999, as a member of the Indian delegation for the joint commission. My last visit took place eight years ago when, in 2004, I was part of the Indian team negotiating the release of Indian and other hostages. During every visit, the city had looked worse than before so that the period of my posting in 1977-79, when Baghdad was quite a grim place, is now seen as a golden age!


Ravaged Cityscape

In the 1990s, Iraq suffered the consequences of the first Gulf war when its armed forces had been annihilated and the country was subjected to an intrusive and humiliating sanctions-inspections regime.

But the city even then looked far better than what it had become in 2004. Every aspect of the country—its structures and institutions, its very nationhood, had been assaulted during the post-9/11 war, so that civil society was in a state of collapse and prey to vicious attacks from trigger-happy and frightened American soldiers and ideology-driven or just plain thieving marauders. Professionals were kidnapped for ransom, women were dishonoured, and large numbers of people were killed in vicious sectarian violence. Warlords and their thugs ruled the streets, towns and highways. American occupation forces both perpetrated and were the victims of widespread atrocities that sapped their morale and turned victory into defeat. The cult of violence corroded the moral fibre of the occupier, preparing the ground for the abuses of Abu Ghraib.

Now, the American soldiers have gone, the last one packing his bags in December last year, after a futile seven-year occupation. But, the impact of war and occupation continues to be felt across the city. The first impression is of total breakdown: the streets are full of rubble; buildings are shabby and either damaged or incomplete skeletons; civic services are almost non-existent, with acute scarcity of both water supply and power. There is a pervasive military presence, with heavily armed personnel, numerous checkposts and the ugliest possible concrete blocks protecting offices and homes from suicide bombers. Surveys suggest that demand for services has replaced security as the number one concern of the people.


City on a Routine

And yet, amidst this squalor and destruction and the searing heat, there is a hint of the resilience of the Iraqi spirit—strong, stoic, unsmiling, uncomplaining. What seems to be rubble is often construction material being used to do patchwork repairs to broken homes. Stores are laden with basic goods, with housewives haggling for a bargain. Baghdad’s roads are busy and traffic chaotic. But, there is a new patience in the drivers, with tempers held in check, perhaps by the heat or the holy season of Ramadan. In spite of the news of widespread death, the people go about their normal chores.

Government departments teem with officials, both men and women, briskly handling paper, files and appointments. Their approach is business-like, with no room for light talk or banter. At times, I see in the eyes of those I meet a deep sense of anguish, recalling the wanton destruction meted out to the country and its people and the large number of loved ones lost forever. But, perhaps this is my imagination, since the memory of what’s gone before would make normal life impossible.


Will the Phoenix Rise Again?

Baghdad evokes memories of great cities that have suffered total destruction. Baghdad itself was devastated by Hulagu Khan when his horde destroyed the Abbassid Caliphate in the 13th century. Delhi was subjected to assault and murder at the hands of Timur and Nadir Shah. In recent years, in the dying days of the Second World War, Berlin and several other German cities were razed to the ground, while Tokyo was firebombed. All of these cities have risen up from rubble and ash and asserted their position in national and world affairs.

Surely, Baghdad too will one day reclaim its exalted position: all around it are the cradles of human civilisation: Sumer, Babylon, Ur, the source of writing and law. The city itself has the tombs of Abu Hanifa and the Sufi saint Abdul Qadir Geelani and of the Shia Imam Musa bin Jaafar. Some of these stalwarts have modern-day followers at war with each other. Can these bands be reconciled, so that the Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkoman and Jew flourish in this city again, as they had for over a thousand years?


As I Leave...

...the govt has declared a holiday as temperatures have crossed 50°. The airport is crowded, but the people are quiet: is this the silence of graves recalled or of peace emerging from hope and confidence?


Talmiz Ahmad is a retired Indian diplomat who has been an ambassador to several West Asian countries; E-mail your diarist: talmiz.ahmad AT gmail.com

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