Friday, May 30, 2003
The most gripping account of the Iraq conflict came from a web diarist known as the Baghdad Blogger. But no one knew his identity - or even if he existed. Rory McCarthy finally tracked him down, and found a quietly spoken, 29-year-old architect. From next week he will write fortnightly.
Explains the name of the blog - As with so much in Iraq, it was never meant to be like this. In June last year, Salam (this much of his name, at least, is real) was a recently graduated architect, aged 29, living at home with his parents and brother in Baghdad. His best friend was Raed, 25, a Palestinian-Jordanian he had met while studying architecture, who was taking a masters degree in Jordan. Raed was at best an infrequent email correspondent and so Salam started writing up his news from home on a weblog, a site on the internet where he could post his scribblings as often as he liked for his friend to read. He called it: Where is Raed?
As he wrote in more detail, he began to touch more often on the unspoken hardships of life in Iraq under the paranoid regime of Saddam Hussein. He could hardly have taken a greater risk if he had tried. More than 200,000 people went missing under Saddam, many for far lesser crimes than the open criticism of the regime that Salam voiced in his writings. Now that the regime has fallen, human rights workers are tripping over mass graves in Iraq every few days as they trawl through the legacy of 23 years of unimaginable brutality and persecution.
Like all Iraqis, Salam was familiar with the dangers. At least four of his relatives had gone missing. In the past year, for no apparent reason, one of his friends was summarily executed, shot in the head as he sat in his car, and two others were arrested; one was later freed and another, a close friend, has never returned.
Not only had Salam criticised the regime, he had written openly about the fact that he is gay. It was a frank admission in a repressive dictatorship and one that, even in the new, postwar Iraq, which at heart is still a conservative, Islamic society, represents a significant risk. And so he continues to guard his identity. "I am not going to be the first one to carry the flag. I hide behind computer screens," he says.
Despite the risks, Salam soon became hooked on his daily diary. He gave simple but honest descriptions of life at Hotel Pax, as he called his family home, which was fast filling up with anxious relatives. He talked equally freely about the soaring price of tomatoes and the sudden arrival of the feared Ba'ath party militia, who, to the neighbours' horror, set up a gun position in an empty house on his street. He wrote either in the office of the architectural firm he was representing in Baghdad, or at home, in his chaotically untidy bedroom.
Screens cover the windows to keep the midday sun away from his three computers, each of which has been opened up into a sprawling tangle of wires and circuit boards. A poster from the film The Matrix hangs on the wall, looking down on a jumble of computer books and CDs strewn over the floor. Pages of website addresses and computer commands are tacked to the wall above his screen. It was here that Salam would sit and talk endlessly about the impending war with Raed, who returned to Baghdad before the war, and the friend he describes only as G - Ghaith, another young, intelligent, eloquent architectural graduate who spent much of his adult life dodging military service. They talked eagerly about the demise of Saddam, but they were scared too. Scared of being called up for military service because all young men were reservists, and scared of being obliterated by an American bomb.