Watching the Iraqi elections unfold on TV, and the familiar faces like Nouri al Maliki and Iyad Allawi, I am taken back to when I first went to Iraq. I met both of those men, and so many others whose stories I have buried deep inside myself for so many different reasons. The scenery doesn't seem to have changed much, with many streets and homes still in need of repair and a majority of people still lacking services - which, of course, the politicians are promising to fix if elected.
I remember how I struggled to find a "happy" sound for the radio documentary I did for Canada's CBC at the time, and couldn't find one as people tried to survive in a destroyed nation. It seemed that every time I picked up my mic and walked the streets and neighbourhoods in search of sounds, it would pick up the sadness, the danger and the anger in the air even when I couldn't hear it myself anymore. If it wasn't an explosion, then gunshots. If not that, then someone was shouting in frustration; others were crying; and then, always, something was falling, breaking or simply getting driven over by a military convoy. It was awful, and I fear it has not changed over the years.
Recently, I called up an Iraqi friend whom I have known for almost 15 years and talk to regularly about her homeland. For as long as I remember, she has been saying she is going back, once "things get better". "So you think this time around, there will be a change and you will be able to finally go back?" I asked her. "It is the same people running the show," she said. "They couldn't fix the Iraqi situation then, and won't be able to do it now."
I don't know why, but I went looking for something that I haven't been able to look at since December 2003, around the same time they captured the former president Saddam Hussein. After almost seven years, and after moving from one country to another - I found them. Folded far too many times and stained with ink marks and dirt, these hand-drawn maps to homes in Baghdad were given to me by Iraqi families before I moved there on my first official foreign assignment.
They were Iraqi Canadians who wanted me to check on their homes. Some still haven't been back, and have left their houses in the care of relatives or friends, or simply abandoned them. They asked me to take photos of their homes and their families. It remains one of the most memorable trips of my life, as I met and befriended many families who lived in all kinds of areas, many that were not yet defined as Sunni or Shia or any other sect.
I met a former general in a wheelchair, who said he was tortured by the former regime, and his neighbour, a poet and a writer of Kurdish origin. I met a Jordanian doctor helping at a rundown local hospital for free; an Iraqi psychologist doing rounds to treat trauma victims; an artist trying to find stolen paintings; young journalists working with the big networks to tell the stories of their people to the world: those are just a few of the truly inspirational and courageous people I met. Most of them were killed over the years.
I don't want anyone to forget these people, and the many others that stayed on to rebuild their country when many, myself included, gave up at some point. Perhaps it was The Hurt Locker's Academy awards, recognising a film about a bomb squad, that reawakened something in me. Years ago I did a story about an Iraqi police officer in his early twenties who lost both his arms during a bomb disposal mission. It wasn't due to lack of skill, said his commanding officer, but lack of equipment. When I saw what the bomb squad wore for protection, it looked pretty much like my own flimsy bulletproof vest. Actually, mine was better quality.
I checked up on him recently through friends, and he still hasn't received artificial movable limbs. He still works with immobile prosthetics and hooks as fingers. So unfair, and yet he never expressed bitterness or regret. He said he was saving his people and protecting his country. I hope the new government of Iraq remembers these people and has learnt from its previous mistakes. They had better exert the same amount of effort rebuilding Iraq as they have shown in their expensive election campaigns.