Consignment to hell & a tribute to a brave soul

The following is taken from a article posted on Tom Dispatch, it concerns Iraq, (yeah I can't get over this war... sorry to them that can ignore it), and concerns the Blogger River, whom I follow. The article isn't here in full, I've left out most of that which doesn't concern River - check the link below for the full article which will also allow you to read part one of Tom's posts.

This is part 2 of a dispatch on the Bush administration and Iraq. Part 1 was Losing the Home Front. One of the sections below is devoted to Riverbend, the pseudonymous "girl blogger" of Baghdad. For it, I read the collection of her blog entries that the Feminist Press at CUNY published in 2005, Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq, and then the newest volume, Baghdad Burning II, More Girl Blog from Iraq, just now being published. These represent an unparalleled record of the American war on, and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). The two volumes are simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of the hell into which we've plunged that country. I can't recommend them too highly. Tom

"How Long Has Baghdad Been Burning?

In that press conference, Ambassador Khalilzad said: "My message today is straightforward: Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable." By "we," he meant "the American people," but at this late date what exactly can "success" mean for an Iraqi? Or, to put it another way, with the likelihood of somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000+ "excess deaths" since the invasion of 2003 (and with morgues, urban killing fields, and rivers still filling with bodies), what is the value of one Iraqi life?
This question has been on my mind these last weeks because one Iraqi life had come to mean something to me. And I wasn't alone.

She arrived online on Sunday, August 17, 2003, just over four months after Baghdad was occupied by American troops. "So this is the beginning for me, I guess," was her first sentence. "I never thought I'd start my own weblog… I'm female, Iraqi, and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway." Reading that passage over now still gives me a little chill.

She took the pseudonym Riverbend, called her blog Baghdad Burning, and we did learn a bit more about her over the years: that, like many Iraqi women, she had worked -- as a computer programmer, a self-styled "geek"; that she had lost her job soon after the war ended as hostility toward women in the workplace grew; that she was a Sunni (though for a long time she clung to the hope that Iraqis would not make religious affiliations their identity) and believed in God; that she did not wear a hijab or headscarf; that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad with her beloved younger brother "E" (who would soon be sporting a pistol for protection) and her parents in a world that was slowly, slowly slipping away. We learned that she had spent some years of her youth abroad, though not where.

We know, from a rare e-interview she did with Lakshmi Chaudhry at Alternet, that she started her "girlblog from Iraq" at the suggestion of Salam Pax, a well known male Iraqi blogger and wrote it in English -- stunning, American-style English -- because she didn't want to "preach to the choir" in Arabic. We learned a little about her life as a young reader (Jane Austen to John LeCarré) and about the limitations her parents put on her TV watching as a child. Bits and pieces slipped out. But, in the end, she was generally as good as her word. Signing off on each post as "river," she offered remarkably little more in the way of biographical information -- but so unimaginably much more about everything else.

About what it felt like over several years, for instance, to have the lights of civilization literally blink off; about how it felt to lose the things city dwellers normally take for granted: the water in your house (and hence the ability to bathe or wash your clothes), your electricity (and so the ability to turn on the air conditioning in 120 degree heat or even post the blog entry you just wrote); the telephone, and so the ability to speak to friends and relatives, especially as your house became something close to your prison. She taught us what it was like to retreat to the roof in the heat of the evening and watch the explosions going off in your own city; what it was like to become an expert in telling one kind of weapons fire from another.

It took Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks until this year to produce his bestseller Fiasco. Riverbend has produced her version of fiasco then (as well as fiasco now) on the fly and if you read her online, you generally learned about the disasters of the moment first there, not in our papers: the first deaths of those she knew; the first brutal, humiliating U.S. house searches and arrests of neighbors; the first kidnappings; the first mentions of the rise of fundamentalism; the first signs of an incipient civil war and ethnic cleansing campaign; the first mention of horrors at Abu Ghraib prison; the first suicide bombs and car bombs; on and on. On the fiasco of L. Paul Bremer, then our viceroy in Baghdad, disbanding the Iraqi Army, she wrote on August 24th, 2003: "The first major decision [Bremer] made was to dissolve the Iraqi army. That may make sense in Washington, but here, we were left speechless."

Hers were often the quietest of descriptions -- of the comings and goings inside a single house, but they were also war reports. By the nature of things, as the explosions and chaos crept ever closer, as they morphed into the familiar wallpaper of her life, she became, even inside her own home, a war correspondent on the frontlines of some unnamed conflict. ("When Bush ‘brought the war to the terrorists,' he failed to mention he wouldn't be fighting it in some distant mountains or barren deserts: the frontline is our homes… the ‘collateral damage' are our friends and families.") Her prize-winning blog entries, gathered into two books, Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq, and more recently Baghdad Burning II, More Girl Blog from Iraq, add up to the best account we have of what it's been like to live through the American "liberation" of Iraq -- and, though it's a terrible thing to say, her work was beautiful to read because she wrote her English like an angel.

I'm a 62 year-old book editor, so it's not unknown for me to fall in love with someone through their words and I now realize that, when it came to Riverbend, I did so. Then, on August 5th of this year, she posted a blog eerily entitled, "Summer of Goodbyes" which began: "Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words ‘Leave your area or else.'" Telling us that she no longer dared go out without wearing a hijab, she signed off this way: "I sometimes wonder if we'll ever know just how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?"

And then she blogged no more. Those of us who regularly read her waited. She had been gone before, the first time in early September 2003 ("I haven't been writing these last few days because I simply haven't felt inspired"); once for a month and a half. Sometimes family crises, simple lack of electricity, and the heat kept her away; sometimes, clearly, it was depression and perhaps a sense of her own insignificance -- this fierce, yet gentle young woman whose blog had links to both Iraq Body Count and Dilbert, Iraq Occupation Watch and the Onion -- given the magnitude of the catastrophe happening around her. ("The war was brought to us here, and now we have to watch the country disintegrate before our very eyes.")

As time passed and nothing appeared, readers began writing in to Tomdispatch, asking if I knew anything about her fate. No, I knew nothing. I had written her a couple of times and once even gotten an e-line back, so I went to her site, found her email address, and wrote again. No answer, no entries. More days, then weeks passed. Months passed, two of them, and I found myself at odd moments wondering, whether she had been among the estimated one and a half million Iraqis who had fled the country for almost anywhere else. Or had she, like the neighbors down the street been taken in a U.S. raid and imprisoned, or like one of her relatives kidnapped, or had she even… and here I would hesitate… become victim 655,001? And would we ever find out?

How can you care for someone you don't know? What does that caring even mean? I'm honestly not sure. But I found I did care in a way that was impossible when it came to Iraqis en masse, no matter the fact that my own country, the place where I grew up and to which I'm deeply and undeniably attached, has been so central to those hundreds of thousands of wasted lives and all the other ones to come.

I called Riverbend's publisher, the Feminist Press at CUNY, and talked to a couple of worried souls there. They, too, had heard nothing. Finally, I decided to do something about her absence -- the one small thing I could actually do -- write a dispatch. So I got my hands on those two books of hers and was just beginning to relive her Baghdad experiences when, on October 18, readers started emailing me that she had just blogged, that she was back. She had written a new entry on the Lancet casualty study. In it, she admitted that she had stopped writing, in part, due to "a certain hopelessness that can't be put into words and that I suspect other Iraqis feel also."

On the Lancet figures themselves, she found nothing strange. ("There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.") Nor was she surprised that American war supporters were not about to embrace the study's figures: "Admitting a number like that would be the equivalent of admitting they had endorsed, say, a tsunami, or an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, or the occupation of a developing country by a ruthless superpower… oh wait -– that one actually happened."

So amid the carnage, Riverbend has returned to us, though only once thus far. Given the world she inhabits, once already seems like a small miracle.


Withdrawal from Iraq is no longer a good path. Long ago, in fact, any good path may have been drowned in a sea of blood and suffering. It is, however, the only path that has any hope of relieving the situation. Don't believe otherwise. Exactly how we get out, on what timetable, and under what conditions are important but secondary matters. First, we have to decide that leaving is what we're about; second, we have to declare that we have no future interest in retaining permanent bases in Iraq or permanent control over Iraqi energy resources; third, we should offer genuine reconstruction help to a future Iraq -- help not bound to the hiring of corporate looters like Halliburton's KBR. (Let me not even mention offering apologies for what we've done. That's not in the American grain.)

Unfortunately, we continue to build the largest, most permanent embassy in the universe inside Baghdad's Green Zone; we continue to upgrade our vast bases in Iraq (and are reputedly building a "massive" new one in Kurdistan, undoubtedly a fallback position for keeping our hand in a future Iraq). On Wednesday, at his surprise news conference, the President managed once again not to repudiate the permanent basing of American forces in Iraq. As of now, whatever tactics are changing, whatever supposedly strategic decisions may be made after the elections, the top officials of the Bush administration have by no means made up their minds to leave Iraq.

To write all this, I'm aware, is to consign Riverbend, the girl blogger of Baghdad, to hell on Earth. But I don't have to tell her that. She's already there and knows it all too well.

This is the impasse we are presently in. But our impasse is just a formula for more deaths in Iraq, a formula guaranteed to keep Baghdad burning."

Full Article

I haven't read the books, I assume ots all online, which I have read, not from the beginning but for long enough, long enough to wonder about River, her life and how she finds the courage to continue in the manner she does, with such dignity and strength.

I think I may need the books though as a reminder, one day, of this time we are living through.