This is Andrew Berends in his own words in a series of emails that he send home to his friends in New York while he was filming in Iraq in 2004.
Scroll to bottom for chronological order!
Fucking fuck fuck! I can't believe it. They sentenced Adnan to three years in prison today for stealing two meters of electric cable! Not only that, but his body is partly destroyed. His hands don't work. He has no ears. He's bald on the top of his head. He's incapable of doing anything bad, and he's suffered enough. They say that when the judge gave the absurd verdicts he started crying and pulling his hair out. At the same time, she freed another boy who was arrested at the same time for the same crime. And, there's a third boy arrested at the same time, who was released on bail seven months ago after spending a week in prison. He's still free. Also, the electric company made a report in his file that the cable he had was not stolen from them. So, there's no apparent party even pressing charges against him, except maybe the police. The police allegedly beat his initial confession out of him. I don't understand this decision! It's shocking. So, I'm feeling despondent, and coming closer to losing hope for this wretched place.
So, I visited the family today for the first time in like a month. I can't go there anymore, because people claiming to be from the resistance in Ramadi went to them asking questions about me. I wouldn't be so worried except my hotel is half empty having had five people kidnapped in different parts of the country. The two french journalists being held were my next door neighbors. There's no one left on my floor. So, I had to lie down in my sit when driving to visit the family in Bob Al Sham. It pisses me off that I have to be so afraid to visit them. They were like my second family in Iraq. I used to spend lots of time there, and they let me film everything, even the women. I'd even take naps there in the afternoon sometimes. Now these stupid kidnappers have made it so I can't safely do that. It sucks. And they're all depressed today. Everybody's been trying really hard to secure Adnan's release and then the judge slaps this ridiculous sentence on him. I can't believe it.
I was hoping to leave this shithole today, but I've postponed my flight once again. Now, I'm scheduled to go home on the 23rd. The prisoner's trial was postponed to Sunday, but this is supposed to be the final trial.
I'll keep you posted.
I just came back from Najaf yesterday having seen things I never expected to see. Two nights ago I was there in the one open hotel where all the journalists are staying. I was on the roof and saw Iraqi army taking up positions out front. I ran downstairs to film them. I was filming one soldier when I saw him point his gun at the hotel. So, I went back into the lobby. Then the Iraqi police ran into the hotel yelling. One of them fired a shot inside the lobby. Everybody was told to go outside. I went out. Then they swept every floor of the hotel to bring everybody out. They beat one Iraqi man in his room. I was standing out front and they fired another shot into the wall of the hotel. Everybody came outside--about fifty people, except my friend Kael who managed to hide under her bed. They wanted to load everybody into trucks. Some people got in, but the rest didn't want to. Then they began firing wildly into the air. We were all loaded into trucks and taken to the police station. There the chief gave a long lecture about how they were unhappy with the press, particularly the Iraqi channel Al-Arabiya. They complained that they tell lies and bad stories about the police being traitors. I wonder why. It's quite clear that the police chiefs and commanders are the same as the ones in charge under Saddam. Little has changed. I observed that even more directly yesterday.
In the afternoon the police came to the hotel offering to take photographers to see Sistani arrive in Najaf. Most people had no desire to go with them, but I climbed into one of their vehicles. They are a frightening looking bunch. Many wear masks to hide their identity. And they carry a range of weapons including high powered machine guns with bands of high-caliber bullets, and RPG launchers. We drove through the deserted streets of Najaf. After a while we saw Sistani's procession coming towards us. it included hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people. I thought it was to be a peaceful and celebratory moment. Then one truck wanted to cross over the middle barrier of the road. The driver didn't see a man there, and he drove right over him. Then a few hundred
people began dancing and chanting. They came from my left, moving toward the police on my right. The police told them to stay back, but they continued. Then the police opened fire--some into the air, but some shot directly into the crowd. One even fired an RPG over the crowd. Everybody scattered, leaving hundreds of sandals and a handful of bodies lying in thestreet. I think a few of them died. After a while, the crowd came back, angry this time. They advanced on the police until the police opened fire again dropping a few more men in the crowd.
I was with a French photographer. We decided to try to leave, afraid that our cameras might further inflame the situation. We managed to get a ride back in a police vehicle. After we got in they loaded an injured man onto the floor at our feet. I could see he was breathing, but he didn't look good. As we sped through the empty streets, I held his hand. On the way to the hospital we passed the hotel and jumped out. I went in and found my driver. I said fuck this place, lets go back to Baghdad. It seems there's peace in Najaf now, but it was a bloody day there yesterday. It's hard to understand why people do these things to each other.
I was in Sadr City today. This girl's house was attacked by a helicopter four nights ago. She, and many members of her family were injured. Her mother was killed.
Her father lost one eye and is still in critical condition in the hospital. When asked if she wanted to visit her father in the hospital she said, "No. I don't want him to see I'm wearing black, because then he'll know my mother is dead."
These kinds of things make me sick. A few days ago, I filmed two deadfighters being put into their coffins. Needless to say, that was unpleasant, but seeing innocent childrensuffering like this is too much. It makes me sad, and it makes me angry at the stupid motherfuckers responsible.
Now, there's raging gunfire outside the hotel, but that's just because Iraq
probably just won their soccer game agains Australia. They're just celebrating.
I just spent four days filming in Sadr City. It's a real warzone. The streets are all mined. There are fighters everywhere. We have good but sketchy access with the Mehdi Army.
It's unreal. And, when the Americans come in the fight is on. Yesterday, when we arrived in SadrCity, we saw an American helicopter get shot down. We tried to drive to the scene, but couldn't get close enough. Then I saw another helicopter circle the spot and fire missiles down into the houses.I got out of the car and I ran towards it. One group of people yelled, you're an American, they'll kill you! The next group passed yelled go, go, get pictures. At one point I had to run through an open stretch. As I ran, I heard high pitched shots fired and knew they were coming in my direction.And I felt some small rocks hit the back of my head. The bullets were landing right behind me. I thought I was finished. But, I made it across the stretch and an Iraqi man took me under his protection. He led me running through the alleys closer and closer to the center of the action. At every corner he'd check for Americans. Bradley fighting vehicles (like small tanks) were entering the area. Sometimes he'd peek around and there would be a Bradley there. We'd wait for their periscope to look away. Then we'd run even closer. We finally made it to the heart of the action. For a while we were trapped on a small block. At each corner we'd look around and see a Bradley. We tried to run into somebody's house but they pushed us out. Finally one Bradley backed out. We ran into a small square behind a mosque. We peeked around another corner only to see another Bradley. The helicopter had fallen on the other side of the mosque, but we couldn't get around to it. Then the
Bradleys started to roll back in. We ran and the man brought me into a house on the square that had been rocketed by the helicopters. There was a huge hole in the wall and a destroyed car. Inside the house was a mother, a boy, two young girls, and a 3-year-old baby. Immediately three Bradleys advanced back into the square and the fighting renewed in full force. Unseen Mehdi fighters were firing RPGs and mortars at the Bradleys. The Bradleys would respond with bursts from their 50 cals.Because of the heat, people here sleep on their rooves. On the roof of this house were the smoldering remains of their mattresses, piles of remains, and what appeared to be the shredded uniforms of some fighters. I felt uncomfortable on the roof, because of a fighter plane flying back and forth over the scene. I did my best to film from inside the house and on the roof, but it's really fucking difficult and dangerous when you're on the wrong side of the Americans. I saw one of the Bradleys fire it's big gun, but didn't manage to film it. Inside the house, the baby had gone to sleep. I filmed him sleeping peacefully as the battle continued to rage outside. After a couple of hours we managed to run out of the battleground. On the way out we saw hundreds of Mehdi Army fighters. Finally, I met up with my friends. I was happy to be out of there, but a little frustrated. I'd been right in the center, but knew I didn't quite have the film that would illustrate what it was like.
So it goes.
I was really fortunate to run into this man who protected me and guided me through the battleground. I knew almost immediately that, like many men in the country, and unlike me, he has had much experience in warzones. I actually made some mistakes going in.
Luckily, I survived and can learn from the experience. I wish it was all over, but I'm not finished yet. Maybe tomorrow I'll go back in. Now, there's a curfew in effect, so I can only be there between 8AM and 4PM. Maybe, I'll just go to Kadhamiya and check in with my friends there.
So, take care.
Looks like I'm gonna be here through August. I've shot over 150 tapes.
I've started translating them in the hotel with a good translator.
I pay him only $25 per day. Imagine how much it would cost in New York, especially for a good translator that knows Iraqi Arabic.
Also, I'm waiting for this prisoner to be released. Until that happens, the storie's really not finished.
The problem is, it's very difficult to predict anything here. Sometimes it seems like he'll be released any day now. Other times, it seems like he'll never be released. But, it's the difference between a good film and maybe a great film.
It's hot here now. Some days it's over 120 degrees, 50 Celsius. I expected
to come back to New York by now, but this is documentary. The story happens in it's own time.
It's not in my control.
I hope you're doing well.
CLICK here for MPEG-4 Kadhmiya Mosque singing
I've been embedded for a couple of days. This morning I drove into the
center of Kadamiya sitting on top of a fucking tank.
I hope my friends there didn't see me.
I'll be coming home end of July.
Hello to all...
Well, I've been in Iraq for more than two months now. Already it's been quite an adventure. I'm working on two stories, one of which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being. The other is thestory of Ibrahim. His older brother Raad was killed by an American patrol only a few days before I met him. That was about a month and a half ago. I've been doing my best to follow Ibrahim's storyas he begins to face life following this tragedy. Ibrahim is 19 and in many ways not ready to step up to the plate as the only remaining man in his family. He's struggling to run the photography shop that his brother had set up and only opened on the day that he was killed. What has also been interesting has been learning about and filming the Islamic rituals that follow a persons death. In the amateur video that was filmed of him shortly after his death. I see three of his friends carrying him in a blanket to an ambulance. As the run with him, they are yelling "God is great! God is great!" The day after he was killed his brother and mother were both informed by a small delegation including some local sheikhs. Ibrahim went to the hospital to identify him. In the afternoon he was given a martyrs funeral. He was carried through the streets in a coffin past the golden domed mosque of Kadamiya, followed by a procession of men calling out to God, and denouncing the American occupation. Then he was put on top of a taxi. Ibrahim got in, and they drove to the cemetery. His mother and sisters were not allowed to come. At the graveyard his body was washed. The graveyard is very very crowded, including many people buried this past year--victims of the American military. There are many others buried in this graveyard who were victims in the last Gulf War and also in the Iran Iraq War. The graveyard is so crowded that they had to abandon their first attempt at burying him because they couldn't fit him between the surrounding graves. They had to try a different spot. They buried Raad not in the coffin, but simply wrapped in a white sheet. He was buried on his side with his face toward Mecca. Then began the first three days of mourning. I met Ibrahim, his best friend Ali, and his mother on the 3rd day of mourning. I was very nervous going into their house. His mother had agreed to be filmed, but I was nervous pinning the lavalier microphone to her abaya (mantle). Actually, I didn't do it myself; it could be much too presumptuous for me get that close too her. So her friend pinned it on, disappearing it under the black garment. As she spoke and lamented Raad's death, I soon turned the camera to film Ibrahim. The subsequent dramatic but natural interaction between him, Ali, a large photograph of Raad, and the camera unfolded in an almost theatrical way. It was almost because of Ibrahim's big dark eyes and openness of emotion that made me decided to pursue this story, more than the specifics of the story itself. For forty days after Raad's death, his mother and sisters were not allowed to visit the cemetery. I was told they were afraid that his mother would go mad and try to dig him out of the earth. There are stories of this happening during the Iran Iraq War. So, forty days after his funeral, the women were finally allowed to visit the cemetery, (and I was finally allowed to film his sisters, though I haven't been allowed since.) A group of about twenty women in black abayas entered the crowded graveyard. I hurried through the stones to arrive at the grave before them. When they arrived, his sisters threw themselves on the grave and began to wail. His mother sat her self in front of the headstone. She immediately began to bang her head on the stone until a relative restrained her. She wailed and beat herself in the face. This wailing lasted about half an hour. When it was over, it took Ibrahim a long time to persuade his mother to be led away. A couple days after this, Ali bought a sheep to be slain for Raad. The next morning Ibrahim and the butcher pulled up in a car with the sheep in the trunk. The butcher slew the sheep in front of Ibrahim's house. Having positioned myself to film this, I got sprayed in the face with blood as the sheep's neck was slit. As the blood spilled out on the ground, Ali place his palm in it. He walked to the gate and slapped some bloody hand-prints on the front of it for the neighborhood to see. Well, this is just some of the material I've been able to film. I'm not sure where the story will lead from here. It's a bit aimless--Ibrahim languishing in the photography shop, considerations of selling their house and finding a smaller one. But, the way it seems to work is that there are days where it seems like nothing is happening. I start to get anxious that the film is going nowhere, and then things happen and I get to film them. It's just a matter of putting in the time. I'm just not sure what will happen next.
I've got numerous other stories to tell, but I'm falling asleep. I'd send images from the film too, but my hard drive has died. I'll try to post some images within a couple of weeks. I'm always looking forward to hearing from you.
I know some of you are concerned about me, especially when you hear bad things on the news. I appreciate your concern. I can only reassure you that I am safe, and will continue to be safe. It's very very different to be here vs. hearing on the news about what's happening here.
Today, I took my first day off in a few weeks. I slept until 2 and lay on the couch for most of the day. I felt very weak, and couldn't eat. I think I ate some bad food last night. But, I'm recovered now and preparing to work again tomorrow. Last night, I filmed in the late afternoon in Kadamiya. It was very beautiful. The marketplace was bustling as the day ended. I filmed all kinds of vendors. After the sunset we went into the mosque. It's incredible when lit up at night. Many of the walls are covered in pure gold, with intricate glass ceilings that sparkle in the night. I filmed some of the evening prayer there. It was very special. Usually, I'm not out after sunset, but that area is really very safe with many friendly people on the streets.
Tomorrow, I will visit Adnan's brother's family again. Adnan is one of the prisoners who was burned. The wife of his brother Mustafa is going to have her first baby any day now. If I'm extremely lucky, I'll be there when it happens. Of course, I wouldn't be allowed to film it. Even Mustafa won't be allowed in the room. But, most of the time, I'm allowed to film the women in that family which is really great. But, even though it's permitted, most of them are very shy around me. It would be completely different if I were a woman.
I'm sometimes frustrated that most of the women journalists don't take full advantage of the access that they could have. Most try to cover the same stories that male journalists cover. But, there's a whole world of stories to be told of the female half of the population here.
I hope you are all doing well. I always look forward to hearing from you.
Sat, 8 May 2004
Today I sat by the Tigris and ate fish with my translator Farid, my driver Ahmed, and my friend
Adnan from Kadamiya. I picked out the fish--a big one. They gave it a knock on the head, cleaned it,
splayed it open, cleaned it, and roasted it by an open fire. We sat on a covered barge docked on
the bank and enjoyed the afternoon. We smoked narghila from a hookah. Don't worry, it's just a
sweet, smooth, fruit flavored smoke with no narcotic effect. This type of activity is just one of many
things people do to forget about the war and suffering.
I'm continuing to make slow progress with my stories, and I limit myself to safe areas. I've seen
amazing things, filmed in various mosques, and met all kinds of people. Sometimes, I wonder how I
ended up here. But, I guess I'm lucky to see and experience what I'm seeing.
I hope you are all well.
I'm having my first day off in more than 2 weeks. Even without being in
dangerous places, this work is fatiguing. So, I'm taking a day to decompress. I'm
making slow but steady progress with my filming. Hopefully, it will come together into a cohesive story.
Time will tell.
All the best.
Today, I had a gruesome morning. I still haven't been able to get permission to film in the juvenile prison. Two weeks ago, some of the kids said if they weren't let out, they would start a fire. They put some mattresses against a door and set fire to them. About 18 were brought to the hospital with burns covering from 20 to 80 percent of their bodies. I think that three died in the hospital. Today, I got permission to film in the hospital where some of the boys are still recovering. There are two whose burns cover their faces, arms and hands. When you look at their faces, they almost don't look like people. One of the two has been abandoned by his family, because he was caught steeling. Now he's alone in the hospital. He was able to tell us his story, then he started to weep and I was asked to leave. I didn't feel anything afterwards, but now that I'm back home, getting ready to go to bed, the image comes back to me and it breaks my heart.
I hope I can get permission to do a film in this prison, but it may be difficult. As we were finishing in the hospital, somebody came in and told us that even though we had permission to film in the hospital, we didn't have permission to film the prisoners. For that, I have to go to the Ministry of Justice. Well, I've been their a number of times with no success. But, I'll keep trying.
All the best to you all.
Today I went to the horse races. We brought Ibrahim and his friend. He had
a good time and a lot of laughing. It was a brief escape from grieving for his
brother who was recently killed.
As always, I am safe and fine.
I went back to Kadamiya today. I went with two of Ibrahim's friends to visit the grave of his brother Raed. There's so many sad stories here. It's a different world with different realities. I've also visited two Sheik's in Khadamiya. Both have given me their guarantee for my safety. From what I can see, Kadamiya is a peaceful town, moreso than other places I've been. Of course, looks can be deceiving. So, I'm always alert to the situation. What's great is the feeling of brotherhood among friends here. Within a week I've been accepted into a group of friends there who have offered to do everything they can to help me complete my work here. It's hard to describe society here. Perhaps the kinship is so strong here among men because of the limited access to women without being married.
So, I'm hanging on and trying to follow this story. I'll stay in touch.
All is well with me. I spent another day in Kadamiya. Tomorrow, I'll be filming in Raed's photo shop. Ibrahim is now taking care of it. But, it's hard for him, because everything there reminds him of Raed. It's a nice shop that Raed had just finished setting up. He was killed the day it opened.
I hope the Americans aren't stupid enough to invade Najaf. They probably will. It's one of the most holy cities. If they do invade it will probably ignite resistance all over the country.
Most people here have been touched by violence one way or another. I'm trying to find some peaceful images among the rubble.
I filmed a funeral yesterday. Here's the brother of a security guard who was shot by the Americans.
April 5, 2004
Baghdad Yesterday, I may have overstated things in regard to James. I simply wrote what Nadeem, his translator, told my roommate Aaron over the phone. I still don't know the exact details of what occurred yesterday with James in Najaf. Most likely, he did not actually almost get killed.It wasn't really thoughtful of me to write that, considering what it may sound like to you all back home. It's true that there was an excessive amount of violence in Baghdad, Najaf, and elsewhere in Iraq during the past few days. At least that's what I learned from watching the news. It's not actually a part of my reality here, which is fine with me. There are 7 million people in Baghdad. Aside from a tiny percentage of them, they go about their business daily normally without encountering any of the violence you see reported on the news. So there's no need to worry about me. At the moment, I am struggling to get permission to film at the Karkh Juvenile Detention Facility. After two days, I finally managed to speak with a woman at the CPA in the Human Rights division of the Ministry of Justice. She's a lawyer from Connecticut who came here to do work specifically in regard to juvenile justice and rehabilitation. She took the time to talk with me and learn about what I'm interested in doing. Unfortunately, she says it will be quite difficult for me to get permission to film the kids in the prison. She said, first of all, it's prohibited by the Geneva Convention (as are many other things done by the coalition). I asked if the kids were prisoners of war. She said not, but that the prohibition of photographing prisoners extends beyond prisoners of war. She explained that there are other legitimate concerns that make it problematic to film these kids: privacy, their welfare, the fact that many are awaiting trial and not yet convicted of a crime. I explained to her the value that I see in my being able to work there. The most immediate value would be on a personal level. To be a troubled boy and have an outsider spend time and take an interest in you can be such valuable boost to your self-esteem. It could be something that positively impacts one's life for years to come. It also could be great for them to have the opportunity to have their story told. The woman seems willing to go to bat for me. The decision is not in her hands, but she will present my case first to the appropriate authorities in the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior, then to the appropriate Iraqi authorities. Now I have to wait a couple of days to get some kind of answer. Meanwhile, please know that I am quite safe, even bored much of the time. Things move very slowly here most of the time. It's not like New York. But, I won't let my boredom or impatience drive me to seek out danger. No worries.
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Little by little, I'm starting to be able to work in Baghdad. Last night I met with Marwan, a
translator. We arranged for him to meet me today at 9:30. At 11AM, he had still not arrived. So a
driver at my hotel took me out to meet another translator, Kadim. I met with him and we agreed to
start working today.
We drove to the Karkh Juvenile Detention Facility where I am hoping to do some filming. The
manager welcomed us and said it is OK with him for us to work there, but we needed to get permission
from the Ministry of the Interior. We went to the Ministry of the Interior. There we were told that
we had to get permission from the CPA in the Green Zone. So we drove over there. Driving in Baghdad
is bizarre. There are no traffic rules to speak of, and there's lots of traffic. People drive on
either side of the street and both ways around roundabouts. From time to time there is true
gridlock. Then everybody gets out of there cars to yell at eachother. Then they get back in there cars
and untangle themselves.
We couldn't drive all the way to the CPA because there was a demonstration of the Mehdi Army.
They are the followers of Muqthada Sadr. They had taken control of the street. To pass I had to
submit to being patted down and having my bag checked by these young guys. But they were perfectly
friendly. Arriving at the entrance to the Green Zone, I was informed that I needed special permission
to enter. To get that permission, I had to go back past the demonstration to the convention
center, also guarded by Americans. Unfortunately, I was refused entry there as well, because I only had
my passport. The guard said I needed a second ID, like a press ID. I told him that most people
just make their own press ID on a printer and have them laminated. I held up my US passport and asked
what could be better than this. But he wouldn't let me in, so we left, back through the
Of the American soldiers I dealt with one was polite. The others were fairly rude. All were very
young. Marwan, the translator who didn't show up this morning, worked as a translator for the
American soldiers for a year. He said the biggest problem he had with them was their racism. Some
were perfectly nice, but many had really bad attitudes. They would call the Iraqis sand niggers,
right in front of Marwan who is Iraqi. But the amount of money that Marwan could earn was many times
what he could ever make before the Americans came. I wonder what that does for our self esteem. The
money is too good to turn down, but you have to work for assholes who are occupying your country
and totally disrespect you.
Well, tomorrow morning I'll return to the CPA with two IDs. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get the
permissions I need so that I can really start working. Meanwhile, there was violence today in
Baghdad and Najaf in connection with these demonstrations of the Mehdi Army. In Najaf, they killed to
Salvadorean soldiers. In response Spanish soldiers fired into the demonstration killing at least
14 people and wounding over 100. In Baghdad, they drove over some people with a tank. You can read
all about it in the news. James went to Najaf today, because he has been doing a story on the
Mehdi Army over the past year. We heard from his fixer this evening not to come to Najaf. He said that
James almost got killed because he was a foreigner with a camera. But, they were able to explain
that James has a relationship with the leadership of the Mehdi Army. They were able to name names.
So the guys called some sheik who knows James and they were given the OK. This is as much as I
know of what happened.
For me, things are going slowly. Half the time, I'm stuck at the apartment. The farthest I go on
my own is to a nearby restaurant for a hamburger or some chicken kebab. We'll see what tomorrow
Well, I've been in Kurdistan for about 10 days now, much of that time in
and around Erbil. To be honest, I don't like it here. It's hot, dry, dusty,
and depressing. It's a bit of a struggle to get motivated to work everyday,
but I do anyway. The past four days, I've been working with my own
translator. His name is Gowher, and he doesn't particularly enjoy the work.
I don't think I'll work with him much longer. I think he likes living here
even less then I do, but he's stuck here--no choice. The lack of freedom in
this country is suffocating at times.
On my first day with Gowher, we visited Banslawa. It's a refugee camp
outside of Erbil. Most of the people there were displaced from Kirkuk
around 1987. Kirkuk is a major oil town that was mostly Kurdish. Many Kurds
were displaced when Saddam decided to change the demography of Kirkuk by
moving Kurds out, or forcing them to "change their nationality", and moving
Arabs in with economic incentives. When we arrived at Banslawa, we went to
the KDP office there. (Kurdish Democratic Party) We went in to see the
mayor. We were served tea and I explained to him what I am doing and he
gave us permission to work in Banslawa. Then he handed me a stack of
business cards of all the other journalists who had been there already. So
we walked into Banslawa. We first were invited into the shack of an old man
living there alone. His shack seemed to be made of dried mud with tent
canvas for a roof. It was one of the worst shacks there. He told us his
story of being displaced. He told us he has no hope. He is waiting for the
goverment, or the Americans, or some NGO to come and give them support to
rebuild or relocate. But, basically they have little hope. Over the past
few days I have heard this story repeated many times. Then we visited with
some other people there and called it a day.
The next day we drove to Kirkuk. It turned out our taxi driver had himself
been displaced so he agreed to be our driver for the day and take us to
various IDP areas. (Internally Displaced Persons I think) We stopped along
the road to Kirkuk at a village of tents sloping up from the road. It
turned out that there had once been a village of 200 family's living there.
The villagers had been forced out under Saddam's regime, and the whole
village was destroyed. Most of the people there returned only about 3 weeks
ago. They are hoping to rebuild, but, like so many others, have no
resources to do so. But, the village is quite lovely, the hills are covered
with red and yellow flowers and they have a few small herds of sheep
grazing. Next we stopped in Dibas. One young guy in Banslawa had been
displaced from there. Now there is an Arabic family living in his family's
house. So, I decided to visit the town. The part of the town I was able to
visit was on a hillside sort of overlooking the town. On this hillside are
about 40 flimsy white tents where people displaced from Dibas are living.
This place is really quite grim.
As we approached Kirkuk, we began to see giant flames from gas or oil
production dotting the landscape. As we passed a large oil company we saw
lots of American soldiers in and out of their vehicles, controlling the
area. They looked hot and bored. I really see Americans in Erbil, but their
presence was much more evident in oil-rich Kirkuk. We had lunch and drove
to a football stadium where a few hundred displaced family's are living.
The place is falling apart and the conditions there are really grim. We met
with the manager of the place. At first he told us that so many journalists
had been there already and wasn't too eager to have us work there. But,
because we had approached him respectfully, and I explained to him who I am
and the type of work I'm doing, he welcomed us and agreed to let us do as
we pleased. So then I had to decide what I wanted to do, who I wanted to
talk to. I didn't know how to choose, so I picked one young man with a
bicycle, a red shirt, brown vest and interesting face. I asked him if he
could take us to his home and speak to us about his situation. He agreed.
We walked across the soccer field and he took us into his home under the
cement stands. The room was actually quite big, but they really have
nothing. Until this point, I hadn't filmed anything, because I'm really
just looking for a story with a limited focus and number of subjects. But I
felt like getting the camera rolling, so I asked if we could interview him
on camera. We sat by the door so the natural sunlight illuminated their
faces. The man sat next to his grandfather, and told us his tragic story of
being displaced and ending up there with no hope. Then we interviewed his
grandfather. He said that he was 105 years old. Perhaps he was, I don't
know. He was quite old. He told us a similar story of despair. Next we
interviewed another man and his ninety year old mother in front of their
home. The old woman was blind. In fact she appeared to have no eyes and 100
wrinkles on her face. While she spoke to us a young girl with beautiful
dark eyes had her head right beside the old woman's face. She even stroked
the old woman's hair. Visually, it was very powerful to go back and forth
from the girls young dark eyes to the old lady's empty sockets, or to
include both in the frame. But the story was the same. Then I heard the
manager yelling at somebody with a few words of English. I looked up and
saw an American family looking down at us. It seems he'd been walking
around the stands, peeking down into people homes and taking pictures of
them, in the same way one might peer at fish in a fishbowl. I decided that
I will not return to this soccer stadium. It has become a zoo for
journalists, simply because of it's uniqueness. There are hundreds, if not
thousands of places like this, but there is only one soccer stadium in
Kirkuk housing refugees. He heard about it in the same way I heard about
it. So, I sort of felt bad about being there. But, at least we approached
them with respect.
These stories are powerful, but it is difficult to imagine making a film
about them, because most of these people are stagnating. I think if I lived
with them for a year, nothing would change. Of course, it would be possible
to find stories within these places, because each person has hopes and
desires, big and small. But, nothing has yet grabbed me.
At 5 o'clock, we decided to drive back to Erbil. Driving through town I saw
some gas flames burning very nearby. It looked like they might even be in
the town. I wanted to film them. We drove toward them and discovered the
they were burning just over a hill on the other side of the two lane
highway. We parked the taxi and walked up the hill. It was very quiet.
There were a couple of kids there and an old man with a herd of sheep. The
roaring flames were coming out of pipes in the ground to produce some type
of gas from the oil. So, I filmed them from a moderate distance, then
walked closer to film them directly. I filmed the roaring flames for a few
minutes. The shot was quite beautiful and possibly meaningful. We were just
leaving and a guard came over the hill. We shook hands, and he said we had
to go with him to the office. Unfortunately, he had a kalashnikov slung
over his shoulder, so we couldn't really refuse. But, I don't mean to make
this sound scary. I see hundreds of guards everyday carrying kalashnikovs.
It's just part of the landscape and you get used to it. My biggest fear was
that we would be stuck there for hours and that they would try to take my
tape. I was determined not to let them take my tape without a fight. For
the rest I was completely cooperative.
We arrived at the office with more guards. They called their superiors.
They invited us to sit down in the office, but I told them we preferred to
stand outside in hopes that we wouldn't be stuck there to long. After a
while a more important man arrived with more guards. So, we had to explain
ourselves for a second time. He asked for the tape. I agreed only to show
him what I had filmed. All it was was a burning flame. He said he would
have to call CPA and the ministry of oil. He invited us into the office and
we accepted. So he radioed these other people. They actually told him to
warn us that in the future we would need to get permission to film anything
related to the oil production, and then to let us go. But, apparently he
decided that that wasn't good enough. He talked to us some more and then
called the authorities again and said that they should bring us in. So they
sent two more GMCs with more guards to collect us. While we waited, he
served us some tea. When the trucks arrived, I told them I didn't want to
ride in an official vehicle. I insisted on going in the taxi. They agreed
and put two guards in the taxi with us. We drove through town and then deep
into the forbidden ministry of oil where I didn't have permission to go in
the first place. During the ride the guards jokingly started pointing other
flames and suggesting I film them. We were taken into another office. There
a man wearing a ministry of oil polo shirt spoke to me in perfect English.
I explained him what we had been filming that day, including the IDPs. I
told him that we always seek permission before filming anything, but that
by the flames there was no fence and just an old man with about thirty
sheep. He explained to us again that we needed permission. Then he asked if
he could trust me. I said he could. He told me that when I get home to
please erase that part of the tape. I lied and said I would. He said we
could leave. Then a big American from Florida came in wearing the same
shirt. He asked for my documentation. I gave him my passport and my
permission to film in Kurdistan in general. He asked who I worked for. I
told him I was independent. He asked if I had any press ID. I said I didn't
and that everybody just makes their own press ID on a computer and gets it
laminated. He seemed to be aware of this. So, he repeated the information
that we needed to get permission to film the oil and that we could leave. I
said OK. Then he said, "That means you have to leave now." I said, "No
problem; we don't want to be here anyway." So we left.
(I have more to write, but I'm going to send this in case the power goes
out and I lose it.)
The next day we filmed some interviews in Banaslawa. I wanted to film the
guy from Dibas, but we were invited into a different home. Another man told
us the same story of despair. During the interview I heard someone snoring.
I looked down and saw a small child sleeping next to me covered in flies.
After the interview I asked if I could film the child. They said of course.
So the father shewed away the flies, but they returned immediately. So I
filmed a tight close-up of the childs face. The flies were all over his
face. There were at leas five crawling in and out of his mouth. But when I
think about that shot, I know I have to be careful when using a shot like
that. I have to considered how loaded it is and whether or not it honestly
reflects the conditions there.
Then we sat in a small stall in the market by Banslawa and ate some
disgusting liver and a sort of pita, followed by some tea. Then this
annoying man came in to get a sandwhich for himself. He asked what I was
doing there. I told him I was drinking tea. While he talked to Gowher, I
tried to ignore him. He wanted to see my identification. Gowher said no,
that he wanted to see the man's ID first. So the man flashed his ID for two
seconds. I think it said Ministry of Assholes. At this point his friends
were watching and he didn't want to back down. So Gowher told him just to
show him my permission to film. I did and the man left.
This is about all the excitement I've had, and it's not very exciting. It's
more like lots of nuisances that grow very tiring. Oh well. It takes time
and I have no idea what kind of story I'm going to do. Soon, I think I'll
travel back to Baghdad and parts of the South. James just e-mailed me a
story about a juvenile prison in Baghdad that could make for a powerful
documentary film. Perhaps I'll check it out before it becomes another zoo
for journalists. It sounds like the kids there could use some attention.
But there are other kids worse off, locked up in Abu Grahib prison for
adults because they were arrested as insurgents. I only hear of horror
stories coming out of this place, just like they did under Saddam. But,
it's impossible to film there and probably too scary.
Basically, every morning I wake up wanting to go home. I don't like it
here. But usually, by the end of the day, I'm deciding to stick it out for
a while longer. I'm also intimidated by some of the work I've seen that
James has done. He may prove to be a real master of documentary filmmaking
in our time. I feel that I probably have the ability to equal the work that
he's doing, but probably not the patience. Still, there really are
thousands of stories to be told here. What I hope is that I find a good one
that I get hooked on.
All the best to you all. I always look forward to your e-mails.
Today we went to a women's shelter in Erbil. There are very few places like
this. There are situations here where women are force into marriage or face
being killed. This center is a place where they can seek protection and
live when they are in situations like this. I don't know all the
complexities of these situations. One woman's husband was killed and then
her family expected her to marry his older brother twice her age. Instead,
she escaped to the shelter with her two daughters. James will probably do
another story there.
I'm still taking my time. There's a lot to see and take in. I'm not about
to jump into anything, because it's a lot of work once I start. But I've
seen a lot already in a few days. I'll just wait and see where it all takes
I'll write more soon.
Yesterday we arrived in Kurdistan, and spent the evening on a farm where James has been filming. They raise sheep and have a brick making factory. It seems an incredibly peaceful country lifestyle there. When we arrived we sat on mats on the grass and drank tea. To celebrate the Kurdish New Day holiday, they made a bonfire by burning a huge tire. The people are extremely hospitable there. They invited us to dinner, vegetable and rice eaten with a thin bread. We sat in a bare room on rugs on the floor. I have to get used to sitting cross-legged for extended periods.
My understanding is that Kurdistan is secure and safe. And they like Americans. But the bureaucracy is a bit tedious. We went back and forth between two offices endlessly trying to get the paper we need to have permission to stay in the hotel and to work as journalists.
Well, those are just a few details. Where we are is slightly hilly, but still fairly flat like the desert throughout most of the country. In ten minutes we're leaving to travel a couple more hours to a small village in the mountains. I'm quite certain it will be beautiful.
I'm having a bit of sensory overload taking in so many new things so fast, so I'm just trying to stay relaxed and patient. I'll write more soon.