art of resistance, Iraq

The Option Of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees.

ira8/photo © Gabriela Bulisova/

There is something special about Gabriela Bulisova’s photography. She documents wars, conflicts, exiles. Her subjects go through tragedies, they are extremely vulnerable and extremely powerful at the same time. Like the countries they come from, they are war-torn. Like the countries they come from, there’s more to them than just war.

The great thing about Bulisova’s photography is that she manages to capture the internal struggle – longing, desperation, sadness, void. It’s in the faces and movements of the people she portrays, but also in everything around them – light and the absence of light, unclear lines, shadows.

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In her series The Option of Last Resort Bulisova follows the stories of Iraqi refugees in United States. Why such a name for the project? For people who seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees.

“The masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride, the future of Iraq. Many of them, stigmatized by unforgettable violence, will never return to their homes”, Bulisova writes.

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Many of these refugees dreamed of America as a promised land, but the reality turned out to be very different from that. Once in the United States, they encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America.

“Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and risked their lives for; many are unemployed and facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and the safety of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names”, Bulisova writes.

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“I want to feel like a human being again” is a sentence you can hear refugees repeating. It made me think of so many other refugee and exile stories – captured in stories, poems, novels. The same thought is present in all of them. Human being. To feel like a human being.

But for many – it just doesn’t seem to happen. There are no changes. They are, like Nadia Anjuman wrote – “lost in a sea of darkness, emptied of the thought of time, that eternal pit”. They are asking, like Mahmoud Darwish asked – “are we to remain like this, moving to the outside, in this orange day, only to touch the dark and vague inside?”

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In 2015, the escalation of armed conflict across the central governorates of Iraq, and the constantly changing security situation, resulted in new and secondary movements of internally displaced people across central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

UNHCR reports that newly displaced people in Iraq find their limited financial resources quickly depleted by the increasing costs of accommodation and basic foods. The number of Iraqis seeking refuge in other countries is still rising and it will not stop, atleast not considering the (political) solutions we have so far.

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It makes me think of Riverbend, again and again. “In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t.

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, ‘Things will improve immediately.’ The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, ‘Things won’t improve for at least five years. And the pessimists? The pessimists said, ‘It will take ten years. It will take a decade'”, she wrote in 2013.

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Years went by, more than a decade passed. Iraq Body Count still counts the bodies, they still have a lot of work to do. The website says: Tuesday, 29 December: 36 killed. Monday, 28 December: 65 killed (30 children executed in Qayyarah).

Civilian deaths are almost doubling every year. What will the new year bring us? What will we bring to it? What will we do with all the possibilities? Can we make people feel like human beings again?

//all photos © Gabriela Bulisova//

For more on this and her other projects, visit Bulisova’s official website.

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art of resistance, Iraq, Syria

Iraq to Syria, Syria to Iraq.

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//photos © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos//

Eight years ago Riverbend escaped from Iraq with her family, searching safety in Syria. Upon her arrival to Syria she wrote:

“Syria is a beautiful country – at least I think it is. I say ‘I think’ because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war – bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers… And in so many ways it’s different.

The buildings are higher, the streets are generally narrower and there’s a mountain, Qasiyoun, that looms in the distance. The mountain distracts me, as it does many Iraqis- especially those from Baghdad. Northern Iraq is full of mountains, but the rest of Iraq is quite flat. At night, Qasiyoun blends into the black sky and the only indication of its presence is a multitude of little, glimmering spots of light- houses and restaurants built right up there on the mountain. Every time I take a picture, I try to work Qasiyoun into it- I try to position the person so that Qasiyoun is in the background.”

She continues:

“It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and 5 Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living.”

That was eight years ago. Last couple of years Iraq and Syria have been closer than ever, united under the merciless rhythm of war drums. These charts show the heartbeats of those countries now.

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Eight years ago, Riverbend wrote: “The first minutes after passing the border were overwhelming. Overwhelming relief and overwhelming sadness… How is it that only a stretch of several kilometers and maybe twenty minutes, so firmly segregates life from death? How is it that a border no one can see or touch stands between car bombs, militias, death squads and… peace, safety? It’s difficult to believe- even now. I sit here and write this and wonder why I can’t hear the explosions.

I wonder at how the windows don’t rattle as the planes pass overhead. I’m trying to rid myself of the expectation that armed people in black will break through the door and into our lives. I’m trying to let my eyes grow accustomed to streets free of road blocks, hummers and pictures of Muqtada and the rest… How is it that all of this lies a short car ride away?”

Today, we see refugees from Iraq and Syria crossing endless amounts of borders, risking their lives, traveling across the sea on lousy rafts and so-called boats, walking for weeks and months – and still not managing to find a safe place to lay their head and rest. We see that many of them, for a long time, are not and will not be able to allow themselves to dream, allow themselves to worry about the little moments – like going to work on monday or what to cook for dinner.

There’s no more safety a short car ride away. Baghdad is still burning, Syria is on fire too. And in Jordan and Turkey the word is out – “capacities for refugees full”. After Iraq to Syria and Syria to Iraq, where to next? Who will stop all Baghdads from burning and who will provide the shelter from fire in the meantime?

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art of resistance, Iraq

Marking Veterans Day 2014: Iraq in Fragments.

November is the month of veterans in the USA. In the light of this year’s Veterans Day, I already posted The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran by Thomas Young, and The Nature of War, short animated story by StoryCorps. Now I want to present some stories from the Iraqi side, the pieces and debris of Iraqi lives since 2003.

Last couple of weeks, Iraq is all I think about, most of the time. I’ve been reading several books dealing with lives of Iraqi civilians since the invasion of 2003, and that is such a hard read. It weighs a ton, and that ton unavoidably falls on my heart and crumbles it into my feet. I feel so drained and ashamed at the same time – ashamed because I feel so exhausted just reading it, and there are people who had to live through those moments, and many of them did, and many of them didn’t complain.

There is this moment in Hala Jaber’s The Flying Carpet to Iraq, where she, a journalist for Sunday Times, rushes into one of Iraqi hospitals, and among the total chaos, enters one of the hospital rooms. In it, there is a small boy, Ali, eleven years old, and she can see only his face. Seeing her on the doorstep, the first thing he asks is:“Have you come to give me my arms back?

I will never forget that moment. And I shouldn’t forget it.

I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry, mostly poems by Saadi Youssef, great Iraqi poet. Twice exiled from Iraq, Youssef has no plans of going back to his homeland. In an interview from 2007, he said:

„There is a saying in Arabic that is often said in reference to falling in love, but I think of it when I think of going back to Iraq: The first is like sugar, the second like torture and the third will take you to the cemetery. Really when I first returned to Iraq in 1959, it was sweet, like sugar, everything was fine, the ‘58 revolution had made everyone optimistic and I had a good job. Then in 1972, I went back and the first months and the first year was very good, but slowly things started changing until it became like torture. Now it will certainly put me in the grave if I go back.“

SADDAM HUSSEIN SPEECH/Iraq 2003, photo © David Guttenfelder/

One of Youssef’s poems I really love is The New Baghdad, written in 1975.

• • •

The New Baghdad

She comes to me with a bowl of soup

when I am besieged by

fumes of cheap arak.

She comes to me in dusty noons.

And with each sunset night snatches

she comes to me with

an evening star.

 

In the cafes she sits to bitter tea.

In the market she sells cheese

and buffalo livers.

She dusts her used-clothing stores,

searching for bones in a bowl of soup,

for milk to the lips of a child

and a glimmer in a pair of eyes

and something a woman does not yet know

and streets where water never greens.

MIDEAST IRAQ US WAR/Iraq 2003, photo © David Guttenfelder/

• • •

At night

she roams among houses abandoned by the poor

and churches where a muffled mass fades

and huts where poor girls faint.

At midnight

she returns to her enchanted shelter

behind muddy streets,

carrying the bread of the dead,

myrtle flowers,

slivers of buffalo liver

and two bones for a bowl of soup.

 

At dawn she stops by all her houses,

waking all her children,

dragging them to the street,

the thousands waiting to march on Baghdad.

/Translated by Khaled Mattawa/

The last couple of weeks also made me think of the documentary Iraq in Fragments (directed by James Longley). The film was made in 2006, and I think it was one of the first mainstream documentaries that provided viewers with an Iraqi point of view. Also, the work put in it is noticeable – three hundred hours of material was filmed in Iraq over a period of more than two years for this production.Here are some of the captions I took while rewatching the film.

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My favourite moment of the film is one of the last ones, where a Kurdish child talks about the idea of Iraq,  and separation and fighting all the adults are talking about (and witnessing it). I’ve made a GIF, just had to.

How do you do it, really?

It made me think of Riverbend and one of her last blog posts, when she and her family escaped from Iraq to Syria. In October of 2007, she writes:

“By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, ‘We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.’

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.”

Until 2011, Syria was a new home for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. But, for the last couple of years, many of them (like Riverbend) had to escape from Syria together with hundreds of thousands of Syrians who became refugees and remain the greatest, yet often overlooked, victims of horrendous conflicts rampaging their countries.

In her comic The Waiting Room, Sarah Glidden showed the struggle of Iraqi refugees who were trying to make Syria their new home.

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397E8trfQFOCffZ5tETAMA/images via Cartoon Movement/

Now many of them are refugees all over again. And new refugees are made every day. Yes, they are being made, they are being created. All of them – the children who ask for their arms and legs, mothers weeping for their murdered children and husbands, families who will never see their homes again, worn out people desperately looking to find their memories and dreams in the sea of nothingness… All of it is made by the dreadful machinery of war, machinery cruelly imposed on many and fueled by the background interests of  the (very protected) few, coated into the language of propaganda which associates courage with warfare, and change with violence.

When will it stop? When does it end?

How do we stop it? How do we end it? That is the main question for this Month of Veterans.

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art of resistance, Iraq

Riverbend: Ten Years Later, Baghdad Still Burning.

It’s been months, well – probably years since I last time opened Riverbend’s blog. It was in the period of 2003 – 2007 that her blog opened my eyes – and the eyes of many, showing us what liberation is like to Iraqi people. Then there was the book – Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq, a compilation of her blog entries for part of 2003 and 2004. Riverbend’s writing was intelligent, witty, warm, passionate, informative, and it always seemed to me – she was as honest as a person can be. Opening her blog today – made me miss her writing so much.

Well, there was something there for me – for all of us who have missed her for years now. She published one more post, first one since 2007. Published in April of 2013, it’s her last one. I wish to repost it here, because I find it so important and relevant (I think it will remain relevant and important for a long time to come, considering the situation in Iraq and Middle East generally).

Ten Years On…

April 9, 2013 marks ten years since the fall of Baghdad. Ten years since the invasion. Since the lives of millions of Iraqis changed forever. It’s difficult to believe. It feels like only yesterday I was sharing day to day activities with the world. I feel obliged today to put my thoughts down on the blog once again, probably for the last time.

In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t. 

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, “Things will improve immediately.” The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, “Things won’t improve for at least five years.” And the pessimists? The pessimists said, “It will take ten years. It will take a decade.”

Looking back at the last ten years, what have our occupiers and their Iraqi governments given us in ten years? What have our puppets achieved in this last decade? What have we learned?

We learned a lot.

We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair- it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death… A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red. 

We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands. 

We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.

We are learning that corruption is the way to go. You want a passport issued? Pay someone. You want a document ratified? Pay someone. You want someone dead? Pay someone. 

We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear. 

We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know- the luxuries – electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools – those are for deserving populations. Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country. 

We’re learning that the biggest fans of the occupation (you know who you are, you traitors) eventually leave abroad. And where do they go? The USA, most likely, with the UK a close second. If I were an American, I’d be outraged. After spending so much money and so many lives, I’d expect the minor Chalabis and Malikis and Hashimis of Iraq to, well, stay in Iraq. Invest in their country. I’d stand in passport control and ask them, “Weren’t you happy when we invaded your country? Weren’t you happy we liberated you? Go back. Go back to the country you’re so happy with because now, you’re free!” 

We’re learning that militias aren’t particular about who they kill. The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that’s not the way it works. That’s too simple. 

We’re learning that the leaders don’t make history. Populations don’t make history. Historians don’t write history. News networks do. The Foxes, and CNNs, and BBCs, and Jazeeras of the world make history. They twist and turn things to fit their own private agendas. 

We’re learning that the masks are off. No one is ashamed of the hypocrisy anymore. You can be against one country (like Iran), but empowering them somewhere else (like in Iraq). You can claim to be against religious extremism (like in Afghanistan), but promoting religious extremism somewhere else (like in Iraq and Egypt and Syria). 

Those who didn’t know it in 2003 are learning (much too late) that an occupation is not the portal to freedom and democracy. The occupiers do not have your best interests at heart. 

We are learning that ignorance is the death of civilized societies and that everyone thinks their particular form of fanaticism is acceptable. 

We are learning how easy it is to manipulate populations with their own prejudices and that politics and religion never mix, even if a super-power says they should mix. 

But it wasn’t all a bad education… 

We learned that you sometimes receive kindness  when you least expect it. We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us. We learned and continue to learn that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress. It is a matter of time… 

And then there are things we’d like to learn…

Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Tarek Al Hashemi and the rest of the vultures, where are they now? Have they crawled back under their rocks in countries like the USA, the UK, etc.? Where will Maliki be in a year or two? Will he return to Iran or take the millions he made off of killing Iraqis and then seek asylum in some European country? Far away from the angry Iraqi masses… 

What about George Bush, Condi, Wolfowitz, and Powell? Will they ever be held accountable for the devastation and the death they wrought in Iraq? Saddam was held accountable for 300,000 Iraqis… Surely someone should be held accountable for the million or so?

Finally, after all is said and done, we shouldn’t forget what this was about – making America safer… And are you safer Americans? If you are, why is it that we hear more and more about attacks on your embassies and diplomats? Why is it that you are constantly warned to not go to this country or that one? Is it better now, ten years down the line? Do you feel safer, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of the way (granted half of them were women and children, but children grow up, right?)?

And what happened to Riverbend and my family? I eventually moved from Syria. I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until… Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?  

For those of you who are disappointed reality has reared its ugly head again, go to Fox News, I’m sure they have a reportage that will soothe your conscience. 

For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. “Lo khuliyet, qulibet…” Which means “If the world were empty of good people, it would end.” I only need to check my emails to know it won’t be ending any time soon. 

/Published on Baghdad Burning, written by Riverbend/

Thank you Riverbend, may you stay safe and peace be upon you. Meet you where hearts can heal and souls can mend.

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