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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.