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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 11:40 GMT
Fruit no substitute for Iraqi security

By Jill McGivering
BBC World Affairs correspondent in Baghdad

Saddam Hussein mural
Some Iraqis say life was better under Saddam

Baghdad's shops are full again after years of sanctions and American money is gradually restoring Iraq's infrastructure. But few Iraqis appear to have a good word to say for Uncle Sam.

Hebah is a force to be reckoned with. A dynamic forty-something in traditional voluminous dress and headscarf, she is a feisty character with strong opinions.

Whether she is running her family or the local primary school - where she is now head teacher - she is candid - even on politically dangerous topics like Saddam Hussein.

The topic is so dangerous that she and her husband both wanted false names used.

Hebah wants Saddam Hussein back.

"We're worse off now," she told me, sitting in her shabby head teacher's office.

"Before we had no crime, no holy war, no bombing. I could walk home at one o'clock in the morning and feel safe. Now I'm not safe at all."

I say many westerners would be surprised she wants the former Iraqi president back: they see him as a dictator who carried out atrocities.

She snorts with indignation. "As long as you kept out of politics things were OK," she said.

Security

Hebah is in constant fear for her own children's safety.

Like most people here, she now drives them everywhere. Anxious about kidnapping, she doesn't let them play outside.

I met one of her daughters, Sarah, while she was doing her Arabic homework.

Sarah is only nine but already seems as outspoken as her mother.

She told me she worries a lot - about everything from terrorists who kill children and kidnappers, to the boys in the school next door.

But there are compensations.

Before, no one could afford bananas. Now even poor people can buy them, even beggars
Hebah, a head teacher

Under the coalition, Hebah's salary has risen 18-fold. Suddenly their rather shabby, cramped, one-bedroom home is brimming with luxuries.

Before, they just had a black and white television. Now they have a huge colour one, dominating the sitting room, and a satellite dish.

Hebah pulls me round the house, excitedly showing off her brand new cooker and FM radio.

The children are beside themselves about the new PlayStation. The seven-year-old boy in the family plays day and night.

American money has helped fill Baghdad's shops

And then, bananas. Hebah can hardly contain herself. "I love bananas", she says.

"Before, no one could afford bananas. They were so expensive. Now even poor people can buy them, even beggars."

She throws her head back and laughs: "I see beggars eating bananas!"

Employment

Hebah's career has taken off under the coalition. She became head teacher when her predecessor, a member of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party, was removed.

But her husband's career has collapsed. Laith was a colonel in the Iraqi army. Now he is unemployed and seems lost, filling his days with housework and grocery shopping.

One afternoon, he rather clumsily made me strong Iraqi coffee in the empty kitchen and described the day Baghdad fell.

"People who say they want Saddam back don't mean it. They're just angry the security situation's so bad."
Laith, a former colonel in Saddam's army
This same kitchen became an emergency war room for dozens of officers.

They had been certain Saddam had a master plan, he said, but watched in dismayed disbelief as the Americans took the city almost unopposed.

He is glad Saddam is gone. "He was corrupt and did little for the people of Iraq", he said.

"People who say they want Saddam back don't mean it", he told me. "They're just angry the security situation's so bad."

But he doesn't trust the Americans.

"They didn't come to liberate us. They came to loot everything we've got, from the oil to the treasures in the museum," he said.

He'd like them out quickly - but also fears Iraq will collapse into power-hungry chaos, even civil war.

In the meantime he is learning new skills, like haggling in the markets for good fruit and vegetables and using the new banknotes without Saddam's face.

Iraqi soldiers
Former Iraqi soldiers are now searching for work

When he took me along, he showed me a host of imported goods suddenly flooding into Baghdad after years of sanctions, such as tins of corned beef, frankfurter sausages, sweet corn, bottles of chilli sauce and ketchup.

With high unemployment, not everyone can afford them. But for those who can, it is an Aladdin's cave.

We are intercepted by two of his friends who are also looking awkward with their shopping baskets. There is a lot of chat, teasing and shrugging of shoulders.

Afterwards he explains that they are colleagues from the army and from intelligence. Now, they are also unemployed.

Reconstruction

Back at school, Hebah takes me on a tour through corridors screeching with girls.

The buildings are falling apart. Plaster hangs off the walls. Bare wires stick out where there should be bulbs and windows are smashed.

At the back, the sanitary block is unusable - no water, cracked washbasins and filthy, smelly toilets.

The school suffered decades of neglect under Saddam.

School teacher hands out books
Most schools in Iraq are in need of repair

In the conflict the building became both barracks and ammunition store for first the Iraqi army, and then the Americans.

Now, in her reclaimed school, Hebah's on the warpath, lobbying for repairs.

So far she has managed to get new blackboards, desks, cupboards and school bags, one per child.

They are bought with American money, each one decorated with a stars and stripes logo. Not terribly sensitive perhaps but Hebah doesn't care.

Family home

In the evening, she dashes home to cook. Her husband tries, she whispers to me as she pulls out pots and pans, but he isn't a very good cook. He spoils things. He is good though at washing up.

As we all sit down to a feast of kebabs, maize and vegetable soup and deep-fried biryanis, I ask Hebah whether she thinks Iraq will manage to achieve the peace and stability she longs for.

She has to stop and think to find the words to reply. "I hope so," she says at last.

"Maybe it depends on Iraqis. If we can change. If we can learn to work together and help each other, then maybe Iraq will be OK."

They are facing battles on all fronts... But I came away from them feeling hopeful

We are hit by yet another power cut.

Laith fumbles to light a candle and we sit in semi-darkness, watching as Hebah ladles food into bowls. Laith passes it round.

Their lives have been turned upside down this year.

They are facing battles on all fronts - from Laith's sudden unemployment after a high-status career, to Hebah's fight in a dilapidated school, all with daily anxiety about safety.

But I came away from them feeling hopeful.

If most Iraqis respond with the same cheerfulness, resilience and mutual support, maybe the present crisis can be overcome.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 November, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




SEE ALSO:
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