City of Defiance. Mirror.co.uk
CITY OF DEFIANCE
Mar 25 2003, Anton Antonowicz reporting from Saddam’s blitzed capital of Baghdad.
The splendour of the blue, yellow, green and turquoise mosque at the top of Nidhal Street — Struggle Street in English — is posed like a preening beauty in the midst of madness.
Baghdad’s air is full of smoke from the burning oil dumps on its outskirts.. Some 12 of them, lit by the Iraqis to confuse the bombers.. Maybe it has served some purpose, but still the bombs fall, adding smoke to smoke.. And we all wonder what is really left to destroy now.
But one thing remains — the spirit of ordinary people trying to carry on living in this battered city.. The spirit, the beauty of waking each morning and laughing for the relief of it all.
The spirit, the beauty of a magnificent building standing fast against an angry sky, be it the ancient Shahid mosque on Baghdad’s Struggle Street or the similar image of St Paul’s Cathedral in London during World War Two.
After 120 hours of this remorseless, relentless, convulsive violence I now have an inkling of what it must have been like for those men, women and children in the Blitz of 60 years ago.. It is not to stand alongside them.. Theirs was a much longer story.. And the bombs which rained among them were random, scattered things.
Baghdad is luckier — no matter how hard the regime here insists that the main victims are civilians.. We can at least assure ourselves that most of the targets are specific and, with luck, we are not on anyone’s hit list.
It’s the best we’ve got and we’re all getting on with it.. Whether Arab or European, Christian or Muslim. Forget the government of this country and focus on its people.
They have had suffering enough for a generation.. But they are generous, kind, polite and warm-hearted.. They appear to be genuinely interested in my country.. They enjoy American films.. They are daft about Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood.
But they are prouder of their own country, a deeply-held intrinsic pride in Baghdad, a civilisation 9,000 years older than Uncle Sam.. This is no urban population waiting to throw flowers at the feet of “liberators”.. They just want the whole thing to end.. The other day I stood on the banks of the Tigris while a mob bayed for the blood of a downed enemy pilot they thought was hiding in the papyrus reeds.. And I, an obvious pale-faced Westerner, felt completely safe.
I forced my way to military checkpoints in sensitive areas and, for the most part the guards laugh, say Salaam and usher me past.. There is a knock on my door and Sa’ala, a driver at the beginning and a friend now, brings me hot roast chicken, salad and bread because: “Mr Anton, you have to eat properly.”
Only after this does he go attend to his wife and family.. He says: “Believe me, we’re okay.. We are more used to this kind of thing than you.”. You cannot argue with that.. Bombs may be rocking the hotel, but Jamal the nine-year-old shoeshine boy has only one thought.
“Mister, shoe...polish...” he says in his high-pitched almost conspiratorial way.. I say fine.. And he starts buffing away, looking up with a big grimy smile and saying “Gimme 50 dollars mister”.. You give him 50p instead and it disappears faster than a mouse in a hole.
SPLENDOUR: Mosque in Baghdad stands out amid the chaos.
It is 1.30pm when another bomb explodes north west of the city.. Two hours later we are taken to Al-Nuaman Hospital to see the casualties.. There 29 altogether, from Al-Adhamiea, a residential area which houses one of the president’s palaces.
We are not told precisely what was the target or landing place of this missile.. But the victims are clear enough.. Ordinary city dwellers trying to cope with another day — and now this.. Zina Sabah, 22, holds her four-year-old Mina who suffered head and face wounds.. Her daughter’s legs and feet were hit by shrapnel as the two walked from the shops.
LIFE GOES ON: Baghdad children play on the streets of their city after another bombing raid.
Seven-year-old Shehed — her name means Honey — Khalil was playing in the garden.. Now she’s lying in an emergency room with head and hand injuries.. Walid Aziz, 52, says he was trying to buy a present for his daughter’s birthday.. But this happened instead.. Ordinary people doing ordinary things.
But life goes on.. The traffic blows horns for no reason except to announce its presence, women go about their business and men argue over the rising cost of everything.. A bottle of whisky priced 14 dollars last week now fetches 40 dollars.
Cigarettes have doubled in price.. You will now get 3,100 dinars to the dollar when the rate was 18,000 dinars a month ago.. More shops are opening to take advantage of all this.. Day Five and the profit motive has kicked back in.. But it is also Day Five for a government fighting for its life.. So the first highlight is an address by President Saddam Hussein on Iraqi television.
Five days ago — on March 20 — he wore glasses for the first time.. This time he has ditched them and, by the look of it, I suspect he may have re-dyed his salt and pepper moustache a sturdier jet black.. He reads from a sheaf of A4 paper held in his right hand.. His left hand is almost immobile.
An Arab friend says he doesn’t sound like his old self.. He always has slurred his words, but the habit seems worse now.. Maybe it is fatigue, maybe its just the sound quality.. “I think he’s probably in a bunker somewhere and the walls are distorting the voice,” our friend says.
I haven’t got a clue.. All you see is Saddam, an Iraqi flag behind his right shoulder and an anonymous white drape covering the walls.. But it is undeniable the leader looks younger and fresher than he did in the last broadcast.
As ever, he addressed the nation “In the name of God”.. He claims the American and British forces have been surprised by the strength of Iraqi resistance.. Then he emphasises the decisive days ahead.. “Shed your blood today, responding to what is unjust and make the world awake from its slumber to call for the lifting of sanctions.
“These invaders came with pale faces to occupy our land with intentions we understand.
“We must strike them on their necks and hands.. For those who shall be martyrs, Peter paradise beckons.
“But our example will stand forever in Iraq’s history as one of a nation which will never be messed with again.”
As you see, his speech is part Churchillian, part Prescott.. He goes on to praise commanders by name for their resistance in Umm Qasr, Basra and Nassiriya.
And so, with due praise to God, he was gone.
Then followed the daily press conference by Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf.
He says there are hundreds of thousands of militia, fighters and tribesmen across the land “coiling like a boa constrictor to cut the enemy to pieces” — however that’s done.
He praises a couple of farmers who, he says, had downed two Apache helicopters, then denounces America and Britain as the real betrayers of the Geneva Convention.
He says: “How dare America, its hands still bloody with Vietnam, lecture us?. How dare it tell us what to do after what it did to the women of Afghanistan?”
WOUNDS: Zina yesterday. raid.
He listed the number of civilians killed or injured.. Baghdad, 194 casualties, none dead.. Nineveh, eight injured.. Kerbala, 32 wounded, 10 dead.. Nejaf 36 wounded,two dead.. Khadisiya, 13 injured, four dead. Basra, 122 injured, 14 dead.. Babylon, 63 injured, 30 dead.
It is like a toll from the Old Testament.He adds: “The war criminals thought Iraq would be a picnic.. They know otherwise now.“And that stooge Blair, trying to cry out about war crimes, is nothing but a bloody failure.
“The British nation has never been faced with a tragedy like this.. A tragedy called Blair.”
I ask him why he makes this reference to Britain.. He replies: “I always admired the Mother of all parliaments.. There is much to admire about Britain.”
And strangely that seems to be the case in most of Baghdad.. “Where are you from, mister?”. “Britannia,” I reply.. “Plenty bombing, mister,” they say, shaking their heads.And then they shake my hand before moving on.
Let us hope those handshakes continue when the blitz ends.. Because the blitz, at least, is something we have in common.
The Mirror — CITY OF DEFIANCE
Interesting to think a people who had experienced the bombing of their cities would have allowed their leader to defile their honor, and their name, and their place in history, as that war gave them.