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2006-03-06

Iraqi Women Make Rare Trip to U.S. to Tell Their Stories of Life Under Occupation

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This weekend, five Iraqi women arrived in New York City to begin a speaking tour to educate Americans about the reality in Iraq and meet with UN and US officials to call for a peace plan. Two of them join us in our firehouse studio: Faiza Al-Araji is a civil engineer and blogger, whose family recently fled to Jordan after her son was temporarily kidnapped, and Eman Ahmad Khamas, an Iraqi journalist, translator and human rights activist. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the War in Iraq. Nearly three months after a December election, Iraq’s divided political leaders are still fighting over the crucial post of prime minister in the new government. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani said Monday he would convene parliament in six days but there is little chance of forming a unity coalition. Talabani is leading a group of Sunni, Kurds and others opposing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s bid for a new term amid anger over the recent surge violence in the country.

In the latest bloodshed, a car bomb in Baquba north of Baghdad killed six people, two of whom were girls under four years old. As many as 1,300 Iraqis were killed the week following the February 22nd bombing of the gold dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra–one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims. It marked one of the bloodiest periods since the U.S. invaded the country nearly three years ago.

While the bloodshed appears to have at least temporarily subsided, the outbreak of violence last week has raised new concerns about where Iraq is headed and the prospect of an outbreak of all-out civil war. But back in Washington, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace was asked on NBC’s "Meet the Press" how things are going in Iraq. He replied, "I’d say they’re going well. I wouldn’t put a great big smiley face on it, but I’d say they’re going well."

Pace’s comments come as Amnesty International releases a new report condemning what it calls the "arbitrary" detention of tens of thousands of people in Iraq. In a new report, the human rights group says the situation has become "a recipe for abuse." Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: "As long as U.S. and U.K. forces hold prisoners in secret detention conditions, torture is much more likely to occur, to go undetected and to go unpunished."

Today we speak about Iraq with Iraqis. This weekend, five Iraqi women arrived in New York City to begin a speaking tour to educate Americans about the reality in Iraq and meet with UN and US officials to call for a peace plan. We are joined by two of them in our firehouse studio:

  • Faiza Al-Araji, a civil engineer and blogger. She is a religious Shia with a Sunni husband, and mother of three. After one son was recently held as a political prisoner by the Ministry of the Interior, the family fled to Jordan. Her blog is afamilyinbaghdad.blogspot.com
  • Eman Ahmad Khamas, journalist, translator and activist. She is a member of the Women’s Will organization, which focuses on defining and defending women’s rights. For the past three years she has been documenting crimes committed by US and Iraqi forces. She is the former Director of International Occupation Watch Center Baghdad. She is married with two daughters and lives in Baghdad.
  • Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink that organized the delegation of Iraqi women.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in Washington, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, was asked by Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press how things are going in Iraq.

TIM RUSSERT: If you were to be asked whether things in Iraq are going well or badly, what would you say? How would you answer?

GEN. PETER PACE: I’d certainly say they are going well. I wouldn’t put a great big smiley face on it, but I would say they are going very, very well.

AMY GOODMAN: General Pace’s comments come as Amnesty International releases a new report condemning what it calls the "arbitrary" detention of tens of thousands of people in Iraq. In this new report, the human rights group says the situation has become "a recipe for abuse." Amnesty International’s UK Director, Kate Allen, said, "As long as U.S. and U.K. forces hold prisoners in secret detention conditions, torture is much more likely to occur, to go undetected and to go unpunished."

Today, we will talk about Iraq with Iraqis. This weekend, seven Iraqi women arrived in New York City, or at least were supposed to, to begin a speaking tour to educate Americans about the reality in Iraq and meet with U.N. and U.S. officials to call for a peace plan. We will be joined by two of them, but before we go to them, I wanted to turn to Medea Benjamin, who is organizing this tour around the country, founder of Code Pink Women for Peace. Medea, I said seven women came into the country or were supposed to, because, in fact, only five made it?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Two of the women who we wanted to bring here were women whose entire families were killed by the U.S. military. As they were driving in their cars to get away from the violence, the tanks came and shot into their cars. One woman talks about her little boy on her lap and seeing the bullet go right through his forehead, her other two children killed, her husband killed, and her left in the car with the bloody bodies. We thought it was important to bring these women to meet with Cindy Sheehan, other U.S. mothers who have lost their children. And yet, when these women went to apply for their visas, they were denied. When I called the State Department to find out why, they said they had no compelling family ties left in Iraq that would ensure that they would return home, so they were at risk of staying in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they were denied entry into the United States because the U.S. military had killed their families?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: They could not prove that they would want to go home. So, yes, we killed their families and then denied them the right to come to the United States to tell what the U.S. had done to their families.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the five women who are here, what are your plans? Where are you going starting today?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: This is part of Code Pink’s campaign called "Women Say No to War." And we have a rally today at noon in front of the United Nations. We are calling on the U.N. to stand up and do something, to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and send in U.N. peacekeepers. Any New Yorkers listening, please join us at noon, and then on Wednesday, International Women’s Day, we will be meeting with Congress, we’ll be doing briefings at Congress, and we will be marching from the Iraqi embassy to the White House with our call for peace. Our call for peace has so far been signed by tens and tens of thousands of women and men around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: About 70,000?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: About 70,000 to date, and if there’s one thing I’d ask your listeners, Amy, to do is get online now, go to WomenSayNoToWar.org, whether you’re a woman or a man, and sign up so we can count you in with us when we march to the Iraqi embassy, to the White House, and go through the halls of Congress, turning in our urgent call for peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are also joined by Faiza Al-Araji, who has just come into the United States as part of this tour. She did make it, and you came from Amman, is that right?

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You just heard the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, when asked how things are going, saying they were going very well, but he wouldn’t put a smiley face on it, but that things are going very well. What is your response?

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: I’m watching the documentary on the TV now. I’m Iraqi. I left Iraq because of the kidnapping of my son in the last summer and stay in Jordan as refugee. You know, the story went out; living there is different. It’s completely different about the story your media is sending you or the message the media is sending you. When somebody telling you that things is going on in Iraq well and everything is fine, please ask him, "What is your evidence? What is your proof? What is your clue? Give me. Give me something on the ground."

I can make a kind of debate. I’m ready to have a debate with the American leaders, to sit with them in front of the American people. I want to hear from them, and I will give them the answers for everything they are talking about, because we have the real story on the ground. After three years of evaluation, I think Iraqis have the right to talk about the evolution of the war, not the American leaders, because we are who are suffering here and we are — we lost the money of Iraq, we lost the souls of Iraqis, we lost the souls of loved ones in Iraq. We have — our kids have been kidnapped. Our neighbors have been killed. We lost everything. But what about the leaders? They are sitting in their chairs, and they have the power. And they did nothing for the Iraqi people to help the Iraqi people. I’m not telling this from my mind. It is facts on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to your son?

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: My son was in the college. My son is not the only story. It is a familiar story for the Iraqi families nowadays. My son was going to the college in the morning. He finished his exam, and he went to continue his operation in their office, you know, in the college. The security man faced him, and he was a new one. And that’s a new government, you know, how the style of security man. He asked him, "Where are you going?" My son was not very friendly. He asked him, "It is not your work. I’m going to finish my work in there. I’m familiar here, and this is my college." When he finished his work with the employee, and he went out, the security man stopped him, and he said, "I want to open your wallet, and I want to check your identity." He said, "Let me see your boss." Khalid asked him. And he said, "Okay. You have to wait here." He was sitting to wait, and they got a bag.

They put it on his head, and they arrested him and put him in the pickup and get him out of the college to the Interior Ministry, put him in the seventh floor, like this is the zone of the terrorist people. And he saw the people who were there. There were about 50 or 60 people sitting in that floor. Nobody — they have been there in this room since three or four months. Their families don’t know about them, if they are alive or they are dead. They have no right to contact their families. They have no right to have a lawyer. They are just suspected people. And after that, they told him that "You are innocent. We have nothing against you, but you have to tell your parents to pay money." We have to pay money to get your innocent son from their hands. I will pay a thousand of dollars and get our son out of Iraq, and the whole family went out of Iraq. We closed the house. And this is the familiar story in Iraq now.

Every day, stories of horrible — the life is horrible for Iraqis now. Iraq now is the hell. It is the land of hell. There is nothing. There’s no electricity. There’s no water. There’s no security. You can’t send your boy to the school, because you are scared. You have to change the priority of your life. What is the priority? The education of my son or the life of him? Yes, sure. The life of my son. So the people are putting their son in the houses. They will never send them to the schools or to the universities. And you can imagine what kind of life, if you want to move to your job or to your school, and there’s curfew or there is blocks of concrete barriers for the occupation and checkpoints and checkpoints, and everywhere. It is a kind of hell. You can’t go out for shopping. You can’t go for the hospital. Everything is — everything is destroyed in Iraq now. And this is for the services or the conditions on the ground.

And what about the civil war? Somebody is pushing the country to, you know, to get the option of civil war. Why? Who is the benefit? Iraqis are against civil war. If you have the chance to go to move in the streets of Iraqis and asking everyone, "Are you with the civil war?" they will say, "No." Okay, if you have like official meeting with the leaders of religion and political parties and social parties and everything, they will say, "No." So the question is: Who is pushing the country to choose civil war? It’s just to taunt the society and to destroy the race of Iraq? This is strange point, but the people thought that. The only one who will benefit from this civil war is the occupation force, because it will give them the justification to stay forever in Iraq. They are building army bases to stay in Iraq. So, we have no other explanation.

AMY GOODMAN: Faizal Al-Araji, we have to break, but when we come back, we will continue with you, as a civil engineer and a blogger who has informed people outside of Iraq what’s going on there. We will also be joined by Eman Khamas, who is a journalist, translator and activist, who also made it out of Baghdad. And Medea Benjamin, I want to thank you for being with us, of Code Pink.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with our guests today. We are joined by Faiza Al-Araji, who is a civil engineer, who has just flown in from Amman, lived in Iraq until this past summer when her son was kidnapped. We are also joined by Eman Ahmad Khamas, who is a journalist, translator and activist, a member of the Women’s Will organization. We welcome you both. I asked you during the break, Faiza, are you Sunni or Shia?

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: I don’t like this question. I’m Iraqi. And I’m insisting I am Iraqi. I don’t want to use these new titles, have been entered Iraq after Bremer. When he entered Iraq he put this division for the Iraqi people. And we refuse it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it’s just been introduced? I mean, there is a sense in the media in this country that this is age-old sectarian, almost tribal hatred.

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: Oh, my God. Yeah, they are trying to tell you another story. The reality is there. We are brothers and sisters. We are Muslim, my dear. This is the identity of the nation. We are Muslim. But they are trying to divide the people, to go to the sub-identity, to make a cause of fighting or to provoke the people against each other. And we refuse it.

AMY GOODMAN: Eman?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Well, the reality is that it never happened in the history of Iraq for thousands, six thousands of years. It never happened, a civil war or these kind of distinctions. It is true that there are in Iraq, there are Kurds, there are Arabs and Sunnis and Shia and the Christians and many other minor religions and groups. But it never happened that we fight each other. No. At all.

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: And a thing I said yesterday, in the history there is fighting between the regime and the Kurds or the regime against the Shia. But it doesn’t mean it is civil war. It is something between, you know, for political reasons. But the media here is investing these actions to tell you another kind of stories.

AMY GOODMAN: I saw you both yesterday at the Community Church in New York where you were speaking along with Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan, talking about the conditions in Iraq. Eman, you have been documenting human rights abuses.

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You live in Baghdad?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: I live in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: What have you documented?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Well, I worked mainly on the bombed cities, the refugee camps. I also worked on the missing, a very big issue in Iraq now, that I don’t think people here have any idea about. I worked on the detainees. These are the things that I worked on.

AMY GOODMAN: The missing?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: The missing. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Well, people are — people disappear in Iraq. People are — especially men — arrested, and you don’t hear anything about them later. For example, in the first — in the first era of the war, between March 20 until April 9, when the Iraqi state fall down, people disappeared. There are eyewitnesses that these people were taken by the American troops. Some of them may be killed. Some of them may be in jail. But now, they don’t exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, how do you find out? I mean, if you want to find out if someone has been jailed, what do you do?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: There are eyewitnesses in the place that he disappeared, and they say that "We saw him, he was injured and was taken in an American tank or vehicle," or "He was taken," simply. We go to the — and there is a very important point. There are prisoners injured who are released and they say that in our — in our room and the place, we have this man and they give his description. Many things that no one else would know. Only the person who was with him.

AMY GOODMAN: The American authorities in the U.S.-run prisons will not tell you?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: We go to the American military bases, to the prisons, and we ask about these people. They deny them.

AMY GOODMAN: They deny that they are there?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: They deny they exist in that prison. For example, we have a story of a man. He was supposed to be in prison in Umm Qasr, you know, Camp Bucca in the south, deep in the south.

AMY GOODMAN: Camp Bucca is named for a fireman who was killed 9/11 in New York.

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Yeah, but for Iraqis it is a very big prison. It is a camp where tens of thousands of Iraqis are arrested for three years now. So, people come from there, and they say, "We know this man, we know this man," etc. And we go there. Sometimes even the American themselves, they say — the American authorities, the American officials, they say, yes, they put list of names. And when we go back, we ask about them, they say, "No, we didn’t do that." And we show them, I have a paper, I have a document, of one of these men. And now he’s denied.

I don’t know the number of these people. The number is between 5,000 to 15,000. But I had a meeting with a general called General Brandenburg in the Ministry of Justice. And he said that he has records of that period. And he asked me to give him the names that I’m looking for. And I did. But when we had the meeting, and we had a date to go and to talk about these people, to give him the names, he did not show up, unfortunately. I’m still waiting for an answer. They said, in the Ministry of Justice, they said that he’s changed. Now, there is another one, called Garner. But I didn’t meet him yet. And I’m looking forward to meeting him and to give him the list of names about — and the stories of these people who disappeared.

I mean, this is a very big tragedy in Iraq, because there are families, mothers, wives, children, who are waiting to hear about their loved ones, if they exist, if they are dead, if they are alive. They simply — they simply won’t answer. That’s all. All the answers.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you even move around in Iraq?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: We can move around, but it is very risky. It is very dangerous, especially if you go to dangerous places. I mean, I go, for example, to the places that are bombed. And I have faced death many times. I was almost shot many times. But it is risky. But, I mean, we have to go. We have to see these people. We have to listen to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Even to come here, that required you traveling the road to Amman?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Yes. Yes. It was difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were issued the visa in Baghdad or in Amman.

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: No, in Amman, we don’t go to the Green Zone, we don’t go to the American embassy in Baghdad. It’s inside the Green Zone, and they do not issue visas. You have to go to Amman to apply first. And then, you have to go back to Baghdad to wait for two, three, six weeks, and then you are sent an email or you hear from them and then you go back and you get the visa, if it is granted. So, this is how it works.

AMY GOODMAN: Faiza Al-Araji, you are also a civil engineer. What about the so-called reconstruction of Iraq? We’ve last heard that in the upcoming budget, the only money that has been requested for reconstruction now is for prisons.

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: Yeah. We have heard a lot of stories about reconstruction during the six months or the first year after the war. And we were living inside Baghdad and watching for them, as an example, for the campaign of maintenance of the schools. We have heard about huge budget for the contractors from Bechtel or other American companies. But the reality on the ground that the final thing that they paid it for subcontract and subcontract, then — and a subcontract, a Iraqi one, he got it for $2,000 for each school just to put painting and to maintain the broken glasses. This is the only thing they have done. But maybe they are sending you the message or the story that we put new furniture and we put the new computers and everything was fancy. No, this is not the truth. The reality is something very different, you know?

I have to see a lot of our — to hear about–because I’m engineer, I am in touch with engineers and with contractors. The contractors are not qualified people. If you — I am working with water treatment systems, and the people who are coming with their papers of the specification for the water treatment package for a village or a town, he don’t know what is written in the paper. Why should they give him the contract? Why should they give him the priority? Because he is a friend of them. Because he is working in the — maybe in the military bases, building for the American military force. So they trust him. And they give him the contract. He is ignorant. He don’t know what is going on, what is inside the paper and he — but they give him a huge amount of money. And when he come to ask me about the prices, I can’t give him, but I can understand he got a big budget for this small piece. And by the time I can understand there is a lot of money have been spent for the big construction of Iraq. Something like this.

But the reality is something on the ground, that is something is like this. And you buy something in this budget, but you are the price — the real price is this thing. So you can see the money of the Iraqis have been disappeared. This is the kind of — if we are talking about the reconstruction and the corruption in the ministries and everywhere, it is a familiar story now. And what about the corruption of the billions of dollars of Iraqi people who have been out of the banks?

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to end by asking what you think the solution is, to both of you. What’s the solution?

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: What’s the solution? What’s the solution, my dear? There is chaos. If you turn your face from this direction, from — there is a lot of problems in Iraq. How could you — can imagine to start? What is the first step to stop all of this? The first step is, help the Iraqis to have national unity government, to make a kind of reconciliation between them after the last election, to get a good government, a real government which is — who us representative of the Iraqi people. This is step number one. Step number two, train — give training for the police Iraqi men and for the soldiers to help their people, not to arrest them and kill them and to campaign or to move with the American occupation force to kill Iraqi people. We need something new, strong, to trust them. And then the other step, that we can ask the troops to go out, to pull out the troops from Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Eman Khamas, do you think that U.S. troops should leave immediately?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Yes. The occupation should end immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: What would happen then?

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: What would happen? Iraq would be free, would be really liberated. Iraq is now occupied.

AMY GOODMAN: The press describes it as it would immediately descend into civil war.

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: No. I mean, it’s not going to be like that. I mean, you have to plan it in a way that, you know, guarantee that there will be no civil war, as you said. There is the U.N., there is the Security Council, there are the peacekeeping troops. There are many things that they can work out to, you know, follow this security vacuum, so that it wouldn’t, as you say, go into civil war. But the occupation should end immediately. It’s something wrong. It’s wrong for the Iraqis, for the Americans, for the world, for peace, for the international law. Everything. It’s wrong. It has to end now. Immediately. And then — and we Iraqis, we can work things out. We are capable of that. And if we kill each other, it’s our problem. It’s not the American’s problem. But we — I’m sure that we are capable of taking care of ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We will touch base as you travel around the country in this International Women’s Month, and I thank you very much for being with us.

EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Thank you.

FAIZA AL-ARAJI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Hopefully, the two other women who are supposed to be a part of your tour will also eventually make it here. I hear Mother’s Day is now their goal. Well, we have been speaking with Faiza Al-Araji, who is a civil engineer and blogger; her blog AfamilyInBaghdad.blogspot.com, and we will link to it at DemocracyNow.org, and Eman Ahmad Khamas, who is a journalist, translator, and activist, a member of the Women’s Will organization.

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