photo: Eddy van Wessel


Monday, May 28, 2012

How to save Basrah

Basrah - it used to be the jewel on the Shatt al Arab. A city with canals and beautiful buildings, where trading brought wealth and well being. Nowadays it is difficult to see the old city behind the grime, the dirt and the rubbish.

When I arrived in Basrah in April 2003, weeks after the coalition forces had captured the city, I was shocked by the state the city was in. Rubbish was piled up high, trees were cut to provide the civilians with wood for their cooking stoves. The hospitals were old and filthy, even though my main story at that time was the enormous amount of children with cancer and deformed births, nothing was done to put up with this demand.

'We were punished twice', the doctors told me. Once by the embargo, that was hitting civilians all over Iraq, and the second time by Saddam who wanted to punish the Shi'ite south for its uprising in 1991. They told me about aid that arrived under the Oil for Food Program, but had been put behind lock and key. Important new equipment was in the stores but they were not allowed to use it.

It's been nine years since I visited this Iraqi harbour town. And when I arrived back, I was again shocked. This time because I saw so little improvement. It was even more visible as I was coming from Iraqi Kurdistan, which has changed enormously since 2003.If Basrah has changed, that is hardly noticeable because of the rubbish and the open streets. Everywhere the side walks have been opened for a project that obviously has been started long ago and was never finished. The canals, a very special feature for Basra, are filled with dirt, the railings broken. The special architecture of Basrah is slowly disappearing, as the old buildings are deteriorating without the necessary repairs.

Basrah was a mixed city, where people of the different religions could marry - Christians marrying Muslims, Sunni marrying Shi'ite. That is no longer the case. If two people with different backgrounds want to get married, one of them will have to convert to the partners' faith.

Basra was a city of poets and intellectuals, who mixed with foreigners and traders. Now, Basrah has lost all international and cultural interests. The society is mainly poor, thanks to the influx of many thousands from the villages and towns around, searching for work and a better life. Bringing with them not only a very conservative brand of Shi'ite Islam, but also the life style of the poor and the villagers. Alcohol shops have been forced to close, even though Muslims were the main customers. Cultural festivities have ceased to be organized, only weddings may offer music but the dancing there is of course separated according to sex.

Basra is the city of the Shatt al Arab, the river that was its artery bringing trade and foreign influence, and its Achilles heel as much of the war between Iran and Iraq was fought there. Many half sunken boats still retell the story. Basrah was under attack of bombs and grenades for much of the 1980-1988 war. Now the river is its cesspool, full of dirt, plastic, oil, petrol and all kind of other pollution.

The only real positive change I saw was the rebuilt Sheraton Hotel - although it is no longer allowed to carry the name. When I was in Basrah in 2003, it was looted completely, even the doorhandles and the light switches were taken. It has returned to its old glory.

How to save this city? (Foreign) investors have been invited - they came and many have left again. Disappointed about the possibilities the authorities offer, the general atmosphere, the safety, the corruption, and the prospects of improvement. Many of the more prosperous and more open minded Basrawi's have long left too.

Basrah will have to save itself. People will have to realize what they are missing, and why they want to bring back some of the past. Because in Basrahs past also lies its future. And that will surely take quite a while.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fighting corruption ends in court

,,At least ten times they took all my finger prints!'' Khaled Suleiman, the former editor in chief of a Kurdish magazine spreads his hands in disgust. ,,As if I am a criminal! While the files that we published are real, and the authorities have confirmed that.''

My editor friend is harassed by the police and the court, for publishing an article about corruption. The magazine that he lead for a year, Haftana, showed evidence that a number of people in Sulaymaniya were given two bits of land, while they had the right as civil servants to have only one. The documents they published came from the Institute for Financial Control and speak for themselves.

Yet some of the people who's names were there, went to the police to complain about libel. Since then, Khaled Suleiman has at least on 15 occasions been called to the police station.Even though the article was published (in August 2010) in the first magazine published with his name on it as editor in chief - while he had not seen or edited any of the articles as it was already finalized when he started on his first working day. And even though Haftana ceased to exist in August 2011, when then PM Barham Salah stopped financing it.

The article published 58 names of people who were registered as having received two plots of land. Civil servants in Iraq are often rewarded with bits of land, which they can use but for a number of years not sell. Usually there is one plot of land per person. The Haftana article showed that some people were given more plots than the one they were entitled to. Of the 58 people implicated in the article, around a dozen demanded damages for the libel imposed on them. Yet the head of the Sulaymaniya Municipality has confirmed that the documents used in the magazine are copies of real, existing documents.

Suleiman is by far not the only one editor in chief in Kurdistan who is in and out of the police stations and the court. Some others told me they are there just about weekly. Sometimes cases are based on realistic complaints, but too often they amount to harassment of the media. Sometimes because the complaints are made by those who have strong ties within the party, and judges (who are all member of the ruling parties in their region) feel they have no freedom to rule against them. Suleiman was even told by one of the judges that he 'had no choice', even though he 'did not like it' to rule against him.

A problem is also that the cases are tied to the editor in chief personally. So Suleiman still has to report in court, even though his job with the magazine ended almost a year ago. Editors in chief who moved to other positions, still get called for complaints issued during their term.

The Kurdish authorities say they are fighting corruption. Yet when media publish about it, the messengers - the journalists who find the evidence and write about it - get shot. It would be more effective to use those bullets for the culprits, those involved in corruption, as a way to really fight the problem that is giving Kurdistan increasingly a bad name, inside and outside its borders.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Keeping men away from the birth of their children

,,I am not allowed to enter the maternity hospital and I do not want to wait outside for all those hours.’’ A young future father complains bitterly. His wife has gone into labour of their first child and he is not allowed at her side. He drives home to wait and keeps in contact by phone.

Health care in Iraq, even in Iraqi Kurdistan, is far behind on the West. I have covered the subject before, and will again. To keep husbands out of the delivery room and even not create any space for them where they can comfortably wait, is only one of the many problems to be solved..

Children are an important issue in Kurdish society. People need to get married because in Kurdish culture you should have children. Almost the first thing people inquire about in most social contacts is how many children one has. If you are not married and do not have children, something must be really amiss.

Yet at the same time to give birth, is considered a completely female issue. Men who are not doctors, have no right to be involved - which is strange and seems to me very conservative. Man and wife make the child together and raise it together. When there is a good relation between the two, the wife will want her husband at her bedside for support, and he will want to be there for exactly that reason. It seems better for the woman, who wants someone near to her she trusts in these difficult hours.

Do doctors ban men because they might be shocked by the pain their wives have to go through in labour? Do they ban them because they get in the way, may faint or get aggressive? Or do they really think that giving birth is a women only business? If that is the case, why are these male doctors allowed in? Do they want to go back to the dark ages where birth was something between women only, like menstruating, pregnancy and menopause?

When people get married, they do so ‘for better and worse’. That means sharing the most important moments in your life. Isn’t the birth of a child one of those? What gives doctors the right to ban men from that if the couple wants to be together?

My mother had all her five children in the company of my father, at home, as is the habit in my country. Friends of my own generation and younger still give birth to their children at home, with the help of a midwife and sometimes a doctor. We Dutch do not connect giving birth to being ill. It is seen as something very natural, which should be a happy event. As long as it is a normal birth, it can be done in the soothing atmosphere of home.

 The Kurds are many steps away from that. Not only have they medicalized child birth, they hospitalize women giving birth and then also keep them separated from their husband and father of the child. If the woman is not circumcised, as many still are in Iraqi Kurdistan, surely other, less medical ways of child birth can be considered?

,,Just heard the child was born'', says the now father through the phone, ,,have to run.'' But a little later, he is back on the phone. ,,They still will not let me in! This is really against human rights!''