What led to your decision to go to Iraq?
I believe it's important to witness what's happening in Iraq and raise awareness about the situation. The United States can often have an insular view of events outside our borders. It's too easy to get complacent about what's happening elsewhere.
Where did you go in Iraq?
We stayed in the heart of Baghdad, close to the main square, and traveled mostly in Baghdad and its outlying areas.
What did you do there?
We spoke with and visited a wide range of people, both Iraqis and Americans. We spoke to Songul Chapouk, one of three women on the governing council, and with women's organizations working with displaced women. We met with the Baghdad Museum's director. We spoke with the Iraqi police chief and colonel, and an American police officer sent to set up an internal-affairs office in conjunction with the Iraqi police. I spoke with American troops in the Green Zone (site of the U.S.-led coalition headquarters). We talked with women who have lost children and husbands in the war and under current occupation. I spoke with doctors, and I spoke with people in what is considered Baghdad's red-light district, where, since the fall of the regime, prostitution, the sex slave trade and children's drug use have increased.
Sounds like you had a lot of interaction with Iraqis.
We had extensive interaction. Our accommodations were not in the Green Zone, where Americans and Westerners stay. We stayed in the heart of an Iraqi neighborhood.
How many people were in your group?
Twelve, though we didn't all travel together. We broke off into smaller groups according to our interests.
Did you ever fear for your safety?
No. On the contrary, the Iraqis were warm and friendly. Everywhere, we were greeted with smiles, generosity, hospitality and kindness. I never felt anger or hostility. I even went into a neighborhood considered the heart of Iraqi resistance and did not feel in danger. There are many misconceptions about Iraqis. They are just trying to live their lives, go to work, study, take care of their families, survive. Just like we are.
Did you meet with any Iraqi or American officials?
Songul Chapouk, though on the council, is powerless. She has no budget. "Women without a budget cannot do anything," she said. She even admitted the governing council has no authority. "The Iraqi people don't want selection; they want election. This will be the only way we can get peace," she said.
What was your impression of current living conditions?
Daily life in Iraq is very difficult, and people are living in fear, and many, if not most, are living in poverty. The infrastructure has been destroyed, and there is no security or safety. An authority vacuum exists, and there is no accountability, which has led to a chaotic, free-for-all environment. There are no basic services. The electricity goes out several times a day. If you are lucky, you have a generator. There is no postal or telephone system. The hospitals have no running water, no heat, no cooking facilities and no medicine or equipment for treatment. Weeping mothers stand next to their sick and dying children. Doctors are helpless, because the lack of basic necessities is so great. The trash-strewn streets are the children's playgrounds. People are taken from their homes in the middle of night by coalition forces, never to be seen or heard from again. "Same donkey, different blanket," is an expression commonly heard in Iraq, meaning that one dictatorship has essentially been replaced with another--the U.S. forces.
What was your most memorable incident?
It's hard to pick just one. I was deeply touched by everything. One woman we spoke with, in her late 20s, had watched helplessly as the U.S. coalition forces shot and killed her husband, two daughters and son, in a random shooting in her neighborhood one night. And she welcomed us into her home and served us tea and talked and cried. It was heartbreaking.
Is there anything else you want readers to know?
Iraqis told me, "It's the U.S. politics we don't like, not the people. People do not know what is going on here. Please tell them what is happening. Tell them our stories." I add that what we do, as individuals, as a country, has far-reaching effects, far greater than we can know or imagine. When the Iraqis greet someone or say goodbye, they put their hand over their heart and say, "As-salaam alaykum," meaning, "peace be upon you." It is a wish for another's well being and perfectly describes the way Iraqis want to live.