Chaos hastens Iraq brain-drain
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Six months after the U.S. invasion, Esam Pasha, a 30-year-old Iraqi artist and writer, proudly painted a mural called "Resilience" over a giant portrait of Saddam Hussein on the wall of a government building.
Now he lives in the United States. Pasha is among hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been driven abroad since the war, many of them doctors, businessmen, academics and other professionals whose skills Iraq can ill-afford to lose.
Pasha talks wistfully about sipping tea and chatting all day at a gallery in Baghdad: "I can still hear the sounds and the birds and almost smell the tea."
His mural was a colorful celebration of Baghdad life and what he called "the ever-shining sun of Iraq."
"I didn't use a single drop of black paint in it. I felt like Baghdad had enough of black burned in its memory," Pasha said in a telephone interview from Connecticut.
The mural is on a wall of the Ministry of Labour, which like all government offices in Baghdad is now surrounded by blast walls and guards, off limits to the general public.
"Hopefully someday it will be safe enough to have public artworks in Baghdad that people walk by safely and enjoy," he said. "That was what I had in mind, that if other artists do as I did, Baghdad would be beautiful and clean as it once was. But if there's no security, nothing can be done."
Abu Mina, a ceramic artist and university professor, still goes to the gallery Pasha remembers so fondly, but he says nobody is buying art anymore and he too is considering leaving.
He hasn't been paid for a month by the university and most of his students don't come to class because it's too dangerous.
"Maybe only three students will graduate this year. The other 27 never showed up," he said. "I wouldn't even recognize their faces."
The Higher Education Ministry says at least 185 university teachers have been killed since April 2003, another 52 kidnapped and 41 wounded. A double bombing at a Baghdad university this month killed at least 70 people, mostly students.
Abu Mina's son is studying medicine but classes are only held about once every two weeks, and many professors have moved to the safety of Damascus to teach at a private university.
Finding a dentist or a specialist surgeon or consultant can take weeks and often proves impossible, driving those who can afford it to seek medical treatment abroad. Hospital emergency rooms faced with a flood of casualties from bombings and shootings are often short-staffed and overwhelmed.
A United Nations report this month said there was a worrying increase in attacks on professionals such as teachers, doctors, artists, lawyers, ex-military officers and journalists.
"These attacks are typically perpetrated by extremists practicing conformist ideology and by militant/terror groups intent on spreading fear and intimidation," the report said, adding that a growing climate of Islamic extremism was also linked to attacks on academics.
RULES OF THE JUNGLE
Asam Rifaat, 38, a criminal lawyer living in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, said he has decided to take his wife and two children out of Iraq. "I can't live in Baghdad any more. It's turned into a city for dead people and I'm not ready to have my children grow up as orphans," he said.
"I can't work for justice in a country run by militias which act above the law," he said, referring to armed groups blamed for operating death squads responsible for hundreds of killings every week, many thought to work in collusion with the police.
"I mean it, we are living according to the rules of the jungle," Rifaat said. "Every time I leave my home, I take a long look at (my children) Nora and Mahmoud because I always have the feeling that I'm not coming back, I'll be killed or abducted."
His wife, a 35-year-old teacher, has quit her job to stay home with the children. "Every time Asam leaves for work I keep praying for his safety. And when I see urgent news on television about bombs, I start crying until he comes home."
Salim al-Taie, a former army officer, 45, lives with his wife and three children aged five to 12 in Amriya in western Baghdad. "In the last four years many things have changed in Baghdad and definitely for the worse. No one respects the law any more, which is a disaster," he said.
"Life in Baghdad is like living in a city run by the mafia where anybody can be killed in cold blood," he said, recalling two friends and former pilots who were killed by gunmen.
"Every time I convince my wife that we mustn't give up hope, the ever-increasing blasts and sectarian killing prove I'm wrong," he said, adding that he had stopped sending his children to school and decided to move to Egypt.
"When I stopped Nahida and Jumana from going to school they started crying about not seeing their friends any more," Taie said. "They broke my heart and their tears encouraged me to pack up and leave Iraq forever."
"I want no more tears in my children's eyes, even if the price is never to return to Iraq."