National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
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Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

A Photographer’s Diary


Last month I traveled to Iraq with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of Detroit, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn and Johanna Berrigan, physician assistant and cofounder of the House of Grace Catholic Worker in Philadelphia. As a photojournalist, it was my intent to document the effects of what nearly one year of war and occupation has meant for the people of Iraq.

The war and ongoing occupation have had a devastating effect on much of the Iraqi population. Many with whom we spoke were glad that Saddam was gone. But the overwhelming sentiment is disbelief that the United States could not have restored the infrastructure and brought peace and stability to the region by this time. Said one Iraqi woman, “The. U.S. planned very well for war, but they didn’t plan for peace.”

The extent of the destruction, the effects of lawlessness, and the images of abject poverty and suffering were beyond my expectations. It was commonplace to see mounds of trash strewn alongside the roads and on most street corners, and children foraging through the piles.

With their homes destroyed, people have camped in abandoned, bombed-out buildings. While we were there, residents were protesting their forced eviction by the Coalition Provisional Authority. One woman pulled me aside to show me the identification cards of her children and other family members. “This is who they are evicting!” she declared. “Where are we to go?” As she pleaded with me to help her, she and other mothers began laying out the ID cards on the street for me to document their story. A man sitting on the ground held a sign in Arabic that read, “Everyone has a home, even the doves, but we do not.”

The utter chaos and fear that has permeated the Iraqi population has crippled this ancient civilization. Parents are afraid to let their children play outside for fear that they will be abducted. Women have increasingly become the target of violence and rape.

Still, the resilience and hope of the Iraqi people is quite remarkable. This was reflected in some of the places we visited, such as the Baghdad maternity hospital run by the Iraqi Dominican sisters. The mothers were so proud of their newborns; they insisted that we hold and photograph each of the babies in the ward. We saw glimpses of hope and peace in the eyes of children at the Magreb Youth Art Center. This center seeks to offer alternatives to the violence of war. It is a remarkable school where children learn theater, how to make pottery, to use computers, to play instruments, to sew.

Despite the enormous obstacles that lay ahead, we drew much strength seeing the determination of the Iraqi people. They will continue to fight for their children, for a better and more peaceful Iraq. And we will use our voices and the photos to work in solidarity with them, for a rapid and new direction of U.S. policy toward Iraq. It’s the very least that we owe them.

Linda Panetta is an award-winning photojournalist. She lives in Philadelphia.

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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