The recurrent attacks on UN employees and the people they serve brings back memories of the Baghdad bombing that targeted the UN Headquarters in Iraq.
I served in South Iraq at the time. I was employed by UNDP under the Humanitarian Appeal. I worked, along with hundreds of UN staff, NGOs, the Red Cross movement around the clock to make sense of a broken country we entered at the wake of much-advertised military campaign and muscle flexing, with a lot of expectations dampened by a harsh reality. Iraq under Saddam was a sick man, after the invasion it was comatose. The sanctions had taken their toll on the population, a proud population of Iraqis that were in the cross hairs of the world because they happened to be living on land floating on oil reserves beyond the imagination. Here I would like to throw an idea at you. Think about it: Had Iraq’s biggest export been tomatoes, I wonder whether the US or other countries would have gotten together the coalition of the willing and the slightly unwilling and gone to save the Iraqis against their will at such a huge cost of billions of dollars per month. If it is dictatorships they were after, and punishing dictators killing people, why haven’t other existing dictatorships bothered them at all? There are many around, even in the same region.
My first recollection when entering the country from Kuwait- where we had our acclimatization centre and security training in the UNDP office- was of a sand storm. A horrific sand storm in early June that looked very much like a snowstorm, a yellow, dusty snowstorm. It was as if driving in a dream. The vhf radios crackling and the whir of the air conditioning in the car was all we heard, praying we would avoid hitting oncoming trucks or straying camels in almost zero visibility. When we entered Iraq from the Abdeli border crossing, we drove North in the direction of Basrah. We entered the city, and as the sand in the air was dissipating, I saw what seemed like a wedding was taking place in the Chaldean church. I was astounded, I thought people were mad to get married in the wake of an invasion, in high insecurity, in very unstable situations. The young couple couldn’t wait, it seems. I was smiling and looking at the bride and groom rushing out of the church and getting into a beat up old car which chugged away from the scene taking the happy couple to a quiet place to be together. I took the wedding scene as a good omen for the future of Iraq. Boy, was I wrong.
Things started to go sour a few weeks after we settled in our new work environment in South Iraq. We had a number of demonstrations in front of our Southern UN headquarters, an elaborate palace from the Saddam days that was converted into offices for the UN system. A huge hall served as the venue for the daily Humanitarian Open Forum (HOF) where UN, Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), University professors, newly-born Iraqi civil society, national Iraqi authorities (what was left of them), coalition force commanders and the private US companies came together for a briefing each day except Friday, our official day off. We loved our HOF, the social activity we had where we could meet other actors on the Iraqi scene. Our other social pass time was the projection of movies on a sheet on the roof of the Al-Ouyoun Hotel (a seedy hotel where the staff was told to stay, which retained some red lamps in the corridors from its heyday-making us pretty uncomfortable to live there-but it was safe and had the proper security standards and bodyguards at the gate, so we stayed-no other option was conceivable).
We started noticing a deterioration in the security situation a month into the mission’s life. We got attacked a few times going to Amara close to the Iranian border. One such violent demonstration took place when I was meeting with the British forces in Amara to discuss the UN buying the crops of the farmers to generate income. Rocks were thrown into the compound, angry army officers, left to their own devices with no pay and no dignity, were trying to scale the walls and throw themselves inside the military compound where we were. It was scary, yet heart-wrenching to see proud officers humiliated, having to beg for their pay check to feed their families. Nobody cared about those military personnel who eventually made up the nucleus of the Iraqi insurgency. The coalition forces were busy with other concerns as they let an army of a few hundred thousand go home to hungry families, penniless, angry, and armed. It was a uniquely idiotic decision on the part of the US at the time – disbanding the army. Shortsightedness that the UN and other organizations ended up paying for with their lives.
The UN car I was driving back from Kuwait was once attacked in Safwan, the first Iraqi town after the Kuwaiti border. I had the good sense to lock all doors before going into the town’s traffic jam of mostly smuggled and stolen cars. My gesture was that which probably saved us being lynched. You could sense at the time that Iraqis were collectively getting angry. There was no peace or post-invasion dividends they could feel coming their way. They were not witnessing a change in their situation post Saddam. What money they managed to scrape together was becoming useless. We used to carry big black plastic bags of Iraqi dinars to the store to buy a sandwich, the money was devaluing fast, no longer worth the paper it was printed on. The coalition forces were digging themselves deeper politically importing Iraqi expatriates and plunking them in government jobs. The streets were boiling with resentment, with constant talk about the oil that the country was not able to exploit because of the occupying forces, and all the newspapers, magazines, posters, even notices posted on hospital doors had jokes about the invasion and the war. Mostly making fun of Americans.
An attack took place against the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Red Cross, Ockenden and a string of other isolated attacks that were bit by bit defining the writing on the wall. I was in Baghdad at the time. An eerie experience where we flew from the deserted, pink marble-tiled Basrah airport, where lazing female British soldiers in tank tops were stopping the hearts of Iraqi personnel-including our UN drivers. A blue Boeing 727 landed, took us on board, with a crew of blue-clad flight attendants that did exactly nothing except look Ukranian. We landed in Baghdad to be accosted by a throng of young US soldiers wanting to search us, ID us, take photos of us, and let us know the rules. I can’t even remember any of the instructions, I just know there were many.
Once we got to the blue and white Canal hotel-the UN headquarters- it was like a mini-New York headquarters. Buzzing with energy, we felt no one had any time for us, we were forgotten, and when the pony-tailed security officer wanted to give us a briefing, he counted ways in which we might die in Baghdad. We thanked him for his kind words and wondered around Canal Hotel to do our jobs.
I went to our hotel that night, seeing the Iraqis in the street, numb, confused, not really sure what happened and why. We decided with a couple of colleagues-one of them Iraqi- to walk the streets outside of our security zone and talk to people. It was a sad evening, where we saw the misery of a nation that was supposed to be the richest in the Arab world on paper, but whose circumstances were such that it had so much oil reserves that the world decided it was not to be. Having a dictator run it, and invading a neighboring country in his spare time did not help Iraq a lot either.
Before leaving Baghdad, I went and saw Sergio Vieira de Mello in his office in Canal hotel. Sergio was a friend who was also head of the UN mission in Iraq. He was swamped with work, but took time to chat and ask if I was seeing his two sons and wife when in Geneva. We talked for a while, I told him I was leaving for the airport to take a beechcraft back to Basrah. He wished me well, I did the same. He was killed two weeks later, in that same office where we stood and talked about his family.
The UN was attacked with a truckload of explosives because it was in the elephants’ path. The attackers wanted to mark points against the coalition, they wanted chaos to reign in Baghdad and in Iraq in general, and the UN was working around the clock to try and stabilize the country, to fulfill the requirements of a Security Council resolution.
The shortsighted moves by Paul Bremmer, the Viceroy in Iraq at the time, famous for wearing his smart blue suits with military boots, led to the birth of the insurgency that caused the death of not only Sergio and our 22 UN colleagues, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the months and years that followed. The US adopted a stance of disbanding an army that in fact mostly laid down its arms during the invasion, and debaathifying a country that had the baath as a necessary part of life. An Iraqi had to belong to the Baath party for anything, jobs, school, promotions, existence really. The brilliant move by Bremmer was to send hundreds of thousands of angry armed military home, with no jobs and no income, and uproot everyone who had ever been a baathist in Iraq-mainly everyone who was there. This opened the door wide for Iran to infiltrate the country, with the absence of the army, police, and the baath leadership.
The UN paid the price, the Iraqis paid the price, and the young soldiers the US was sending to Iraq also paid a big price, losing life and limb to execute half-baked policies on the part of their administration. Someone has to keep reminding the US of its mistakes, as their repercussions are grave and cause a lot of casualties. If no one does, it will keep happening again and again, and people will keep being killed senselessly.