focus on bruce cockburn
fact-finding in iraq - Bruce cockburn on a mission
3 february 2004
Canadian musician and activist Bruce Cockburn (www.cockburnproject.net) met with Friends of the Earth International on his way back from a fact-finding mission in Iraq from 12-19th January. Cockburn, a Friends of the Earth International Patron, travelled to Iraq with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton from Detroit; US photojournalist Linda Panetta, director of SOA Watch Northeast (www.soawne.org) and physician's assistant Johanna Berrigan from Catholic Worker (www.catholicworker.org). He has released 27 albums, the latest of which, You've Never Seen Everything, includes songs he wrote after his 1999 trip to Cambodia.
What is the atmosphere like in Baghdad
It's quite surreal. Baghdad looks like a first world city in ruins. It is clear that it used to be a buzzing place and parts of the city are still beautiful, but because of the sanctions and the war it's a mess. There is no water treatment so the city is a big sewer, with some streets flooded with sewage and chemicals. There is a potential for major epidemics due to the environmental situation and the poverty. The air is black with pollution. There's a huge amount of violence in the air, and you hear shots being fired all the time.
The streets are chaos. There traffic lights don't work, and a couple of cops try to direct traffic.There are arbitrary roadblocks everywhere created by the US military. They shot one old man who didn't see the roadblock or hear the soliders shouting at him to stop. There is no phone service, so you can't call an ambulance, and even if you can drive to the hospital you are stuck in roadblocks. There is no gasoline in the pumps, and people wait 36 hours in ½ mile lines to fill up their tanks.
There are 60,000 homeless people in Baghdad. The US isn't doing anything about this either: the provision of US$100 million for public housing (out of the the $87.5 billion that was given for post-war occupation and reconstruction in Iraq) was struck off the bill. Many people are squatting in bombed-out buildings, others are living in camps. Kids are kicking around the streets while their parents go out looking for food. Food is running out. The food distribution program that was set up 13 years ago during the sanctions is organized by neighborhood, so if you change address you need to wait three months to get food again.
The White House claims to have rehabilitated the schools, but all they did was send in non-Iraqi companies to repaint the walls. There are still no pencils or books, a result of the sanctions and post-war looting.
People are resentful and fearful. They have been crippled in every detail of their lives, and they live with the constant threat of violence. Still, they show amazing ingenuity. I visited one bombed-out building where 500 homeless families are living amidst the rubble. They have built walls from old air conditioning ducts, and carried in nice couches and rugs. These people are living under constant threat of eviction, but they are prepared to defend their tiny little territories.
What was your contact with the people
We met with doctors, with religious leaders, with children in a cancer ward, with mothers in a maternity hospital, with people at the Ministry of Health trying to run an immunization program, with artists and with musicians. The doctor we talked to in the cancer ward is very bitter and angry about the shortages of drugs, linens and nurses. The vibe in the maternity hospital was fantastic though, happy mothers and babies.
People stared at me everywhere I went, but as soon as I said "hello" they would give me a big smile and say a word they knew in English. I met some musicians, and jammed with and "oud" player (like a lute) which was fantastic. I found the juxtaposition between the politeness and civility of the people and the raw edges of violence around them very touching. A guard searched my guitar case at one point, because he had to, but then apologized -- "very sorry sir."
The US soldiers seemed to be doing their best to be civil and respectful, but they had no idea how to do this. At one point we were caught in the middle of a demonstration of chanting and singing people, and the soldiers yelled "clear the road" but of course nobody responded. So they shouted louder, and started pushing people. They are just not trained to deal with people in socially acceptable terms.
What sort of a future do you see for Iraq?
I could smell a big rat when I was in Iraq. The Bush people don't care who they kill, American or Iraqi. They aren't doing what they promised there. US citizens need to pressure their government to provide security and the basic necessities of life. There's no excuse for the lack of electrical power -- if they can bring tanks over they can surely bring generators as well. After the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein managed to restore electricity in one week, and the Americans have not succeeded to do the same in ten months.
The people are under no illusion that this war was about freeing Iraquis; they believe that the only agenda of the US is oil. They are glad that Saddam Hussein is gone, and some are glad that the US is there. Many of them have never experienced democracy, and have never had an opportunity to think about political options.
There's a very long way to go in Iraq, and we're not nearly as far along as the White House would have us believe. I'm planning to talk to lots of people about my trip, and will tell my audiences in my upcoming tour through Canada, the United States and Australia about what I heard and saw there.
If I get lucky, I might even get a song out of the experience, we'll have to wait and see!
Background: why Bruce went to Iraq (interview 12 January 2004)