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Amidst the Rubble with Baghdad Squatters

<i>The Air Defense Ministry’s modernist architecture reflected in its stagnant and debris clogged swimming pool. Photo by Rob Eshelman.</i>
The Air Defense Ministry’s modernist architecture reflected in its stagnant and debris clogged swimming pool. Photo by Rob Eshelman.

In the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s formerly grand, high modern Air Defense Ministry building has been reduced to a bombed-out, crumbling ruin. Evidence of the destruction is everywhere: windows are burnt-out voids, the ground is covered with a layer of rusty metal, broken foam ceiling tiles, and pieces of charred aluminum. Walking through the skeletal remains of the compound’s forward building, one emerges into a courtyard containing a once marble spiraled staircase, brick walls stripped of their tiles, and an Olympic-size swimming pool half full of murky water and debris. Since the fall of Saddam’s government, this once luxurious complex has been transformed into a shantytown of Shia squatters. Approximately 400 families now try to survive here as best they can; around them lies an increasingly dysfunctional mega-city of six million people.

One of the looming questions in Iraq is: will the impoverished Shia majority rise up against the U.S.-led occupation? Typically, the discussion focuses on the pronouncements of Shia leaders such as the widely respected Ali al-Sistani, or the young firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, or Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of slain Shia leader Mohammed Bakr. However, within the apocalyptic landscape of the squatted Air Defense Ministry one can take the pulse of the often overlooked Shia masses who spend most of their time simply struggling to survive.

Dwelling in everything from small bungalow-style apartments—once the homes of Air Force generals—to the defunct bathrooms adjacent to the Ministry’s main three-story office building, the squatters have turned the devastation into a living community. The diving platform rising high above the courtyard’s empty swimming pool now serves as one end of a long laundry line. A makeshift bakery provides kobuz, traditional Iraqi flat bread, to the community’s residents and outsiders willing to pay. On the Ministry’s front lawn, a group of teenagers kick around a slightly deflated soccer ball.

Abbas abu Fadel is one of the squatter community’s de facto leaders. He grew up in Zafarana, a Baghdad neighborhood, but moved out when his landlord raised the rent. Now, he and his family of seven live on the outer edge of the former Ministry grounds in one of ten single-story apartments.

“In 1989, I escaped from Saddam’s Army,” he says, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his little home. “I would hide during the day and sneak out at night and fix air-conditioners.”

Despite being on the lam, Abbas was also organizing against the Hussein government. “I was working with my brother handing out anti-Saddam leaflets,” explains the slender Abbas. During one of those canvassing missions Abbas was picked up by al-Mukhabarat, the Iraqi government’s domestic intelligence agency. Thus began his cycle in and out of prison over the next twelve years.

Across the Ministry compound, a man giving only his first name, Hussein, has recently moved into a vacant two-room office suite. He says that following the post-Gulf War uprising of 1991, many of his friends fled to Sweden. “I did not have any money so I went to Lebanon.” Fifteen days ago he returned to his country for the first time.

Abbas distributes surveys to residents living in the squatter community. The purpose of the survey, backed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Non-Governmental Organizations, is to collect information regarding losses sustained by Iraqis during Saddam’s government. Despite collecting many of the single-page forms, no compensation has been forthcoming. Abbas offers the newcomer Hussein a survey.

For Abbas, the American and British invasion of Iraq presented an opportunity for a different way of life. Some things have changed for the better, he is no longer persecuted by Saddam’s domestic intelligence agency. However, he lives in an abandoned building with sporadic electricity, and is constantly threatened with eviction. Not surprisingly he expresses growing distrust for the American-led CPA.

“This paper is nothing,” he says, clutching a stack of freshly photocopied questionnaires. “We want houses, we want to live.”

Abbas goes on to describe how many Shias want to give the Americans a chance, even though he believes the invasion was nothing more than an attempt to get what the British, and more recently, the Baathists, spent the past century controlling—oil.

“For many years Saddam was taking all the oil, now, it’s the Americans. I didn’t see anything from the oil. Now I still don’t.”

As if the American betrayal of the Shias in ’91 was not enough, Hussein is also questioning the U.S.’s methods. “America has done nothing,” he begins. Then pointing to a child, naked but for a dirty t-shirt, he adds: “Just look at this child. He is sick. I have one question—what will the Americans do for this child?”

Within the devastating wreckage of the squatter community and beyond the walls surrounding the compound Baghdad is steeped in chaos. In this regard, there is little deviation in the trajectory of the past. Here in one of Baghdad’s newest neighborhoods, the squatters talk of CPA officials accompanied by U.S. soldiers visiting the community, taking pictures, and warning residents that they may soon have to vacate the premises.

Outside, amidst the thick gray smog, fights frequently break out in kilometer-long lines for benzene, traffic congestion stalls movement through the sprawling city, and the residents of Baghdad still experience periodic electricity outages, high unemployment, and escalating costs of living.

“I want to live a normal life,” Abbas says when asked about his hopes for the future. “I wish I could live here if they fix the buildings.”

Asked why the Shia haven’t risen up to protest the American presence, which has thus far been so disappointing, Abbas says he looks to Iraq’s powerful Shia leaders from Najaf. “Rebellion is hard. And we are waiting for religious orders from Ali al-Sistani and Mohammed al-Sadr.” But so far the Shia leadership, despite some tough talk and the real misery of their followers, seems to be winning enough concessions and power to accommodate themselves to American rule. Meanwhile, Abbas and the other squatters continue to look for work, clean water, and building materials with which to patch up their current home, the former Air Defense Ministry.


Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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