Iraq’s “freedom” is still steeped in blood

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent as Saddam’s regime began to crumble. She recalls the horror of postwar Iraq — and says although the slaughter hasn’t stopped, the west is no longer watching.

Spring 2003. American and British troops were fighting their way in to Iraq. I was the BBC’s Baghdad corres­pondent, watching with frustration from neighbouring Jordan. I’d been expelled from Baghdad a few weeks earlier and couldn’t wait to get back.

Fast-forward to 9 April. As the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was torn down we prepared to set off, spending the night in the dusty no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq. A short while earlier, I had chosen a bright green, satin-covered sofa in the VIP section of the Iraqi border crossing to sleep on, but then gunfire forced us to retreat and I had to bed down on top of an armoured vehicle. There wasn’t much chance of a good night’s sleep in any case.

By the time we arrived in Baghdad a few hours later, most of the shooting of the war was over – for the time being at least. It was exhilarating to be able to speak openly to Iraqis for the first time. Many of them felt quietly humiliated by the sudden presence of US soldiers in their midst. But, for others, the overriding sentiment was one of joy at seeing the back of Saddam Hussein. The full horror of the past three decades came spilling out. A Shia cleric showed me deep, crater-like marks on his back, burn scars from where he had been lowered into a vat of acid in jail. I saw the torture implements said to have been wielded by Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday, including a large metal flower, inserted into the victim’s anus as a bud and then twisted open – releasing its sharp-ended petals – into an excruciating bloom. I watched as a young man called Nofal had surgery to give him prosthetic ears to replace the ones that had been cut off when he deserted the army. Usually a deserter lost only one ear, but the doctor administering the punishment had taken off the wrong ear, so both had had to go. Nofal was hoping his new ears would help him find a wife.

It was heartbreaking to watch women clawing through the earth at mass graves, desperately trying to find any remnant of their sons. Any bone or scrap of clothing was enough – they just wanted some part of their child to bury. A decade on, it is equally distressing to think how many horrors and burials, kidnappings and bombings lay ahead.

The portents of trouble were there from the start and it wasn’t only due to decisions such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army. In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, an American soldier asked me to explain to a crowd of angry Iraqis why the US military had blocked a major road, stopping all traffic. With no translator, he couldn’t get even a simple message across to them. Another soldier once barked at me: “Get off my road!” “Your road,” I thought. “Really?” It wasn’t an attitude that the Iraqis enjoyed.

It was Iraq’s borders – through which foreign jihadis would cross and cause havoc – that needed watching. A senior Australian coalition official once said to me: “We can’t organise ourselves, let alone a country.” It took weeks before a single salary was paid to government employees, including doctors and nurses who were using their savings to pay for taxi rides to work.

As the National Museum in Baghdad was looted and other state institutions were stripped bare, Iraqis asked why only the oil ministry was being protected. Whatever you think about the reasons that led Britain and the US to war, I still wonder how things might have turned out if only the coalition forces had been better prepared, and had been able to show the Iraqis they cared about them.

I remember the woman who said to me: “Iraq will be like Dubai, now. Maybe even better.” I’d love to find out what she thinks now. Late last year, I went back to Baghdad for the first time since 2005. Flying in was a revelation. Gone was the corkscrew landing to avoid missiles, though my stomach still lurched, returning to a place I had avoided for seven years because I didn’t want to watch anyone else die. I never again want to see a father run screaming down a hospital corridor holding a limbless, bloodied child. It is still happening – you just don’t hear about it much any more. Iraq Body Count lists the deaths of more than 4,500 civilians in 2012. Many more have seen their hopes dashed.

In a cramped home in the suburbs of Baghdad, we met a man called Saad who had just escaped from the mayhem in Syria and was camping with relatives. A Sunni married to a Shia, he fled Iraq at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war after receiving death threats. Now, he’d had to flee for his life a second time and was back in Baghdad, guilt-stricken about being unable to protect his nine-year-old daughter from the levels of violence she had witnessed. He was jobless, and hopeless. “I feel like I’m nothing,” he told me, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Saad’s shame reminded me of the humiliation felt by another man I once interviewed who had been jailed at Abu Ghraib. He was one of the Iraqis pictured in the infamous photograph of the naked pyramid of hooded men. He looked at his feet as he quietly recounted how they had been forced to mas­turbate each other for the soldiers’ entertainment. I visited Abu Ghraib the following year; the Americans were keen to show us how much had changed. Family visits were now allowed and young American soldiers were taking souvenir snaps of prisoners with their wives and children. The name of one of the tented camps for the detainees was Camp Redemption. Who was it, I wondered, who needed to be redeemed?

Iraq remains a troubled place. During my recent visit, I saw little of its restored oil wealth being spent on badly needed social services. The nation, collectively traumatised, has only three child psychiatrists. The ubi­quitous checkpoints and blast walls fail to stop too many bombers. Iraqis complain of rampant corruption. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is seen as increasingly autocratic and its relations with the country’s Sunnis continue to sour. That Iraqis now seem to be fighting on both sides of Syria’s war – even if in small numbers – doesn’t bode well. I hope, for the Iraqis’ sake, for happier times ahead.

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to 2005

A picture of Saddam Hussein is set on fire by US Marines on 7 April, 2003 in Qal'at Sukkar, Iraq. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.