Photo: Steven Vincent
Being a freelance journalist living in Iraq, Steven Vincent was fully aware of the risk to his life. Steven was writing a book on Basra, as well as posting to his blog. This Sunday an op-ed which he wrote appeared in the NYTIMES (see below). Some feel this cost him his life. For a man like Steven Vincent it was only a matter of time. Over sixty news-gathers, and reporters have lost their lives in the last two years since the Iraq war began.
Steven Vincent was brave enough, or some might argue foolish enough to step outside of the greenzone - into the redzone as his recent book with the same title describes. He was seeking the truth, and perhaps the thrill that goes along with the risk to find it.
He was our ears, and eyes in a place where most would be too frightened to venture, and he paid the ultimate cost for the role he chose to play.
I'm including one of his last postings below. Toward the end his post, the cat is most certainly exploding out of the bag - boy could he write!
SONG OF BASRA
Located about five miles south of central Basra, it is a large, partially-tended expanse of nebk trees and palm groves, the last bearing clusters of unripened dates high amidst their spiky green leaves. Intermingled among weeds and foot-high grasses are small vegetable plots--cucumbers, okra, red pepper, figs and bamber--an Indian fruit about the size of a cherry tomato.
"This land has been in my family for seven centuries," says Samir, walking along the banks of the Ahsahraji River, its still green waters streaked with the copper glow of sunset. "That is nearly half the age of Basra itself."
A stocky, dark-skinned, middle-aged Iraqi with soft, sympathetic eyes, Samir is the editor-in-chief of one of Basra's largest newspapers. A secular man, he is nevertheless respectful of, but not beholden to, the religious parties that currently run his native city. "I am a real Iraqi," he is fond of saying. "Not Sunni, not Shia, not Christian, not Arab or Kurd--Iraqi." He's also as native a son of Basra as you can find--not only has his family resided in the city since the days of the Mongols, but twelve generations of his fathers have dwelt in the very house he lives in today.
We met in his downtown Basra office last week for an interview, after which he invited me to visit his 5,000 square-meter "farm"--refuge is more like it I jumped at the invitation. If anyone knew the answer to a question that has increasingly obsessed me, this tolerant, urbane, surprisingly Western Basrawi was the man.
"You want to find the 'soul' of our city?" he repeats, as we sit on the edge of a shallow irrigation channel running through his property. "This is difficult. Basra is a mixture, ever-changing. Like it's weather. Do you know," he adds, picking an emerald green squash from a patch beside him, "that people have called this city 'The Idiot' because it's character is so unstable?"
As if to underscore Basra's turbulent reputation, Samir outlines its history. Founded in 637 AD as a military outpost for the expanding Muslim empire, Al-Basrah (the name has many translations --my favorite is "black specks," referring to distant palm groves rising from the desert, the first sign that approaching caravans had of the city) has experienced pillage and plunder, wealth and renown, neglect and decrepitude at the hands of numerous powers--Persians, Turks, Mongols, Portuguese, British, Baathists and, most recently, Americans.
"But will this bring you to an understanding of Basra? Not quite." To the west, the sky takes on a silver sheen, as the air seems to weave a thickening skein of dusk among the palms along the river. Overhead, a few stars begin to appear.
I ask about Shia Islam. "Of course," he nods. "After all, it forms the personality of southern Iraq, and the Shia have waited 1,400 years to rule this area." Visions fill my imagination of black flags fluttering in the desert, armies of men chanting Ya, Hussein!, bearded mujtahids preaching sacred blood and holy martyrdom. But Samir shakes his head. "No, no...for most of its history, Basra was not Shia, but maintained loyalties to Sunni caliphs. It even revolted against Imam Ali! Basra didn't become Shia until the 19th century, when people from Amarra and Nasiriya began immigrating to the city. No," Samir says again, "Shiism is not the place to search for Basra's soul."
The modern legacy of war, revolt and impoverishment? My host nods again and begins to describe the effects of Saddam's military adventuring--the nearly incalculable death and destruction unleashed by his megalomania, the coarsening of Basran society and the nightmares that the survivors of that period carry with them. Samir himself witnessed the death of his own brother during the Iran-Iraq War, when they were both serving near Fao.
"I saw him enter an Iranian mine field, where an explosion sent a piece of shrapnel into his spine. It took our troops ten days to fight our way to the area, and by the time I found my brother, his corpse was thick with worms and maggots." He relates the story with the impassive tone of someone who has long ago buried the pain of his memories.
But the obscenities didn't end there. As the night darkens, and the cooling earth causes a soft breeze to stir, Samir describes Basra during the "Intifada" of 1991, when Shia Muslims, encouraged by the White House, rose up against Saddam, only to encounter the full might of his security forces. The stories are gruesome--mass executions at the university, corpses torn apart in the street by feral dogs, the legless torso of a man lying in a gutter, his face staring wide-eyed at passersby too terrified to move or bury him. I ask him to stop. Is this where I'll find the soul of Basra--in the trauma inflicted on the city by Saddam Hussein?
Samir shakes his head no, then, after a pause offers his answer: "Walt Whitman." Chuckling at my reaction, "Yes, your country's poet--you are perhaps familiar with his book 'Leaves of Grass?'" Cormorants, bedding down for the night, flit from palm to palm. From a concrete block house nestled in the underbrush a generator coughs and sputters, and a small trickle of water comes splashing down the irrigation channel.
"In his poem," continues Samir, eyes gleaming in the dark, "Whitman talks as if his soul were a part of nature--free, filled with love, encompassing every aspect of life. I think of this often." After weeks of experiencing little but shortages, poverty, frustrations and dysfunctionalities--Iraqis' and my own--this evocation of the great American Bard startles me. Kafka, yes--but narcissistic, homoerotic, barbarically yawping Walt?
"Yes, you see, Basra was once like that. It is, you know, a port city. Open to influences from around the world--Asia, Europe, Africa, America. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, life was here--if you went to the Corniche, you found bars and casinos and nightclubs. People gambled, drank Arak, had sex and prayed. They may have sinned, but they did it indoors, with the result that Allah forgave them."
This last theological point is lost on me, but I understand Samir's general meaning. Again and again, I've heard similar sentiments from Basra's intellectual class: the "turbans" who are imposing their Islamic beliefs on the city--often at the barrel of an AK--are not Basrawi, they are an aberration, a glitch in the city's history, a "transitional" phase from 35 years of Saddam's tyranny to a truly democratic future. It is dangerous--possibly fatal--to express these thoughts too forcibly in public, but they exist on the minds, lips, tongues and soon the voting fingertips of thousands of Basrans come the next round of elections this December.
"This is what I look forward to. That someday, insha'allah, I will live in a country without any differences from any other country. Just a normal place where my family and I can live normal lives. You ask about the soul of Basra? Look for it in the humanity that your poet, Walt Whitman, expresses."
It's late. I must return to house arrest in my downtown funduk. We stand, brush the dirt off our trousers, walk back to the car. Through a picket-line of palms I see the rising moon, hanging full and yellow in the blue-black sky. With the trickling sound of water in the background and the gentle whisper of the breeze, the scene approaches a tranquil beauty I've yet to encounter in Basra. For an instant, you can almost imagine the world inviting you to lean and loaf and observe a spear of summer grass. The moment contains multitudes. Walt Whitman would love it.
Yours, camerado, from where the wisteria falling over a Basran wall satisfies more than the metaphysics of the mullahs.
There's a richness, and texture to his writing that invokes an almost primordial memory of the ancient story teller at work within us all. In another age I see Vincent sitting at the edge of a camp fire, the sound of wood crackling, and a soft night's breeze stirring ambers while he, the storyteller, the traveler, would share wonderous tales of far away lands with we lucky villagers inspired with awe.
Some are speculating that Steven was killed as a result of this (see below) Op-Ed article appearing in the NYTIMES just two days before his abduction, and murder:
Switched Off in Basra
THE British call it being "switched on" - a state of high morale and readiness, similar to what Americans think of as "gung ho" attitude. During the 10 days I recently spent embedded with the British-led multinational force in this southern Iraqi city, I met many switched-on soldiers involved in what the British call "security sector reform." An effort to maintain peace while training Iraqis to handle their own policing and security, security sector reform is fundamental to the British-American exit strategy. As one British officer put it, "The sooner the locals assume their own security, the sooner we go home."
From this perspective, the strategy appears successful. Particularly in terms of the city police officers, who are proving adept at the close-order drills, marksmanship and proper arrest techniques being drilled into them by their foreign instructors. In addition, police salaries are up, the officers have shiny new patrol cars, and many sport snazzy new uniforms. Better yet, many of these new Iraqi officers seem switched-on themselves. "We want to serve our country" is a repeated refrain.
From another view, however, security sector reform is failing the very people it is intended to serve: average Iraqis who simply want to go about their lives. As has been widely reported of late, Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups, from the relatively mainstream Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Recruited from the same population of undereducated, underemployed men who swell these organizations' ranks, many of Basra's rank-and-file police officers maintain dual loyalties to mosque and state.
In May, the city's police chief told a British newspaper that half of his 7,000-man force was affiliated with religious parties. This may have been an optimistic estimate: one young Iraqi officer told me that "75 percent of the policemen I know are with Moktada al-Sadr - he is a great man." And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra's residents.
"No one trusts the police," one Iraqi journalist told me. "If our new ayatollahs snap their fingers, thousands of police will jump." Mufeed al-Mushashaee, the leader of a liberal political organization called the Shabanea Rebellion, told me that he felt that "the entire force should be dissolved and replaced with people educated in human rights and democracy."
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the British aren't doing. Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.
The results are apparent. At the city's university, for example, self-appointed monitors patrol the campuses, ensuring that women's attire and makeup are properly Islamic. "I'd like to throw them off the grounds, but who will do it?" a university administrator asked me. "Most of our police belong to the same religious parties as the monitors."
Similarly, the director of Basra's maternity hospital, Mohammad Nasir, told me that he frequently catches staff members pilfering equipment to sell to private hospitals, but hesitates to call the police: "How do I know what religious party they are affiliated with, and what their political connection is to the thieves?"
It is particularly troubling that sectarian tensions are increasing in Basra, which has long been held up as the brightest spot of the liberated Iraq. "Are the police being used for political purposes?" asked Jamal Khazal Makki, the head of the Basra branch of the Sunni-dominated Islamic Party. "They arrest people and hold them in custody, even though the courts order them released. Meanwhile, the police rarely detain anyone who belongs to a Shiite religious party."
An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations - mostly of former Baath Party members - that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of "death car": a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.
Meanwhile, the British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists' claim on the hearts and minds of police officers. This detachment angers many Basrans. "The British know what's happening but they are asleep, pretending they can simply establish security and leave behind democracy," said the police lieutenant who had told me of the assassinations. "Before such a government takes root here, we must experience a transformation of our minds."
In other words, real security reform requires psychological as well as physical training. Unless the British include in their security sector reform strategy some basic lessons in democratic principles, Basra risks falling further under the sway of Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers.
Here's a link to his blog: