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A witness: Sharing views of Iraq's destruction

Dana Visalli (far right) with Iraqi botanists on a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in April. - Courtesy of Dana Visalli
Dana Visalli (far right) with Iraqi botanists on a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in April.
— image credit: Courtesy of Dana Visalli

Just one month before a U.S. "shock and awe" air raid campaign tore through Baghdad, botanist Dana Visalli was walking the streets of the Iraqi capital.

In a city on the cusp of war, residents were still warm in greeting Americans. But many had the same question.

"They would often ask us, 'Is Bush going to bomb us? Is Bush going to bomb us?" Visalli said. "It seemed unbelievable for me, that I could be in this western city of Baghdad, with these friendly people and that bombs could soon be falling."

Visalli, a resident of the Central Washington community of Twisp, has traveled to Iraq three times since, as the U.S. invasion shifted into an occupation, and the country descended into civil bloodshed. He spent most of this month in the northern Kurdistan region helping Iraqi scientists take stock of natural resources, while collecting stories from Iraqis to share in the U.S.

On Sunday, Visalli will visit Bainbridge to present his stories and photos, and discuss the monetary, human and environmental costs of the Iraq war. Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council is hosting Visalli as part of the Great Decisions discussion series at the Bainbridge Public Library, at 4 p.m May 4.

Visalli said that what attracted him to Baghdad in those nervous days before the invasion was a fascination with the human tolls of war that stretched back to his youth. It began as a teenager, he said, watching the Vietnam War play out and pondering the massive civilian casualties that resulted.

"I couldn't understand how such a thing could happen, or why it would happen," he said. "So as an adult watching this unfold in Iraq, it was very painful. It was a reenactment, in my perspective, of what had happened in Vietnam."

In 1984 he wanted to know what life was like for average Russians at the height of the Cold War. So alone he traveled to the Soviet Union, and captured all he could with a camera and some rudimentary Russian.

In 2002 when he read about international sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, he again decided to find out what it meant for the lives of everyday people and traveled to Baghdad in February 2003 with Voices in the Wilderness, a peace advocacy group.

He left Iraq before the invasion began, but returned 11 months later with Christian Peacemaker Teams. He found a very different city.

Visalli said he no longer felt as secure as an American on the streets. Tanks rolled through the city and military Hummers lumbered through traffic, pivoting roof-mounted machine guns at passing cars. His perspective changed after a mounted machine gun was pointed at the car in which he was riding.

"I felt that gave us a little sense of what it feels like to be an Iraqi, to have that machine gun trained on us," Visalli said.

The Iraqis themselves were still friendly and Visalli said they crowded around his group, eager to share stories of the invasion with Americans who would listen. He said they told him about relatives who had disappeared amid the violence, and disturbing rumors of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

Visalli and his group from Christian Peacemaker Teams visited Abu Ghraib and stood outside with throngs of Iraqis who had come looking for loved ones.

A few months later, photos of prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib created an international uproar.

Visalli didn't travel to Iraq again until January this year. After five years of U.S. occupation, he again felt the pull to see how much had changed.

But Voices of the Wilderness had stopped operating and Christian Peacemaker Teams wasn’t accepting volunteers at the time.

So he used his connections as a botanist to link up with Nature Iraq, a non-profit working to study and repair endangered ecosystems in Iraq. Its focus had been on restoring massive wetlands in the south of the country, which had been devastated under the Hussein regime.

The group had also launched a project in the mountainous northern Kurdish region of Iraq where it was relatively safe to conduct research, and invited Visalli to work with botanists there who were conducting plant surveys.

Once covered by brush and oak forests, the rolling hills where Visalli worked had been stripped bare by generations of overgrazing and logging for stove fuel, leading to soil erosion. Iraqi researchers hired by Nature Iraq were enthusiastic but didn't have the training needed to take stock of native plant populations, Visalli said.

In fact, he heard that Iraq's educated class had largely disappeared during the war, either fleeing to other countries or killed. What remained was a nation without the knowledge to rebuild itself, he said.

"It became, to me, a picture of one of the unseen impacts of the war," he said. "You think of war as explosions, and winners and losers. Really war destroys the whole structure of a society and its ability to do things."

Visalli stayed in Kurdistan for 25 days in January, then in April was hired by Nature Iraq to return and train botanists in the fundamentals of field study. He said it seemed somewhat odd to be paid to work with plants in Iraq, while war raged elsewhere in the country.

However, while ecology and conservation isn’t on the forefront of the Iraqi conscious now it will be a priority when the war ends, he said.

Meanwhile, it gave Visalli the opportunity to collect more stories from the war, tales that were plentiful among the flood of refugees pouring into Kurdistan from Baghdad and other regions ravaged by violence.

To a large extent, they echo a sentiment Visalli said he heard from an overwhelming number of Iraqis: That as ugly as things had been under Saddam Hussein, they were worse now.

Still Visalli was continually heartened at the warmth of the Iraqis, even during a time of national turmoil.

"Often people just look at you very cooly," he said. "But if you say one word in Arabic or Kurdish, they break into the biggest smile imaginable. I think it speaks a lot to the barrier that can rise between people, and how quickly it can melt away."

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