War Diary: Room With a Grim View

Celeste Fremon is the author of "Father Greg and the Homeboys: The Extraordinary Journey of Father Greg Boyle and His Work With the Latino Gangs of East L.A."

Kathy Kelly, co-founder of the Chicago-based human rights group Voices in the Wilderness, and Ramzi Kysia, an Arab American who is on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, are activists who have chosen to remain in Baghdad despite the war. Neither is acting as a human shield. Rather, Kelly and Kysia have chosen to stay as observers to report the effects of the war on the civilian population. Kelly has traveled to Iraq 18 times since 1996; Kysia has been living in Iraq for the last nine months. Celeste Fremon spoke to them by phone in the early days of the war. What follows are edited transcripts of those phone calls.

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Saturday, March 22

Kelly: Shock and awe has begun. It's been a night of intense bombardment with explosions going on from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. Nine of us are staying at the Al Fanar Hotel along the Tigris. It isn't structurally sound, so if a palace right across the river is hit, we could be in trouble.

Abu Hassan, one of the men who works at our hotel, said that last night a concussion blast blew out all the windows in his house. His children crouched under furniture while his wife sobbed all night. Yesterday I went to visit two of the families I know best to make sure they were OK. Kareema, a widow with eight children, has a daughter, Amal, who turns 13 tomorrow. Despite the abnormal situation, I told Kareema we'd try to pull together a birthday party.

The other family is all women. When I came by to bring them flashlights and earplugs, the 85-year-old grandmother clung to me and pleaded with me to stay with them. She believes my presence could keep them safe -- which, of course, it can't.

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Sunday, March 23

Kelly: I'm a little sleep-deprived today because it was a night punctuated by severe bombardment. Even now, clouds of smoke are billowing in every direction. Ramzi, one of our team members, was the most nervous of all of us on the first night. But last night he managed to rig up his computer to show a movie for us to watch, "Shakespeare in Love." I think this is going to be a matter of endurance. This afternoon, Amal and her family are coming for the birthday party, as planned -- that's presuming that there'll be a lull in the bombing.

Kysia: I was OK with the first bombings on Thursday morning. But Friday night I was in the shower and all of a sudden it was "BOOM-BOOM-BOOM." I thought, this is it. The hotel's going to collapse. Most people on upper floors bring bedding down to the second-floor hallways or to a shelter in the basement, where some of the Iraqi families with young children have been sleeping. My room is high up and on the river, which overlooks several government sights, and I don't want to be alone up there. So I either sleep in the shelter or on the floor of my friend's room.

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Monday, March 24

Kelly: Last night the B-52 bombers came and the bombing seemed like it would never stop. Although it continued into the daytime, we had Amal's birthday party anyway. Since there's no place really safe, indoors or out, we decided to have it outside in a local park. Normalcy in defiance of war. We had balloons, soap bubbles, presents, barbecued chicken and pita salad. And, all the while, right overhead there were the enormous B-52s and the explosions. I was in Sarajevo during that war and I've never experienced anything as intense as this. Yet we are bracing ourselves, because we know that more and worse is coming.

Kysiai: I guess you can get used to anything. I've come to take my cue from the ordinary Iraqi people around me who seem to say, "If this is 'shock and awe,' the U.S. is going to have to do a lot better than this." Their attitude is probably partly bravado. They are obviously scared about what's going to happen when the Americans invade Baghdad.

No matter what happens, from here on out, like it or not, Iraq and America are going to be joined. The question is -- in what way are we going to be joined -- for good or for ill?

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Tuesday, March 25

Kelly: Last night we had the B-52s again. Their sound is very distinctive, six deafening, crashing thuds right in a row. Yesterday, I made it to the Al Kindi hospital and sat at the bedsides of lots of wounded kids. There was the one gentle 10-year-old girl with awful injuries to her chest who'd been hit the first night. The father of another child kept saying, "My son is a victim, not a criminal." A family that had taken a direct hit came with three wounded children; their 8-year-old daughter already dead. The mother of that family was in a rage. "Why do you do this to us?" she kept screaming.

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Wednesday, March 26

Kelly: In our trips to the hospitals we see a growing stream of maimed and wounded, many of them with family members that have been killed. I talked to Amal and her mother yesterday. They've survived the bombing. But their location is precarious. They're one of the families I worry about in a state of siege.

Kysia : In yesterday's huge sandstorm, the light was so orange it seemed like you were wearing sunglasses. The other news was that Iraqi TV went off the air. Some of the international journalists here got private calls from their Pentagon contacts saying, "We're going to bomb the TV building, so clear out." It was only off for a few hours, though, before they got it up and running again.

I've been surprised by the level of resistance elsewhere in Iraq. Nasiriyah was a center for the uprising in 1991, as was Najaf, so they aren't areas one would expect to be supportive of the government. For the U.S. to have trouble taking those cities does not bode well for the battle for Baghdad.

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Thursday, March 27

Kelly: Another garish, eerie day because of the sandstorms and the oil fires. I went with an Italian journalist to look at the damage from the bomb in the marketplace that has killed 15 people. I've begun to wonder how we will react if members of our team or those Iraqis we're close to number among the casualties or the dead. Our team meets daily to discuss how we can avoid giving way to feelings of panic or hysteria or anger. Still, the incidents of inspiration are many. For me, the moment that stands out most was Amal's birthday party -- so much joy and hope, contrasted with the surreal sight of the huge bombers overhead. I remember thinking, if this is the last experience of my life, it has been worth it.

Kysia: Yesterday, we went to visit a farmhouse where six Baghdad families had gone to stay for safety. After they arrived, the house was bombed, and three people were killed, including the bride of a newlywed couple. I also made it over to visit a girl in a war diary program I'm doing with high school students, a 17-year-old named Thuraya whose father teaches at Baghdad University. There was constant bombing while I was there; evidently a communications center is nearby. Thuraya was scared, but her father was calm and very frank. He said: "Look, you don't like Saddam, but you're not attacking him. You're attacking people here."

Here's another thing: I've heard over and over that the sandstorm was the worst in 50 years. Whether or not that's true, that's the perception. For two days, the air was orange and the sky was blood red. To me, it felt ominous. But for the Iraqis it was a huge morale booster. People believed the storm was a sign from God that the Americans were cursed, that God brought the storm to stop the siege of Baghdad. Everybody on the street was talking about it. To them, the real shock and awe was the storm. But it favored the other side.

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