SPECIAL SERIES : The War Issue
Alumnus Films Daily Dangers in Baghdad
Chatterjee Documents Perils Facing Iraq
March 9, 2006 8:58 PM
It was daytime in Baghdad on the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The streets were virtually empty, except for Pratap Chatterjee and his driver who were waiting on the side of the road for another car to pass by. In Iraq, this is defensive driving.
After being in Iraq for a couple of weeks documenting its conditions, Chatterjee knew the streets of Baghdad. They are lined with booby traps, armed by homemade bombs, which could easily kill anyone in a vehicle that passes over it. By traveling behind other cars, he knew if they came near a trap.
Chatterjee also has to be cautious around U.S. soldiers. He is half Indian, half Sri Lankan, and lives in California but U.S. troops tend to mistake him for an Iraqi.
“Luckily I don’t seem much of a threat to them,” said Chatterjee, who usually gets by U.S. soldiers by speaking to them in fluent English.
It is a dangerous place, but Chatterjee is used to it after traveling to the Middle East seven times since Sept. 11 to do journalistic and investigative work. After going to undergraduate school in India, he moved to London to gain his degree in journalism in 1987. In the summer of 2001, he received a master’s degree in cinema at SF State. With his new skills and tools, he set off to record political videos that he hoped would grab people’s attention.
When Chatterjee first arrived in Iraq in December 2002, there were already problems. He landed in Turkey and found the northern Iraqi border heavily guarded by soldiers who were turning many people away. Saddam Hussein made it difficult for people to enter Iraq and Chatterjee had to hold off his reporting.
It did not stop him for long. The majority of his investigations into Middle East politics were done at the CorpWatch offices in Oakland, a journalistic organization that has been educating people about corporate-led globalization since 1996. Chatterjee is the executive director, but his title does not represent the work he does.
“Truth is, he writes a whole lot,” said Brooke Biggs, editor of CorpWatch.
Chatterjee was not able to enter Iraq until a year after his initial trip. With the U.S. invasion underway, military watches on the borders had retreated and anyone could drive into the country.
He continued the investigative work he started in the United States, focusing on American companies, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, which were contracted by the U.S. government to rebuild Iraq. All of this work would be the basis of his book, “Iraq, Inc. - A Profitable Occupation”.
Much of his work reveals the interconnection between these engineering-construction firms, American politicians and how they benefit from each other. For example, the swearing in of Riley Bechtel, CEO of Bechtel corp., “as a member President Bush’s Export Council to advise the government on creating markets for American companies overseas.”
Chatterjee always kept his video camera handy in Iraq and documented the conditions of the people. Some of his footage has been used in Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9-11” and was helpful when writing his book.
Chatterjee said that American companies rebuilding Iraq are not necessarily wrong, but that it is the way they have gone about it that is at fault. According to Chatterjee, the Iraqis have not benefited from this at all.
For one, both American and Iraqi taxpayers have been overcharged. Companies like Bechtel and Halliburton inflate their price tags by as much as 500 percent and put the extra profit in the top executives’ pockets.
Secondly, Chatterjee said that these companies have done a poor job. They have been contracted to rebuild most of Iraq’s facilities such as electrical systems, schools, and hospitals, but most of the time they trail far behind compared to jobs done in the United States.
“They have failed to deliver what they promised,” said Chatterjee.
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