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Iraqi journalist shares story with GSC students
Haider Hamza, 24, talks Monday with Brenda Adams, coordinator for student life at Gainesville State College, prior to his talk before a group of students at the college. Hamza talked about his experience documenting the Iraq war and other conflicts through the lens of his camera. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Haider Hamza likens the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to a bloody bullet being plucked from his flesh.

The 24-year-old Iraqi journalist was shot twice while embedded with American troops in Iraq, and said a gunshot wound bleeds a little at first. When the bullet is taken out, however, the wound bleeds terribly.

But eventually, it heals.

On Monday, Hamza, a Middle East producer for ABC News, shared with Gainesville State College students the photos and stories of the Iraqi people who are living in a war zone. In a country with 160,000 troops, 10 armed militant groups and 25 million civilians, dead civilians are an inevitable result, he said.

Hamza was 18 when the U.S.-led coalition invaded his country and toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. That’s when he picked up a camera and joined the chaos.

“In a war zone, you only have the military or the media that works, everything else stops. ... I chose the media,” he said.

As the son of a diplomat, Hamza grew up in East Africa and Europe. He also earned a master’s degree in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. His worldly view meshes with his experiences as a resident of Babylon, Iraq, to bring a unique Western and Middle Eastern perspective to America’s college students on the war in Iraq. Hamza told students he often understands both sides of the culture clashes that take place between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians on Baghdad streets.

Gainesville State College is one of about a dozen schools where the New York City-based journalist is speaking to students nationwide this month about the Iraq war. His goal is to bring realities of the front lines home to the Americans who are sponsoring the war.

“There seems to be a very serious lack of curiosity for people here who are my age,” he said. “... Here, people see this war on the nine o’clock news. There, it’s outside their windows.”

Photo after photo in his slideshow reveals Iraqi streets lit by fires ravaging homes and businesses following bombings. Charred bodies, mangled children and poorly trained Iraqi officials are commonplace. The court system is nonexistent, as is a national mail service.

As lawlessness abounds in Iraq, Hamza said he is concerned about the children who find the violence normal. Half of the proceeds earned from his speaking ventures support efforts to help some of the 600,000 orphans living in Iraq, he said.

“There’s a huge psychological damage that has been caused to these kids in the country, and we’re going to be seeing the effects for years to come,” he said. “... That’s a whole generation that the world is going to have to deal with.”

Hamza also shared with students his memories of the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue many Americans recall flickering across their television screens in April 2003. Hamza said the statue was only one of about 1 million Saddam statues in Iraq and held no significance for the Iraqi people. The toppled statue was momentous for Americans, but not for Iraqis, he said.

After taking a photo of a wounded American soldier, Hamza was jailed in Abu Ghraib prison, which is now in the hands of the Iraqi government and called Baghdad Central Prison.

His photos from the days-long prison detainment show 34 young men confined to a cell meant for eight prisoners. He said prisoners are allowed to use the restroom once in a 24-hour period. Scant meals are of lentil soup and bread. The prison is a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment, he said.

Brigitte Autran, a third-year student at Gainesville State, said Hamza’s presentation was powerful.

“It really opened up my eyes a lot seeing it from a standpoint of an Iraqi who sees it from both sides,” she said. “I just hope something gets accomplished at the end of all this.”

Martin Billig, a second-year student at Gainesville State, was living in New York City on September 11, 2001. He said Hamza’s photos left him confused about the war.

“I think for seven years we did what we had to do and it’s time to pull out and see if the healing takes place,” he said.