Priya Pavri spent nine months working in Iraq in 2017.
Here, she shares two days from among her many moments – both ordinary and extraordinary – in the country.
20th of July
⟣ In Iraq,
after there is nothing more to report,
the markets will open.
The trays will fill with
The rusted Ferris wheel will start to spin.
The dome of the mall will cease to be a target.
The moon will shine above
the Citadel at night.
Women will walk the streets
without fearing the fresh air.
Men will go to work
and then come home again.
Children will go to school
and then come home again.
The water pump will run each morning
— the hum of the generator will return.
Families will pack a picnic basket
and the park by the fountain will swell.
The coca cola truck
will stock the empty fridge.
The car will have enough fuel
to make it back again.
Disputes will take place,
but without explosives.
The Tigris will begin to slowly fill.
The fish will be at peace.
And every day
something ordinary will happen.
9th of December
It’s dark outside and I rush down the hotel staircase, trying not to trip on the freshly-mopped marble. I’m greeted by two brawny men in the hotel lobby, who I’ve hired to escort our medical team to the next location. They both look at me, confused.
Yes. I am the one responsible for the team.
No. He’s not in charge.
Don’t touch me. I can get into the car myself.
The sun rises and the thoroughfares begin to teem with city dwellers. The street stalls re-open – carts filled with dried dates, selections of nuts, and freshly baked sweets. The first pots of chai are brewed. Life quickly returns after a bitter winter’s night.
The safety vest I am given is heavy, with lead plates cold on my neck. I wriggle in the backseat, trying to get comfortable and close my eyes for a few minutes. I start to think about different scenarios. What if a stray bullet hits me in the arm or the leg? How quickly can I run from an explosion? The city scape morphs into empty fields, which glisten under the slow-rising sun. Light brown or dark yellow reflections of trash collect in the shallow dents of the earth. We leave Baghdad and head towards al Qa’im.
The lines at the check point are endless; vehicles filled with people and trade; children making the most of the impasse, hanging out the back of windows, playing, yelling; soldiers heavily armed en route to their next post. We are behind a truck of canary melon for the next hour. I fidget with my hands, scroll through my phone, tap my knee. I’ve been organising the access paperwork for this checkpoint for months now. If we are turned back, al Qa’im will remain without emergency medical services, even while people return to the city and the risk grows of stray improvised explosive devices, booby traps, and attacks by sleeper cells. The solider checks our passports one by one. I hold my breath. He lets us through.
We approach Abu Gharaib – the name of the town seems familiar to me. The driver points out where US prisoners were taken during the ‘War on Terror’. I recall seeing pictures online of the torture and hyper-sexualisation of prisoners – leashed, naked, hooded. Unambiguous human rights violations, but like almost always, there was no accountability. Now the prison is another decaying cement structure, desolate despite memories of bygone prosperity.
As we drive towards al-Qa’im, the landscape is obstructed by toppled telecommunication towers. The phone signal dies. There is no sign of human life out here, just tired vistas, large metal rods, military tanks, and sunburnt fields that fill the gap between here and the horizon. I think of a Dali painting. Melting clocks. Life here is surreal.
Al-Qa’im is a ghost town. 150,000 people lived here in 2003, but with each foreign occupation – first the US military, then Taliban, then ISIS – the population has dwindled. Military tanks barricade the entrance to the city. A guard tells me al-Qa’im was once the heart of Iraq’s uranium ore production. Now, after years of crippling battles, the city’s primary economic activity is smuggling.
Everything has been looted, torched, graffitied and turned to rubble. It’s impossible to picture the alternate reality that was once here. I climb to the top of a surviving building, where I can see the Syrian border, marked by clouds of smoke trailing into the afternoon sky. The perpetual sound of gun-fire echoes like fireworks.
The Iraqi military clear the few inhabitable structures in the city’s hospital compound, which was – less than a fortnight ago – an ISIS stronghold.
In 2014, ISIS seized the northern city of Mosul and established a capital for the caliphate, until the Iraqi-Government and coalition forces wrested back control in mid-2017. It was then, in fear of persecution, large numbers of the ISIS leadership retreated to al-Qa’im. They moved their military base into the hospital compound, and the houses once-occupied by doctors and nurses were instead used by group leaders and their families.
Our medical team is given access to an old building in the compound, where we unpack our consultation beds, examination equipment, and limited boxes of medication. Being here reminds me of an old scout’s dormitory, but we’re surrounded only by wide-eyed military, and – further afield – militias, political groups, and wilful activists who recruit the impressionable and disheartened in readiness for the next war.
Only one local doctor has returned to al-Qa’im. Each morning I see him limping across the site, one hand gripping his cane, the other holding a cigarette. He does not say much, except asks if we can paint the walls in our clinic back to their original colour. The bottom half pink, the top a faded yellow. Walking through the bare corridors, trying not to choke on the fumes, I notice there is no working x-ray, laboratory, or clean water tank.
This is the legacy of the recent active conflict, which ceased only about ten days ago. ISIS fighters were captured or killed, their families were smuggled into Syria, and their effects were left behind.
Inside one house in the compound – beyond shattered marble stairs, piles of children toys, clothes, books, stolen mobile phones and identity cards – lie hallways covered in hand-drawn pictures and posters of celebrities. Piles of dirt reveal secret underground tunnels. The kitchen holds utensils, shopping lists, fridge magnets featuring football players, and sugar bags filled with fertiliser and wire.
Beneath the dust and debris, lies old photo albums scorched by explosives. I walk through the remnants, picking up each photo, dusting off the ash and dirt.
I am conflicted – filled with tender regard towards the subjects as they pose for awkward family photos, saddened by the reality and consequences of their actions, and angry as another explosion ripples across the landscape.
Some in our team are convinced that al Qa’im is what remains of a radical evil. They fear the people who once lived here, labelling them religious fanatics, extremists, and terrorists with no regard of human life. Uncivilised, wicked and barbaric. But, as I glance over each photo, I feel deceived, sympathetic to the banality of evil, uncertain of where my empathy should lie.
I emerge from the house defeated. The sun hangs low in the sky. For a moment, I’m unsure if it is ready to rise or preparing to fall.