Shaima was a six year old Iraqi girl. She was afraid for her future, she was afraid that the Americans would bomb her town and would bury her house in sand, she was afraid that all the sand would cover her, she would rub and rub her eyes, but the sand would not go away and in the end, everyone in Iraq would be smothered by it. Shaima’s fears were not unfounded. Iraqi children have lived in fear all their lives, their country has been in and out of wars for decades and nothing looks set to improve. The Bush led invasion of Iraq, whichever way you look at it, has ignited a bush fire that looks to be out of control. And in the middle of the fire, being roasted alive are children and families with just exactly the same feelings, the same sense of pain and loss, hope and fear as you and your family do, or I and mine.
For me, it is impossible to imagine what life would be like inside Iraq. Just as it is impossible, living here in Ireland, to imagine what it might be like if Bertie Ahern suddenly became a dictator, with his poster on giant billboards all over the country, with his picture in every book, his face on every television channel and hundreds of his portraits in every gallery. If Bertie, instead of being often a figure of fun, were to be a figure of fear, someone who people were afraid to challenge or speak ill of, if informers were lurking in every pub, restaurant, coffee shop and even in every home, waiting to sell out friends and family. Here in Ireland, our ancestors have lived in fear of their lives, but thankfully we can now safely poke fun at our leaders without being thrown in jail and tortured. In Iraq, nobody dared to laugh at Saddam Hussein, not even his own family.
Nothing in life is as black and white though, not even good and evil. Saddam might have been controlling and cruel, but was it right for America to declare war on Iraq, to kill and maim innocent people? Was it right or did it make things worse for the Iraqi people? Asne Seierstad from Norway, is a journalist who knows a great deal about war, having been a correspondent from front lines in Russia, in China, in Kosovo, in Serbia and in Afghanistan. Most recently she reported from Baghdad, on the war in Iraq. She witnessed first hand what kind of a dictator Saddam Hussein was, what kind of a stranglehold he had over his people. As a journalist, she found it almost impossible to get anyone to criticise Saddam, such was the level of fear in Iraq. Fear permeated the lives of the people, it was, she says, like a body part that could not be removed. And yet she does not attempt to convince you, the reader that the war is right or wrong. What she does is to give you an insight into the situation in Iraq as it was presented to Asne Seierstad, a war reporter. With all the mundane bits, all the contradictory bits, all the messy bits left in. If an Iraqi woman tells her, after Saddam is deposed that she wishes he could be brought back to power, Asne gives us that side of the story, even if it doesn’t fit with what we like to think about women in Iraq. She reports on her every experience, on the difficulty of trying to find out the truth in a country where people are afraid to say what they think, even to their children. And she seeks out and interviews as many people as she can find to talk to, giving her observations about what they tell her. The result is complex and interesting. Interesting because even if you thought ‘Yes, Saddam is a cruel dictator and should be deposed at all costs,’ or if you thought ‘No, war can never be the answer,’ you will come away from Asne Seierstad having had a cornucopia of grey areas revealed to you. So much so that you ask yourself ‘Is there an answer to this dilemma of war?’
Finding answers, any kind of answers proved to be the most difficult job of her life, she says.
‘ The Americans put out a great deal of prejudice about the Iraqis. They made it look as if they would be welcomed with flowers.
The truth is that some people wanted the war, some people didn’t.
Depending upon how your life was, under Saddam you might have been a winner or a loser.’
But surely it would be obvious that democracy is the ideal? I ask.
‘My friend Aliya supported Saddam. Because she didn’t know anything else. She probably thought that being afraid of your president is natural. How would she know that in our countries, we are not afraid of our presidents?’
Saddam has been in power since 1968, and with total power since 1978. Economic sanctions were introduced in 1991, and they were very strict. There is an acute shortage of necessary items in Iraq, in particular medicines and children have a far higher mortality rate than children in Europe and America do. Diarrhoea, chest infections, blood poisoning all of these are common causes of death and most Iraqis struggle to get enough to eat for their families. Whereas before the sanctions, the country was wealthy and the hospitals and schools were the best in the Arab world.
Iraqis were highly educated and women were free to work and did not have to cover their heads.
Were they better off? I ask.
‘In that part of the world, there are no democracies. The jails are filled with political prisoners in all those countries. But when Saddam came to power, he was so afraid of being knocked out that he got rid of anybody who might be a threat. And people started disappearing. But dictatorships are also very stable.’
Having had the experiences that Asne has had, she does not believe there is a case for the war.
‘There has to be other ways. I see that a big fire has been started in Iraq, which nobody can put out. All sorts of people are coming to Iraq, looking for revenge. For any sorts of reasons, and fundamentalism is growing. The Iraq war gives people carte blanche. I don’t see how it can end now.’
Does she think Saddam will be back?
‘No. But to find a leader who can control that situation will be difficult. Nobody wants to be ruled by the others.
The main thing is that the war wasn’t fought in order to free the Iraqi people.’
Does she think there is any possibility that Tony Blair was motivated by the belief, however unfounded that he was doing the right thing?
‘I don’t know. It’s impossible to say.’
The last book that Asne wrote is called ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’. ‘Stunning and fascinating in equal measure, because Seierstad has clearly made the tells it like it was..’ So said the Observer review. In that book, in an attempt to find out the truth about family life in Afghanistan and in particular, life for women, Asne moved in with a bookseller and his family, in Kabul.
The book provides a fascinating and at times infuriating account of family life in Afghanistan. When it was published, the bookseller himself kicked up a stink in the Press, saying that he had been misrepresented. He also went to Norway to find Asne, and engaged a solicitor, with the intention of preventing the book from being sold, something which he didn’t succeed in doing. What he did succeed in doing was causing a bit of a scandal.
‘It is his right,’ she says, when I ask how she felt about that. ‘A book has been written about him, he doesn’t like how he is presented and he protests. That’s the great thing about democracy. I have the right to write my book, he has the right to protest!’
She believes that people don’t necessarily like the truth, especially not about themselves.
‘He wanted to be a total hero. But nobody is like that. I wrote him with all the shadows that a person has. But the strange thing is that he always said ‘You write whatever you like.’ So I was not afraid to do that!’
It would have been possible, she says, to adjust the book, in order to emphasise the bookseller’s positive attributes.
‘But what would that be?’ she sighs. ‘I could not go back on my book. You have to keep your credibility and you have to stand 100% by a book.’
Why did you not invite the bookseller to write his own book? I ask.
‘He is! He is writing the true version of his life and there will be a long chapter about me. Which he says will be very libellous.’
I ask her what terrible things the bookseller will say about her.
‘ He didn’t like that I have a very strong will. I don’t always know best, but I think I know best. He will put that. And I think he will invent things. What is the worst thing he could write? I don’t know. But how can I mind? I am just waiting to see!’
Whatever happens, she says, she won’t sue.
‘ I think it will be a best seller, because many of the readers of my book, will want to read what he writes!’
As it turns out, with all the scandal, ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ has topped the bestseller lists for two years now and made Asne rich.
‘It’s crazy!’ she says. ‘I spent part of the money to build a school for five hundred girls in Afghanistan, and I can pay the teachers salaries for years to come! I am also supporting health education and the construction of libraries.’
They wanted to name the school after her, but she wasn’t keen.
‘If I had a nicer name, maybe!’ she laughs.
Having lived her career to date in war zones, Asne, who is in her early thirties, has learned to appreciate the joys of a normal, safe, family life, with familiar routines and no bombs.
‘I am happy to go back to Norway now!’ she says. ‘I am finally constructing a life!’
There hasn’t been a partner in her life for some time, despite the fact that she is a stunning blonde and entirely personable. But it would have been difficult to conduct a relationship while she was holed up in Iraq and it would have been frightening for a partner too, especially now that journalists are now frequently being kidnapped and killed. She is now dating someone, also a writer.
‘I am taking it a bit slowly!’ she says. ‘Usually I have always rushed into things and fallen passionately in love! With this guy, I find out things about him first.’
Even a war reporter can settle down, she says.
‘ I think I would like to have children. There’s nothing left that I have to do, in my career. I can still write, but I don’t need to go to war zones anymore! I am trying to give myself routines in my life. Like picking up my best friend’s child from school. Which is also a good way of preparing myself to take care of a child.’
She doesn’t want to be a single mother, however, so a suitable partner must first be found. ‘Shall I ask for volunteers to come forward?’ I ask. But alas, it appears that such a thing would be more terrifying than living under Saddam Hussein, being in a war or the threat of kidnap and torture.
‘Oh no! No, no, no! I would be much too shy!’
’A Hundred and One Days’ is published by Virago price 9.99 euros