The survival of Riverbend

Some years ago I used to follow a web log called Baghdad Burning by a young Iraqi woman who called herself Riverbend.  She started the blog in 2003 when she was 24, a few months after the U.S. invasion, as a chronicle of her experiences and thoughts.  For me, it was a window into how Iraqis experienced the occupation.

Riverbend Baghdad BurningShe was well-educated, fluent in English and part of a close-knit middle-class Sunni Muslim family in Baghdad.   She was a faithful Muslim, but had much in common with people her age in Britain, France and the USA.

Her blog conveyed what it was like to live in a society that had broken down.  Her family was in danger from sectarian militias and criminal gangs and without protection by the occupation forces and their government.  Saddam Hussein, like Asad in Syria, was a ruthless dictator, but he did not engage in religious persecution.  People who were able to keep on the good side of the dictator could lead normal lives.

I remember one blog post in particular, which conveyed in a nutshell what was wrong with the U.S. occupation.  She had a cousin who was a civil engineer and worked for a company whose specialty was bridge design and construction.  They repaired many bridges during the Clinton administration’s bombings and sanctions.  The cousin drew up a bid proposal to restore a certain Baghdad bridge for $300,000.   But the contract was given to an American company for—wait for it—$50,000,000.

In 2007, Riverbend wrote a post telling how her family fled Iraq to Syria, and then stopped posting.  But last week she wrote a new post, saying that she is alive and well and living in a different country.   In her post she described lessons learned.  Here is part of what she wrote.

We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute.  Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.

We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age.  Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily.  Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.

We are learning that corruption is the way to go.  You want a passport issued?  Pay someone. You want a document ratified?  Pay someone.  You want someone dead?  Pay someone.

We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear.

We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know—the luxuries—electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools—those are for deserving populations.  Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country.

***

We’re learning that militias aren’t particular about who they kill.  The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that’s not the way it works.  That’s too simple.

We’re learning that the leaders don’t make history.  Populations don’t make history.  Historians don’t write history.  News networks do.  The Foxes, and CNNs, and BBCs, and Jazeeras of the world make history.  They twist and turn things to fit their own private agendas.

***

But it wasn’t all a bad education…

We learned that you sometimes receive kindness when you least expect it.  We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us.  We learned and continue to learn that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress.  It is a matter of time…

***

For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. “Lo khuliyet, qulibet…” Which means  “If the world were empty of good people, it would end.”  I only need to check my emails to know it won’t be ending any time soon.

I recommend reading her entire post and, if you’re interested in what life was like in Baghdad from 2003 to 2007, dipping into her archives.   Click on Baghdad Burning for both.   A collection of her posts was published in book form.  I haven’t read it or seen it; all her posts are available on-line.   Her post about the bridge contract is dated August 28, 2003.

When I followed her blog, I felt as if I knew her.  She is a good person.  I’m glad to know she is alive and well.

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