Eyewitness: The unbearable suspense
by ICRC media officer Roland Huguenin in Baghdad
The number of journalists seeking accreditation in Iraq has risen sharply in view of the current build up focussing on that country. Representing a broad spectrum of world media most of them are now congregating on a few focal points in Baghdad namely the press centre and the al Rasheed hotel rendered famous during the Gulf War.
As diversified as they may be, they all have in common that they made a choice to come to Iraq at this particular time for professional reasons. It is up to them to stay or to leave but the vast majority of the Iraqi population has no choice except to wait and see. Apart from the few who have the financial means to go on an open-ended vacation abroad and those who board charter buses into neighbouring countries to sit out the impending storm, the majority of the civilian population fear that they might be in for a hard ride.
Sabre rattling has been going on for months now and it has a draining effect on a population whose patience has been tested by twelve years of economic sanctions in the aftermath of the 1991 war. Basic infrastructure has been re-habilitated as much as possible but even now electrical power is cut off for several hours daily and the supply of clean drinking water just about barely covers the needs.
Teams of ICRC engineers join efforts with their Iraqi counterparts at water and sewage treatment plants in the hope that public services are not going to be disrupted yet again. Generators have been set up at water stations to ensure that water can be pumped and treated even if the electricity supply should fail. A water-line machine has started producing water bags to be made available to all hospitals in Baghdad to ensure patients' access to drinking water.
Pondering over the pros and cons of staying in town or seeking shelter with one's relative in the countryside is a dilemma for many families. Everyone knows only too well how difficult survival becomes for the civilian population in the midst of an armed conflict. The provisions of international humanitarian law make it clear that civilians should be spared as well as all objects necessary to their survival but some will remember that the term "collateral damage" was originally coined for the media during the Gulf War in 1991.
Listening to news bulletin has become a fateful ritual that is overshadowing everyone's mood as life is turned into an unbearable suspense. A whole population has now been living for months with the permanent threat of war in what amounts to a form of psychological warfare. The paralysing effect of the imminence of danger is difficult to overcome and even as everyone tries to put on a nice face, there is no way to ignore the underlying worry.
Baghdad, 27 February 2003