This is Iraq

Photographs and Text by Ed Ou

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This was my first time in Iraq – I was in high school when American forces invaded the country in 2003. Growing up, I've always thought about the country as a place of war. Almost a decade on, I had the opportunity to visit the country that was still searching for its place. Hired by the ICRC, I obviously had a very different experience than other photojournalists who worked independently, or embedded with coalition forces. As a journalist, I'm always careful of working for organizations with motives other than independent, unbiased reporting. What I would find is that the ICRC's principles of neutrality and conduct in conflict situations paralleled the way that I would generally work as a journalist. I felt comfortable knowing that I could photograph the work of the ICRC, and still paint an honest picture of Iraq.

Through the projects that the ICRC undertook, I found myself with unique access and trust of normal Iraqis affected by conflict. I was welcomed into the homes of female widows who had lost their husbands due to the war. As a male, I would have never imagined being able to visit – let alone photograph, women going about their daily lives in their homes, and I felt quite humbled to have rare glimpse into private spaces that strangers rarely get to see. The one constant I noticed every city I went was the way protracted conflict has affected every single Iraqi, but within that, I was able to consistently find a sense of family, community, support, and ways that life goes on, regardless of conflict. Borne out of tragedies of losing their husband and only means of support, it was a privilege to see women taking initiative of their own lives – finding work that they care about to support themselves and their children.

Tracing projects that the ICRC were facilitating made tangible to me, the sheer scope of the human toll and lasting effects of conflict. At the Al Zubair Martyrs Center in Basra, I got lost in countless documents, personal belongings, bones, corpses, and clothes of soldiers killed in the wars Iraq has seen. Rows and rows of unidentified bodies rest in largely unmarked graves. Stacks of clothes, jewellery, ID cards lie in container boxes, too many to sort through. It was an eerie museum, a living reminder of the nameless soldiers who were sent off to war, only to disappear into a graveyard of statistics. I photographed an Iraqi man reunite with the body of his brother, killed in the Iran-Iraq war, almost three decades ago. Even though he always knew in his heart that his brother was likely killed, his grief was compounded with almost thirty years of uncertainty, wishful thinking, and lost hope. Now, he had comfort in closure, but it struck me that with the violence that is still happening to this day, grief will be the undertone of this country for many decades to come.

The last day I was there, Osama Bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces in Pakistan. As politicians and commentators began to debate the implications of his death, I found it to be a bitter reminder for the Iraqi people, who took it as a time to reflect on their unwilling place in the 'War on Terror', and the events that became the pretext to the invasion of their country. On my way to Baghdad Airport, a roadside bomb exploded less than a hundred meters ahead of us. Before I could even register what had happened, our driver instinctively swerved into a side street away from the smoke and potential secondary explosions. They were absolutely unfazed at something that still happens with haunting regularity. "You see, nothing changes. This is our Iraq."