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What we've lost

Riverbend, 'Girl Blog from Iraq' as she dubs herself, was a computer programmer before the war - not any more. In her diary of the occupation, she describes the new, confined way of life, especially for women, amid the mayhem.

Thursday, August 21 2003
Suffering from a bout of insomnia last night, I found myself in front of the television, channel-surfing. I was looking for the usual - an interesting interview with one of the council, some fresh news, a miracle ... Promptly at 2am, the electricity went off and I was plunged into total darkness. After five minutes of trying and failing to remember where I had left the candle and matches I decided I would "feel" my way up the stairs and out on to the roof. Step by hesitant step, I stumbled out into the corridor and up the stairs, stubbing a toe on the last step (which wasn't supposed to be there).

I stood there trying to determine whether it was only our area, or the whole city, that had sunk into darkness. A few moments later, my younger brother (we'll call him E) joined me - dishevelled, disgruntled and half asleep. We stood leaning on the low wall enclosing the roof watching the street below. I could see the tip of Abu Maan's cigarette glowing in the yard next door. I pointed to it with the words, "Abu Maan can't sleep, either ..." E grunted, "It's probably Maan." I stood staring at him like he was half-wild - or maybe talking in his sleep. Maan is only 13 ... how can he be smoking? "He's only 13." I stated. "Is anyone only 13 any more?" he asked. I mulled this remark over. No, no one is 13 any more. No one is 24 any more ... everyone is 85 and I think I might be 105.

Saturday, August 23 2003
Females can no longer leave their homes alone. In the current state of lawlessness, each time I go out, my brother or some other male relative has to accompany me. It feels like we've gone back 50 years since the beginning of the occupation. A woman, or girl, out alone, is at risk. So there is always the question: "But do you really have to go out?Ē Actually I do. Any excuse is good enough to stop feeling I am under house arrest, to get out and see the light of day and walk down a street.

The situation is incredibly frustrating to females who work or go to college. Before the war, around 50% of the college students were females, and over 50% of the workforce was composed of women. Not any more. We are seeing an increase of fundamentalism in Iraq which is terrifying. For example, before the war, I would estimate (roughly) that about 55% of females in Baghdad wore a hijab - or headscarf. Hijabs do not signify fundamentalism. That is far from the case - although I myself don't wear one, I have family and friends who do. The point is that, before, it didn't really matter. It was "my" business whether I wore one or not - not the business of some fundamentalist on the street.

I am female and Muslim. Before the occupation, I more or less dressed the way I wanted to. All the time I wore jeans and cotton pants and comfortable shirts. Now, I don't dare leave the house in pants. A long skirt and loose shirt (preferably with long sleeves) has become necessary. A girl wearing jeans risks being attacked, abducted, or insulted by fundamentalists who have been ... liberated!

Fathers and mothers are keeping their daughters safe at home. That's why you see so few females in the streets (especially after 4pm). Others are making their daughters, wives and sisters wear a hijab. Not to oppress them, but to protect them.

I lost my job for a similar reason. Girls are being made to quit college and school. There are so many men on street corners frowning and jeering at girls they donít approve of. In some areas, girls risk being attacked with acid if their clothes aren't "proper".

Don't blame it on Islam. Every religion has its extremists. In times of chaos and disorder, those extremists flourish. Iraq is full of moderate Muslims who simply believe in "live and let live". We get along with each other - Sunnis and Shia, Muslims, Christians and Jews. We intermarry, we mix and mingle, we live.

Someone asked me if, through elections, the Iraqi people might vote for an Islamic state. Six months ago, I would have firmly said, "No." Now, I'm not so sure.

Sunday, August 24 2003
A lot of you have been asking about my background and the reason why my English is good. I am Iraqi - born in Iraq to Iraqi parents, but was raised abroad for several years as a child. I came back in my early teens and continued studying English in Baghdad - reading any book I could get my hands on. Most of my friends are of different ethnicities, religions and nationalities. I am bilingual.

I'm a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company located in Baghdad as a programmer/network administrator (yes, yes ... a geek). Every day, I would climb three flights of stairs, enter the little office I shared with one female colleague and two males, start up my PC and spend hours staring at little numbers and letters rolling across the screen. It was tedious, it was back-breaking, it was geeky and it was ... wonderful.

What I'm trying to say is that no matter what anyone heard, females in Iraq were a lot better off than females in other parts of the Arab world (and some parts of the western world - we had equal salaries!). We were doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, architects, programmers, and more.

During the first week of June, I heard my company was back in business. It took several hours, seemingly thousands of family meetings, but I finally convinced everyone that it was necessary for my sanity to go back to work. They agreed that I would visit the company (with my two male bodyguards) and ask them if they had any work I could possibly do.

One fine day in mid-June, I put on my long skirt and shirt, tied back my hair and left the house with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

We heard the usual instructions before we left - stop at checkpoints, return before dark, and if anyone wants the car, give them the keys - don't argue, don't fight it. We climbed into a battered, old, white 1984 Volkswagen - people are avoiding using "nice" cars that might tempt hijackers ("nice" is anything made after 1990). I mentally debated putting on sunglasses but decided against it - no need to attract any undue attention. I said a little prayer to keep us safe as I rummaged around in my bag, checking for my "weapon". I can't stand carrying a pistol so I carry around a big, red, switchblade hunting knife - you don't want to mess with Riverbend ...

Being out in the streets is like being caught in a tornado. You have to be alert and ready for anything every moment. I sat in the backseat, squinting into the sun, trying to determine if a particular face was that of a looter, or abductor, or just another angry country-man.

We had to park the car about 100m away from the door of the company because the major road in front of it was cracked and broken with the weight of the American tanks as they had entered Baghdad. I half-ran up to the door, my heart pounding at the thought of seeing friends, colleagues, secretaries . . . something familiar again in the strange new nightmare we were living.

The moment I walked through the door, everything looked shabbier somehow - sadder. The lights were shattered, desks overturned, doors kicked in, and clocks torn from the walls.

I stood a moment, hesitantly, in the door. There were strange new faces. Everyone was standing around, looking at everyone else. And I was the only female. I weaved through the strange mess and made my way upstairs. My little room wasn't much better off than the rest of the building. The desks were gone, papers all over the place ... but F was there! I couldn't believe it - a familiar, welcoming face. He looked at me for a moment, without really seeing me, then his eyes opened wide and disbelief took over the initial vague expression. He congratulated me on being alive, asked about my family and told me that he wasn't coming back after today.

I stood staring at the mess for a few moments longer, trying to sort out the mess in my head, my heart being torn to pieces. My cousin and E were downstairs waiting for me - there was nothing more to do. F and I left the room and started making our way downstairs. We paused on the second floor and stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when they thought things would be functioning, he wouldn't look at me.

His eyes stayed glued to F's face as he told him that females weren't welcome right now - especially females who "couldn't be protected". He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because "they" refused to be responsible for what might happen to me. OK. Fine. Your loss.

I turned my back, walked down the stairs and went to find E and my cousin. But slowly it hit me, and back in the car I cried bitterly all the way home - cried for my job, cried for my future and cried for the torn streets, damaged buildings and crumbling people.

Thursday, August 28 2003
My brother, E, was out at 8am this morning getting gasoline for the car. He came home at 12pm in a particularly foul mood. He had waited in line of angry, hostile Iraqis for three hours. Gasoline lines drive people crazy because, prior to the war, the price of gasoline in Iraq was ridiculously low. A litre of gasoline (unleaded) cost around 20 Iraqi dinars when one US dollar equalled 2,000 Iraqi dinars. In other words, one litre of gasoline cost one cent! A litre of bottled water cost more than gasoline. Not only does it cost more now, but it isn't easy to get. I think they're importing gasoline from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Yesterday, I read how it was going to take up to $90bn to rebuild Iraq. Bremer [the former head of the US Occupation Authority] was shooting out numbers about how much it was going to cost to replace buildings and bridges and electricity, etc.

Listen to this little anecdote. One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad, well-known for building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who'll listen.

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the south-east end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn't too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward - $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labour, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let's pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let's pretend he hasn't been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let's pretend he didn't work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf war. Let's pretend he's wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated - let's pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let's just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to a US company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around - brace yourselves - $50,000,000!! Something you should know about Iraq: we have over 130,000 engineers. More than half of these engineers are structural engineers and architects.


© Riverbend, 2005 (riverbendblog.blogspot.com)
This is an edited extract from Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq, by Riverbend, published by Marion Boyars. To order a copy for £9.99 (inc p&p), call 0870 836 0875 (guardian.co.uk/bookshop).