Thursday, February 12, 2004

Breakfast Stories

February 12, 2004

CPA is the palace that never sleeps. All the top brass (high ranking officers) and important people running the aftermath of the war and the transition to sovereignty work here. It just happens to also be the place I work. My job offers me the opportunity to meet a lot of high ranking and important people. I didn’t realize until the last month what an enormous task it is to get this country moving toward democracy. A place where its people decide what is best; and learning, for the first time ever, to think for themselves. For the last thirty-five years, Saddam Hussein made all the decisions - decisions that benefited only him and his regime. I found out last week that bananas were considered a delicacy in Iraq and Saddam only allowed himself and his highest ranking generals to have them. The common folks in Iraq didn’t even know what they looked like. Now they are selling like crazy in the streets and in the public markets. It’s not that bananas are hard to come by over here and only the ‘important’ people in the country could have them. It’s just another thing he kept from his people.

I very rarely eat breakfast. On Tuesday morning, however, I decided to grab a bite to eat because I knew we were going to have a long few days (I’ll explain later). When I sat down to eat, I met a man named John Diaza. He is an Iraqi but has lived in the states since his family fled in 1968. I barely touched my food because I was so enamored by his story. He just recently arrived in Iraq to work for the Ministry of Electricity and he said he cried when his feet touched ground. One of his cousins was an engineer and was opposed to the Iran/Iraq war in the mid to late eighties. His cousin wanted to continue to build his business and provide for this wife and kids so he refused the draft. John says his cousin didn’t believe in the genocide and simply didn’t want to go to war. Because of his opposition, he was killed. They found his remains but still don’t know how he died. It works like a chain of command. Someone in Saddam’s regime hears of the opposition and tells someone in a higher position. That continues until someone is told to kill the person who spoke against Saddam. This was the norm, not the exception. There was no such thing as freedom of speech; but they have that freedom today. John said he believes in the gospel of knowledge and he is taking advantage of every opportunity to tell people, particularly Americans, how very grateful he is for what we (America and the coalition) have done for the people of Iraq. He said the US and Iraq is the most chemical form of togetherness he has ever seen and he is so proud to come back to Iraq after 37 years and see his family again. I knew there was a reason I went to breakfast. I meet people like this every day.

A few more fun facts for you: teachers in Iraq made about five dollars a month. Because this was not enough money to support their families, they were forced to become corrupt. In order to make more money they would intentionally fail students so the students would have to pay them to pass. Wrong? Yes, and they knew it. But it’s the only way they could survive. Good people were turned in to corrupt people because they had to. I know you are probably thinking no one has to turn to stealing to make it work – well you don’t live in Iraq. The entire country was corrupt because they were forced to be. If you wanted to leave the country, you had to pay close to 400,000 dinar – about 300 dollars. No one could afford to pay that so no one ever left; therefore never seeing the world outside the borders of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Satellites were banned and if someone got caught with one, it was confiscated and that person was sentenced to six months in jail. Doctors were not allowed to leave the country. Why would someone become a doctor I asked? Answer: Because they were hoping it would change – and it has. The doctors here are very intelligent but they aren’t skilled in modern technology. They are equivalent to the West in the 80’s. But with the efforts of American military doctors, they are learning the most modern medical practices. It’s a process, albeit a slow one.

Now on to why I was going to have a long day on Tuesday. I don’t think it’s any secret now but six Governors from the States came to visit the troops and to see how Iraq is progressing. Governors from Hawaii, Louisiana, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon and New York. The most commonly known, I think, is George Pataki from NY. They flew in Tuesday morning and left late Wednesday night. I was to cover their trip and provide help to two ABC crews who were also with them. It’s so interesting to be part of a highly organized security detail. Our convoy was made up of at least 5 armored SUV’S, two helicopters overhead and military police escorts in the front and back. The Governors went in to downtown Baghdad to visit some shops and to talk to the Iraqis. You should see the organized chaos. We all get out of the vehicles and have to move quickly. All the CID (Criminal Investigation Division of the Army) guys provide security, but we are also expected to. Remember - first a soldier then a broadcaster. So I carry my camera and always my M16. Everyone is looking around and trying to figure out what is happening. They look at us with sheer amazement. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have a country come in and take over. I know they are grateful but it must feel odd. It feels odd to me. In any case, it was a long two days but I was happy to see them come over. I don’t know if they were asked to come or they chose to but it’s cool they did. I don’t care about the politics of all this. I really don’t. I am not trying to get a President re-elected. But to really understand what is happening and why this liberation was necessary, you have to see it with your own eyes. Those talking heads on TV have to come here and talk to these people, learn about them and see what their lives are like. They have to get out of the comfort of their homes and TV studios, travel the thousands of miles and see for themselves. Then they can make assessments. You all don’t have that opportunity, so I am telling you what I see. And it’s good, in spite of the bad. There is no excuse for the bombings and attacks – but I truly believe the good outweighs the bad.

I have the pleasure of meeting some great people in the palace that never sleeps. But all the Ambassadors, Generals, Governors and Senators of the world will ever compare to the joy of meeting an appreciative Iraqi over breakfast.

With Love,

“Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do if perfectly yourself for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.” - T.E. Lawrence


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