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'Boom-boom esok?' Ketakutan dan Air Mata Iraq
Koresponden kami yang meninggalkan Baghdad untuk menceritakan kisah sebuah kehidupan di bandaraya yang didiami orang-orang baik tetapi diselubngi ketakutan
Pada hari Isnin saya mengucapkan selamat tinggal kepada seorang rakan Iraq.
Suadberkerja di butik - seorang wanita biasa yan cuba belajar Bahasa Inggeris menggunakan buku 'belajar sendiri' yang beliau beli di pasar. Beliau menyara hidup dengan menjual pakaian kepada wanita-wanita kaya, isteri-isteri kepada ahli elit Parti Baath yang hidup mewah berlawanan dengan beliau sendiri. Tetapi beliau tidak pernah merungut mengenai sekatan ekonomi, mengenai nasib hidupnya, dan mengenai Kerajaan atau negaranya.
Seperti kebanyakan orang-orang Iraq yang saya telah temui sejak dua-bulan berada di Baghdad, Suad mengelak dari membincangkan politik menggunakan gerakan tangannya. "Saya tidak mahu bercakap mengenainya," kata beliau. Sebaliknya, dengan pertuturan Bahasa Inggeris yang silap, beliau bercakap mengenai keinginnannya untuk belajar Bahasa Inggeris dan memahami cara hidup di Amerika dan Britain. Ianya satu keinginan yang pelik memandangkan kedua-dua negara itu sedang bersiap-siap untuk mengebom negaranya.
Sejak beberapa minggu lalu, Suad akan bertanya saya setiap hari: "Esok boom-boom?" "Belum lagi," saya beritahu beliau, dan mukanya berseri-seri lega. Kali ini beliau tidak perlu bertanya. Beliau tahu apa yang berlaku melihat suasana panik di bandaraya, dengan para penjual membawa balik barang-barang jualan untuk disembunyikan, dengan panggilan talipon dari ahli-ahli keluarga menggesa beliau supaya tidak pergi kerja selepas hari ini.
Selepas saya beritahu Suad saya perlu meninggalkan Baghdad oleh sebab-sebab di luar kawalan saya, beliau menangis. “Jangan tinggalkan kami,” kata beliau, sambil memegang saya"Kami tidak tahu apa yang akan berlaku disini.”
Saya berasa bersalah, dan tertipu. Kami para pemberita boleh meninggalkan Iraql orang-orang biasa Iraq yang telah menjadi kawan kami perlu terus berada di sana untuk menghadapi perang bersendirian.
Mendengar kata-kata Suad membuatkan saya sedar kehidupan rakyat Iraq yang kita tahu di bawah pimpinan Saddam akan berubah dalam masa 72 jam.
Pentadbiran Bush yang berada jauh di Washington, suka membayangkan orang-orang Iraq akan bergembira jika Saddam digulingkab, tetapi mereka berfikir tanpa mengambil kira hakikat orang-orang Iraq, tidak seperti Afghan, tidak suka ditakluki atau dijajah, selepas mengalami kesengsaraannya sejak berkurun-kurun.
Susah untuk memutuskan apa yang sedang difikirkan
It is difficult to decide what the people really think because most have long since learnt to mask their feelings. People do not speak openly, even though the government-appointed “minders” who accompany reporters will say heartily: “Ask them whatever you want.”
You may ask, but you probably would not get the answer. Fear is an integral part of the Iraqi mentality, as real as the whispered mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police, who strategically position themselves on leather sofas in the al-Rasheed Hotel lobby to keep tabs on the journalists hurrying past.
Even mentioning the name mukhabarat is taboo. Iraqis do not say the word outright. They tend to point upwards to the sky, insinuating “upstairs”.
In Iraq, nearly every aspect of life is controlled. Neighbours can spy on neighbours. Waiters in restaurants hover over tables, listening and noting. Westerners’ hotel rooms are routinely searched, suitcases opened, papers rifled through. Telephones are usually monitored, so clumsily that sometimes you can hear your eavesdropper breathing or coughing on the other end.
If you wander, minder in tow, through the streets or the souks, through the winding lanes of old Baghdad where remnants of colonial Britain survive, you can ask people questions, but must choose your words carefully. Merely broaching certain subjects can put them at great risk.
Politics is a forbidden subject. Even references to any kind of change of regime are dangerous. Once, while I was exploring the sad landscape of Babylon, a guide described the death of Nebuchadnezzar. “No one knows how he died,” she said. “Strange, considering the power during his reign.”
Suddenly she caught the metaphor and tried to control the strange smile tugging at her lips. Then she controlled herself and her face went dead.
Sometimes there are things you do not want to know. Most days I would see a man in Baghdad with no fingernails, just raw scars.
The first time I saw this, I was shocked, then curious: how could this have happened to him? Who did it? What had he done to endure such agony? But when I asked an Iraqi friend about it, his face closed like a door slamming shut. I repeated my question, thinking my friend had not heard. Still, he remained silent.
I did not push, because I had seen that look before on many faces; pleading not to be put in a position of answering a question which may lead to a knock on the door.
For a reporter, this self-imposed censorship makes life very difficult, but there are plenty of other reasons why Iraq rates as one of the hardest countries in which to work.
In Chechnya or Bosnia you may have had to trek over mountains under fire, dragging your satellite phone and computer behind you, but at least you could write what you saw and what you felt.
That does not apply in Iraq. The Iraqi Ministry of Information carefully screens journalists entering the country. Visas can be as elusive as gold dust. Acquiring one can take months, and requires great patience and perseverance.
The process becomes all-absorbing. If and when word that your application has been successful reaches London the relief is huge. It can be baffling. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why some reporters get visas relatively easily while others are left in limbo.
When you arrive in Baghdad, either by road from Jordan or by plane to Saddam international airport, you leave behind your mobile telephone and any sensitive reading material, both of which are forbidden. Your satellite phone — your link to the world and the means to get your story out — is sealed at a customs point. To have the seal opened you have to register at the Ministry of Information press centre, upon which you very quickly become dependent.
You receive a government-appointed “minder” who accompanies you all day. You are forbidden from taking your satellite phone outside the building. If you are caught with your dish hanging out of your hotel window, you can be expelled. You are never explicitly told what to write and what not to write. The process is subtler than that. Journalists’ visas are “extended” every ten days, which means being very careful about the questions you really mean to ask because you don’t know whether or not your minder will report you, or your hapless interviewee, “upstairs”.
Life in Baghdad could be pleasant, with the restaurants — bordering the slow-flowing Tigris — filled with the wealthy drinking non-alcoholic beer, eating a fish speciality called masgouf, or watching the old-fashioned Lincolns and Chevrolets that Iraqis love to drive — cars that will shock American soldiers because they are the cars their fathers drove.
Then, the reality of what lies below the surface would intrude. In passing, someone will whisper to you. One night it was a musician in a bar who said in an urgent voice: “You must understand, we are afraid of our own shadows.” Another time, when I was visiting a small newspaper, a simple employee bravely leaned over his computer and hissed: “We want our freedom.”
But these encounters were rare. Most taxi drivers, merchants, tea-vendors or families I visited spoke highly of Saddam and his men. It is difficult to know whether they said what they said because they believed it, because it was all they heard on the television and radio, or because they were terrified. The coming days will show.
“I am telling you now, we will not come out to greet the Americans as our liberators,” said one Iraqi intellectual, choosing his words carefully. “Even if some people welcome a change, they will not welcome foreigners coming to rule them.” That is one potential danger the Americans must consider. The other is what will happen after the bombing, and whether there will be a civil war between the Sunni minority, who comprise most of Iraq’s present leadership, and the Shia, who are the majority. The most likely theory is a Shia uprising.
The question everyone wonders, but no one asks aloud, is whether the one million Shias who live in the festering Saddam City slum in Baghdad will rise up against anyone, or anything, connected with Saddam. Iraqis say, in their scripted voices, that everything is under control, that Iraqis — Sunni and Shia — will both loathe an occupier and unite to resist them.
Partly, this is true. But what is also true is that many Shias have felt repressed and under-represented for years, and the smouldering resentment you feel as you wander past the open sewers of Saddam City is very real. The bombing may be the match that lights the tinder box. Still, Iraq and Iraqis are easy to love, and it is difficult to have spent two months in a country and leave knowing it will be bombed.
One recent afternoon, as I wandered near the markets of Kerrada, I watched ordinary people buying ordinary things — hairbrushes, toothpaste, tin foil. Who among them would live and who would die? Seeing the shop windows, one could imagine piles of glass.
An hour after the move to get a second UN resolution collapsed on Monday and war became inevitable, the street scenes were the same: men in cafés drinking tea; even men surreally and optimistically continuing building work on the Ministry of Information. But their lives are about to change for ever.
Saying goodbye to so many people — families I had met, drivers, even minders who had tears in their eyes as they helped to load the vehicle for the long ride to Jordan — was hard. I wondered if I would ever again see the man whose tea station became the Times office inside the Ministry of Information in Baghdad.
All of them said the same thing, sadly. Not just “goodbye habibe” – Arabic for darling. But “goodbye, see you again, inshallah” – God willing.
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