The Washington Post today covers the continued assasinations of Iraqi government officials. Driving is a particularly dangerous time for officials: An IED can be planted on their route and detonated by cell phone when they pass, a motorcyclist can race by and plant a sticky bomb on a vehicle in the convoy, or gunmen can simply open up with Kalishnikovs from the side of the road.
The Post story reminded me of the time I spent riding with an Iraqi government minister as he kindly took me and my colleagues to see a beautiful natural spring in the country. I made some notes at the time which I reproduce below:
Unmarked, white Toyota landcruisers rocket down the highway, dodging and weaving around each other like a small swarm of bees. The cars are set to give a warning chime around 75 mph, which the driver either ignores or responds to by accelerating further. I watch for a foot to touch the brake and count the minutes — 5, 10, 15 and I stop counting. They never seem to brake, even when, as frequently, their front bumper is nearly touching the rear bumper of the car in front. At 90 miles per hour on a narrow road next to a steep gorge thousands of feet deep, they still don’t brake, even though the “guard rail” consists only of scattered stone blocks.
The drivers swerve constantly from side to side, even on two lane highways with traffic coming rapidly from the other direction. Each driver hugs the back left corner of the car in front of him, then the right. By design, no other car can come alongside any car in the convoy. A truck that tries is quickly boxed in and forced to slow down until we speed by.
After a series of bobs and weaves, another maneuver. Without any warning or a signal I can detect, a driver will accelerate even further and pass one or two other convoy members, which immediately fall in to line behind him. The rearmost car then begins its own sequence of bobbing and weaving, until it too makes the same move.
The logic slowly becomes clear: A convoy is a bit like three-card Monte. The ever shifting, nearly identical, always speeding cards are a game of “Government official government official, where is the government official?” Anyone attacking the convoy would be likely to guess incorrectly and only harm a car with unimportant people in it. Like me for example.
As we seem to be going through a slow spot in postings, I feel comfortable re-cycling here at RBC my observations on the state of Iraqi Kurdistan, which were originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle but now reside on the regional government’s website.
The news service of the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a report out on psychological trauma among Iraqis. What Iraqis have gone through over the past 40 years rivals the suffering of any other people in the world, but overall, things actually look less bleak in terms of Iraqâ€™s mental health than they did a few years ago.
The mental health survey numbers in the UN account are shocking if you compare them to rates in peaceful countries, but among nations that have experienced war and terrorism (e.g., Lebanon, Rwanda) they are actually relatively low. When I predicted an epidemic of PTSD a few years ago I may have underestimated some important stress buffering factors in the country: Families are close knit, religious faith is widespread, and while addiction is becoming much more prevalent, a significant portion of the population uses no alcohol or drugs at all.
The UN news report mentions the expansion of psychological therapy services in Iraq, which is a major achievement for the Iraqis and was facilitated by the support of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the U.K. National Health Service and Royal College of Psychiatry and the International Medical Corps. Another critical factor has been the leadership of Dr. Salih Mahdi Motlab al-Hasnawi, who is a rare creature in the world of health policy: A national Health Minister with a specialization in psychiatry. Continue reading “Optimism about the mental health of the Iraqi people”
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