Last March, on the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pittsburgh-based peace activist Vincent Scotti Eirene took a tape recorder and a camera on a two-week tour of Iraq as part of a fact-finding delegation organized by the group Occupation Watch. Now Eirene has self-published Night Flight to Baghdad, a 28-page booklet incorporating his interviews, journals and photos from the trip. The publication is available through firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-888-NOTOWAR. Eirene also offers a slide show and talk about his trip. Audio, video, still photos and articles resulting from the trip are available on Notowar.com
What did you find in Iraq that you hadn't heard about?
You keep on hearing from the right-wing media, "Business is good in Baghdad," and so that plants a seed in your mind: Maybe things aren't as bad as they were. But after doing 150 miles an hour across the desert and watching the sun rise over Baghdad, I was just absolutely overwhelmed at how the city was just destroyed: the infrastructure, the water, the sewage, the bridges, the roads. And so the primary thing I think I bring back to Pittsburgh [is] something that can't be digitally recorded, whether audio or visual, and that's that people are just absolutely humiliated that they could not stop the destruction of their country.
How is everyday life affected?
If you punch into Google "Iraq, blog" or "Baghdad, photo, blog," you'll come up with talk about 12 blackouts a day, the good roads cut out for the troops, no clean water -- which is the most basic thing you need for health -- hospitals overcrowded and underfunded to the point that one of the doctors we met couldn't even afford antibiotics for his son. He had to buy them on the black market. And of course things are worse there now because the fighting has intensified.
Any thoughts on the Jan. 30 elections?
I haven't been there for a year, but that's why I like the Internet: It's given me contact with people [I met] in Iraq. They have access to the Internet through satellite modems and Internet cafes. What I have heard from them is that people don't like the elections because they feel it's being guided by the U.S. But, they're hoping this will lead to their independence, so they can go about the business of forming a real coalition government that is not being directed by the United States of America.
You interview a psychiatrist about post-traumatic stress in children.
The psychiatrist is trying through private [funding] sources to help Iraqi children deal with "playground syndrome." If you put Iraqi children who lived through the war in a room, with each other and their toys, they didn't play with each other. When you suggest to them that they need to go out to a playground, they wouldn't go. So it was really very eerie, the empty playgrounds in Baghdad. And as the father of two little girls, I couldn't even imagine what kind of fear would have to be instilled within them so that they would not even play.
You write that you are a "war criminal."
Personal responsibility has never been a favorite of people who are leftist or progressive. Gandhi talked a lot about this, taking the blame on himself, because that was the only thing that he could change. I think some element of self-blame is missing, and so we have this sort of polemical cartoon philosophy that makes Bush the enemy. We are people who have allowed this to happen. And even when we protest against this, it's with half a heart, and that's why the war goes on.
What more could war opponents do?
I think that what still has to be invented is a symbolic action that will speak to a deaf society, a kind of sign language that will wake up the mind. The corporate media has allowed us to know, for better or worse, that things are not good in Iraq, and yet it still hasn't changed our direction. This kind of powerlessness is what will continue to push us forward to figure out how we can stop the slaughter of our sisters and brothers in Iraq. I have to say in the same breath that I'm very proud of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group and the Thomas Merton Center because unlike other cities, even after the war was quote-unquote over, the people kept up the fight.
Here's the last photo in the book.
It was two little girls who were living in a bombed-out building. It used to be for Saddam's [officials]. It had no water or electricity; the whole building had been destroyed. Hundreds of families were living there. This is my favorite photograph 'cause I have two little girls, and it sort of shows the sun setting, and catches them in a really good light, and looking very determined, very hopeful, against all odds.