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Middle East Team Dispatch

An Ugly Picture: On One Side Is the Bad Guy But on the Other Side Is…the Other Bad Guy
March 29, 2000

What follows is the true testimony of an Iraqi artist, now a refugee in the United States. His story details the suffering that he and his family endured under the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. He shares this account with us in hopes that we have a greater understanding of the post-Gulf War period of confusion and turmoil in Iraq and to bring to light the chaos the United States inflicted upon the Iraqis by not offering badly need support after the war.

About the author

Wafaa Bilal, born in Najaf, Iraq in 1966, is a refugee of the Gulf War. In 1991 he survived 42 days of intensive boming by the US and coalition forces. Following the war, suspected dissidents were rounded up and massacred, forcing Bilal and hundreds of thousands like him to flee Iraq. After a harrowing trip accross hundreds of miles to Kuwait and years in refugee camps, Wafaa was able to gain asylum in the United States. He currently lives in Albuquerque and works as an artist and writer. With his family remaining in Iraq, he has become an outspoken advocate for lifting international sanctions against Iraq.

An Artist from Iraq

My art is most influenced by the pain and suffering I experienced growing up during the Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980, and under Saddam Hussein's repressive rule which began in 1968 (as Vice President and then later as President). Etched in my memory are visions of death, terror and the anguish of the Iraqi people. I remember nights, from childhood into adulthood, where the agonizing screams of women, who had just learned of a loved one's death, invaded my sleep.

The first thing I noticed after escaping Iraq was the incredible silence of the night. But for the friends and relatives I left behind, the nightmare continues. It is through my art that I work to bring them peace.

Saddam Hussein has been a curse to my homeland but remains in power, due in part to the support he has received from the United States government. I believe the U.S. wants to keep Saddam in power so it can maintain control of the Persian Gulf. With him still in power, the U.S. can keep a huge military presence in the Gulf. It also benefits from weapons sales to the region and profits from Saudi and Kuwaiti oil sales, while the embargo against Iraq restricts the flow of Iraqi oil.

Because of politics and oil, innocent people are demonized and tortured, starved, killed and "disappeared." Iraqis are stereotyped as ignorant and as terrorists who are both violent and maniacal. Through such images, Iraqis are cast as the enemy of humanity in order to make it easier for the U.S. and Western governments to gain their citizens' acceptance of the mass destruction Iraqis are subjected to.

After the bombing of the Al-ameriyah shelter in February, I returned to my hometown of Al-Kufa, the gateway into the holy city of Najaf. In March, after the cease-fire, an unprecedented people's uprising began. The following is an account from author Sarah Graham-Brown:

"The first signs of rebellion appeared on that last day of February in the predominantly Sunni towns of Abu'l-Khasib and Zubair, south of Basra, near the Kuwaiti border. The uprising spread rapidly to Basra, where the destruction of bridges further north created a bottleneck, concentrating large numbers of retreating troops. Press reports on 1 March said people were in the streets of Basra shouting slogans against Saddam Hussein, while a tank fired shells through one of his large and ubiquitous public portraits. Huge traffic jams were created by military vehicles, while government loyalists engaged in shootouts with rebels. By 7 March, most of the main towns in the south, including the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, were in revolt." (Sanctioning Saddam, I.B.Tauris, 1999, p. 154.)

The Iraqi people had been convinced by George Bush that, if they rose up against Saddam Hussein, the United States would come to their aid. (Over short-wave radio, then-President Bush had called on the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein: "Now is your opportunity," he said.) Over a period of two to three weeks, people were able to gain control of their own cities. When the uprising started, we were able to get cars and ambulances, and arrange for doctors to come to the hospital in Kufa. We brought injured people to the hospital to receive medical attention.

But by the end of three weeks, the United States had allowed Saddam to regain control. He razed whole cities in the south and north of the country, killing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. People were forced to leave their cities, even older people.

It was impossible to stay after the military took control. I joined my family in the countryside, where we stayed in an abandoned school with many other families facing very cold weather and no food. The only way we survived was to send our younger sisters and brothers door-to-door asking for bread and by burning the school desks to stay warm. We stayed there for about five days. Knowing the military was approaching, and arresting everybody on its way, I realized that the only way I could survive was to leave, which was also best for my family.

Before we fled to the country, when I attended the University of Baghdad, a member of the Al-Baath party had come into my class to recruit us into the military invasion of Kuwait. I refused to go, and this was the main reason I now had to leave. A relative from Baghdad came to us in the countryside and said names had been posted at the university and that my name was on the list.


maniacal - affected with madness
ubiquitous - being everywhere, constantly encountered
ad hoc - for the particular end or case at hand without consideration of wider application
raze - destroy to the ground

I began walking early the next morning. I walked for days from one city to another, eventually ending up in Simawa. There I met a few people who were also leaving Iraq. We walked another three days to the U.S. checkpoint, where we were told that there was a refugee camp in Safwan-another seven hours away by truck. We stayed outside the checkpoint until the next morning when we got a ride on a semi truck. There was no camp when we arrived in Safwan, but we noticed another camp in the distance. Next to it was an abandoned gas station where we spent the night.

After a few hours, we were attacked and arrested by Kuwaiti soldiers who wanted to execute us, thinking we were Iraqi soldiers. After several terrifying hours before an ad hoc tribunal of Kuwaiti soldiers, we managed to convince them that we were students and that we had taken no part in the war.

We were released and stayed at the camp for 40 days, until the U.S. pulled their troops out of the area. We desperately protested the U.S. pull-out, because we would have no protection from Saddam's soldiers. They waited a couple of days until an agreement was made with Saudi Arabia to create a bigger refugee camp for everyone, and then transported us by military airplanes to Rafah. I stayed there in the desert for almost two years (until) finally I was accepted by the United States as a refugee.

These experiences have not left me cynical or drained me of hope for humanity. On the contrary, I am filled with a belief in the power of people to control their own destinies.

Wafaa Bilal
January, 2000


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Team - OK, That Didn't Work… Now What? Rethinking Economic Sanctions Against Iraq
Team - Reading + Writing + Arithmetic = Omar Khayyam

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