On January 28, I went to my grandfather’s house in Baghdad, where I was registered to vote, to participate in the national election. I had to arrive early because a three-day curfew had been imposed.
It was clear to me that I, like many other Iraqis, had to take part in this election. First, because it is our natural right as citizens to express ourselves politically. Second, we need to create a real democratic basis for our future, especially with all the challenges we face from the remnants of the Baath regime, foreign terrorists, the Arab media and neighboring governments that do not want democracy to succeed in Iraq. Lastly, I felt that it is our moral and spiritual duty to those Iraqis who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for democracy, whether they were killed under Saddam decades in the past or by terrorists just a few days ago.
When I arrived at my grandfather’s home, I found many relatives already there, and, as expected, we began to talk about the election. It was obvious that in spite of our differences over which parties we supported, we shared the same will to vote. Most surprising, however, was the realization that despite being in the same family, we had our own ideas about whom to elect and we were openly discussing these ideas among ourselves. Nothing like this could have been imagined before 2003.
The atmosphere of anxiety and expectation continued into the next day, and while we talked about our new political ideas, we watched the TV closely, monitoring developments in the streets. We decided that we would try to vote early on Sunday, around 7 a.m. – right when the polling centers opened – although this would be riskier. When night came, we began to hear sporadic shooting and worried that those were attacks against the police and guards of the nearby school buildings, where the election centers were located.
On Sunday morning at 6:30 my uncle knocked on my bedroom door and told me he had already passed by the poll site and was told that it would indeed open at 7. My uncle, cousin, mother and I walked in the semi-empty street with the expectation that we might be attacked at any moment, since it was obvious that anyone moving about at this hour of the morning was going to vote. As we neared the election center, we began to hear explosions. We didn’t stop.
The polling site was not yet open when we arrived. We stood in a queue with three or four other people who had arrived earlier, looking up at the soldiers standing guard on the roof of the school building. After a few minutes, we were joined in line by another person, who shouted “Congratulations!” and other encouraging words to express his excitement and zeal. Then the center opened, and we voted. When I put my finger in the ink, I felt so proud, as if I had put my finger in a sacred liquid and made some sacred testament.
As we walked back home, we noticed other people looking curiously at us from windows, doors and the street. They seemed eager to vote, too, and soon we began to see more and more groups walking toward the polling site. As soon as we arrived home and the rest of the family saw that we were safe, they decided to go immediately and vote, too.
And so the day went on. We watched the TV, hour by hour, witnessing the great day of the Iraqi people. Old men who couldn’t walk going to vote. Simple women, who couldn’t read, going to vote. A policeman who stopped a terrorist to save others, sacrificing his life. And the stories of the terrorists, too, who booby-trapped a mentally retarded man and sent him off to die among the crowds.
Who did I vote for? Actually, I left my voting card empty. I was not sure who to vote for in this election; each party has its good and weak points, and most share the same basic aims – to restore security, electricity, fuel and employment. What was important to me, and to many other Iraqis, was the spirit of the challenge. We realize now, after all these months of terrorism, that the collapse of Saddam’s regime did not mean the end of the struggle for a better life, but a new struggle for democracy and hope.
Walking around the city later that morning, I met an Iraqi friend who now lives in Hungary. I was quite surprised – especially since he told me that he had come back to Iraq not only to vote (the nearest voting center for him was in Germany), but also to encourage his friends and relatives in Baghdad to do so, too.
Hour by hour, the voting process evolved into a national festival, where a spirit of celebration and challenge replaced anxiety and concern. When night came, we began to hear news reports of attacks that had taken the lives of over 35 people – but also of the heroic actions of policemen, national guard troops and simple citizens who had arrested or killed many of the terrorists (who were primarily our “brother” Arabs), often at the cost of their own lives.
We felt very proud of our people, who proved again that the spirit of life and progress is much stronger than the darkness planned by criminals, ghosts and terrorists. Even on the faces of the old and exhausted we could see the light of joy.
At the end of the day, we were anxious to watch the Arab media – not because we trust networks like Al-Jazeera, but because we were curious to see what the enemies of the new Iraq had to say about our success. We were not surprised to find that Al-Jazeera did not mention the election first, like other channels, but focused instead on the crash of a British military plane. The second news item was about the violence that had killed so many Iraqis that day. When they did mention the election, they seemed disappointed, as if there was nothing to celebrate, as if the voting cards were mixed with the sad blood of a sad people.
We laughed, too, when the BBC reported that these were the first elections Iraq had seen since the collapse of the regime – as if the voting under Saddam could be considered legitimate. No, I wanted to tell the network, these were the first real elections in Iraq’s recent history, and maybe its entire history. In the end, though, we didn’t care what the TV reported. Since this war began, we’ve seen the Arab and international media twist the truth about Iraq. We no longer consider them seriously, and we do not let them break our spirits.
Monday was a beautiful sunny day in Baghdad. And those walking in the streets with ink stains on their fingers seemed to me as if they bore vivid testimony to hope and the future of our people.