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Mass Kidnapping Highlights Difficulty of Daily Life in Iraq

November 14, 2006 at 6:02 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: First tonight, our look at daily life in Iraq, life marked by daily kidnappings and thousands of killings every month. How do Iraqis cope with living with such violence? We begin with a report about today’s events, narrated by Nick Paton Walsh of Independent Television News. He filed earlier today before word came that most of the hostages had been released.

NICK PATON WALSH, ITV News Correspondent: No one to call for help this morning in Baghdad. As violence spiked across Iraq, leaving at least 82 people dead, hundreds of workers at the Ministry for Higher Education were rushed by men in police uniforms. The women herded into one room, their mobile phones confiscated. The men route-marched outside.

BAGHDAD INHABITANT (through translator): The staff was having their breakfast when they stormed the building. They didn’t come through the doors; they seemed to come out of the walls.

NICK PATON WALSH: In the car park, eyewitnesses described how the rituals of sectarian hatred began. The kidnappers, who had sped unimpeded to the ministry in as many as 20 pickup trucks used by the police, began checking the men’s identity cards. A confused picture emerged, but it appears some Shiite men were released and as many as 150 Sunnis driven away.

BAGHDAD INHABITANT (through translator): They even took a 60-year old man and put him in the trunk of a car. They also took three of our cars, a pickup truck, a BMW, and a government-owned vehicle.

NICK PATON WALSH: Grief enveloping this latest horror to hit Iraq’s schools. A hundred academics killed in the past three years by sectarian militia or even disgruntled students.

Shock turned to disbelief as the news broke that five senior police officers were arrested hours later in connection to this, perhaps the worst mass abduction yet in the capital. Parliament met with the fear that the police, the country’s future guardians, may be driving its descent into civil war.

BAGHDAD SPOKESMAN (through translator): They arrested, or rather kidnapped, all the men they found there. They kidnapped deputy directors, all employees, assistants and cleaners, leaving nobody behind.

NICK PATON WALSH: These 56 bodies found 11 days ago, together with a severed head in Baghdad, dawn’s grim tidings in a capital where ethnic cleansing and territorial disputes have made abduction, torture and execution the norm. On Sunday, another 75 bodies found, and 10 more in a Baghdad house this morning.

A U.S. military raid in the town of Ramadi, targeting Shiite militia, killed at least 30 on a day of bloodshed so widespread it became hard to keep track of; at least 17 separate incidents filling Iraq’s beleaguered hospitals. A car bomb in Baghdad killed 10. Another in the capital’s Shiite area of Sadr City killed at least seven.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown takes it from there. This conversation was also recorded before the latest reports that most of the hostages had been released.

Deteriorating situation in Iraq

Bilal Wahab
Iraqi Fulbright Scholar
So when your protector is your own aggressor, I think that will have a great impact on the people when there's no one to trust.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, life for Iraqis in the words of three people who have witnessed firsthand the war and its aftermath. Two are Iraqi Fulbright scholars. Bilal Wahab hails from Arbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He arrived here in May 2005 and studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He worked for news organizations, the United Nations, and election-monitoring groups in Iraq.

Shahla Waliy of Baghdad arrived late last month and will begin studies at Tufts University later this year. She worked for a humanitarian organization in Iraq.

Joining them is Anthony Shadid, Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his Iraq war coverage and is author of the book "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War."

Today's news is just the latest of a drumbeat. In what ways is it affecting the lives of Iraqi people?

BILAL WAHAB, Iraqi Fulbright Scholar: Of course it does, because the police are supposed to be the force that's protecting the people. And you see that the police itself is now kidnapping people.

So when you have an issue, when there's a burglar at the door, when there's a terrorist to report, when there's a militiaman who is doing some crime or a gang at the door, who are you going to call? Are you going to call the police? How are you going to call the police?

So when your protector is your own aggressor, I think that will have a great impact on the people when there's no one to trust.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Waliy, what do you see? How does it affect the average lives of people?

SHAHLA WALIY, Iraqi Fulbright Scholar: Well, of course, the deterioration is rolling down very much. I mean, we are seeing the police nowadays doing all this stuff which is the militia stuff. And we, just as Iraqis are scattered between, who can be, you know, guilty for that? Is it the police or the militia? They're mixing things together, and we are scattered among them, I mean. It just is a very depressing deterioration in every sector of our life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Anthony Shadid, you returned there after being away for a year. What was the biggest difference that you saw?

ANTHONY SHADID, Washington Post: You know, what struck me almost immediately was leaving the airport and seeing how the very face of the city had changed at this point. You know, I've always been struck as a reporter there about the certain resilience that I think Baghdad and much of the country has.

When I went back in October, that resilience itself seemed to have faded. There wasn't traffic in the streets; shops were shuttered; you don't even see people on the sidewalks the way you used to see them a year or two years before.

I think people have withdrawn, in a way. And it is a question of survival at this point, withdrawn inside their homes, trying to wait this out. In a lot of ways, you feel the city itself has become atomized. I mean, it has almost like lost a sense of being one city.

'Existing; not living'

Shahla Waliy
Iraqi Humanitarian Worker
The only way you can live is that, when you're obliged to go out for your job to feed your family or to the school or college, you're going like with fear, because this is the risk and the threat into your life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, the attacks we saw today, civil servants, intelligentsia, universities now shut down. Is that a typical target or is there such a thing as a typical target?

ANTHONY SHADID: I think it's exactly like you put it there. I mean, what's typical anymore is hard to say. I mean, the violence has become so generalized and so pervasive.

And when I was there in October, there wasn't one person I met -- I mean, not one person, without exception -- who didn't have a friend or a relative who had been killed. And that's a jarring, you know, reality, that death is that general in some ways, that it touches almost every life that you come across in Baghdad.

And Baghdad is not alone. I mean, other parts of the country are -- you know, I was in Basra, as well, in southern Iraq. And the level of killing in Basra is formidable there, you know, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mr. Wahab, so how do people actually function? I mean, for example, do they go to work?

BILAL WAHAB: Iraqis are amazing. We Iraqis have lived in one war or another for the past 30 years. Eight years of war with Iran, and then some 10 years of sanctions, but these other wars have always been predictable. So we used to have sirens. We used to have shelters. You know what time your town is going to get shelled, so you hide.

But this war, unfortunately, this new phenomenon that we're seeing, it's on a daily basis. People have withdrawn to their homes. My friends and the family members that work in the other parts of Iraq, they basically say, "We either don't go to work or we go to work from, say, 11:00 to 3:00," so they basically either don't go. School is the same thing. People skip classes. Professors skip classes.

But a lot of times they just force themselves out, because what are you going to do? I mean, you're talking about people staying indoors, and then now we have domestic violence because the men are at home and then they cannot put up with it. They used to turn on the television for the few hours of electricity that you have. All you see on the screen is horror.

So life is unbearable. It's existing; it's not living.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Waliy, what would you add to that? You were there most recently. What is family life like? What is it like for children? Can they play? Can they visit friends?

SHAHLA WALIY: Well, no, you cannot play, and you cannot visit friends. The only way you can live is that, when you're obliged to go out for your job to feed your family or to the school or college, you're going like with fear, because this is the risk and the threat into your life.

One important thing also to be mentioned, that Iraqi people, when they are locking themselves in homes, they are even not secure in home, because they have been also -- in this situation, they will be exposed to the criminal attacks, again, militia attacks, who are going knock the neighborhood door by door trying to killing people on their I.D. cards.

Just recently, just yesterday, I have an update from my office back in Baghdad, which is considered to be -- you know, we rent an office relatively in a secure area near the Green Zone. However, the Iraqi military pull out their checkpoints.

And now, since yesterday, they have a fake checkpoint, you know, run by the militia, you know, inspecting everybody and killing everyone, depending on his I.D. cards. And that's our office. I mean, the guards, the receptionist, everybody is locked there.

And we have a kind of generator, preparation for food and water. This is always we are working under emergency situation. Imagine that, since three years we are in emergency situation and just the emergency is just getting, you know, upwards. There is no release since three years. And now it's much more blood.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Anthony Shadid, speaking of the I.D. cards, I've read stories about people changing their names.

ANTHONY SHADID: I was about to mention that.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Explain why that is and what they do.

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it is like Bilal said, you know, existing not living. And it is such a question of survival at this point, I think, and survival often means, you know, being able to portray yourself as somebody you're not.

In other words, if you have a traditionally Sunni name, for instance, you might take -- you might get a fake passport that has a more traditional Shiite name that you're one or the other, depending on the checkpoint you're in, the neighborhood you're in.

You know, some people are scared to even claim bodies at the morgue. Their relatives have gone to the morgue; people are reluctant to go there worrying that, if they're identified of a relative of this person killed, they, in fact, might be killed, as well.

Whole neighborhoods, the very geography of Baghdad is changing in a way. You're having population shifts from one neighborhood to another becoming more, you know, almost entirely Sunni or entirely Shiite. And this is almost unprecedented in the history of Baghdad, certainly which was a city that was relatively integrated before. Inter-marriage was somewhat common. This is something that's fading almost as weeks and months pass.

Trying to get away

Anthony Shadid
Washington Post
I'm thinking of colleagues, Iraqi colleagues who would not have -- who would have always resisted this idea of identifying themselves first and foremost as Sunni and Shiite, for instance. That's changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you see any support system, whether it be civic organizations or the media, for example, just in helping people understand what's going on or help them navigate their lives?

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, there's been such a -- I think there was such a resistance to the sectarian tension you saw in Baghdad. You know, the Shiite community was incredibly restrained for two years as this went on.

There isn't a lot of restraint right now. And I think, you know, as both the guests have mentioned, the violence has become so overwhelming in some ways that it seems like it's almost kind of sweeping everything in its path.

You know, I'm thinking of our -- you know, I'm thinking of colleagues, Iraqi colleagues who would not have -- who would have always resisted this idea of identifying themselves first and foremost as Sunni and Shiite, for instance. That's changing. That's changing even in the past few months, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Wahab, another piece of this that we read about is the thousands or even perhaps millions of people who have left their homes, and many leaving the country.

BILAL WAHAB: That's correct. Anyone who can afford Syria or Jordan have left the country. It's fortunate that Kurdistan, which is northern Iraq, it's safe and secure and has become a safe haven for many Arab doctors, and professors, and students. Our universities in Kurdistan are now hosting many of the students who've fled the tension areas.

But unfortunately for the people that cannot afford any of these regions, they're stuck with their neighborhoods in Baghdad and Basra or anywhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Waliy, I guess you're an example of someone who managed to get away. Do you see many of your family or friends trying to do the same?

SHAHLA WALIY: Well, the nearest example is my family. We just obliged last month to leave our neighborhood in Baghdad. I mean, we are Kurdish, and we are proud to be from Kurdistan, but we've been born and brought all our life in Baghdad.

And just since two months ago, we've been obliged to move into Arabiya, to our safe haven, which became like safe haven for every Iraqi. And we are just living there, trying to find a way to resettle again, because we've been locking our doors without taking any of our belongings. We just forced to be out of our neighborhood just alone by ourselves. And thank God we are still alive.

Sweeping hopelessness

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Wahab, you were talking earlier about the Iraqi people and the resilience and all, having been through so much. As you sit here now, do you feel -- is there any sense of hope to overcome this, as well?

BILAL WAHAB: It's tough. It's seriously so tough. I mean, for example, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, and I said that I'm going to study corruption and good governance because I thought by the time my time is coming to go home, which is a few months from now, I'll go home, and we'll have a country that all it needs is how to be a better government. And then I look back and I said what a bad management.

Unfortunately, things are not -- I mean, there was a ray of hope. When people ask me about the difference between now and the time of Saddam Hussein, I say things were bad and things are bad, but now there's some hope. And I think that hope is fading on a daily basis, unfortunately.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony, this is a country you've covered for a long time. Do you hear a lot of that?

ANTHONY SHADID: I do. And it struck me, in the most recent visit there in October, how pronounced the despair was at this point, a certain hopelessness. And I don't think -- you know, even in the roughest times back in, say, 2003, 2004, even in 2005 last year, you know, there might have been anger, there might have been frustration, but you never heard hopelessness just be so sweeping, such a kind of definitive emotion in a way.

And, you know, it's a certain hopelessness, I think, mixed with fear, and fear colors Baghdad almost in every respect these days.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Anthony Shadid, Bilal Wahab, and Shahla Waliy, thank you all three for sharing this with us.

BILAL WAHAB: Thank you.

SHAHLA WALIY: Thank you.