Women Biking Together in Baghdad, Iraq

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An event took place in Baghdad, Iraq, on December 5, where a woman organised a joint bike ride for women. The event was called “I, the society”, and was set up in order to motivate women to bike in public.

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Photo and video credits: Irfaa Sawtak and Hayder Hamzoz

Christmas in Baghdad

Christmas Eve yesterday in Baghdad, Iraq. The photos are from the Iraqi photographer Ahmad Mousa, founder of the @everydayiraq project. The captions are the original ones from Ahmad Mousa’s Facebookpage.

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Iraqi Christian girls light candles on Christmas Eve at a church in Baghdad

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Christmas mass in Baghdad, at Our Lady of Salvation church

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Christmas mass in Baghdad, Iraq

Can Iraq’s Government Handle ISIS Without Becoming Oppressors Themselves?

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Hayder Hamzoz

Isn’t it sad that the supporters for the country of Iraq are constantly working against the odds? With the frightening delevopment of the ISIS terrorists, Iraq has once again taken several steps back from potential stability and coexistance – 11 years after the outbreak of the war they didn’t start themselves.

Now the Americans are out and Iraq is left on their own to fight against the dark powers that seem overwhelmingly strong. Do they have the capacity to resist? I asked my friend, the human rights activist Hayder Hamzoz, how he saw the situation. He is coordinator of Iraqi Network for Social Media, a community for bloggers and citizen journalists in Iraq, and he has been very active in promoting development and human rights through social media. He sees dangers not only in the threats of ISIS but in how the Iraqi government is handling the situation:

The situation now is very bad outside Baghdad like in Diyala, Mosul, Kirkuk, Alanbar, and Salahaldeen,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of fake news are coming from ISIS through social media and we’re facing that through the trust news from the citizen there under the hashtag #insm_iq. 

This can bring many potential dangers for us (activists, my comment), like they can say you are supporting the ISIS terrorists because you don’t have direct tweets to support the army, this comes from the government. Also, from ISIS they will attack us at least in social media, unless they have group in Baghdad to follow us, because the community knows us, because our sharing about the daily life in Baghdad and other provinces, and they share the fake news. Also, from government’s side again, since we’re teaching the activists how to remove the banners from the banned social media; from the governments perspective we are doing something illegal. 

Can Iraq’s government handle the threat of the terrorists without becoming oppressors themselves? The challenge has two sides. I hope the activists won’t give up.

Photo: Copyright Hayder Hamzoz

“I Am Very Happy Today Because I Believe in Change” – on the Iraqi Elections

Dina Najem

On the evening of the Iraqi elections yesterday my Facebook newsfeed was filled with Iraqi friends and aquintances who happily showed their ink coloured fingers on snapshots uploaded from smartphones. Iraq has been tormented by more violence the last weeks before the elections – still so many Iraqis seemed happy and hopeful.

I caught myself thinking, when was the last time I had a snapshot of myself on election day? That was a long time ago. The last years I have been so worried by the increasing intolerance in Sweden that I haven’t enjoyed the moment of voting.

I asked Dina Najem, women’s rights activist in Baghdad whom I previously interviewed for my blog, on her thoughts about the election and the future. She answered:

We hope in this elections we vote for new faces to be in our new parlement. We hope that they can hear our voices and we want a new Iraq. We want to build the future and change our country from the war to the new Iraq that can be developing and educating. The outcome will be better for us because we need to change and we need to achive our dream. I am very happy today because I believe in change, and all the Iraqi youth want that change.

With such a hope for the future it’s hard to stay pessimistic. I’ll borrow some of the Iraqi courage this September, when our next election is due.

Photo credit: Dina Najem

Working For US Military in Iraq – Some Reflections

DSC_0372This article was originally published on Brave New World’s website

After invading Iraq in 2003, the American troops needed assistance, and a large number of national staff was employed to help the often ill-equipped young soldiers with the cultural and linguistic challenges they faced. Being a part of the American military was often dangerous, sometimes lethal; many Iraqis who took on this mission were murdered by militias. Still local staff was easy to recruit: the jobs were well-paid and the inflation was sky-rocketing why other jobs hardly could make you earn a living.

I wanted to know how someone who was working for the Americans now is reflecting over the time served, 11 years after the invasion. And so someone put me in touch with Louis Yako.

Louis is a bit reluctant at first when we speak. He points out to me that I as a non-Iraqi will write about an Iraqi rather than the Iraqi writing the piece himself, and we end up speaking about the problematic issue of me as a white woman portraying Middle Easterners.

“When a Middle Eastern person is being interviewed it’s handled as a story,” he says.

He’s right; how often do you see a blog from the Middle East discussing Europe? But Louis still gives me the confidence to write about him and his experiences.

Even though he was only 21, with a BA in English literature from the University of Baghdad Louis was an attractive candidate for the Americans. And for him, his university had closed following the collapse of the infrastructure, and he was looking for a job.

“I didn’t understand much about was what at stake,” he says. “I wanted to practice my English, I was a young person.”

He got himself a job as a linguist in Kirkuk, one of the most violent-ridden cities after 2003; also his hometown. He spent in total two years working as a linguist, translator and local government specialist for US army, USAID and the US consulate. The duties varied but included working with the combat forces when they went to the villages to look for suspects. Two years later Louis had to leave the country:

“I was threatened personally because I worked for US army”, he says, without wanting to dwell more on the subject.

He has never been back.

Louis also had colleagues that were murdered, just like I had when working for a humanitarian NGO, even though my colleague was not killed due to his work but due to his religious belonging. We discuss this and the many Iraqis that have been killed by their fellow countrymen since 2003 when militias started their ruling by fear. But still so, and even though Louis had to flee his own country, he doesn’t want to fall into simple explanations.

“If we’re talking about the killers as ‘bad guys’ we’re using a slippery term. Nobody is truly good or evil; nobody is truly innocent or guilty. Once you call someone a bad guy; once you demonize somebody, you can easily apply your agenda on that person. We need to always understand before we use such adjectives.”

So what is his opinion now about the US invasion? He has a different take on it than the very obvious aspect of the actual war; instead the starting point to him is the many malls and American coffee shops that have popped up in no time, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Erbil, mall after mall is being established to meet the needs of both local people with new money, but also the many expats that have arrived with the contracting agencies and NGOs establishing in the region, sometimes spending their salaries of lunatic standards.

“The real invasion was cultural, economic, and political,” Louis says. The military was paving the way for something much bigger than that. Real invasion is when malls, Starbucks, and other corporations of what I call the ‘transnational mafia’ mushroom, things you haven’t made with your own expertise and by your own raw materials. If you don’t understand that you’re being duped you cannot do something about it. The first step is to understand that you’re not free.” He points out: “I’m talking in a global way, not only Iraqi.”

I want to know how he sees Iraq before 2003 and he wants me to think twice about my question. He wants to shift the focus from the issue of the previous regime versus the country after the invasion:

“We are often forced to compare Iraq between the previous regime and the invasion, as if there is no other option. Let’s put that aside. Yes, Iraq was much safer and it was one nation before the war. But as for killing dissidents, for example, they kind of do that all over the world in any regime. Have a look at Snowden for example.

Iraqis could have liberated themselves, but the West’s support of the previous regime made it impossible. The West always talks about the liberation of women – that’s bullshit. Women cannot be free in a society that is occupied and not free. The ‘women card’ is always played when they want to invade a country. But women’s freedom is inseparable from men’s freedom.

As an Iraqi in the middle of the invasion you didn’t have an agency, and if you did it was because you were a convenient actor in the game. The average Iraqi in the middle of the street has nothing to say. Some voices are purposely unheard.”

We come to talk about the international aid to Iraq and how effective it really is. I ask him what kind of support he thinks the country would really benefit from.

“The concept of support from the outside needs to be reexamined,” he says. “True support can only take place when any two parties are allowed to negotiate on equal grounds.”

“In what ways?”

“Well if I have to take your ideas and they become my reality that is not support, that is very dangerous– indoctrination. So far I haven’t seen two groups treating each other equally. The withdrawal of the US troops is irrelevant; it’s the systems that are important. The soldiers are like any regular employees doing their job. They don’t have much power or say on what should happen none of them. The US presence in Iraq is not military based; it’s political, in the oil fields, in the malls. It makes Iraqis sedated consumers instead of produce what we need by ourselves.”

Now a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, and also an American citizen, Louis was able to get out of the dangerous situation he once was in when he received a Fulbright scholarship to Lehigh University. But he points out that he was one of few and says that it was a bottleneck, where some threatened local staff with the US army got out and some didn’t.

Still he doesn’t regret his work experience with them or the missions he carried out. What is bothering him today is that the fatal consequences of the US invasion of Iraq doesn’t seem to interest people anymore.

“The US invasion is fading away as if it didn’t happen, that’s discouraging. Not because we always want Iraq to be on the front pages but because the lessons experienced should not be forgotten, in order not to repeat the same mistakes. It’s important for humanity. International conflicts are all connected to Iraq, even before there was the invasion of Iraq, you can’t separate them. I’m totally worried that forgetting Iraq is confirming what Hegel says…”

Louis pauses and asks me if I know what Friedrich Hegel says. I don’t, so he tells me:

“‘The only thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.

Photo credit: Louis Yako