After This, You Will See
by Mark McGuire
Mark McGuire, of Winona MN, recently spent two months in Iraq with a peacekeeping delegation from Voices in the Wilderness.
If you want to see the end-point of the endgame of strangling a people for the sake of a strong economy, come to Iraq. Better yet, come to Basra. Better yet, come to the Jumhuriya district, a few miles west of downtown Basra.
Jumhuriya is home to tens of thousands of lower working class families, some having moved here from middle class neighborhoods where they found themselves selling their possessions and finally their home to simply survive. But most of the residents seem to have lived here for generations. It is not unusual to have ten people living in a house, encompassing three generations, all sleeping on mats on the floor, the furniture having been sold to pay for medical bills.
We came to Basra in July to live with families in Jumhuriya, eat as simply as they do, study their language, and try to get a genuine, if culture-bound, sense of what keeps them going under these difficult conditions. We chose Basra because it has been the most severely affected by the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations in early August of 1990. It also suffered extensive damage during the Iran-Iraq war and was bombed heavily during the Gulf War.
But it is the sanctions that continue their daily grind on the people of Basra today. I had read a mountain of literature on the effects of the sanctions, spoken with dozens of people who had visited Iraq in the last several years, and had viewed numerous videos on the situation here, but little of it prepared me for Jumhuriya.
We arrived in Basra in the late afternoon, expecting heat and disintegration, and we found both--and then some. By the end of our first day, I knew it was all here. Raw sewage lining the streets, fetid air mixing with dense internal combustion smog; herds of sheep joined by barefoot children, picking through piles of garbage on street corners, vying for any available scraps of food; a hollow, directionless daily economy in which money seems to just rattle around; idle, jobless men walking to the end of the streets, sitting on the base of a lamp post and then walking back to their stoops, house after house in a state of disrepair, there being no money left over at the end of the month for upkeep - all of this taking place in 120 degree heat and no end in sight for a lifting of the sanctions.
Intentions can have a way of changing their color and substance when they come knocking on your front door, and however much we intended in our stay in Jumhuriya, even on the most modest of levels, to bear witness to the challenges and difficulties faced daily by the people of Basra, it is becoming increasingly clear that the witness being borne is being done by our friends in the neighborhoods of Jumhuriya.
|Iraqi boys wave
hello in Basra.
It is a witness borne of a faith in and an understanding of an order of values that too many of us for too long have thought we can live without. After enduring and suffering through two devastating wars and ten years of cruel and heartless sanctions, and living with the constant awareness of threatening and unfriendly visitors flying over their community, one would expect to find those bonds of family and friendship, which are the life blood of the social fabric, to be in a state of advanced decay and disorder. Instead one is confronted every day with a simple goodness and decency, a deep patience, and an inner reserve of strength, which can only leave us marveling in wonder.
Good, Gandhi said, travels at a snail's pace, and it is traveling pretty slowly these days in Jumhuriya. But it is there - I have seen it - and it isn't going away. When I inquire as to how they are able to do it, how they can keep their chin up under conditions which I'm afraid would have caused most of us to crumble a long time ago, I am usually told in a calm, studied voice that it is simply in their centuries-old tradition to be generous, open, and kind-hearted, whether they be times of happiness or adversity.
But these are only words, and we are blessed with the good fortune, while we remain in Jumhuriya, to see the truth of these words given persuasive shape and clarity in the daily lives of those we meet as we make our daily rounds. It is a truth which they do not appear to be in any great hurry to explain, but in their spontaneous gestures of warmth and simplicity one begins to see that the burden is on us and that they have nothing they need to explain, that, without their trying, they are offering to give back to us a part of our humanity which we may have lost.