Traffic gridlock and endless lines of cars waiting to tank up on benzine. Blackouts. Bursts of random violence. Fear laced with paranoia; paranoia fed with whispers of conspiracy. Ubiquitous garbage. Rubble. Sounds of hammering coming from the rubble. Sick children with cancerous growths on their faces lying listless in bare and darkened hospital rooms. Occasional fleeting moments of human solidarity and humor. This is life on the Baghdad street as witnessed by Claudia Lefko, of 40 Valley St in Northampton during her two week visit to Iraq in the end of December and beginning of January.
Whenever she had a free moment, and a few minutes of electric light to see by, Lefko tapped out e-mail dispatches for the folks back home from the chilly concrete block apartment house where she was staying. The three-story building is rented by a peace organization called Voices in the Wilderness, with whose co-founder Kathy Kelly, Lefko made the trip. The building is located in mid-town on Karata Street, at the edge of the Green Zone, the area where the Coalition Provisional Authority is installed.
Lefkos staccato, impressionistic, unfiltered, sometimes emotive e-mail prose (not unlike her normal conversation) captures the seeming anarchy, contradictoriness, danger and confusion of the historical moment in Baghdad.
So heres the news, she launches hurriedly into her first report, dated December 22, 2003. She and Kelly are en route from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. They have crossed the virtually wide-open border with a minimum of fuss or questioning. A system for registering and screening people coming into the country, so-called Order No. 45, is in the works, but not yet operational.
Karata Street, Baghdad--Man with horse drawn cart has been selling cans of kerosene--Claudia Lefko
We could see humvees traveling along the road w/ military people and their guns riding on top, she writes .The driver is an unemployed engineer named Satar. Wherever she is, Lefko is forging personal connections. The journey turns out to be eventless.
Next day, on Karata Street: Outside our window we can see a shantytown developing, like in the townships in South Africa. All day in this vacant lot some families are hammering nails (into) sheet metal, flattening it and putting it up for walls. Theyve got a pile of bricks and are knocking the mortar off to make a fire place
there are two geese wandering around in the garbage that has collected inside this fenced lot. There are three or four young children w/o jackets, w/o socksand it was pouring rain this morning. So it is cold and wet and miserable. Like South Africa, they have connected a wire to the electric lines and have some light
A week later: Hello friends. Thanks for the greetings
.It was a bad night in Baghdad last night, woke up at 4 a.m. to what sounded like a car bomb (although I havent heard anything about it today), sporadic gunfire always follows
and planes and helicopters start overhead. It wakes me up
and Im afraid, so I cannot get back to sleep. My brain wakes up and thats it. Then there was a car bomb on Karata Street at 9 a.m., just up the block.
Shes made a friend who becomes her main informant, Muhammed, a shopkeeper with a Ph.D., who is torn like so many Iraqis about the invasion and the occupation. He has family members who were killed by Saddam, and he was dancing in the street at the news of Saddams capture. At the same time, he is angry at the humiliating treatment of the captured Iraqi leader by the Americans as he saw the spectacle afterwards depicted in photographs. He is equally fearful of being shot by American soldiers and of becoming a collateral victim of a terrorist bomb meant for the occupiers.
Two boys drawing together at Gazalia, a camp for displaced people that occupies a bombed out chicken farm that once belonged to Saddams son, Uday--Claudia Lefko
Lefko, 56, is a preschool teacher at the Mt. Brook Childrens Center in South Deerfield, a former Northampton School Committee member, and a longtime peace and social justice activist who is one of the organizers and stalwarts of the five-year-old Northampton Committee to Lift the Sanctions and Stop the Bombing in Iraq. Re-named the Northampton Committee to Stop the War in Iraq, they are a core group of a couple of dozen protesters who gather for a vigil every Saturday morning along the iron railing of the Hampshire County Courthouse property on Main Street in Northampton. Last year at this time, they were joined by scores of other people who came to protest the build-up to the American invasion of Iraq.
This was her second visit to Iraq. She went the first time in January, 2001, along with a friend, Kathleen Winkworth, a social worker from Leverett, as part of a delegation from the International Action Center. This time, as she did last, she brought art supplies so that she could have Iraqi children in the schools and camps and hospitals she visited make pictures to bring back to the States to display.
Her exhibit of the childrens art work called A Friendly Bond, A Joyful Connection, which also includes photographs of the children and text and UNICEF statistics documenting the high rate of death and deplorable state of health of Iraqi children, continues to circulate in the area and will now be augmented with new material. Currently it is showing at the Borgia Gallery in the Mary Dooley College Center at Elms College in Chicopee where Lefko will be giving a talk Feb. 24.
Leukemia patient at Al-mansour Pediatric Hospital--Claudia Lefko
From her e-mail dated Dec. 23, describing Al -mansour Pediatric Hospital: The hallways are
dark and bare
it is like being in an abandoned building. Around corners you see abandoned nurse stations, with cupboard doors hanging, or missing.
the whole space vacant. It stinks, there are people sitting on window sills, and sometime group sitting together on leftover furniture
sitting in dark corners huddled together. Women carrying small bundles babies so covered you cannot really see if there is a child there
She finally gets to talk to a doctor. Why dont you bring medicines?' he asks me. I explain as best I can
that through the pictures I hope to bring the story of the children of Iraq to America.
The quality of health care, the pride of the nation under Saddam, deteriorated rapidly under the U.S.-enforced economic sanctions of the 90s that followed the first Gulf War. Nine months into the American occupation, the conditions in the hospitals are, if anything, worse than what she saw three years ago, and the doctors and staff just as dispirited, said Lefko in an interview in her Valley Street home. While capitalism is coming in and there is a new smell of money in the air in Baghdad, and rents are soaring on speculation, there is little sign that progress has been made in reconstruction of the citys basic services and infrastructure, says Lefko.
It is a great irony, she says, that, despite the great evils of Saddam Husseins regime, it did manage to provide health care, education and economic opportunity for a relatively large middle class. Life was good for many, as long as they didnt cross the regime, she said. Regime change has come at a fearful she would say an unacceptable price. I dont know how to frame this for people here, she said. Its so hard to make the case.
Lefko has for years been a fierce critic of the local and national press for failing to report the true story of the systematic destruction of Iraq civil society first by the sanctions, then by hammer and tongs of shock and awe. It is with an element of despair, it seems, that she bravely, if briefly, took on herself the role of battle correspondent. She has no illusions. Ideals, but no illusions.
Im not a journalist, she says. Im not the right person
.The people need a more powerful person to speak for them than me. Im just a pre-school teacher.
Free-lance writer Judson Brown, a resident of Northampton, is a former newspaper reporter.