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Death in life in Iraq

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Two new articles remind us how death is overtaking life in Iraq. A new article by a Baghdad academic -- University Professors in Iraq and Death Anxiety -- reports on a survey of university professors in Baghdad and Mustansiriya regarding death anxiety. It found:
*All professors suffer death anxiety *Afraid of painful death (91%) *Thinking of death of loved ones (81%) *Afraid of body deterioration that accompany slow death (72%) *Worried about dying very painfully (69%) * Feeling that death is every where (66%) *Terrified of seeing a dead body (66%) *Obsession of getting killed any minute (66%) *Thinking of my personal death (53%) * Prefer not to attend a dying friend (53%) *Would avoid death no matter whatever it takes (50%) * Think of death directly before going to bed (47%) *Death is better than a painful life (38%) *Feel closer to death than to life (31%) *Extremely afraid to die (31%) *Terrified by the idea of decomposition after death (28%)
Perhaps most disturbing among these findings is that 66% of these professors felt that death was everywhere and that half (47%) think of death before going to bed. Iraq has now become a country of death in life for those whom it is not simply a country of death. The author tries to maintain a ray of hope by reminding us that the academic vocation, like teaching in general, is oriented toward the future, toward life:
The essential task of the academic personality is to create life in its highest aims, beginning with lectures, scientific research, whether theoretical or inside laboratories or fields, and to accumulate the eternal truths in the human mind library. Is it possible for such a creator of life to coexist with deep and objective anxiety of assassination and death pain?? The Iraqi situation every day now proves that death anxiety does not prevent the Iraqi universities academics of their deep civilized awareness that desperately defending life culture is the only effective way to pull out death's treacherous fangs, and to rehabilitate the concept of "eternity" as an alternative to all cultures of annihilation and elimination.
A New York Times article -- Iraqis See the Little Things Fade Away in War's Gloom -- gives a further sense of what death in life looks and feels like:
Private lives have been dented and squeezed into uncomfortable positions. Houda, a 40-year-old layout designer for a magazine in Baghdad who would not give her last name, said the violence had cast her and her husband in the roles of emergency room doctors, shouting orders and performing urgent tasks. Little time remains for intimacy. The last time she remembers feeling happy together was a year ago. "Something has changed," she said. "There is a kind of dryness between us now." One conversation that comes up daily is about leaving Iraq, but there are no answers. It is a daily struggle not to shout at her two teenage girls, one that she usually loses. She has stopped hugging and kissing them, a strange byproduct of extreme stress, she said. Recently, her 15-year-old called to say she missed her, though they had not been apart. "I feel surrounded by threats," she said. "When I go to work. When they go to school."
Even the ability to think, to remember, is gradually disappearing:
As the violence tears the fabric of society, breaking communities and long-established social networks, even peoples' thinking is muted. Plans for the future are too painful, too breakable, many Baghdad residents say, and so their thoughts stay fixed on the immediate. "The events are too big to comprehend, and the mind stops thinking," Ms. Attiya said. The result, she said, is a distracted population with vastly diminished ambitions. With jobs too difficult or too dangerous to find in many cases, young people in particular have put aside their dreams. In such an environment, the allure of populist leaders and militias offering protection, a sense of purpose and belonging has become compelling. For the women - secular, middle class, employed and part of an increasingly slender slice of Iraq's population - the effects have been on a more personal scale. Many reported a new difficulty with memory, particularly of numbers and dates. For Houda, it happened in front of a television set. She sat down to turn on her favorite Egyptian television show a few days ago, and for several minutes she could not remember the channel. "It was a blankness," she said. "My brain is loaded. It is not active like before."
One aspect of the Iraqi situation that is different from many other civil war situations is the breakdown of even local community. The fear of going outside means that families have trouble getting together, and that even conversing with neighbors is dangerous:
Life was also hard under Saddam Hussein, the women pointed out. Plans were equally impossible to build. But the basic fabric of life, visiting family, attending weddings and funerals, was for the most part intact. Now Iraqis are letting go even of those parts. The ministry employee sat at the table looking agitated. She attended the funeral for the mother of a good friend this month. The family was Christian, large and respected in the community, and before the war, such a funeral would draw hundreds. Instead, 10 people came to the church service, and only one, the dead woman's son-in-law, risked following the casket out to the cemetery. Even her daughter stayed home.
In many parts of Iraq, where mixed neighborhoods are being broken apart, the distrust is even greater. There is no sense of all being in it together. Your neighbor may be an enemy, or at least, one of those to be blamed for the horrors. Throughout much of the country, the militias provide one of the few opportunities for community, which is, probably,among their attractions. People are resilient. Should, somehow, the violence stop, daily life will gradually revive. But wounds will remain. Imagine children growing up knowing only fear, fear should they step outdoors to play. Fear every time they go to school, when they go to school. Fear when father or mother leaves the house. We have an obligation to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iraqis and try and imagine, however difficult, what life must be like there, in a world of death and of fear at every moment. A world where joy has taken a long vacation. We must not forget. And, when the occupation and the civil war end, we must be there to help in whatever ways we can.


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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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