Saturday, July 29, 2006

the column on Iraq that got me fired

This was my submission in April 2006 for my regular column at; a month later the column still had not been posted. Finally the editors there told me they no longer wanted to run my column. See if you can figure out why.

Note: it was written for a UK-based publisher, hence the English spellings and usage. Also remember that it was written in March; there have been developments since. I will soon post an update about Andy and Alice.

Where Can They Turn?

Iraqis are targets in their own homes. But no countries—including those that brought this upon them—seem willing to offer them asylum.

“The debate over civil war has shifted from when and if to how bad and how long,” wrote a friend working in Jordan [I’ll call her Marie], recently. “I think it is safe to say we are pissed off. Those who were in Iraq in 2003 can attest to the fact that the sectarianism simply was not at the level it is in 2006. Something went wrong. And what went wrong was mainly from the international community. But unfortunately, it is the Iraqis who will have to lie in it. As Iraq spiraled into chaos, the divisions and schisms among the communities that were created were predictable. But, as one of my colleagues pointed out, perhaps the most painful fact is that at one point they were preventable. And therefore are criminal.”

When I received Marie’s e-mail I was visiting Nashville, Tennessee, USA, where a young mother of three told me, in all earnestness, “Iraqis don’t want democracy and freedom. All they want to do is kill one another. We need to get out of there and let them have at it.”

I have heard similar remarks from numerous US Americans of different means, ages, political leanings, and geographical locations, as well as from people from England, Australia, Colombia, and Italy, which are all coalition countries, and even Ireland, which is not. Shockingly, even so-called progressives who have been against the invasion from the start can be heard saying such things these days.

People in the United States seem to be sick of the occupation, or as they are more likely to hear it called, the “war” in Iraq. Yet many US people do not seem to see Iraqis as people who are like them, just caught in an excruciatingly bad situation. They apparently can’t see beyond their government’s and their corporate media’s lies and omissions. It is painful to note how even people who responded rather generously to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters cannot open their hearts to the people of Iraq, whose suffering has been going on for so many years—through two wars, UN sanctions, and now the sectarian strife and civil war—and has been largely brought about by the failed policies of US administrations and their “coalition partners”.

In their defence, most US Americans don’t ever hear the real stories of Iraqi people. Instead they are spoon-fed via the corporate-controlled media just what the Bush administration wants them to hear, and that certainly doesn’t include acknowledgment that millions of ordinary Iraqis have had their lives turned into nightmares because of the ineptitude, ignorance, and arrogance of the Bush administration, which, phenomenally, become more pronounced daily.

Glimpses into their lives are all we can share these days, as it is too dangerous for most US journalists to go into the country to dig further.

I have a friend I’ll call Andy, who lives in a city some distance from Baghdad. In the early days of the occupation he fell in love, and soon after married. His wife is very young. They had a baby boy in October 2004, and Andy was absolutely thrilled to be a father, talking about his son every time we spoke. Before the invasion Andy worked in a hotel and, with a degree in English literature, as a translator for humanitarians and journalists. In April 2003 he began working as a translator for the U.S. Army, with whom he continued to work until very recently.

In a conversation last July he reported, as all my friends had been reporting without fail for more than two years, that there was still hardly any electricity, and the water was still polluted. “And now,” Andy said, “we have to worry about the militias. There is one which belongs to the Shi’a leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakeem [head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose military arm is known as the Badr Brigade]. I am a Sunni, and for sure they hate us. But you know, my Mom is a Shi’a, and I don’t think there is a difference because all of us are Muslim people. But there are crazy people from both sides. They just want to kill each other. I am afraid. I mean, I am a Sunni guy, and if they knew I worked with the U.S. Army maybe one of those crazy people will shoot me. That is what I am scared of.”

Andy begged me to help him and his family get out of the country. “There must be ways to help people get rid of this bad life,” he said. “Surely you Americans can help.”

My heart sank, as it had so many times over the past few years, listening to Iraqi friends’ terrible fears, yet knowing how nearly impossible it is to help them. “So many people are in dangerous situations like you,” I told him. “There are so many it is impossible to find places for all of them.”

“I know,” he replied. “But I am ready to work as a teacher or a cleaner or whatever. Just please, I want to go outside of Iraq. There is nothing for us here. I will do anything. I am sorry to disturb you.”

That was ten months ago. In the interim, I have had no luck finding them a way out, despite numerous attempts with different countries’ immigration offices and consulates. I even learned from the European Council on Exiles and Refugees’ Guidelines on the Treatment of Iraqi Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Europe that last year Poland and the UK both returned Iraqi asylum seekers to Iraq.

So Andy is still stuck in Iraq, and things have gotten much more ominous.

Six weeks ago he got in touch after nearly three months of silence, during which I had been quite worried. First he told me the good news: He and his wife are expecting a new baby, due in May. But then he confirmed some of my worst fears: “Our house was bombed,” he said, “and my father and brother were killed. My wife and I were not at home. Now we are chased by the militia, those terrorists. I am planning to flee the country to Syria, to contact the UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] office to register as refugees there, hoping to find any country that will provide us with resettlement. Our life has become impossible in Iraq. The extremists are targeting anyone who works with the coalition forces. . . . You cannot imagine how our situation is, terrible. . . . We live in fear and panic because of these extremists.”

Again, despite the urgency of Andy’s family’s situation, I was stymied in my attempts to help them find a way out. Neighbouring Jordan and Syria, already inundated with refugees, have recently been turning back thousands of Iraqis trying to escape over their borders. Many of these beleaguered people had packed up their families and fled in the middle of the night in panic after witnessing a neighbour or loved one killed before their eyes. No other country—England, Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Italy, other neighbouring countries—seems willing to help these terrorized Iraqis, even those like Andy who are being targeted solely because of their employment with coalition forces.

My initial inquiries at the U.S. State Department, even going through my Congressional representatives’ offices, were met by the same cold response: “Contacting UNHCR is the first step to obtaining refugee status. Many Iraqis have traveled to Jordan to seek safe haven. At this time there are no special provisions for resettlement in the USA of Iraqi nationals who have volunteered to work with coalition forces [my italics]. UNHCR will be able to provide the most information about what assistance they can provide.”

A couple of weeks later, on April 5, I received word that the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1815, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, and it was signed by George W. Bush. It contained a provision, in Section 1059, authorizing special immigrant status for a maximum of 50 Iraqi translators per year. These translators must have “worked directly with United States Armed Forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months”; and “obtained a favorable written recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien”; and “before filing the petition . . . cleared a background check and screening, as determined by a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien.”

There are thousand of Iraqis who worked as translators for the U.S. armed forces since the March 2003 invasion and occupation began, not to mention all the other Iraqis who worked in other capacities with the coalition. Now, in its generosity, the U.S. government has decided to grant 50 of them asylum.

I shared this good news with Andy, and explained that he would need to provide a considerable amount of paperwork. He was frightened that he would have to return to his bombed-out home secretly to sift through the rubble for some of the important papers he needed to file the petition, and warned me that it might take up to a month.

Two weeks later he surprised me by sending all the necessary papers electronically. He had risked his life several times, but he had managed to retrieve his and his wife’s and son’s birth certificates; his marriage certificate; his university degree; several letters of commendation and appreciation from U.S. Army officers; his official coalition translator ID cards; several photographs of Andy with his U.S. soldier friends; photos of his family, and of their bombed-out house and car; and, horrifyingly, a short video clip of a fellow translator’s assassination.

Now the challenge is, how does one submit a petition for asylum for an Iraqi translator with all the correct paperwork to be admitted to the United States? There is nobody to answer this question. I’ve been shunted around from place to place, and the best anyone seems to be able to tell me is that Andy will have to take his wife and baby all the way to Baghdad, to the US Embassy there (in the “Green Zone”), where they will have to submit the petition. Then they will all have to return a second time for an interview.

This is essentially a death sentence for this family. Just traveling to Baghdad, and then openly traveling not once but twice to the US Embassy, is like issuing an invitation to those who would murder them.

As I scramble to find anyone who can help me find an alternative way for them to get asylum in the US or elsewhere, Andy’s time is running out. His baby is due in just a few weeks, and his wife, he tells me, has “collapsed” in terror. He has had to tend to her, as well as his sick and terrified mother and his 15-month-old son. It will be a wonder if he does not collapse himself.

Andy is just one of many kind, decent, good, hardworking, loving, generous Iraqi people who are stuck in a never-ending nightmare in their country, which has descended into chaos thanks to the blundering of not only the US administration but the international community at large. There are tens of thousands in similar straits, and yet we hear next to nothing about them. When I am unable even to find stories in the international press about efforts to help them, it is hard even to offer them a ray of hope.

“Sometimes when I look back at the hope and optimism that I once had,” my friend Marie says, “I feel betrayed for daring to believe. A part of me feels angry — like I was tricked into buying into a plan others knew was doomed for failure. . . . If [it had been] left to the Iraqis, they would have indeed risen above it. The countless international interventions — from neighbouring countries to the coalition forces — destabilized Iraq at a time when they needed support from the world, or at the very least to be left alone. These interventions led to the many signs that Iraq was growing further and further apart. Most Iraqis feel their country is unrecognizable. None of us can speak about going back to Iraq now. The sad reality is that most of us still don’t believe we have seen the worse yet.”

I know she is right, although it is unimaginable that things can get even worse. We — that is, not only the United States but all the coalition countries and the entire international community — have failed miserably in bringing peace or stability to Iraq; to the contrary, we have inarguably fomented civil war, terror, and devastation.

I say that if we cannot help the Iraqi people find peace and security within their devastated country, we absolutely owe them a way out.

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