Veni, Vidi, Video
My driver Haji stopped singing two days before the Americans struck at Baghdad. His renditions of ditties from the Iraqi hit parade ceased, and he could not bring himself to sing along to the two hours of Western music every day on Baghdad FM. It became unsettlingly silent in the car; we stopped having ‘maybe peace, maybe war’ discussions in pidgin English just after Perez de Cuellar’s plane took off from Saddam Hussein International Airport.
Haji had kept talking throughout the six weeks I spent in Baghdad. He had the directness given him by a taxi-driver’s knowledge of essential English. He numbed me once by saying: ‘Sir, I have children.’ I had been trying to persuade him to take me to a location where I wanted to film without a Ministry of Information guide, forgetting that while I might not have my visa renewed the stakes were higher for him. Silence reinforced the city’s oppressiveness. Baghdad never was an enjoyable place to work; and the eeriness of the empty city in the last days, with shops shut, windows latticed with tape and ever more anti-aircraft emplacements appearing on roofs, left me hollow with unease. There was an infectious apathy to the few people left on the streets. Many families had already left for country towns by 15 January. Those who remained were turned out by Ba’ath Party officials to demonstrate defiance. Courteous Iraqi house-owners brought me into their homes and led me upstairs to film the crowd from the rooftops. Near the podium a hundred or so young men chanted and sang. I sat on a parapet and enjoyed the mild winter sun: beneath me, a thousand Iraqis stood aimlessly, not even bothering to chat amongst themselves. The scene was peaceful, as though the crowd were waiting for a train. As the tailenders of the march reached their destination – the rally site – the first absconders could be seen filtering away through the trees. I think they were going home to continue packing.
The city reminded me of what I had read of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge had expelled its citizens. It was as though an act of dreadfulness had already happened. The alley cats had taken over the dustbins in daylight; dogs ran carelessly across roads and fought over scraps at street corners. The refuse was uncollected and the sewage pipes unmended. That night I gagged and choked in the street as the city filled with a rotten sulphurous cloud. A down-river petrol refinery was malfunctioning: it spewed gas over the city for hours.
A few resilient café-owners opened their doors and closed them after little business. The old men playing draughts, so beloved of journalists desperate for pictures of ‘normal life in Baghdad’, were listless and uncooperative. There had been a time when I developed splitting headaches walking through the copper souk, a long alleyway lined with cupboard-sized shops, where workmen fiendishly hammered bits of metal into bowls, shields and goblets for a non-existent tourist trade: on the afternoon of 15 January, however, the alleyway was as peaceful as a plague spot.