Iraq: defying danger to offer civilians help and hope
With the outbreak of war in Iraq in 2003, life became an uphill struggle for many people. Four Iraqi ICRC staff tell us about their work in this very challenging environment, their motivation, daily life and ordeals.
Following the attack on its delegation in Baghdad, the ICRC moved to another part of the city. It also opened an office in Amman, Jordan, for its activities in Iraq.
Riyad, Jacqueline, Khalid and Sally, four ICRC staff who chose to remain in Baghdad, all share a strong commitment to saving lives and supporting their families, a difficult and often dangerous task. Their daily lives have become a struggle for survival, with the risk of death never far off. Even the simple act of going to work can be a perilous undertaking.
Riyad: "Today, with all the lurking dangers, getting to work remains a dangerous affair. We are now used to this new climate of fear. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but we have no choice.”
Jacqueline: "All I want now is to be able to walk down the street, watch people talking and laughing and feel safe again."
Khalid: "I have nothing but envy and respect for my colleagues still working in Baghdad for their unwavering will.”
Sally: "It is said that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and this is exactly what I felt. I still think I am lucky to be alive and this has given me the strength to go on."
Following the outbreak of the war, the ICRC gave me two options: to stay at home or continue working. Like several other colleagues I chose to continue working. Regardless of the risks involved I returned to work because I felt that we were needed out there. But firstly I rented my house out and moved with my family to a safer place. Of course that was very costly, but we needed to be closer to public services so as to limit our exposure to danger.
Other colleagues are not so lucky. When they go to the market, they do it hastily and are relieved to get home safely. This is true of some areas, but not all.
Before the war, it took me 12 minutes to reach my office. Now on an average it takes an hour. Those who live farther away in areas such as Ghazalia, west of Baghdad, sometimes take over two hours to reach the office. Today, with all the lurking dangers, getting to work remains a dangerous affair. We are now used to this new climate of fear. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but we have no choice.
My family and I have no plans to move unless we have to. I have five children – the eldest graduated this year with a degree in computer science”.
She says: “Today security in Baghdad is better than it was a year ago, but worse than what it was a month ago. It is very unstable " . As if to confirm this, two explosions go off very close to the office. She continues, " I now live alone in the family house, next to where the ICRC delegation once stood. I have no intention of leaving this country. All I want now is to be able to walk down the street, watch people talking and laughing and feel safe again.
I used to arrive at the office early and have tea with Zoheir, a guard, taken on at around the same time as I was, before starting my work. At around 8:30 am on that fateful October morning, the first day of Ramadan, I was about to leave my house when I heard the blast. I had no doubt it was our office, barely 100 metres away. The blast was so powerful that the kitchen ventilator fell on my father, injuring him. I checked to see if he was alright then ran out the door. I was met with smoke and destruction, and debris all over my garden.
At the office I found Zoheir and Dikran, another colleague who had only joined us two days earlier, lifeless on the floor. In a second, all was lost. Yet those of us still alive had to focus on the matter at hand. We were filled with anger and sorrow.
Rather than dishearten me the attack motivated me to maintain solidarity with my colleagues. Even my father considers my role important and has encouraged me not to quit my job.
I do understood why some colleagues had to leave. They have families to think of. Several other lives depend on theirs. Staff who stayed are cautious. We live in constant fear of an attack on our offices or of being harmed. We do our best, but have no control over the rest.
I am happy we can continue defying the odds and helping people. But we need to do more. I am proud of myself for staying with the ICRC. As time passes I realize just how much the ICRC’s decision to remain in Iraq has helped thousands of people through very difficult times.”
He remembers: “I needed a job and an opportunity to do something other than looking on helplessly as my country cried out for help. The ICRC offered just such an opportunity. I started working at the tracing department in charge of locating missing persons and re-establishing contacts between detainees and their families through Red Cross messages.
Barely five months into the job, I had my first encounter with the dangers that lie in wait for humanitarian workers. Sadly, it was not my last. I was on a bus with colleagues heading to the office when the sound of a big explosion ripped through the air. I saw a massive cloud of black smoke rising towards the sky and was sure we had been hit.
We continued driving until throngs of people pouring out onto the roads made driving impossible. We continued on foot and the closer we got to the office, the harder the reality struck me. I just wanted to make sure my colleagues were alright. I got there and all I re member is screaming in disbelief. There was destruction everywhere and fire engines and ambulances were rushing to the scene.
Suddenly I realized that my parents had not heard from me and might be going crazy with worry. We had no mobile phones at the time. But I had to stay with my colleagues and salvage whatever we could.
The delegation was immediately relocated to another part of Baghdad and work continued. I worked from home for two days. Back at the office things had changed. We had lost two of our colleagues and several were injured, but no one wanted to talk about it. We started coming to the office earlier and leaving later to avoid rush hours. On several occasions, I narrowly escaped roadside explosions.
Each morning we tried to dodge danger, taking a different route to work every day. Often, some colleagues were unable to reach the office. The thought of staying away from work never crossed my mind, yet having to leave my parents alone at home caused me a great deal of anxiety.
After my father died I feared for my mother’s safety in Baghdad. We left for Jordan in 2005 and I started working with the ICRC's office in Amman. I have nothing but envy and respect for my colleagues still working in Baghdad, for their unwavering will”.
She reminisces: “I arrived at work unusually early for me, at 8:20, went straight to my office, turned on my laptop and started watering my plants. Then all of a sudden I was being tossed towards the door and hearing the most deafening blast. The next few seconds were a blur.
When I finally managed to gather myself up I realized I was walking on shattered glass and debris. I saw blood and realized it was my own. I heard people shouting and knew something had gone terribly wrong. I felt extremely weak now and just wanted to leave the building.
The shock and horror of that moment was made worse by the loss of two of our colleagues. It is said that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and this is exactly what I felt. I still think I am lucky to be alive and this has given me the strength to go on. The full impact of this hit me a little later when I saw what remained of my office - nothing.
Later I wondered, along with many other people, whether we were doing the right thing by continuing to work. Sometimes our lives were in danger and we were afraid.
After all these years the ICRC has become my home and my colleagues have become my family. Leaving has never been an option for me. We encounter mishaps and disappointments but the satisfaction we get when we manage to help people makes up for this. We all want to do more but it is not always possible.
Some colleagues decided to leave for understandable reasons. Many had family, children, mothers, fathers, or wives. They had people to support. All I can say is that those of us who stayed feel very united and encouraged to work. Teamwork gave us the impetus we need. We have had a great challenge and have all had to be strong.
I have an indelible image of that fateful October day on my mind. Despite the fighting, we were out in the streets, working and talking to people. If only I could do that again. No matter what, the space for humanitarian action should remain sacred, and hope should always be kept alive”.