Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Price of Staying

Despite the risks, a journalist has decided to remain in Baghdad and work towards a better future than go into exile.
By Zaineb Naji
Every morning before taking my children to school, I drill them on how to stay safe. My boys are just nine and five, so to get them to remember these directives, I often make it into a game complete with prizes.

In the car, they must not sit near the window. If they hear shootings or a bombing, they have to drop to the car floor immediately.

I tell them they should never talk to strangers, never play near the school gate, and never get into anyone else's car, even if they are friends of the family. They must never tell their classmates their full names, their parents’ jobs or where they live.

These are the burdens that Iraqi mothers must bear today. We try to be prepared for every scenario and take every precaution. We try to stay strong.

When I shop, I buy items that can be stored for a long time so that I don’t have to go to the store too often. For fresh food, I plant seasonal vegetables in our small garden.

It is the duty of a mother to protect her children, and I am constantly plagued by “what ifs”. What if my house is being monitored and my children are kidnapped when I step out to shop? Some children have been abducted in this way, in the yards in front of their houses, even when their families were there.

What if a roadside or car bomb goes off? What if we are stopped at a fake checkpoint and asked for our IDs?

And what if I lose another friend? During the sectarian war, hardly a day would pass without me hearing of a friend or a relative being killed or leaving Iraq. I only have one or two left.

The worries are endless. I have survived this period by asking the Almighty to keep evil from us. I have accustomed myself and my family to living this strange life in Baghdad.

In wartime, one learns a lot, and I have learnt that despite all the problems, I cannot and should not leave. I decided to stay because I hate the thought of a life in exile as a solution to my problems.

When I contemplated moving my family out of Iraq, I asked myself, what do I want to gain from leaving? Will I really be able to secure a future for myself and my family? Am I willing to leave for good? Once you step outside your country’s borders, it can be difficult to return.

My family is here, and despite the troubles, my children can play with their friends and visit their grandfather and uncles. I would only be willing to leave with all of them – all my sisters and brothers and my husband’s family. Logistically and financially, that is not realistic.

If I travel abroad, I would want to find a job and position equal to what I have now in order to support my children. That too is unrealistic. Leaving means starting from scratch, particularly as an Iraqi. Our passports are not a desirable asset in the rest of the world.

I live in my own house in Iraq. I work at the university and in journalism, and have built a good reputation in the community.

As a university professor, the least I can do is to teach this upcoming generation and help them learn how to think. As a journalist, I hope that the words I pen now will resonate and change something in this country. I am convinced that journalism has brought something good to this country – freedom of speech.

When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, I expected that life would be better than it is now. But I read a lot, and I know that after any war, states collapse. This occurred in Europe after the Second World War – in Germany, in particular – although they had reconstruction and economic development through the Marshall Plan.

If an opportunity once existed for Iraq to rebuild and stand on its own feet again, we have lost it. We were preoccupied with killing, kidnapping and hurting people. And now, we are busy with thieving and looting the country’s resources instead of trying to reconstruct Iraq.

That is the tragedy of the Iraqis. We cheered at the prospect of change but could not bear the price of freedom.

Since the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have sacrificed everything: their homes, their money, their children and even their lives. There are those who are able to endure the suffering, and those who cannot. The latter say, “Enough is enough; I want to live. Where will I find comfort?”

But many have chosen to stay. Even though they have been displaced and have lost their homes and money, they have found other places to live inside Iraq and have begun rebuilding their lives.

The entire people asked for change, yet every change comes with a price to pay. Even changing the simplest things in life takes time and effort. There is the risk that we may succeed or fail.

So why should we run away? We must pay the price, and wait to see the results.

If we do not stick it out, we will end up losing the country entirely, and the future of our children as well. While we might not be able to live in security and stability, there must come a day when our children can see what we have done for them.

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.