Cure for the Fog of Iraq War: Iraq's Anne Frank, Blogger, Riverbend

Cure for the Fog of Iraq War: Iraq's Anne Frank, Blogger, Riverbend

In news coverage about the end of the Iraq War that began last week, most media led the story with the cost of the war, emphasizing the "blood and treasure" spent by the United States. Reporters were very precise in enumerating the cost to our families and our coffers: 4,500 US servicemen and women dead, 32,000 wounded, and 800 billion taxpayer dollars spent.

But, curiously when it came to counting the Iraqi dead during our 9 year WMD-chasing, Democracy-seeding, Freedom-watering, Liberty-sprouting misadventure in Iraq, American media were crippled by a rare bout of research paralysis and quantitative amnesia.
Reporters who ordinarily strike a pose of gravitas wielding numbers like nunchuks, suddenly lost their ability to do a simple Google search to find out the actualor even estimated. number of Iraqi civilian deaths.

Instead, they referred to Iraqi deaths in vague, imprecise terms. Almost every report described the number of Iraqi civilian fatalities in this exact phrase: "Tens of thousands of Iraqis died ..." Tens of thousands? How nice - to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Any first year journalism student would have been taken to task for such lazy reporting and data gathering. "You call yourself a reporter?" I would have challenged such sloppiness. But, instead, the newspapers of record casually whitewashed statistics and body counts just as the Japanese had done after the Nanjing Massacre. "Tens of thousands" sounds benign, just a small cost of doing business.

Here are the estimated numbers of Iraqi civilian dead from several sources. According to the Iraq Family Health Survey, 151,000; according the Iraq Body Count project, more than 114,000; according to Lancet's cluster surveys, more than 600,000; according to WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs, the estimated number is 130,000. There are an estimated 600,000 Iraqi orphans and 1.3 million internally displaced persons resulting from the war.

Truth has a way of breaking through, channeled through the unlikeliest of witnesses, despite our best efforts to suppress it. Anne Frank's chronicles from her family's secret annex on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Street strike a chord with middleschoolers around the world even today. Her entries about coming of age in the midst of claustrophobia, violated personal space, fear, overbearing family, and authoritarian cruelty and hate are an echo from 1942 and from the grave.

The director of The Flowers of War, the forthcoming epic film about the Nanjing Massacre starring Christian Bale, explained his reason for making the movie. "I wanted to be truthful to history. With this kind of subject, the government already has its own perspective and set of rules," he said. The film itself is sourced from a novel by Yan Geling, an American-Chinese writer and the daughter of a woman who was evacuated from Nanjing as a small child. ""I wrote (the book) for all of us to remember together," she said.

Riverbend, the girl blogger from Iraq and the author of the blog, Baghdad Burning is, undisputedly, the Anne Frank of the Iraq War. Her writings will be an important historical document; they reveal how the war affected ordinary Iraqis in every corner of their lives.

In her first blog entry on August 17, 2003, a few months after the American invasion, she wrote:

"So this is the beginning, I guess, I never thought I'd start my own weblog ... All I could think everytime I wanted to start one was "but who will read it?" I guess I've got nothing to lose ... but I'm warning you--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."

Over the course of a stream of blogs that year, she punctured every stereotype Americans have about Muslim women. She wrote how she missed her work as a computer programmer, which she was no longer able to do because of her personal safety.

"I am a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company in Baghdad. I loved my job. I was good at my job."

Soon the Yuppie Geek was confined to her home which she shared with her mother and father, and her younger teenage brother, identified only as "E". Riverbend was intelligent, educated, funny, in possession of an acerbic wit with a delicious etched-in-acid humor that she focused on her favorite targets--Muslim fundamentalists, George Bush, and Ahmed Chalabi.

"I can see why the Pentagon adopted him (Chalabi)--he would be fun to train, a pet monkey of sorts."

She also educated Americans about her country. Several Americans had written to her to accuse her of being an American Liberal, or to remind her to be grateful for the computer that the Americans had given her when they invaded Iraq. Yep, that's what we did: air dropped computers over every house in Baghdad and wired them with DSL and Wifi, before we began Operation Iraqi Freedom and Shock and Awe.

In one entry of September 2003, she blogged:

"The Myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirt roads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats. These schools were larger versions of the home units and for every 100 students, there was one turban-wearing teacher who taught the boys rudimentary math (to count the flock) and reading. Girls and women sat at home, in black burkas, making bread and taking care of 10-12 children.

The Truth: Iraqis lived in houses with running water and electricity. Thousands of them own computers. Millions own VCRs and VCDs. Iraq has sophisticated bridges, recreational centers, clubs, restaurants, shops, universities, schools, etc. Iraqis love fast cars (especially German cars) and the Tigris is full of little motor boats that are used for everything from fishing to water-skiing."

The entries which narrated the day to day lives of Iraqi families, the arc of sadness and fear, the desperation and anger, during the American Occupation were punctuated by frequent interruptions due to power outages. And when the internet connection resumed, she reported on the blackouts.

"Suffering from a bout of insomnia last night, I found myself in front of the television, channel surfing. I was looking for the usual ... some fresh news, a miracle. Promptly at 2 am
the electricity went off and I was plunged into the pitch black hell better known as "an August night with no electricity in Iraq." So I sat there, in the dark, trying to remember where I had left the candle and matches. "

She was an equal opportunity offender. She ranted against the Occupation, American hubris, Paul Bremer, our sartorially resplendent Viceroy in riding boots on the ground, and corrupt and stupid Iraqi politicians.

On September 24, 2003, she vented:

"For Sale: A fertile, wealthy country with a population of around 25 million ... plus around 150,000 foreign troops, and a handful of puppets."

In November, she reluctantly set aside her keyboard to do some housekeeping. She remarked with the mischievous observational skills of Jane Austen about a neighbor:

"Umm Maha is the Martha Stewart of Baghdad. Her whole house is spotless ... rain, shine, or cluster bombs."

On many days, the water taps turned dry, which forced her to do some strategic planning. In one entry, she described how she gathered every available pot, pan, saucer, cup, bottle, and urn in the house to fill with water so that there would be a reservoir. She wrote how the water was so precious that it had to be recycled. Fresh water was reserved for the family and the cats. Water used to wash vegetables was recycled for watering the plants and bathing. Bath water was used to clean floors.

I was riveted by Riverbend's entries from 2003 through 2007 and checked her blog compulsively each day. When she didn't update her blog, I worried about her. Riverbend ranted about the unfairness of the war which had taken so much of her life and the lives of her family, relatives and neighbors. However, she was not a political activist but a diarist of domestic and emotional life, who was deeply frustrated by her own vulnerability to the larger forces that controlled her fate. She was all too human-she cried for herself, those she loved, and the country she loved.

The circumstances of Riverbend's life changed with the violence and political events that were quickly shaping Iraq. Her life, absent of her ability to follow her own dreams, dovetailed with the larger forces of the war.

On October 22, 2007, she blogged her last entry from Syria, where she and her family had joined more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.

"When we got to the Yaarubiya border patrol, it hit us that thousands of Iraqis had had our brilliant idea simultaneously- the lines to the border patrol office were endless. Hundreds of Iraqis stood in a long line waiting to have their passports stamped with an exit visa. We joined the line of people and waited. And waited. And waited...

I had such mixed feelings standing in that line. I was caught between a feeling of yearning, a certain homesickness that sometimes catches me at the oddest moments, and a heavy feeling of dread. What if they didn't agree to let us out again? It wasn't really possible, but what if it happened? What if this was the last time I'd see the Iraqi border? What if we were no longer allowed to enter Iraq for some reason? What if we were never allowed to leave?

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative - a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, "We're Abu Mohammed's house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia's family live upstairs, this is their number. We're all Iraqi too... Welcome to the building."

She ended her last blog with this: "I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003."

Riverbend's whereabouts and fate since October 2007 are unknown.


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