Riverbend Is a Blogger,
"Embedded" in the Real Baghdad, Telling It Like It Is, Helping
Us See With New Eyes
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Democracy has to come from within and it has to be a request of the people
-- not of expatriates who have alliances with the CIA and British intelligence.
People have to want something enough to rise up and change it. They
have to be ready for democracy and willing to accept its responsibility.
The US could have promoted democracy in Iraq peacefully, but then they
wouldn't have permanent bases in the country, would they?
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"Riverbend" is a storyteller. Her "Baghdad Burning"
blog is one part Anne Frank, another part Scheherazade and "A Thousand
and One Arabian Nights" -- from cyberspace. As she wrote in her first
weblog entry, dated August 17, 2003: "So this is the beginning for
me, I guess ... expect a lot of complaining and ranting. ... A little
bit about myself: I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's
all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway." Riverbend's
experience of war, her political commentary and nuanced slice-of-life
descriptions, have won her worldwide respect and appreciation. Now her
weblog writings have been published in paperback and are available as
a BuzzFlash premium. BuzzFlash is grateful to Riverbend for all she
has shared in "Baghdad Burning," as well as for her e-mailed
comments to us (below) on why she writes, how she experiences American
propaganda, Iraqis' hopes, fears and disappointments, and the elusiveness
of "normal" life in Baghdad.
* * *
BuzzFlash: You write your blog at great
personal risk. Clearly, while you focus on the personal hardships and
daily lives of Iraqis in Baghdad, you are not a fan of the Bush occupation
of your country. Why do you continue to write, even knowing what the Americans
have done to individuals they deem "dissidents?"
Riverbend: I write the blog because it gives me a medium
to express my emotions and opinions and possibly show the 'other' side
of the war- the one that is not cheering on the occupation, as many news
channels and newspapers like to depict. I began writing the blog because,
at the beginning of the war, the pro-occupation media was overwhelming
and very few journalists or politicians were willing to look at the ugly
side of the occupation -- i.e. the deaths, the destruction and the complete
and total lack of the most basic security.
I don't worry so much about myself personally when writing the blog as
I worry that if I weren't anonymous, I wouldn't be able to write half
of what I write. I wouldn't be able to write about the rise in fundamentalism,
BuzzFlash: In your April 3, 2005, "Baghdad Burning"
entry, you are critical of the American broadcasting which has recently
invaded the televisions of Iraqis. You write, "I've been enchanted
with the shows these last few weeks. The thing that strikes me most is
the fact that the news is so … clean. It's like hospital food. It's all
organized and disinfected. Everything is partitioned and you can feel
how it has been doled out carefully with extreme attention to the portions
-- 2 minutes on women's rights in Afghanistan, 1 minute on training troops
in Iraq and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reportages are upbeat
and somewhat cheerful, and the anchor person manages to look properly
concerned and completely uncaring all at once." Has the propaganda
of Saddam Hussein just been exchanged for the propaganda of the corporate-owned
American media that generally follows the White House spin?
Riverbend: Iraqis were never good at propaganda. I think
I realized that at an early age while watching state-sponsored Iraqi TV.
The messages the former regime wanted us to believe or to reiterate were
very directly introduced on state television with few frills or introductions.
American media differs in that there is more money and time spent to feed
people ideas and news. A lot of the news is obviously exaggerated and
sometimes even untrue but it's so carefully put together and staged that
you sometimes *want* to believe it. I can see how many Americans can be
misled by American corporate media. We sometimes find ourselves watching,
fascinated, with news we know to be false, and yet American media makes
it look so convincing!
BuzzFlash: How have your attitudes toward the occupation
of Iraq changed in the past two years?
Riverbend: I think two years ago, there
was a sort of general hope that in spite of the difficulties, things would
improve drastically in a relatively short time. For example, we never
expected that two years after the war we'd still have major problems with
electricity, water and infrastructure. It's utter disappointment at this
point that security issues haven't been sorted out and Iraq is still a
very dangerous place. People wonder now how long this situation will last
and just what is being done to improve things.
I think that two years after the war, we're also seeing more inter-factional
friction between Sunnis and Shia and Arabs and Turkomen and Kurds. There
are certain politicians and parties that are cultivating this friction
because it helps promote them amongst their own people.
BuzzFlash: We've recently passed the two-year mark for
the American occupation of Iraq. What has gotten better during that two-year
period? What has gotten worse?
Riverbend: The security situation isn't very much better
-- crime has become organized and we're seeing more and more assassinations,
etc. The water situation is really bad this year. Last year we had problems
with water but this year they seem more pronounced. The sewage system
is also really quite bad. We had some heavy rain this year and the streets
were overflowing with raw sewage and contaminated water. The fuel situation
is also worse this year. We had some major problems during the winter
with getting kerosene, gasoline and cooking gas. Improvements include
the fact that Iraqis are becoming more organized -- in other words we're
learning how to work around these problems. There's also the fact that
at least a few of the ministries are up and running, sort of.
BuzzFlash: One way you've contributed to Americans' understanding
of the Iraqi perspective is to talk about the Iraqis' reaction to seemingly
small actions on the part of the Americans in Iraq that have huge negative
reactions from the Iraqis, such as cutting down the palm trees that lined
the boulevards to the Baghdad airport. Do you think the American military
and the Bush administration have any idea of the impact of their actions
on the Iraqi people, or do they not care? Please elaborate.
Riverbend: I think in some cases the Bush administration
does not have any idea of the impact of some of their actions -- for example
the cutting of palm trees in some areas. I think many people in the Bush
administration are truly ignorant about Iraq and the culture, and it surprises
me, because they had so many Iraqis on their payroll (Chalabi, Jaffari,
etc.) that one wonders just what sort of information about Iraq they were
being fed all this time.
In other cases, I believe the Bush administration is very aware of their
actions. An example of this is the torture and humiliation that went on
in Abu Ghraib. I think the people who helped engineer this war and occupation
were extremely aware that, above and beyond all, Iraqis fear sexual humiliation
of the sort depicted in the pictures and videos from Abu Ghraib. I also
think that in many situations, women were intentionally brought in for
detention and interrogation with the full knowledge that this would outrage
the public. Some of these issues backfired, of course.
BuzzFlash: One thing about your blog that has struck
us is your frequent references to the Governing Council as American puppets.
That, because the majority of the Governing Council members have not lived
in Iraq for a long time, they are not viewed by most Iraqis as representatives
of Iraq. Is this viewpoint aired in the Arab press? How and how often?
This perspective is rarely, if ever, seen in the mainstream media in the
Riverbend: It's not so much that these people have been
living abroad for such long periods of time, it's because these people
did so many things over the years to prove they never really wanted the
welfare of the Iraqi people. It's difficult to view someone like Chalabi
as Iraqi when he was living in luxury abroad all his life and simultaneously
encouraging the blockade on Iraq, helping plan a war, riding in on occupation
tanks and cheering on foreign troops while the country is pillaged and
burned. People who have lived in Iraq their entire lives are also seen
as puppets when they cooperate with occupation people. The Arab media
doesn't often portray them as puppets because, let's face it, many Arab
leaders themselves are American puppets -- the Jordanian and Saudi royals,
for example, and we really do have very few truly free media networks
or newspapers in the Arab world.
BuzzFlash: You often state that, among Iraqis, there
is a strong sense of nationhood that supercedes ethnic or religious differences.
You point out that your family is a fairly typical Iraqi family in that
it includes members of various ethnic and religious groups. But isn't
Iraq, as a nation, an artificial construct created by Western powers at
the end of the last colonial era?
Riverbend: I think many Iraqis don't care so much about
how the nation was formed as they do about it remaining a united country.
Iraq has a long and rich history and historically, people of different
religions and ethnicities have been very able to live together in peace.
The important thing to us right now is that we remain united as one country.
We've been able to live together, Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, in the past
-- it shouldn't be any different now. Though the language may differ in
some places, we share similar cultures and beliefs -- there is nothing
that should stand in the way of internal peace and unity. I know for a
fact that the majority of Iraqis don't like being labeled as Sunni, Shia
or Kurd. These labels are being promoted by the current new government
and the Bush administration and many Iraqis believe they are being used
to divide and conquer.
BuzzFlash: You focus so much on the daily travails of
living in Baghdad, including the problems of buying gasoline and intermittent
electricity. Yet, you also take great pleasure in the simple things in
life, like going to buy school supplies for your nieces. Life goes on,
Riverbend: Life does go on. It's amazing what people
can grow accustomed to. There are certain priorities that cannot be ignored,
in spite of occupation and instability, and many Iraqis need their lives
to have a certain semblance of normality. Dwelling on the insecurities
and fear will only drive you insane -- it's the smaller things that make
the day bearable -- buying school supplies, cooking, shopping for groceries
and trying to live 'normally' for even fifteen minutes!
BuzzFlash: Who exactly are the insurgents?
The White House and the American press lump them all together. We guess
that it keeps it simple for them that way. But from what we can deduce
from the foreign press, the resistance to the American occupation is coming
from a variety of sources. Can you speculate as to how many different
groups are attacking American forces, as well as soldiers in the Iraqi
Army, Iraqi police and Iraqi civilians? To what extent are the bombings
and attacks due to Sunni/Shiite jockeying for power?
Riverbend: The White House makes it very simple when
talking about the insurgency -- foreign, Islamic terrorists. It's hardly
that simple. I guess most Iraqis believe there is resistance and there
is terror. Resistance is coming from various sources -- former Iraqi army
people, Islamists, Ba'athists, nationalists and ordinary people who hate
this new way of life Iraqis are being relegated to. Terror is also coming
from various sources and in many cases it is a complete mystery. Many
people believe the attacks against the police force and security forces
are the work of outsiders or people who want Iraqis to hate the resistance.
It's difficult to tell at this point just what is going on. Some attacks
are meant to cause sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia, but those
are quite easy to see through (for example the bombing of Sunni mosques
or Shia Husseiniyas) and Iraqis have proven over the last two years that
they are far too tolerant to fall for such underhanded techniques.
BuzzFlash: You are obviously a secular Iraqi, with great
skills of observation in writing in English. You are also an independent,
thinking young woman. Do you have fears of a fundamentalist Islamic takeover
of the Iraqi government?
Riverbend: I have fears of fundamentalism of any type.
I fear Sunni fundamentalism and Shia fundamentalism. I fear we might be
slowly working our way towards a state run by Mullahs and clerics. I fear
Iraq being turned into another Iran by parties like Da'awa and SCIRI,
currently being promoted by the occupation powers. It is not Islam that
I fear -- I am a Muslim and a practicing one -- it is the deformation
of Islam practiced in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia that I fear.
BuzzFlash: Would you leave Iraq if you had the opportunity
to live a peaceful life in a Western country?
Riverbend: I have had the opportunity to leave Iraq
several times already. I don't know if I'd want to live in a Western country,
but I do yearn for some peace and security sometimes. I know I would like
to travel ... but it is not so much to leave the country behind as it
is to experience a different way of life. I am afraid, though, that Iraq
is experiencing a brain drain like never before. While many educated Iraqis
left the country during the blockade, many, many more are currently making
plans to leave because they fear for their lives and for their lives of
BuzzFlash: The American military successfully kept reporters
from describing what was clearly a devastating assault on Fallujah, as
well as some other cities. But, again, from reading the foreign press,
it appears Fallujah was decimated and that countless civilians were killed.
Do you have any information on Fallujah or other cities that the American
military assaulted without allowing the media to cover their activities?
Riverbend: Many cities are assaulted by the military
without proper press coverage. The latest is Qaim, for example. There
has been a siege and assault that has lasted several days already. Last
week it was Haditha and Mash'had. We know things are not going well in
these areas when we get refugees in Baghdad -- often women and children
of men who have been detained for no reason or killed. Very few media
sources are actually covering it, and the only casualties discussed are
the deaths of 'insurgents' and 'terrorists.' Very few media outlets report
about the deaths of women and children -- only when they are caused by
roadside bombs or terrorists. Even Arab news networks aren't reporting
casualties like before.
BuzzFlash: Is it true that the reconstruction money
is being spent on employing American companies like Halliburton and that
the Iraqi unemployment rate is 50%?
Riverbend: It is true. The Iraqi unemployment rate is
atrocious. People literally wander the streets looking for some sort of
employment. Factories have shut down, companies, ministries, etc. and
the decision to disband the Iraqi army has resulted in hundreds of thousands
of unemployed Iraqis. Many Iraqis currently graduating from college spend
months and months looking for work, even if it isn't related to what they
Many American companies are getting millions of dollars for reconstruction
contracts and then giving the work to Iraqi sub-contractors who have 'relations.'
Reconstruction work right now is not about the good job a contractor can
do, but just who he is related to or how many people he's bribed to get
the contract. This has resulted in shoddy work, and millions of dollars
literally going to waste, because the contract is given to American companies
for very large sums of money and then to Iraqi sub-contractors for a pittance.
BuzzFlash: A study in the British journal, "The
Lancet," which was largely ignored by the American press, indicated
that possibly more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American
invasion. Do you think this might be accurate?
Riverbend: I'm sure more than 100,000 people have died
in the last two years. Everyone literally knows more than one person who
died -- often a relative or a friend. We have people dying of bombs, dying
under torture, dying of malnutrition, a lack of shelter, missiles, attacks,
abductions, etc. We have illnesses emerging that Iraqis hadn't even heard
of in the past -- cancer rates have gone up drastically and in some areas
we hear about cholera or typhoid. It's difficult to know just how many
people have died because the Ministry of Health was given explicit instructions
about not keeping tabs.
BuzzFlash: The Bush White House and their representatives
keep saying it was all worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We think
there might have been other ways of getting rid of Saddam Hussein besides
wrecking a nation and taking over its oil. What do you think?
Riverbend: I think this wasn't about the welfare of
Iraqi people and ridding them of a dictator. I think this has been about
the US strategically placing itself in a Middle Eastern 'hot spot' --
in the middle of Turkey, Iran, Syria and the Gulf countries -- to wreak
havoc and promote instability in the area, and have direct access to the
oil, of course.
Democracy has to come from within and it has to be a request of the people
-- not of expatriates who have alliances with the CIA and British intelligence.
People have to want something enough to rise up and change it. They have
to be ready for democracy and willing to accept its responsibility. The
US could have promoted democracy in Iraq peacefully, but then they wouldn't
have permanent bases in the country, would they?
BuzzFlash: What would happen if the U.S. forces completely
pulled out of Iraq within a month?
Riverbend: No one knows what would happen. Some people
say civil war, others say Iraqis would be able to sort things out. I think
the best thing would be to set a timetable for complete withdrawal. This
would have the dual effect of giving hope to the millions of Iraqis who
feel their country will be under occupation for at least another decade,
and it would also push the current Iraqi government to organize themselves
and try to win over the favor of the people instead of looking out for
personal gain and power. It would also inspire Iraqi security forces to
take better charge of the situation in the knowledge that, eventually,
they'll have to protect Iraqis instead of Americans.
BuzzFlash: How are the children of Iraq faring under
the psychological pressure of the ongoing violence?
Riverbend: Many children have lost their childhood in
this war and occupation. Children saw things no child should see -- corpses
in the streets, foreign tanks, their countrymen being shoved to the ground
or detained at checkpoints for no reason -- and this is the average child
... Other children saw their parents killed in front of them ... or lost
arms, legs, eyes in an explosion or gun fire ... or were abducted ...
thousands of children were privy to raids on homes which were once sacred
and symbolized security and shelter. Many Iraqi children know a lot about
politics and religion -- they've come to understand the differences between
Sunnis, Shia and Kurds -- differences that weren't emphasized before the
BuzzFlash: In your journal, you talk about what a restless
sleeper you are, amidst the uncertainty and the noises of war. Have you
ever dreamt of peace and normalcy returning to your life?
Riverbend: Peace and normalcy seem like a distant thing.
One begins to forget what 'normal' was in the first place. We've come
to realize that peace and normalcy are also relative. What we consider
peace is obviously very different from the American concept of peace.
Normality also changes with time. Three years ago, normal was being able
to walk down the street with a sense of security. Today, normal is hearing
at least three explosions a day and the hum of helicopters above.
At the end of the day, why dream of such mundane things as peace and normalcy?
A stable, secure, prosperous, united and above all independent Iraq --
that's a dream.
BuzzFlash: Thank your for your thoughts.
Riverbend: You're welcome.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (In Paperback, A BuzzFlash Premium)