[R-G] Fisk: Tales from the Tigris riverbank
info at cinox.demon.co.uk
Mon Jul 12 01:46:43 MDT 2004
8th July 2004
Tales from the Tigris riverbank
Robert Fisk in Baghdad
Saleh Mohamed Fawzi is a ferryman and his life story is the story of Iraq.
He talks to Robert Fisk as they journey through Baghdad
Across the lettuce-green waters of the Tigris river, we drifted yesterday,
past Saddam Hussein's old school, past the 13th-century Mustansariya
University, past the bomb-smashed wreckage of the ministry of defence. Saleh
Mohamed Fawzi had turned off the boat's engine as we slid side-on beneath a
great, old British railway bridge. "I can tell you everything about Saddam
because he grew up just over there," Saleh said, and pointed a long, dark
arm towards the steaming streets of al-Khurkh. The playground of Saddam's
school backed on to the river, a wall of yellow concrete topped by a set of
cheap football nets.
Saleh spends his days ferrying passengers across the Tigris for a few
dinars - it saves the long walk over the bridges or the oven-like search for
taxis in the Baghdad streets - and yesterday was a special day because he
was asked by The Independent to take his boat right through the city. All he
had to do to make a good fare was to tell the story of his life.
"Our journey will cost you but my own dialogue is free," he said. It was a
good deal. Saleh is only 35, but his tale of war and military desertion and
fear was a little history of Iraq. He is a Shia, and much of what he wanted
to say was about religion and violence, and about America. He was also a
soldier in Saddam's supposedly "elite" Republican Guard.
"I studied at the technical institute in Baghdad and all we wanted to do was
avoid the war with Iran," he said. "When the war started, they closed the
river between the presidential palace and the ministry of defence but all we
were hearing were the stories coming back from the front. We knew that so
many of our men were being killed fighting the Iranians. We studied very
hard to avoid the call-up. And we succeeded. The front meant death. I never
got sent to the front. But we lived in fear. In just my area of Baghdad
alone, Saddam's men killed 55 of our people, just for praying in the mosque.
That is because they were Shias."
Saleh's voice rises in pitch as he turns on the old boat's engine to avoid
collision with a tree that is moving gently over the water towards us. "It
was a gift from America to Saddam at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war - an
American Johnson engine - and still it is working." I suggest that this is a
compliment to American technology. "All the world knows how good that
technology is," Saleh replies. "But you foreigners must not leave us alone
with the Americans. Please don't leave us with them and let them dominate
us. Bring your countries to do business with my land and share our
This was to be a theme of Saleh's story, that those who destroyed the leader
he hated should not benefit from his downfall.
The wreckage of that regime lines the Tigris. We sailed quietly by the great
compound of the old ministry of defence, its walls torn open, many of its
buildings in concrete shards across a parade ground. The windows of a
less-damaged central barracks were now lined with thousands of
breeze-blocks: homes to hundreds of Iraqi refugees who now live where
Saddam's generals once planned the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Alas for Saleh,
that was a war he could not escape. "My family was here in Baghdad and I was
sent to the southern desert - on our side of the border, just opposite Hafr
el-Batn - and we were bombed so many times by the Americans and the British.
My family lived near the Ameriyah bunker where hundreds of other families
were killed by American missiles. Afterwards, people became ill. My daughter
Hoda developed a sort of cancer. Her skin cracked open and she looked very
old. I still take her to doctors who can't cure her. They say it's not
cancer but she still hurts inside."
Three hundred and fifty miles to the south, Saleh was trying to save his
life. "We were in a very isolated part of the desert and nothing grew there.
The army had amassed thousands of shells and gunpowder and guns because they
thought this would be a long war. In one place, they had tons of sugar and
biscuits which they had stolen from Kuwait. But we had no food. They didn't
resupply us. We were hungry and abandoned. So I deserted."
Saleh's boat was moving under the gloomy arches of a Saddamite bridge, a
massive, pre-stressed concrete job that was constructed to repair a bridge
destroyed in the 1991 war. He looked up at it in the semi-darkness that
enveloped us the moment the white-hot sun had been hidden. It was as if
Saddam's shade was still ruling his life. Saleh reached his home in Baghdad
as the Iraqi army collapsed under Anglo-American air assault, then, avoiding
the great rebellions breaking out in the Shia south, hid with his family.
"God's mercy made this war short and humiliated Saddam and his front-men.
Saddam gave an amnesty to deserters, so I gave myself up."
But Saleh was sent back into the Iraqi army, this time to the northern city
of Irbil. "I hated it. I did not want to fight any more. So I ran away
again. You know the punishment for desertion is death but I refuse to fight.
It is a sin for a Muslim to kill. So I came home again and eventually I
managed to bribe some officers to take my name off the conscript list. I
didn't meet the officers. There was a money-agent who bribed officers for
soldiers who had deserted. It cost me about 12,000 dinars (£400) and my wife
sold all her family gold to get the money."
The sun had blazed back onto our little boat as Saleh started his
khaki-and-green military engine again. Bull rushes stood in clumps along the
water's edge. Because Saleh told his story in so matter of fact a way, it
was easy to forget how brave he was. And how religious.
"Our Imam Ali said that a man is either our brother in religion or our
brother in humanity and we believe this. You must live with all men in
perfect peace. You don't need to fight him or kill him. You know something;
Islam is a very easy religion, but some radicals make it difficult. We are
against anyone who is killing or kidnapping foreigners. This is not the
Muslim way. The Grand Marjas (religious teachers) have told us this."
I plunged my hand into the warm waters of the Tigris. What did Saleh feel
about the river - the Tigris is the Dichle in Arabic - which he had been
sailing upon since the age of 11? "I am a fisherman as well as a boatman and
I also swim races and compete in rowing-boat races. The Dichle is part of me
because it is the river which connects all my country and passes all the
holy places and it joins the Eufrat (Euphrates) which goes by all the holy
shrines. But the cement factories and the sewage make this river so dirty
and it must be cleaned."
Saleh was in his boat when the American air raids started in 2003. "I found
a body floating just over there and I took it back to the shore. It was in
the water, back upwards and face down. It was a young man. But he had no
identity. We buried him in the grounds of the British embassy close to us.
When the British arrived after the invasion, they found the corpse in the
garden and dug it up and sent it to the morgue. I never found out who it
was." We were moving through countryside now with trees and lawns coming
down to the water's edge. Sharp-eyed youths sat on the bank and pointed at
our boat, shouting ajenab (foreigner) which I do not like to hear these days
in Iraq. Deliberately, I had asked my driver to meet me on the edge of
Baghdad, miles from the slumland pontoon where I had boarded Saleh's boat.
First rule for foreigners in Baghdad: do not go back to the place you start
your journey from.
But Saleh was still contemplating the nightmare of Saddam. "When he was
young, he had to borrow all his clothes from his cousin, Adnan Khairallah.
We think he didn't have a father because we've never known where his father
is buried. Saddam had psychological problems. He kept talking about
protecting Iraqi women but then he killed so many of their husbands that
they were left penniless. Look what happened at Halabja."
When did he first hear about Halabja, I asked? "My brother was also in the
Republican Guard. He was fighting in Kurdistan. He knew about the gassings.
He told us. But there is something you should know. America and Saddam were
together. America made Saddam. In this last war, their student was destroyed
and his teachers took his place in my country. Please don't leave us alone
with the Americans."
We said goodbye at a little jetty bathed in white heat that had bleached the
colour of the grass. "Now I must tell you to be very careful and take care
because you are a foreigner," Saleh said. "I hope this new government will
work. I like to be an optimist. But things are bad." He revved the old
military engine and puttered back into the great, green, greasy Tigris
river. He may be suspicious of the Americans but it is good to find a brave
and decent Iraqi these days. May the Salehs of this world survive.
Copyright: The Independent
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