Back in Babylon

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Words by Samuel Geddes
Illustration by Alyona

Late last year, Tiba, a Biomedicine Student at the University of Melbourne, made the dramatic decision to return to her home country to complete her studies and help in its recovery from decades of war.

In the last few weeks, the world’s attention has returned to her homeland after a long absence from the headlines. Nearly a third of the country’s territory has been swallowed up by a Sunni rebellion, led mostly by a coalition of former Ba’athist Army Officers—headed by Saddam Hussein’s Vice President.—and Fundamentalist Islamist Militias headed by the now infamous Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Whole cities have apparently been surrendered without resistance from the Army, with the Government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accusing many of its own senior military officials of treachery.

As the Iraqi Armed Forces appeared to evaporate before the advance of the rebel forces, Kurdish soldiers moved into the flashpoint city of Kirkuk in the country’s north and seem to show no intentions of withdrawal. The move has reignited the possibility of the Iraqi Kurdish Region declaring independence, potentially transforming the face of the Middle East once again.

With the survival of the al-Maliki Government in doubt and even the continued existence of the Iraqi State questionable, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, escaping to the relative safety of the country’s north and south.

As she remembers the moment of her return, Tiba’s voice doesn’t betray the slightest regret. ‘It was one of best moments in my life. I didn’t expect to feel such happiness when I saw Iraq again. It’s changed my life and that was my dream, I really don’t want anything else from life.’

Since returning home, Tiba has revisited many of her fondest childhood haunts, some of which, she notes, have hardly changed at all, even while the country itself has changed in almost every way. ‘The Euphrates is just one kilometre from my home, and I cross it every day to go to University. It’s still the same and it’s so beautiful. I go out all the time and meet people, in parks and by the rivers.’

Tiba doesn’t shy away from admitting to the difficulties of being back home, from the constantly changing security situation to the challenges of succeeding in an education system which struggles more than in most countries. She also doesn’t hesitate to compare her experience to Australia, sometimes in intriguing ways in light of the proposed Budget changes to the University system. “In most countries they encourage people to go to uni, and in Australia they’re doing the opposite! Iraq is a war-torn country, and even though we have many things working against us, the government pays for everything at university, even my books I get for free. Education is just about the most important thing in any country.”

Despite her disagreements with Australian policies, from education to immigration, her adoptive country is still very much a part of her. “If I didn’t live in Australia, I wouldn’t be who I am today. They gave me everything: schooling; I went to university; I got to be with my Dad.”

In spite of the incessant reports of violence throughout Iraq, Tiba seems unfazed and tries not to let it control her life. ‘ISIS is present in part of the city where I live and they carry out bombings. But I go out all the time and my parents back home are more worried than I am. One day I was at University and we had to be evacuated because there was a bombing right near the Uni. A lot of people were screaming but I try not to panic about the security situation, and a lot of Iraqis are like that too. We just want to get on with our lives,’ she says.

Contrary to her plans, Tiba hasn’t been able to pursue her charity work, instead having to postpone her plans until she completes her studies. “Because I live in a small city, the charities don’t operate here, and there are people elsewhere who need help a lot more than we do. When I finish, I might volunteer in a hospital. Because I have a university card I can go into hospitals at any time and see the situation and how they deal with it, and it’s really worrying.”

With no sign of giving up, Tiba’s concern for the state of Iraq and happiness at being back home serve only to strengthen her determination to stay and make a positive contribution to the lives of her people. When I ask Tiba about returning to Australia, she replies, “I don’t plan to go back anytime soon”.