Posted on July 16th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
On March 16, 1988 the town of Halabja Iraq, on the border of Iran, was gas bombed by Saddam Hussein’s military. WIthin 30 minutes more than 5,000 people were dead. Thousands more were left with complications which led to birth defects, cancer & terminal illness.
This occurred during the final days of the Iran-Iraq war. Halabja had been ‘captured’ by the Iranians at the time, and since Hussein was genocidal in his hate of the Kurds, it is rumored the people of the town also sided with the Iranians (understandably so!). For some reason the US, on Iraq’s side during the war, claimed that the gas attack was done by the Iranians. That has since been found to be completely false even though the CIA clung to the idea for months after the incident. In fact, before the incident, the US did not have the Iraq government on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This allowed Saddam Hussein to purchase the ingredients needed to make chemical/biological weapons. The largest suppliers of these chemicals were from Singapore, Holland, Egypt, India & West Germany. A US company was also a supplier, but not one of the biggest.
Halabja is still suffering in every way: economically, socially, and spiritually. I visited a peace memorial on the outskirts of the town of Halabja (see photos in slide show). It is filled with deeply disturbing photos of families literally stopped dead in their tracks, while doing normal every day things like cooking, cleaning, and playing. It is an eerie reminder of just how terribly evil Saddam Hussein was (something that at many times is forgotten in the ongoing debates of the war in Iraq, 8 years on). In 2006 the people of Halabja rioted and attacked the peace memorial because they were not happy that money was being spent on the dead when those still alive very much needed financial support.
As you will see in my photos, there is also life & love in the death. I accidentally stumbled on a sort of Vacation Bible School, except with the Koran (obviously) after visiting the memorial. The children, incredibly shy at first, went wild after i began to ignore them (reverse psychology works every time). A pack of about 50 then stormed my friend and I demanding that we take multiple adorable photos of them. Burly Kurdish men in traditional baggy trousers and scarves in their hair acted as our bodyguards, trying to keep the children off of us, but their efforts were in vain (we didn’t mind, really). When we finally left, we had a group of gigging stalkers slyly following us until we finally made our way out of town.
Posted on July 16th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
Although Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the city of Sulaimani (pop. 700,000, 40k from Iran) is the true heart & soul of Kurdish Iraq. On my way there from Erbil I encountered dozens of police checkpoints, very pleasant compared to checkpoints I had encountered in the West Bank. And, these checkpoints actually made me feel safe. I was even questioned twice but again, in a much more civilized fashion than the Israelis presented.
I stayed at a hotel in the center of “Sulay” & spent my days aimlessly walking around the hospitable city making new friends everywhere I went. Sometimes I was with a male American traveler i met & spent much time with, and other times I was on my own. Definitely a very different experience alone vs with a man. As my male friend noticed, at times it may be annoying to be a solo female traveler (ie: come on lines straight out of pornos), but it also has its advantages. He was surprised by how many more women & families we spoke to. Often these families were from other parts of Iraq: Babylon, Basra, Baghdad. I had all my answers & apologies planned out in advance, specifically for these chance meetings. I explained that I’m against the war & that the US has no business “occupying” them. Was a bit stunned that nearly everyone I met respectfully disagreed with me on that. They all had horrific tales of life under Saddam Hussein as well as the new terror unleashed in Iraq since 2004. When I suggested the invasion was about oil, several people, including members of Hussein’s former army, told me that the Americans really are ‘doing their best’ to make Iraqi’s lives better. Those I spoke with blamed ‘outsiders’ for the barrage of suicide attacks and murders. They asked me: “Who benefits from chaos in Iraq?” When i asked them to name names: Iran, Syria & Saudi.
Families from all corners of Iraq now seek a better life in Kurdish cities. They’re looking for jobs, cheap places to live and to finally have some peace. But no one felt sorry for themselves. They all said “It’s life, what can you do? You have to continue on.” They also made it clear to me that suffering is nothing new to them; they’ve been hurting for decades due to constant war — with Iran, Kuwait, and the US invasion. One man showed me a body full of scars — half an arm missing from the Iran war, a missing toe from being shot by the Israelis (Saddam offered his army to fight them) and scars on his stomach and sides — i’m not sure from what.
My last few hours in Iraq I spent with a 19 year old young man from Baghdad. His family fled to Libya when he was young. In 2003 after the US invaded they moved back, because things had taken a strong turn for the better. However by 2004 he said that Baghdad was again like a war zone. “There is no color, no life” he said on looking at his former city. In 2006 his father was killed in a suicide bombing. His mother, brother & he then moved to Kurdistan. Tears filled his eyes when he told me his story. I found it impossible not to cry too… out of severe sadness that anyone has to suffer so senselessly, and out of frustration because I want to do *something* — *anything* to protect these people, but I feel powerless.
I asked this young man what he thought of the US withdrawing from Iraq (soon to be decided by the new Iraq government). Everyone I had met until that point did not want the US to pull out. But he thought differently. “Why should they stay? Just to be killed? They have parents and sisters an brothers. It’s not fair for them to give their lives up and to cause their families suffering — we have enough of that here. Why should they have to experience it too?” He went on to say what many already had: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Iran seems to be the most scary specter on the horizon in Iraq.
Once again, my mind is boggled as to why anyone has already suffered so much in their lifetime. This world makes no sense. More evidence against the rule of karma.
Posted on July 5th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
I’m in Kurdish Iraq. The most stable part of the country. After summer 08 in Iranian Kurdistan I’ve dreamed of returning. Since it’s not possible for me to return to Iran right now, here I am: Iraq.
Of course when I landed, it hit me again: what the fuck am i doing here? This is Iraq. My parents would kill me if they knew. Then the guilt: what if something happens to me? How would my parents feel? I am firmly in touch with the reality of going to a country that’s experiencing war. Kurdistan is different though. They’ve established their own government after being severely persecuted under Saddam Hussein. They are likely the only group that welcomed the invasion of their country in 03.
Still, it’s a bit freaky to get used to. Especially as an independent female traveler. However, I learned last nite the biggest risk so far, is the cost of hotels. And, finding a hotel, period. I walked around the Bazaar area of Erbil for 2 hours last nite looking, no one had anything & i did not see any other women in the hotels either. Semi-creepy.
Today I went to a smaller city than Erbil. And I was absolutely blown away by the hospitality of this town. I could not drink more tea, juice, or have more ice cream offers. On top of that you have to battle with shop/stall owners to actually pay them. When you pressure them they then still trick you into *not* paying (ie: you hand them a ten, they give you back your ‘change’ two fives — sneaky!). One man quoted me a price for a necklace, only to lower it even more, giving me way too much change back. Amazing. A few hours later a man in the traditional Kurdish garb of baggy trousers greeted me & then gave me an exuberant 2 hour tour of *his* town which he was so rightly proud of. He knew everyone — a local celebrity or politician, i do not know which. From what i gathered he had been to Stockholm, Sweden.. that’s about all i understood. Just one of the incredible in an entire cast of characters here in Kurdistan.
As usual, it’s way too late & i can’t think straight. I am really going to try to blog as much as possible during my stay here. Hugs, Michelle
I’m in a hotel room overlooking Tahrir square in Cairo. Just a few hours earlier there were more scuffles fires, glass and rocks being thrown, not to mention man grunts and yelling. There are a few hundred out there still cheering, screaming & occasionally roughing someone up. This used to do it for me. Do it for me, meaning, make me feel i’m in the midst of the action, something remotely part of history (this is Egypt after all). But to tell you the truth, I don’t find it very interesting anymore. Maybe i’ve mellowed.
I spent the past month in Tunis, Tunisia. At first i thought: what is up with this place? there are no protests like in Tahrir, people seem more subdued, and, let’s face it, it’s a gorgeous & relatively clean city. Usually nothing very attractive to me, but then i relaxed a bit, saw that the same issues exist, except they are dealt with very differently than in Cairo. I made friends with wonderful Tunisians & even Americans, Germans & Italians. I ate great food, spent much time at the beach… quieter conversations, but still meaningful and deep.
Some of my more memorable conversations and moments were occasionally under an umbrella drinking a fresh strawberry juice, but more likely, it was at the hospital. I could spend hours, days & lifetimes sitting with the group of Libyan Freedom Fighters who are healing in hospital in Tunisia. First off, their bravery to fight for what they feel is right — and often pay with their lives — is something i know nothing about. More than that it’s who they are as people. Caring, generous, hospitable, heart-felt, and even funny despite the grave circumstances. I will attempt to put these experiences into words in the coming days. But most of all, what I’m trying to say (it’s late & i’m tired) is that being in there presence was healing.
I became friends with a man who used to race cars, spin wheelies in parking lots and collect traffic tickets while completing his last year of law school. 2 months ago he was hit by a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) in the chest. His heart stopped beating. A doctor in Misrata pulled his heart out and started pumping it in his hand. He made it. He can’t see, his speech is slurred & he can only move his right hand, though it shakes… still, he smiles, has a great sense of humor, and is gorgeous. He could be any of us. A normal guy going about his life. And then he had no choice but to fight rather than let his city, family & friends be wiped out. His brother always sits with him, also smiles & is genuinely interested in interacting with visitors even though he is witnessing something so heart breaking.
I finally declared one of the Freedom FIghters my boyfriend. i don’t know why i chose him, i just did. Later i found out he was leader of his group. He showed me video footage of the exact moment he was shot by snipers on Tripoli street in Misrata & I watched as many who respect and admire him came to visit. I never knew someone so brave, more less declared one my boyfriend. On top of all his amazing qualities, and his handsome looks, he is absolutely hysterical. And is sweet like no other. My last nite in hospital he made me sit down as he spoon fed me his salt free hospital dinner. By far the romantic dinner I’ve ever had. I must note he is not actually my boyfriend. He’s not the type to have any girlfriend. I’ve so much to say on that topic & will soon, but…
I’m catching a flight to Kurdish Iraq in the morning. So i must go. Wherever i go i’m always thinking about not just these two men, but the dozen of others (& women) i met too. Will do my best to tell their stories in the coming weeks. And, i will definitely without a doubt make it back to Tunis after Iraq. It’s impossible not to. So this is my little story why I’m not so interested in the yelling & screaming & honking testosterone-fueled crowds in the street below.
The majority of the Libyans I’ve met in hospital are males (of all ages & backgrounds), but there are also women who have been injured by Gaddafi’s bombs, bullets and tanks. Not only are they dealing with life-altering injuries, most are grieving the loss of sons, husbands and fathers in a place far from home.
The other day I met a sweet Libyan girl who’s in hospital for different health reasons. A change of pace, we had a tea party. She made us all drink tea, then juice, then she de-seeded my pretend watermelon, washed & dried the dishes, made the rounds to be sure we ate every last morsel of ‘food’ and finally, insisted we have one more cup of tea before we left.
Posted on June 14th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Uncategorized.
I worked with the critically injured in Haiti, but that was natural disaster, not war. The past few days I’ve had the honor of visiting with Libyan freedom fighters who were injured in battle in Misrata. It’s impossible not to question, how on earth is it possible that another human being could do such horrific things to another human being — even to women and children. It’s a cliche, but it truly is senseless.
Most everyone has lost at least one family member. Many have lost half of their friends. Yet they go on. One patient showed me video of the men praying before battle. He told me that they hardly sleep; all they do is fight and pray, never forgetting to laugh & enjoy their life and friends on the front line, no matter how surreal it may seem.
Many times I think I travel like this because life back home is on an even dull keel. We think we are invincible and that we can control life. We read about ways to try to escape cancer and wrinkles, talk about TV cast members as if they are our actual friends, buy so many things that the things own us, and do colonics to ‘detox’ while obsessing about what the inside of our intestines look like. We must be mind-numbingly bored to do this shit. Something is very much missing. We are denying reality. Reality can be scary, but it is also liberating because it’s aknowledging truth. What I’ve seen in these Libyan men is that they are very much alive. Maybe they are more alive in one day than I am in an entire year.
Every man i spoke to, young and old alike — even with shrapnel still in their bodies, limbs broken and fresh amputation said the same thing: I can’t wait to get out of this hospital. I want to be in Misrata, fighting for Libya They tell me they are happy to die for the cause. That it is okay that their brothers and fathers and uncles and friends have died — because they died with smiles on their faces and their death is paving a way to a better future for future generations.
Many told me they never spoke about politics out of fear, until now. Now that the barrier of fear and isolation has been broken, there’s no going back.
So much more to say, but that’s it for today (it’s 1AM & I have the flu!). Tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the women and children I’ve met.
At first glance this post may appear to have nothing to do with travel, revolutions or humanitarian work — but it does. Those of you who have spent time with me know that no matter where I go and what I do, I always manage to shoot food porn.
When I put all my food pix together, I saw that it’s an uncomplicated way of revisiting all the places I called “home” this year (too many). It also documents the erosion of my diet since leaving a steady life in one place, as well as my failed attempt to eat meat after 20 years of being a vegetarian (have you ever tasted octopus or “souffle of Bambi?” I haven’t been missing anything, thanks).
If you think I eat too much of one thing or not enough of something else, feel free to let me know. So far, I’ve decided to cut back on coffee & desserts.
An Egyptian friend in Madrid wondered out loud if I was crazy to leave Spain just as it’s on the ‘cusp of Revolution.’ He was joking about the Revolution bit, but he does think it’s an exciting time to be in Madrid (he’s right). And, it was refreshing to finally have a protest movement come to me, rather than vice versa (truth be told, this was not the 1st time something like this has happened). Still, I was set to launch the “Revolution Junkie” tour, and needed to carry on. I’m in Tunisia now… Will write much more.. Soon.
Posted on May 19th, 2011 by admin. Filed under #SpanishRevolution.
May 23 Update: Yesterday was election day here in Spain. Along with elections is an enforced ‘day of reflection’ the day before, when all protests/demos are banned. Of course, protesters defied the ban. No one was surprised by that. The government announced in advance that they would not forcibly remove anyone; there was no violence. Still, many in the Puerta del Sol were in fact ‘reflecting’.. on high unemployment, and their dissatisfaction with the two major political parties & bank bail-outs.
As the days have gone on more & more tarps, furniture, signage & dreadlocks have appeared in the mix. Community committees in charge of clean up, child care, first aid, food, construction, reading materials, and even gardening are an integral part of the movement. These committees were inspired by the Arab Revolutions. Madrid is not Cairo — everybody knows that. Yet in cyberspace there is a definite brotherly/sisterly solidarity between the two movements. Will write much more later… in the meantime: more photos (See post below for complete photos of May 18-May 30, 2011):
May 19: I’m in Madrid right now. Here are pix from today’s protest in Puerta del Sol. As you can see, Sol is tipping its hat to Cairo’s Tahrir Square:
Posted on April 11th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Egypt.
Here’s a video from the moment right before shit hit the fan in Tahrir Square, 2:30 Saturday morning (video is for listening, not viewing). It’s too blurry to tell, but what happened was the military & riot police faced-off with protesters who were breaking the 2AM curfew. During the stand-off both sides stood face to face, just inches away from each other, before the violence was unleashed. The pre-violence face-off went on for about 5 minutes, but felt like a lifetime. You can hear the protesters bang metal as the tension continued to build to the breaking point.
For the better part of four hours gunfire was literally nonstop. A large part of the action was right under my window since I’m close to the army compound at the museum. The sound of gun shots was so loud & intense that I hid in my bathroom a few times. Friends called, but most of the time we couldn’t hear one another because shots were so loud. Later on I was on the balcony when protesters were tear gassed — I was inadvertently tear gassed in the process. Those few hours were #%$@ing intense… I cannot begin to imagine what it was like to be on the ground during the crack down.
A few images shot at daybreak:
Although way too freaked out to shoot video while gunfire went off, I taped a snippet of a brigade of riot police returning to the compound. This video is another one that’s for listening, not watching.
When the curfew came to an end at 6AM, the riot police retreated and what was left of the protesters — meaning, the protesters that kept fighting despite the high degree of danger (mainly young men in their late teens/early 20s) took over the square. This was an entire different breed than the smiling welcoming protesters I had met in Tahrir the past Fridays.
These street fighter protesters celebrated victory by destroying nearby property and driving three army trucks into the square — one directly under my kitchen area — setting them on fire. I guess I watched one too many Dukes of Hazard episodes as a kid because I thought the truck would for sure burst into a ball of flames, setting my building afire, killing us all. Luckily it didn’t happen.. But for a few moments it felt like true, scary anarchy.
I didn’t see any signs of bloodshed in the square a few hours later, but it was reported that between one and two people had died. I only saw one injured person — that’s not to say no one was injured — i was reported that 70+ were in hospital. Someone showed me blank bullets they found on the street, while others reported it was live ammunition.
I’m no Egypt expert, but from what my Egyptian friends tell me, what happened that morning was huge — and it is/was a turning point in the ongoing revolution. Which way things will go from here, only time will tell…
- Some photos from Misrata… stories to follow.
- The Boat to Misrata (Libya): Men’s quarters vs. Women’s quarters
- Why I had to visit Misrata (Libya).
- Greetings from Benghazi, Libya
- Just another day in Cairo…