Riding out the Storm

A Kurdish Shiite family in a northwestern Iraq refugee camp. Photo courtesy of the AP.

This week on War News Radio, we hear from Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, and take a look at how their lives are changing as their resources dwindle. Listen now to Haley Loram’s report.

Then, we speak with Susanne Fischer, a reporter in Baghdad who tells us about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq. Listen now.

Next, we learn about an educational Iraqi cartoon program designed to help children navigate the dangers of war. Listen now to Ben Mendelson’s report.

Finally, in our series “A Day in the Life”, we speak with an Iraqi refugee who made it to the UK by way of Turkey and Greece–but now thinks leaving was a mistake. Listen now.

These stories, plus the week’s news, from War News Radio.

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VARIOUS: From Swarthmore College this is War News Radio.

WREN ELHAI: I’m Wren Elhai.

EMILY HAGER: And I’m Emily Hager.

FUAD MFTAH: The problem is with the money you know, money is everything and right now we don’t have the money to live here because all our money has been spent and we’re not allowed to work.

WREN ELHAI: Millions of Iraqi refugees are waiting in neighboring countries, hoping that the situation back home will improve. This week on WNR, Riding out the Storm. We hear from Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, and take a look at how their lives are changing as their resources dwindle.
EMILY HAGER: Also, a reporter in Baghdad tells us about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq.

WREN ELHAI: We learn about an educational Iraqi cartoon program designed to help children navigate the dangers of war.

EMILY HAGER: Finally, in our series, “A Day in the Life,” we hear from an Iraqi refugee who made it to the UK–but now regrets leaving home.

WREN ELHAI: But first, a roundup of this week’s news.

EMILY HAGER: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent two days in Iraq this week, solidifying Iran’s political and economic ties with the Iraqi government. It was the first time ever an Iranian president has visited Iraq, and the first visit since the fall of Saddam by the president of a country not in the US-led coalition. Iran has been accused by American officials of supplying weapons to Shi’a militias in Iraq. And while the Iranian president got a warm reception from Iraq’s leadership, Iraqis in various parts of the country staged protests against his visit.

[protest in Arabic]

EMILY HAGER: Later in the show, we’ll hear from a journalist in Baghdad who witnessed Ahmadinejad’s visit firsthand.

WREN ELHAI: Two bombings in central Baghdad this week left 55 people dead and over 130 wounded. The first explosion was caused by a roadside bomb and killed 3 people; as bystanders gathered around the scene, a suicide bomber detonated a second bomb within the crowd, in what seemed to be a coordinated attack. More than 15 of the dead were security officers assisting the victims of the first attack. The attacks took place at around 7 PM in the Karada shopping district, one of the few areas in Iraq still heavily frequented after dark. Civilian deaths in Iraq have been declining over the past months but the Iraqi government said this week that more civilians died in February than January.

EMILY HAGER: Also this week, 14 bodies were found in a mass grave near the Iraqi city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. The bodies were all men. They had been shot in the head, and their hands were tied behind their backs. They were believed to be either Iraqi security forces or members of a local Sunni militia allied with US forces. The US military blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq.

WREN ELHAI: On Friday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani began a three-day visit to Turkey. The trip is especially significant in light of Turkey’s recent military incursions into Iraqi territory. On March 1st, Turkish troops concluded an 8-day ground offensive against the PKK, a Kurdish separatist militia, in northern Iraq. But this Wednesday, Turkish forces resumed shelling PKK positions in Iraq. While the Iraqi government does not support the PKK, which Turkey and the US term a terrorist group, it has objected to Turkey’s operations inside Iraqi territory. Talabani’s visit to Turkey will focus on cross-border security between the two countries, as well as possible natural gas and oil deals for Turkish companies.

EMILY HAGER: On Monday, an Iraqi court dropped charges against two government officials accused of aiding Shi’a militias that used government facilities to stage kidnappings and murders. The defendants were former deputy health minister Hakim al-Zamili and his former chief of security. It was the first time a high-ranking government official in Iraq had been brought to trial on terrorism charges. The court cited a lack of evidence in dismissing the case– several key witnesses failed to appear, amid allegations of witness intimidation. Sunni politicians quickly condemned the dismissal as a breach of justice, and a symbol of the sectarian bias in Iraq’s justice system. By Wednesday, the two men, who had been in US custody, were free.

WREN ELHAI: Iraq’s judicial system also faced a second challenge this week, as the Iraqi presidential council moved to block the execution of two former Ba’ath party officials. The men — the former defense minister and former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces – were sentenced to death last June for their involvement in the Anfal campaign that killed as many as 100,000 Kurds. Some in Iraq saw the decision to prevent the executions as an attempt to counter Sunnis, who have complained that the government discriminates against Sunni defendants. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, opposes the presidential council’s action. He says he will seek to delay the execution of Ali Hassan al-Majeed, the notorious Chemical Ali, unless these other two death sentences are reinstated.

EMILY HAGER: This week, Iraq’s Oil Ministry announced that Iraq and China will sign a $1.2 billion agreement to help develop the al-Ahdab oil field, part of the Iraqi government’s plan to increase crude oil output by 80% within two years. Prior to the US invasion, Saddam Hussein’s government had signed a similar deal with the Chinese government. That deal was postponed due to UN sanctions, then ultimately called off because of the war. As the security situation improves in Iraq, the government is hoping to attract more foreign investment in the country’s vast oil reserves. Iraq currently produces about 2.5 million barrels of oil per day.

WREN ELHAI: The US military announced this week that a brigade of 2,000 American troops is set to be redeployed from Iraq, and will not be replaced. The troops’ departure marks the next step of a drawdown plan that began last December; the military hopes to redeploy three additional brigades by July of this year. That plan would leave 140,000 US troops in Iraq this summer, 8,000 more than when last year’s surge began. President Bush has not indicated whether troop withdrawals will continue beyond July.

EMILY HAGER: After meeting this week to discuss rising instability in Afghanistan, NATO is considering turning to Russia for help transporting soldiers and equipment into Afghanistan. Many Afghans are deeply suspicious of Russia, as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and occupied the country for a decade in a war that killed over a million Afghans, mostly civilians. NATO has said that they will not ask Russia to supply military equipment like the attack helicopters used to bomb villages during the Afghan-Soviet war, for fear of further alienating Afghan civilians and bolstering support for the Taliban.

[Music Break]

EMILY HAGER: This is War News Radio. There are about two million Iraqi refugees currently living in Jordan and Syria, some of whom fled Iraq more than four years ago. Now, many are running out of resources and can no longer afford to buy their own food. In 2007, organizations such as the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began distributing food supplies to some of those refugees–but that hasn’t solved the problem. War News Radio’s Haley Loram reports on the growing crisis.

HALEY LORAM: 20-year-old Fuad Mftah is a refugee who fled Iraq a year ago and now lives in Syria. He and his brothers worked for the US army in Iraq, but were forced to leave the country after receiving death threats. Now, he and his family are safe, but face a different issue as refugees.

FUAD MFTAH: The problem is with the money you know, money is everything and right now we don’t have the money to live in here because all our money has been spent and we’re not allowed to work.

HALEY LORAM: 55 year-old Mr. Baha is another Iraqi refugee. He’s lived in Jordan for four years and says that food is no longer being distributed to refugees like himself. Now many families live off of scraps.

MR.BAHA: Now there are families who search through garbage dumps looking for food. They wait in front of grocery stores until they are closed in the evening and throw away the bad fruit or vegetables. Then these families collect and eat them.

HALEY LORAM: Although Syria and Jordan have allowed Iraqi refugees to enter; these countries do not allow the refugees to work. But as their resources dry up, some refugees become desperate to put food and take illegal jobs. Bill Freylick, director of refugee policy for human rights watch, has heard plenty of stories of exploitation in the workplace:

BILL FREYLICK: There was a young woman working in a store, and she had to put up with a lot of abuse; the terminology here in the United States would be sexual harassment and getting paid less for the same job as the Jordanian women in the same shop, for a job that she was actually overqualified for.

HALEY LORAM: Mr. Baha lives with 6 members of his family in Amman, Jordan’s capital. Not one of them is allowed to work.

MR.BAHA: In Jordan, no Iraqi is allowed to work. And if anyone is caught working, he will be deported from the country by force.

HALEY LORAM: But working illegally is not the only way that a refugee can get deported. According to Bill Freylick, neither Syria nor Jordan has signed the United Nations refugee conventions which prevent signatory nations from deporting refugees – something both Syria and Jordan have done. As a result, many refugees are afraid to even leave their homes.

BILL FREYLICK: I’ll give you another example A Shi’a man from Sadr city living in Amman who basically sat in a darkened small room day after day after day and would send his children out to sell bubblegum on the street, uh because he was afraid to go outside for fear of being arrested. And that’s what he would do everyday all day.

HALEY LORAM: In the past few months as security in Iraq has improved, some refugee families have chosen to return to their home country. But for many refugees, returning to Iraq is not an option. Muna Al-Bedri is an Iraqi dentist who fled to Syria with her family 5 months ago.

MUNO AL-BEDRI: One day they came to the house. When we opened the door to them they said either you leave the country or you will be killed. If they forced us yeah there will be no other choice to us to go back.

HALEY LORAM: When they arrive in Syria or Jordan, Iraqis must register with the UN High Comissioner for Refugees. After an initial interview, they then wait to hear whether they will be able to leave Syria or Jordan for a more permanent home elsewhere. But he UNHCR is overwhelmed by the number of refugees seeking resettlement, and Fuad says the process is slow and frustrating.

FUAD MFTAH: When we go to the UNHCR you say ah I been here for a long time, nobody called me and I don’t know if I’m accepted, I don’t know if I’m denied, I don’t know if I have to wait another yea,r another two years, I don’t know anything. Well, the people over there they say well uh don’t call us don’t come over here please and you know, uh, we don’t know just wait for the call and that’s all they say just wait for the call that’s the problem.

HALEY LORAM: This long wait puts a great psychological and financial strain on refugees. Mr. Baha in Amman, says that this trauma is causing new problems for many Iraqi families.

MR.BAHA: The psychological condition of these families is very bad too. People have nothing to do all day long. They all stay at home. Sometimes family members just fight with each other. They lose minds because of the stress. That is a social problem facing refugee families now.

HALEY LORAM: This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon because there simply aren’t enough other countries willing to host large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Human Rights Watch says that the US accepted 1600 Iraqi refugees in 2007. But in that same year 2000 others entered Syria every day
For War News Radio, I’m Haley Loram

[Music Break]

WREN ELHAI: This is War News Radio. This week in our series “A Day in the Life”, we speak with an Iraqi refugee who made it to the UK by way of Turkey and Greece–but now thinks leaving was a mistake.

MARIWAN NIZAM: I personally left because I had a fear of persecution due to my political views. Before you start your journey, you are told by the agents, the people smugglers, I mean agents, that you know you’re risking your life, you’ve gambled your life. This is a way, whether you want it or not. Most people are desperate to do it, to try their way. I mean, yes, of course, 99% of people want to take root and want to fight to leave the country and go abroad. Expect the worst, expect the unthinkable. Well, because this is something I’ve been through, and I can, you know, tell, I can remember every step of my journey.

Altogether, I personally, the journey took about, one month and 26 days, less than eight weeks. But I think I was one of the fortunate people that arrived in the country early. Some people, it might take months.

On one occasion, we were in Turkey, they told us that there is a trailer, lorry, which they put about 25 people in and nobody has to speak because they’ve got metal detectors and so on, whatever you’ve got on you, they’d detect it, they’d order the people at the check point to get out. We said, okay, this is a fantastic idea. Once we got on the lorry, we were about 75 people, we were
packed at the back of the lorry and we had to do nothing except obeying orders, and we had to do whatever we were told to do.

I remember they told us that within 12 hours we’d get to Athens, the Greek capital, but we were in the back of the lorry for 2 1/2 days! It’s indescribable, to be honest, spending 2 1/2 days. Some people, I remember, had to drink their own pee. This is not a nice thing to say, but this is reality, unfortunately. I’ve seen people, they’ve tried to squeeze their clothes, which were soaked due to, one, because they were sweating, and they would squeeze their clothes and just hang it above their mouth in order to get a few drops of, I don’t know, they call it water, whatever. This is how people
make their journey. This is something I’ve been through, and I’ll never forget until my dying day.

We were nearly suffocating, due to lack of oxygen and so on. We just, someone cried, “I am dying, I am dying, please help,” and he just took out knife and cut through the cloth which covered the
back of the lorry all the way down. Once we found out we were in the middle of Turkey and Athens, well, we were told in the first place that within 12 hours we’d get to Italy, but that was only a dream, and we were still stuck between Turkey and Athens. I think it was about six hours journey.

Most people these days can’t integrate with the British society, due to their lack of English language. They’ve been in the country for seven years, even ten years, but due to economic reasons
haven’t had a chance to go and attend a course, English language, I mean. And other people don’t want to communicate because I personally cannot participate in any social event because you are not welcome, as simple as that. Because, you know, they just see everything in black and white, you know, they judge you in the first place, no matter who you are, where you come from, what your level of education. You are not welcomed in any way, even when I go outside to do shopping in the
city center, High Street, I get abused, you know, they just show me the finger for no reason, only because I’ve got dark hair and I, you know, belong to a country that is in Asia, or because of my religious beliefs; they know I am Muslim. That’s the only reason, nothing else.

I know people, you know, because of this despair and helplessness, they’ve abandoned themselves to despair and most people, you know, resort to using drugs and drinking excessive amounts of
alcohol. Because, as I told you, they live in a situation, they don’t know what to do next. As we say, they can’t see light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve been living in the country for seven years, you’ve already got used to life here, even though it’s unfortunately harsh condition, but there is no way, they just, as I told you, got stuck in a dilemma, a quandary. They don’t even know what to do, they don’t, they’re almost like disorientated, they, you know they can’t even sit down and make a decision, whether to go back or to stay, and this is something which, you know, things in the minds of most people I’ve come across here. You know, I am one of them personally. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, I don’t have any plans for the future. Because I already know I’ve made a mistake. But it’s too late.

[Music Break]

EMILY HAGER: This is War News Radio. Iraqi children are able to watch a wide variety of television programs, thanks to the arrival of satellite TV. One of those programs is a cartoon series that is produced by a young Iraqi animator who now lives in Jordan. His most recent work, Jasim Show, focuses on the challenges that Iraqi children face in their daily lives. Ben Mendelson has more.

BEN MENDELSON: Hussam Abdu Sahib is a 31 year-old Iraqi cartoonist from Baghdad. He studied computer science at Baghdad University and has been producing television cartoons for the past several years. Most of his works are shown on a satellite channel in Middle East called Spacetoon.

[Cartoon clip]

BEN MENDELSON: During Saddam Hussein’s regime, satellite television was banned, but in 2004, one year after the fall of the regime, Hussam was able to start working for Spacetoon. Before long, he was targeted by gunmen at his Baghdad office. The gunmen destroyed Hussam’s equipment and he fled the country to Jordan. There, he produces educational cartoons in Arabic for Iraqi children.

HUSSAM ABDUL SAHIB: In Iraq we cooperate with some non-governmental organizations to develop a media contained for Iraqi children and helping them when they have campaign about hygiene or mine education, especially the mine education, which is very important, so we help them convert their message to cartoon, then broadcasting on Spacetoon.

BEN MENDELSON: Spacetoon doesn’t just work with Iraqi NGOs; organizations such as UNICEF and UNESCO also occasionally launch educational programs for children. These organizations identify the problems facing children in war zones, and Hussam turns those issues into cartoons that can better appeal to kids.

HUSSAM ABDUL SAHIB: other organizations like UNICEF or UNESCO, so they found that there is a good messenger between them and the children in Iraq. So they start to develop with us and work with us about several issues, several educational messages. Well, the most important message was about minefield education because Iraq had a lot of war history, so there are minefields in Iraq and cluster bombs and war remains like vehicles, bombed vehicles. They are very dangerous things. Sometimes the children don’t know what’s dangerous around them, so they go to a minefield for playing, for farming, and they have this accident.

BEN MENDELSON: Creating cartoons that send the right message about dangers like mines can be trickier than it looks. Hussam says that one cartoon in the former Yugoslavia unintentionally sent a very dangerous message–and he says he does not want to make that mistake in Iraq.

HUSSAM ABDUL SAHIB: I will give you one example: The problem is that the children like Superman too much, so when the children saw in the cartoon that there is a child who went to the minefield and Superman came and helped this child. So when the children take this message, they start to go to the minefields, waiting for Superman. Because of that we must be careful when transferring the educational message to cartoon.

BEN MENDELSON: Hussam is not alone in his work; it’s a group effort. A number of professional experts like doctors, psychologists, and teachers work together to write and edit the script for every cartoon they produce.

(Cartoon clip)

HUSSAM ABDUL SAHIB: I have here a group of consultants working on a lot of issues regarding children and mines or education and health, about many issues. We have the consultants, educated professional people, and us as cartoonists, so we link together to make a committee to talk about converting the message to cartoon. After that and when we broadcast it, we are sure that this message is perfect and there is no misunderstanding that could come from the message like this.

BEN MENDELSON: Around 40 percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 18, and Hussam says that the children of his country face enormous problems these days. He says he’s willing to go back to Baghdad to continue his work addressing those problems, but he thinks the Iraqi government should also take some responsibility toward the children of Iraq.

HUSSAM ABDUL SAHIB: I want ot say that Iraqi children are now facing a very serious problem. In the future now Iraqi government before the year 2000 when Saddam went we had a dream that we could be a bold, new Iraq but building a new Iraq without focusing on the children no one can explain to the children what’s happening now or what’s the meaning of democracy or that or telling them that will be a better future for you. At least 10 years we will have a new society, new generation that can handle the globalization and can build Iraq.

BEN MENDELSON: In the meantime, Hussam hopes that the Iraqi government will focus on working towards those goals. For War News Radio, I am Ben Mendelson.

[Music Break]

WREN ELHAI: This is War News Radio. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad received a warm welcome from the Iraqi government this week, but also encountered scattered protests from Iraqi citizens throughout the country. Susanne Fischer, the Country Director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, in Iraq saw Ahmedinejad in Baghdad, and spoke with WNR’s Ayub Nuri about the significance of this visit.
AYUB NYURI: I understand that you saw Ahmedinejad during his visit to Iraq, where exactly did you see him?

SUSANNE FISHER: I saw him in Baghdad when he came to the state visit with the Iraqi adjacent president, Jalal Talabani, and I saw him at the president’s palace for the military ceremony and I saw the l press conference that he did in Baghdad. He had several meetings with people from various religious leaders to he met tribal leaders he went to visit the shrine, he had several meetings with ministers from the cabinet and the he gave a press conference again about the entire visit. It was a full schedule it seemed.

AYUB NYURI: What did he speak about in the press conference that you attended?

SUSANNE FISHER: What struck me was that during the final press conference he talked of course about the memorandums that are happening in Iraq and about the broader relationship between the two neighboring countries, but actually he spoke more about foreign forces in Iraq and about how the situation in Iraq has deteriorated over the past three years and he spoke actually about Iranian-Iraqi relationships. So I thought that the main purpose of his visit was not only to negotiate with the Iraqi government but also to give a message to the Americans here.

AYUB NYURI: You are a journalist yourself and you have been in Iraq many times in the past five years, and you are well aware of the situation. What do you think is the significance of this visit by the Iranian president, while the Americans have been continuously accusing Iran of supporting insurgents in Iraq?

SUSANNE FISHER: At least the visit was very important in several regards. If you think that Iran and Iraq have so far not signed a peace treaty they just have a truce after the Iran-Iraq war of the 80s. There are very close relationships between the two countries, there’s a lot of trade going on, many goods are imported from Iran to Iraq and of course there’s always this accusation of Iran supporting not only Shia insurgency in Iraq but also Al Quaeda because many people say that Iran has a huge interest in Iraq being in a sort of unstable condition because the American military is just tied up here and cannot do anything to Iran. That’s actually also what I hear from people on the street when I talk to them here. That they say we are not so happy about the visit because officially he always says we have such a good relationship and that it’s very important that we have close relations, but on the other end, then people say that he’s just supporting militias here.

AYUB NYURI: So, it seems that the Iraqis you spoke to did not believe what Ahmedinejad had to say. But regardless of that, what do you think Iran can do to help the situation in Iraq?

SUSANNE FISHER: Well if they’re actually supporting militias, of course it would help if they just stopped and then it seems that they are trying to do a lot of economic aid now in Iraq. They’ve, Ahmedinejad signed 7 memorandums on understanding with Iraq about economic preparations and they want to give 1 billion in economic aid to Iraq. I think if they cooperate with Iraqi security forces along the border this would help Iraqi stability a lot.

AYUB NYURI: And, a final question Susanne. What do the Americans in Iraq think about Ahmedinejad’s visit?

SUSANNE FISHER: They try to make it very clear that they have nothing to do with the visit and in fact it almost was an American-free zone here for the last few days. Even the accord was free of American forces they gave up their positions to the Iraqi security forces so Ahmedinejad would not run into any Americans because the Americans definitely did not want to have any of the plans of Ahmedinejad in Baghdad under the security of American forces they try to stay away from it.

EMILY HAGER: That’s our show for this week.

WREN ELHAI: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

EMILY HAGER: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at warnewsradio.org.

WREN ELHAI: Our behind the scenes crew includes: Jess Engebretson, Calvin Ho, Jesse Hoff, Eugene Kim, Clare Kobasa…

EMILY HAGER: …Emily McDonald, Marge Murphy, Ayub Nuri, Aaron Schwartz, Elizabeth Threlkeld, and Michael Xu. I’m Emily Hager.

WREN ELHAI: And I’m Wren Elhai. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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