August 13, 2020
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Long John Shiver

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Long John Shiver
It’s probably fair to say that few of the world’s great turning points have been heralded by the sight of a podgy bald man running along the side of a river bank in his underwear. For millions of people around the world, the apparent end of the Saddam Hussein regime will always be associated with the toppling of his statue. I was there for that event and reported it ‘live’ for the bbc and in the pages of this magazine. It was of course a dramatic moment; but for me, after surviving a month of ‘shock and awe’, it was the man in the baggy white long johns that told me the game was up. It was a few days before the statue came down that he’d been roused from his sleep by the US 7th Infantry who, unlike him, were clearly dressed to kill. I crouched behind my balcony watching them storm into the capital, catching its defenders quite literally napping.

I’ve been reminded of that man because I’ve just been awarded an mbe for my work in Baghdad. It’s a national award and I’d like to think it recognises the importance of journalists being on both sides of a conflict like the Iraq war. I’d like to think that, because I want to believe it was worth risking my life and putting my wife Bhavna through a month of trauma to tell the world what was happening to the residents of Baghdad as the Coalition let loose its fury. But eight months on, I can’t help wondering who was actually listening. For weeks we described how the Iraqi people hated the idea of being invaded by a foreign army, let alone a western one. Of course they despised Saddam but they also blamed the West for their economic hardships and for thrusting another war upon them. And yet the Coalition forces in Baghdad, even now, seem surprised, and a little betrayed, by the idea that their troops are being attacked by people they thought they’d come to liberate.

I don’t know what happened to that man. He disappeared around the bend in the river ahead of a pack of his equally scared compatriots. Perhaps he was taken prisoner. He certainly wasn’t a threat to anyone, he’d even left behind his gun. Like most Iraqis he obviously wasn’t that keen on spilling his blood to save Saddam and so was running for his life. But what kind of a life was he running to? It’s simplistic to say that the Iraqi people were better off under the old regime. They weren’t. But they deserve much better than what has replaced it. What is the value of promises of democracy if you’re an ordinary Iraqi and random violence, kidnapping and rape stalk the people you love?

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