War voices: R Huguenin-Benjamin

Al Jazeera asks five people for their memories of the war and its aftermath.

The Red Cross largely pulled out of Iraq after it was bombed in late 2003 [GALLO/GETTY]

Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, former spokesman for the Red Cross delegation in Iraq and now an independent media adviser, was in Iraq from summer 2002 until summer 2003, just after the United Nations building in Baghdad was bombed, killing at least 24 people, including special UN envoy Sergio de Vieira Mello.


In Focus

In depth coverage on the fifth anniversary of the
Iraq invasion

I was living in Baghdad a few months before it all started, so I was very much aware of the difficulties the civilian population had to put up with under sanctions.

People were convinced that war would take place any case … they were resigned to the fact [and] very anxious, worried and concerned they may not be able to pack up enough food and medicines.


People also kept asking: “Should I leave?” We were very hard pressed to give answers. There was a feeling of impending disaster but no-one knew the magnitude. 


We had kept a small number of Red Cross delegates in Baghdad – a doctor and a civil engineer working with Iraqi engineers to ensure that water pumps kept working and that power was still available for hospitals, while I looked at logistics and responded to press requests.


Major disruptions


Voices from the Iraq war

‘Yasmin’ is an Iraqi woman who fled the violence and now lives in Sweden

‘Mohammed’ is an Iraqi dentist who lives in Baghdad

Camilo Mejia is a former US soldier and Iraq war veteran

Tom Basile is a former spokesman for the CPA, the US-run transitional government in Iraq post-invasion

Roland Huguenin-Benjamin is a former Red Cross spokesman who worked in Iraq during the invasion

Click on the names above to read their stories

When the bombing started most of the population stayed put and went into hiding. It was very impressive to be under bombing – others had it on TV but we had it live, so to speak.


These images remain for me of them burning all this oil – they had dug up ditches and poured in oil and set fire to it so there were huge big clouds of black smoke to disturb the pilots, but it was choking and horrible.


On top of the bombing there were very strong sandstorms for several days. The sky turned yellow and it was like end of the world. 


The major difficulties I remember, apart from major disruptions, were that I was shocked that hospitals had been hit directly, also the fact that the Palestine hotel was hit and journalists were hit, it was absolutely beyond the wildest imagination they would have shot at the hotel.


The other big thing is that all telephone exchanges were bombed out to cut communications, so the result was no-one could connect with anyone and people were desperately worried about relatives.


At the Red Cross we tried to help people with satellite cell phones so they could come to offices and call.


No-one could call the engineers, the doctors … The US troops came to us and said you know the systems where are the water supplies. We said: “we want to but we cannot call anyone.”


International troops ‘unprepared’


We saw a steady flow of Iraqi volunteers coming in – doctors, teachers, pharmacists, who came and said we want to help. But as we all know this short window of opportunity didn’t last.


The expectations from people were that: “It’s now all over, the system is gone”. But 13 years of economic sanctions had ruined the system. We had worked for years patching up but not developing the systems and there wasn’t enough help coming.


Things went downhill rapidly, now there is reconstruction but this couldn’t happen quickly enough to satisfy people and certainly the international troops were not prepared for the magnitude of the task.


You cannot replace an entire structure overnight.


I lived in Iraq in the 1980s and it was very modern, running perfectly, but sanctions ruined the system. We were running on a very tight basis [ahead of the invasion] and on only a few hours of power a day and after the invasion even more damage.


It was to me obvious no-one was prepared for the extent of the task – they [US-led forces] had lots of power and potential but it wasn’t enough.


Iraq is a very multilayered society and everyone knew it was held together by a very strong centralised system.


The moment you remove it you cannot expect democracy to emerge as a miracle; democracy takes years to build up. What I think is most shocking is the shortsightedness of it all.


‘Total disorder’


Within days after the invasion there were lots of people … starting demonstrations and arguing and protesting. It really didn’t take long.


It was thought that the country was under control [and there was] no resistance, but it was obvious there would be resistance.


The country was awash with weaponry and the troops were busy looking for non existent WMD.


It was a time of total disorder. I was in an independent house when looting began – I though ‘am I going to be killed for my water or my TV set?’ There was no way of controlling the crowd.


After the bombing [of the UN building in August 2003] the decision was made to pull out anyone who was not absolutely necessary.


We were bombed too within a few months. We were stunned, we thought “What next, is our presence counter-productive?” We had never been bombed before.


Uncertain future


I haven’t been back [to Iraq] for some time now, but I was in Jordan two weeks ago and met many Iraqis whose major concern is that the country’s social fabric has been disrupted.


People have moved around as the country is unsafe, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and there is no perspective on what next. People who are at a total loss.


We know people have jobs and better salaries and consumption is higher, but at the same time this big concern about security remains.


Iraqis say there is a high sense of sectarian communities not present before the invasion. People used to at least live together but this has been very seriously disrupted.


Is economic development the answer? I would be happy to help again with Iraqis, provided there was a sense it was going somewhere, that we want to take this country ahead and not hate each other. But right now I have no clue.

Source : Al Jazeera

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