Recently I received an e-mail from Khalid, a journalist I met in Basra, where he was an up-and-coming reporter for one of the city’s largest newspaper. At the time, he was a very pro-American young man, who, like many Iraqis, felt anxious–but excited–about the future of post-Saddam Iraq. His correspondence, therefore, came as an unpleasant surprise I wish I could offer better news, but if I’m going to invite my friends to contribute on this blog, I must present their comments as they write them, negative assessments and all.
After chastising me for not writing him sooner, Khalid adds,
Steven, I felt exhausted all the time from the stress we suffered. Sometimes, it seemed we needed a priest to not only to tell about our sins, but how others hurt us and we could never ward off that hurt.
You can’t imagine what the situation is like now in Iraq. The situation is horrible, nebulous, with many clouds on the horizon. Do you remember when you asked me about the future? My answer was that things looked very good! Now, I have to have the courage to say I was totally wrong. I am very sorry to say that.
There are things that are sometimes lost “in translation”–but Iraq has been lost in occupation. It is such a bitter irony. Our country is run by Mafias. The leaders and parties we know are hauling everything away for their own gain.
Steven, Basra looks like a town in the American West, where gangsters and killers become the only authority and anyone who tries to discover their crimes will be shut-down and presented as a criminal and an outlaw!.
It is like this: the gangsters control the government and steal money through many different ways, but most particularly through fictitious contracts. Their militias wear the uniform of the Iraqi National Guard. They are loyal only to their party chieftains.
Finally, I could not take it any longer and quit my journalism job. I’m no longer “on the ground” in Iraq. I now live in Saudi Arabia and don’t know when or if I will return to Basra.
Last spring, my friend Nour and I sat down in Basra’s Hamdan Restaurant with Khalid and two other corresondents from his newspaper, where they told me about the difficult problems of carrying out “true” journalism in their country. Under the passive noses of the British, they complained, criminal gangs had taken control of Iraq’s second largest city, earning money through extortion, fuel smuggling and liquor and drug dealing. Moreover, favoritism, bribery and graft–particularly through the use of phony contracting–was rampant.
“We can’t do our jobs as journalists,” one complained. “If we push too hard on certain issues, we can get in trouble. Or worse, we can get killed.” When I asked what these “certain issues” were and with whom, he shook his head. “I’d rather not say.” I didn’t press him on the issue, for such was the climate of fear in Basra that to even suggest the existence of problem could result in a gangland-style warrant of execution.
Posted by Steven Vincent