Leaving Iraq

Flag over the compound where I lived.

I offer a letter in the same vein as the letter that was published in TIME magazine from a Marine serving in Iraq http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1543658-1,00.html.

As I leave Iraq the Iraqi government is refusing to give personal security companies license plates and registration in retaliation for the charges that were dismissed against Blackwater.  As I write this 500 Sunni politicians have been banned from running in the next nationwide elections scheduled for March 7.  Speaking of elections they were originally supposed to take place in January; however, they were postponed once again.  I was unaware that elections could actually be postponed until I arrived in Iraq.  As the violence continues in Iraq, we received incoming in the morning of Thursday, January 14 and the evening in addition on that day there was a suicide attack in Anbar Province I offer the following recollections of my two years and five months spent working and living in Iraq.

Worst case of Déjà vu – every day was like Ground Hog Day, so much so that you sometimes lost track of where you were in the week.  However, this routine, which the military terms a “battle routine”, is necessary for survival.  When interrupted it causes depression or anxiety.

Most annoying case of Déjà vu – Coming back from R & R time after time to find the sacred frog pillowcase missing; taken by the cleaners to be washed not realizing it was my personal pillow case and  my personal pillow.

Most surreal moment – Sitting in a meeting with the Deputy Director of the Department of Education from Amarah where he spent an hour and a half, complaining that his per diem wasn’t enough, his hotel wasn’t nice enough and that he hadn’t received enough money to get his shirts laundered.  He also told us that he wasn’t making enough money to furnish his house and his guests had to sit on the floor a.k.a I need a bribe in order to continue to support the Women’s Literacy Program you are running.  And in spite of the fact that he could barely take care of his family he was fat.  I would like to say that the this was the moment when I showed the most restraint; however, I did not, my mouth fell open to the floor in astonishment that this man felt he was so important he could waste my time with his petty concerns and did not return to a position of grim resignation until kicked soundly by my colleague under the table.

Most incredulous moment – Having a female doctor, one of our implementing partners for the Women’s Literacy Program telling me that literacy for men is more important than literacy for women.

Most profound man in Iraq – Hassan S.  During negotiations to continue the Women’s Literacy Program in Kut, I asked Hassan, “Doesn’t it bother you that your government officials are so corrupt?”  His response – “Tiana, everything in Iraq bothers me.”

Bravest men and women in Iraq – the Iraqi’s who continue to work toward bettering their societies in an honest, straight-forward manner; who refuse to be swayed by intimidation or bribes.N

Newest Tiana quote:  “Definition of insanity – following the rules and regulations to the determinent of common sense.”

 Biggest surprise – How ineffective the majority of Foreign Aid is – that and the fact that everyone knows it but we keep doing the same things over and over again rather than changing the system.

Best compliment I received in Iraq – “Tiana are all Americans as honest as you?” asked by one of my focal points.  My response, “Only the poor ones.”

Biggest disappointment – the UN.

Greatest vindication – I can’t say it’ll be censored. 

Biggest mystery – What happened to the 6.1 billion dollars of USAID money that has been spent in Iraq since 2003?

Biggest outrage – 6.1 billion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money sent to Iraq and in 2009, I had friends who couldn’t even pay their rent.

Most memorable scene – People with disabilities, limping, rolling, crutching in the streets of Amarah to demand their rights.

Funniest interview answer:  “Do you think there is hope for Iraqi’s with disabilities,” Ned Colt NBC News.  “Yes and eventually if things don’t change they’ll be so many of us, we’ll be able to takeover.”

Most difficult people to work with – It’s a tie between Americans and Iraqi Government Officials.

Easiest people to work with – Iraqi’s with disabilities, they are just so happy someone is finally paying attention to them that they give their all.

Stupidest military regulation, there are so many to choose from but, closed toe shoes in the dining hall; it’s for hygiene, I guess if one of the 3,000 loaded guns that go through the dining hall go off and someone is injured it’s to protect you from getting a blood born disease – who knows?

Most ridiculous reoccurring moment – Going through the airport and having some security guard pull a tampon out of your bag and wave it around wondering what it is – this happens regardless if the security person is male or female. 

Biggest hassle – Trying to explain to the Mayor’s cell (the military unit in charge of the base) exactly why you need access to the base; explaining it three or four times and then realizing they just don’t care they don’t want you on the base.  

Biggest hypocrisy – General Order Number One – no alcohol or pornography on the base.   

Most defining moment – Being faced with doing the right thing even though it might have resulted in the loss of my job and doing it anyway—twice.

Most successful accomplishment – Implementing PWD Advocacy Training for 35 young angry PWDs, creating Community Educator Teams and receiving the results of their activities every week – first integrated school in the Maysan government; a former CE Team member works with the Kurdistan Department of Education to reconnect kids with disabilities with their education and in Diwaniyah a former CE Team member fought to have a park made accessible. 

Greatest failure – I can’t say because it will be censored.   

Most depressing moment – Watching the quarters of 22 workers, the poorest of the poor on the compound where I live burn.  They lost $20,000 worth of stuff mainly cash.  The compound reimbursed them for only $6,000.  When I tried to take up a collection from the other people who live on our compound, the majority who make $375.00 a day, the response was underwhelming.  Getting money out of them was like getting blood out of turnips.  Depressing!

Most astonishing realization – Iraq was “liberated” in 2003, it is 2010 and they still do not have potable water, reliable electricity or decent health services. 

Most ineffective thing in the country besides the government – the PA system on the Basrah COB, they hired Charlie Brown’s Dad to do the announcements so anytime something happened and instructions were relayed all you heard was Wa Wah, Wa, Wah, Wa. 

Most Common Thought – Am I really making a difference? 

Best hope for Iraqi’s Future – The Next Generation.

What I will miss the least – the propensity for my colleagues to withhold information as if it were a matter of national security.  INFORMATION IS NOT POWER!

What I’m relieved to be leaving behind – all the stares of the Iraqi men; when I walked out of my trailer in the morning into one of the PSD staging areas, dressed modestly, they stared so hard I had to double-check and make sure I had my pants on.  It was like being a choice piece of meat at the butcher counter.

What I will miss the most – some of the Iraqi’s I worked with and Alex, Eva, Jacq, Shaun and the Majors. 

The truth is it is unrealistic for America to expect that it can impose a Jeffersonian democracy on a civilization that is thousands of years old; if Iraq comes to democracy it will be on its own terms and in the end it will be Iraqi’s not Americans who determine what their future will look like.  After all you can lead a camel to water, but you can’t make it drink.

When you read or hear about Iraq keep in mind, there is the truth and then there are the details.

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One Response to Leaving Iraq

  1. Dawn Randall says:

    This is so funny and sad at the same time, Tiana. I know you made a difference over there and will continue to in the future. Maybe you can teach the rest of us Americans a few things…Good luck and have fun in Africa (strictly a pleasure trip, right?)!

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