'Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace'

The life and death of Ahmad Shawkat is the subject of both a documentary and Michael Goldfarb's book Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq. The author talks about the life of a Kurdish Iraqi that took an ironic turn after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

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For weeks Ahmad had chattered constantly about the beauty of Mosul. As we drove over the Tigris River Bridge into the Old City, I could see where Mosul had once been beautiful enough to deserve its nickname, the Pearl of the North. The Old City was a fantasy of Ali Baba architecture, with domes set against the sky. But the buildings were falling apart, the streets rutted with potholes. The most basic maintenance by the state had been neglected for decades.

In Diwassa Square, the main public space of Mosul, stood the Central Bank. It was being looted. The air around its grand front doors was filled with money confetti. The steps were covered in Dinar bills. There were no police. There were no American soldiers. There was simply no recognized authority to control the growing madness. Some Kurdish Peshmerga had taken it upon themselves to restore order. The Peshmerga were firing into the bank. The Arabs were firing back.

Our driver pulled up about fifty yards away among a knot of spectators. A short, bald man in his forties was unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse on America in general, and George Bush in particular. Ahmad shook his head in despair, "He says freedom means he can say any stupid thing. I must tell him this is not so." While the two began to argue, I grabbed my gear and headed towards the bank to record the gun battle.

When I returned to the car Ahmad was conducting a political seminar with the crowd. The subject apparently was the responsibilities of the citizen in a free society. Ahmad was losing his temper because the bald man refused to acknowledge that it wasn't up to the Americans to stop Iraqis looting. Iraqis themselves had to learn a bit of self-control if democracy was to work. Ahmad was oblivious to the gunshots and to the anger growing in the crowd. It wasn't the appropriate time for this dialogue. I pulled Ahmad out of the melee growing around him, jumped in the car and drove back over the Tigris.

Suddenly Ahmad shouted, "Look, look at that." He pointed at a smoldering wreck of a building.

"I was imprisoned here many times."

We ran across the road and looked at what was left of the building. It was three stories high. In half the building those stories had been pancaked down to the ground by what had clearly been a B-52 strike.

"I have been violated here by all kinds of violations."

"You mean tortured?"

"Yeah, tortured," Ahmad said. "And there were two floors underground. And I was always at the deepest one." Then he began to laugh. So the day went, elation at returning to his hometown, despair at the wanton destruction of that same town, elation again at seeing this terrible symbol of the regime a smoldering ruin.

I asked Ahmad what on earth he had been arguing about down by the bank.

"I tried to make them clear what is the real meaning of democracy. Democracy is not just to talk as free as he can. I feel very sad. I didn't expect that my people is going to behave in such a strange manner." He paused, thinking through the precise words he wanted to say. "They don't know how to negotiate between themselves. They don't know how to have a clear dialogue between themselves." He sighed audibly. "I hope I will be able to do something."

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