The mayhem and anarchy gripping Iraq lend a deadly ring of truth to early Arab warnings that the US-led invasion would “open the gates of hell”. A photo exhibition puts a human face on the suffering beyond that infernal doorway.
A death in the family is tragic; the death of most of one's family is insufferable. Firaz (12) and Youssef (13) watched several members of their family die during an American attack on Baghdad. Sitting in al-Kindi Hospital, Firaz weeps despairingly, his eyes swollen in grief. Youssef, frozen in shock, sits silently, unable to cry or speak.
Youssef and Firaz are the human face of the suffering that the US-led invasion of Iraq has unleashed. Although I am unlikely ever to meet them, the unadulterated desolation – the personal hell – drawn on these two boys' faces has haunted me ever since I saw it captured in black and white by Belgian photojournalist Bruno Stevens.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa warned before the outbreak of military action that the invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell”. In an exhibition entitled simply Baghdad at Brussels' Museums of Art and History, Stevens presents a collection of photographs that helps raise the curtain slightly on what lies beyond that infernal doorway.
Divided into three sections, Stevens pays silent testimony to the experiences of ordinary Iraqis in the build up to war, during the fighting and after the official end of hostilities. Powerful, touching and shocking, they show the pain, the despair, the hope, the defiance, the beauty and the stark brutality of a long-suffering people caught between the whims of a bloodthirsty dictator and the foreign policy designs of an oil-thirsty superpower.
Silence of the lambs
Some of the photographs from the weeks leading up to the conflict exhibit an unexpected calm and normalcy – as if the winds of war blowing in from Washington, through the UN Security Council, and amassing at Iraq's southern border in Iraq, were somehow passing Baghdad by. Others give the impression of an eerie silence gathering before a storm.
A vendor selling balloons outside the al-Khadimein Mosque, a laughing boy gazing into the camera with bright-eyed innocence, old men with their betting tickets at the horse races, the hustle and bustle of a heaving Baghdad souq – pictures of apparent normalness.
People buying doves at the Friday Animal Market suggests to me a pining for peace. The war-hardened people of Baghdad apparently were not prone to my wishful symbolism. The caption explains that the huge demand for pigeons was because they die first – like canaries in a mine – in the event of a chemical attack. A series of photos of antiwar demonstrations and rallies – littered with images of the omnipresent Saddam Hussein – reflect the public's fear of a dictator, and its even greater fear of the mighty invader.
The confusions and uncertainties in the period preceding the invasion was perhaps most symbolically captured in one bewildering image, which won the World Press Photo daily life award. A packet of cigarettes and an ashtray apparently sit on the bonnet of a car. It turns out they are actually just reflections on a window of the Al Zahawi café. A sad-looking intellectual type – his brow furrowed in tension and a smouldering cigarette and saucer between his fingers – gazes out of a poster on a rundown shop front. Closer inspection reveals that the poster is actually just a reflection of a punter.
Shock and gore
The promise of ‘shock and awe' appears to be one of the few pledges the Americans have delivered on since the conflict began. Not since the Mongols sacked Baghdad in the 13th century has so much destruction been visited on this millennium-old city. One photograph captures the multicoloured pyrotechnics of a burning Baghdad skyline – the destructive awe and beauty of a superpower going ballistic.
One particularly touching image was that of a group of old men playing dominoes in a small teashop during an American air raid. I could picture them in the middle of their game when the table starts shaking. Determined not be to intimidated, or perhaps simply not willing to waste their good hand, they carry on as normal, despite the loud explosions.
The US military claims that its high-tech precision weapons mean they can execute their bombings with “surgical precision”. Although more accurate than the carpet bombings of yesteryear, they are anything but surgical – Stevens photos show the untidy mess of remote control warfare: bombed out markets, amputees, flattened houses, hospital wards overflowing with bloodied victims.
The gaping holes in the back and buttocks of one man laid out on an operating table make him look more like an animal carcass. But the most disturbing photo of the entire exhibition for me was one of a severed hand lying almost casually on the fallen door of a bombed out building.
Rocking the cradle
The location of ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq is the cradle of human civilisation. It also played host to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Once it was clear that the former Iraqi regime had taken flight, widespread looting spread across the country.
Baghdad – founded by the Abbasid caliph Mansour in the 8th century – is home to Iraq's National Museum. A tragic symbol of the immediate aftermath of the war was the looting of this repository of human history. One of Stevens' photos shows the empty and smashed cabinets in one of the looted museum halls while US troops guarded the oil ministry and central bank a few hundred metres away.
Another poignant image is the felling by US marines of a large statue of Saddam Hussein. Although it symbolised the toppling of the mighty dictator on television screens across the globe, the occasion was watched – as Stevens' camera attests – by only a handful of Iraqis and many foreign journalists. Baghdadis were perhaps still reeling from the blitz that had hit their city like a whirlwind and asking themselves what the tyrant's usurper – who had made them live under a decade of punitive sanctions – wanted from them.
Stevens lens shows that Iraqis – away from the prying eyes of the media – took their own measures to erase Saddam Hussein's memory: tearing down posters, cutting up portraits, defacing a fountain celebrating the ‘pious leader's' performing of the Hajj.
More than a year after Hussein's downfall, Iraq is no nearer to the promised liberation, rebuilding and democracy it was promised. Instead, millions of Iraqis live without work, electricity and proper sanitation. In addition, they endure the daily indignities of living under the shadow of foreign tank barrels.
Although a couple of photos show smiling American troops, most show nervous and heavily armed young men. One picture is of a jumpy soldier, with fear in his eyes, pointing a gun aggressively into the face of an ordinary looking man. Not knowing any Arabic and lacking translators, he did not understand the Iraqi's explanation that the shots he'd heard were just part of a traditional wedding.
This article appeared on Expatica in April 2004.