In 2003, a young blogger going by the name River Bend started a blog from the ground in Baghdad. She hoped to highlight the experience and cost of war for the Iraqi people through the eyes of one gifted young writer. Her words countered the narrative of downtrodden Muslim women being rescued by a N. American war effort and of girl children being made safer on the streets and in schools that allowed certain nationalist feminists in the US to side with US government in the decision to go to war first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Her voice helped reshape the discourse and keep people abreast of the minute to minute realities of a war torn nation when our media was still being gagged or when, later, it decided the images, stories, and numbers were too gruesome and we should all worry about Hilton’s arrest or who was kicked off Dancing with the Stars.
In 2005 River Bend’s blog Baghdad Burning was published by the Feminist Press (one of those presses I keep pointing to as feminist and culturally competent) as a collection of her key posts throughout the years. I have taught the book three times since as an example of blogging as feminist praxis and asked my students to think about what it means to:
- use writing as a form of protest
- use a medium that both reaches and excludes key audiences
- confronts the State and Global Powers as a single individual
In short, I asked them to think about how River Bend’s example proves that you can be one voice in the darkness that booms louder than that of imperialist and sectarian bombs.
In 2007, River Bend and her family became refugees of the war in Iraq. It was no longer safe to remain in country and they, and her blog, moved to Syria.
While some lamented the loss of this important eyewitness account of a female perspective of the war in Iraq, others understood that her safety mattered more than our thirst for knowledge and that her activism was not contained within borders. I for one expected to hear the new voice of the displaced, an equally important voice, particularly in light of the trafficking in girl children that has sprung up because of the war(s).
On October 22, 2007 River Bend wrote of being a refugee in Syria:
Syria is a beautiful country- at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’ …
The first weeks here were something of a cultural shock. It has taken me these last three months to work away certain habits I’d acquired in Iraq after the war. It’s funny how you learn to act a certain way and don’t even know you’re doing strange things- like avoiding people’s eyes in the street or crazily murmuring prayers to yourself when stuck in traffic. It took me at least three weeks to teach myself to walk properly again- with head lifted, not constantly looking behind me.
It is a story of both freedom and loss.
Yet this post in October, was also one of fear and instability as Syria had ceased to be a refuge for Iraqis and started to become another country governed by visas, limitations on stays, and fees most Iraqis fleeing war might not have the ability to pay. Even though River Bend and her family entered Syria before the visa nightmare began in October, they were still subject to it.
As she writes about how they and others thought to negotiate the new immigration rules, she shows the same resilence and determination that makes her voice such a powerful example of an ordinary young woman activist.
Unfortunately, it is the last post she wrote.
By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees.
As we in N. America get ready to vote between a president who will continue endless war and one who has said he will end the war in Iraq but continue it in Afghanistan, let’s take a minute to remember this powerful feminist voice shoved into the spotlight 5 years ago because of a war that had nothing to do with her and ultimately left her without a country safe enough to continue living in. And let us also remember what her words illustrate so clearly about what war is doing to the promise and passion of the young – on the one hand mobilizing them and on the other, violently silencing them.
One year, and one day, ago Reiver Bend wrote her last entry at Baghdad Burning but I have hope that she, like her words, inspire on. You can read the archive of her blog: here.
- River Bend. (2005). Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. NY: The Feminist Press.
- Women waiting outside while men in the family are interrogated in 2005. AFP/David Furst
- Iraqi girl returns to Fallujah after fleeing the destruction there. Her home is destroyed. AFP/Hrvoje Polan
- (special thanks to Texans for Peace Blog from which most of these images were taken)