National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story - Photo Essay
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Iraq Diary

Photos and text by Linda Panetta

Coalition forces stand at the ready as more than 100 Iraqis demonstrate outside the Coalition Provisional Authority. The men were protesting their eviction from the squatters’ camp that is the only home for more than 3,000 people. An organizer addresses the men, who chose to sit in order to show the military that they were not going to be violent.

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The day we visited, Al Huda residents learned the Coalition Provisional Authority was evicting them. One woman pulled me aside to show the identification cards of her children and other family members. “This is who they are evicting! Where are we to go?” she cried. As she pleaded for our help, she and other mothers began laying out the I.D. cards on the street for me to document their plight.

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A child climbs on one of Baghdad’s ever-present piles of garbage. In the background is the Chaldean Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Chaldeans, members of one of the oldest Christian churches, have been living peacefully alongside Baghdad’s Muslim community for hundreds of years. Both are victims of the war’s violence.

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Surrounded by open sewage and rubble, a little girl near Hai Tarik stands near her family’s water supply -- a broken plastic barrel. Pools of sewage are everywhere in Iraq, in part because the lack of predictable electricity keeps drainage pumps from working.

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With businesses destroyed and roads that connect them to other towns virtually impassable, Al Huda squatters become creative entrepreneurs. At the entrance to the camp a woman sets up an instant “convenience store” -- the only one around -- selling a handful of “essential” items that range from eggs to cigarettes.

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At the Magreb Youth Art Center in Baghdad, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and a young artist display the boy’s handcrafted pottery. The unique center, sponsored by a nongovernmental organization and the Norwegian government, seeks to offer the arts as an alternative to the violence of war. Unfortunately, security concerns have made many NGOs withdraw from the country, and there is little money available to continue worthwhile projects like the center.

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Even their squalid living conditions in the Al Huda squatters’ camp don’t prevent children’s smiles for the photographer. These children, along with hundreds of others, were running barefoot or in open flip-flops through rubble, garbage and disease-laden sewage. Thousands of squatters, their homes destroyed by coalition bombings, are living in the bombed-out buildings that were a former training center for Saddam Hussein’s security forces. But while we were there they were told they will be evicted at the end of February. Where they will go is anybody’s guess.

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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