Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Back To Iraq

Christopher Allbritton is a freelance journalist who journeyed to Iraq during the initial war in 2003 and documented what he saw online in his blog Back To Iraq 2.0 (it was his second visit to Iraq). He provided one of the few unfiltered accounts of what was going on in country (he was not embedded and thus not controlled like the rest of the establishment journalists).

He has now returned to Iraq (The Heart Of Darkness) and is blogging there again (Back To Iraq 3.0). His account of his first three weeks is compelling reading, especially his comments about how the atmosphere has changed in a year. The essence of it is that no one trusts anyone over there and the lack of trust is destroying everyone, Iraqis. Which makes you wonder how anyone can salvage anything from this mess.

This feeling of trusting no one has gotten to me; it’s palpable and the constant vigilance is exhausting. My mood is black and I can feel a depression that is never far away. Not writing for the blog is a source of guilt, too, but TIME has kept me so busy with stories that don’t bring me in touch with average Iraqis much. I’ve been moving between the CPA and the former members of the Governing Council.

I also can’t seem to get excited over stories of abused Iraqis. There are so many and they have a numbing quality. Also, the hostility I encounter from Iraqis makes me — shamefully — less empathetic to their complaints. But nor do I feel much sympathy for Americans who point guns at me. The tragic part of this is that there is no way to blame anyone in this situation. The Iraqis will naturally hate an occupying army. And soldiers will naturally grow to hate a people they think they came to liberate but who continue trying to kill them.

I wish I could see more of the goodness in Iraqis that I know is there. And likewise, I wish they could see the goodness in Americans. But people here — the Iraqis, the CPA, the military and even some journalists — have become blinded to each other’s concerns and qualities. Those of us here, all of us, we’re not all bad people, I don’t believe. And I say “we” because no matter our nationality, this place hammers us into a collective body. The Iraqi selling me delicious juice concoctions, the American soldiers at the checkpoints missing his wife, the CPA employee who truly believed the Bush rhetoric, we are all in this together now.

But this environment is killing our ability to give a damn about anything other than staying alive. It’s burying our better angels. The lack of empathy is a bad quality for a journalist, and it’s a worse one for a human being. How can I do my job like this? It is for these reasons I’m in awe of the Baghdad artists who still manage to create beauty here. After a year of all this, they still see something worth seeing. They are magnificent.

I can only begin to imagine living under conditions like that. Christopher has only been there three weeks and he is already starting to feel the normal human empathies drained out of him. Imagine what must go through the minds of soldiers, CPA officials and journalists who have been there for over a year?

I was struck most by his comment about not being able to get excited about stories of abused Iraqis. It makes me wonder just how the Abu Ghraib story played out in Iraq. It was a shock to many Americans, but I suspect it just didn't have the same impact over their. Many of them, both soldiers and Iraqis, already knew about it. That doesn't mean they have come to accept it. It is just an evil that has become ingrained. Like moving into a town with a paper mill, after living there a few days you no longer notice the smell, but it still plays on your sensibilities on a subconscious level and the irritation can manifest itself in new levels of atrocities.

My greatest fear is that this acclimation come here as well and could result in a "fuck 'em" attitude by Americans, either towards the Iraqis, the soldiers, or both. If that happens then the tragedy will become complete.


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