First published in the Armenian Reporter on June 23, 2007
Interview: Former Iraq relief worker Danny Dedeyan urges U.S. not to abandon the country
From Washington editor Emil Sanamyan: Danny Dedeyan and I first met one rainy night holding vigil outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington in April 2005. It wasn’t until two years later when we met again and Danny told me that he just came back from working in Iraq – that country that has been on the minds of many Americans for the past five years.
Danny Dedeyan (l.) with Armenian Iraq war veteran Georgi Nalbandian
Born in 1978 in France, Danny is from a family of Armenian Evangelicals. He has Bachelor’s degree in history and Spanish from the University of Texas in Austin (2001) and Master’s degree in international affairs from the George Washington University in Washington, DC (2005). Since first arriving in Washington Danny interned at the Embassy of Bolivia and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and worked on the staff of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). After several months as a humanitarian assistance advisor for the U.S. Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., Danny joined one of the large U.S. government contractors dealing with humanitarian issues in Iraq.
When we talked again on June 8, 2007, I asked him: How did you end up going to Iraq? Part of the reason, Danny said, was that he received a U.S. government fellowship towards his master’s degree.
Dedeyan: I had a requirement to work for the federal government at some point in six years after graduating. But being as methodic as I am, I wanted to fulfill the requirement as soon as possible. And I did that working for an organization with projects funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development grants. And that was in Iraq.
Reporter: But you must have seen things on television about the situation there. That did not stop you from going?
Dedeyan: I studied conflicts and conflict resolution in college, and being in DC you run into the development sector a lot. It’s become an industry in itself, these [non-government organizations] NGO’s [working on federal grants abroad]. And post-conflict reconstruction really grabbed my attention.
So, I was interested in humanitarian aspects of conflict and this was an opportunity to get directly involved in that, with field experience. Since I was out of school, I thought it would be a good idea.
May be I am not like everybody, but there is always a sense of adventure, when you go into the field, especially when there is conflict. But that was not necessarily the reason why I went.
Reporter: By the time you went there in late 2005, things looked pretty bleak for Iraq. Was it obvious by then that things were not about to get better?
Dedeyan: Actually, [already] by the end of 2004 is when it looked really bad. I think that there was no question that this was for a long haul as far as stabilizing the place. The disappointment that I think everyone had, and I personally had, is more in the approach and lack of adjusting than actually being there in itself.
In other words, I am more saddened about us, as the U.S., not being able to learn lessons from Iraq, than our involvement in the first place.
As someone who worked in Iraq, I am often asked here if I am for or against the war. For me that is not relevant anymore. Was I for it [in 2003]? I was kind of torn actually, but I did not dismiss [the case for it] out of hand. I thought involvement was good, but not necessarily this war.
But back to your question, yes by 2005 things were not good and by then most NGO’s have left Iraq. There were not many doing what we did.
Reporter: Which organization did you work for?
Dedeyan: For reasons of physical security, our organization like many others working in Iraq, does not want to advertise its presence there. But it was a fairly large humanitarian operation, working with Iraqis every day.
Reporter: You said that by 2005, many of the contractors have pulled out of Iraq, but there is still a sizable U.S. civilian presence there, no?
Dedeyan: Well, in Iraq there is a differentiation between what we call contractors or for profit companies and non-profit NGO’s. There were a lot of contractors, but fewer NGO’s.
The NGO’s work with less overhead, which leaves them with a few downsides, such as less investment management, less safety to the individual worker, but usually an aid worker is interested in being as close to the project as possible. Whereas contractors are typically servicing the U.S. military and are insulated from what is going on in the country being in sealed security compounds.
In Baghdad, the contractors work primarily out of the so-called “Green Zone” which is a walled-in and relatively well protected area of Saddam-era administrative buildings near the Tigris River.
Living in Baghdad
Reporter: Is that where you worked as well?
Dedeyan: No, my set up was a lot more modest. It was a low profile approach. It was in a Baghdad neighborhood. The idea was that you can’t do anything effective at a distance.
I and a very small number of expatriates rented several apartments in a building, that’s where we both lived and worked. We had our own security procedure and our armed bodyguards. We knew the people in the neighborhood rather well. So, we looked after each other and tried to help each other out.
My own personal situation was that I could stay in the same building for weeks on end, without going out into the street. My office was across the hall from my bedroom. So, I worked, ate and slept in the same place with the same people. So, it was kind of a tight compound life.
After a while it became like sur-reality TV show. But in the end, we had a very good rate in terms of lack of attacks against us.
Reporter: Was this an unusual arrangement or did other NGO’s have something similar?
Dedeyan: There used to be a lot. There were a few neighborhoods to which a lot of NGO’s flocked in 2003 and they did this kind of thing, where they rented places and made their offices there. People had a lot more freedom to move around. They would get out regularly, go party somewhere.
But by 2004, when aid workers began to be attacked directly, NGO’s had to move, close offices or leave Iraq all together. By 2006, Baghdad became a city where there is no place where you are safe. In other words safe from shootings or explosions, things that are unusual in a normal city.
That being said we were not in the middle of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods.
Reporter: Was you work also concentrated where your office was located?
Dedeyan (2nd from right) with local officials and others.
Dedeyan: No, the work typically was somewhere else. We were involved in several governorates [provinces] in Iraq, not just Baghdad, but also the north, including Irbil. Our focus was the local primary healthcare systems, as well as water supplies.
Reporter: At what point did you feel especially in danger?
Dedeyan: Traveling is the most dangerous. And you have to travel if you want to see your project sites. The airport road is particularly dangerous. I’ve driven between snipers and Marines firing at each other, in the middle of it.
A few times I snuck out just to shop for like shoes and stuff. And it was kind of comical. I can fit in pretty well, versus some other expats. A lot of people thought I was Kurdish. But a huge bodyguard going around with you obviously gives you away.
Anyone who has worked in some of these neighborhoods in Baghdad will tell you that if they made it out, they still jump if they hear a door slam. I would wake up regularly because bombs were waking me up. And if it’s close, your windows shake and shatter. So that was part of my daily life.
And in order not to go crazy, a lot of Iraqis just go on about their business as if nothing is happening. Imagine, there is no child in Baghdad that has not seen violence first hand. Several generations have already been traumatized, even if the violence stops now. It is a real disaster.
Local Christians fleeing en masse
Reporter: How are Armenians and Christians in general coping with the violence there? There are still about 10,000 ethnic Armenians in Iraq, right?
Dedeyan: Part of my work was to look out for whatever different groups that were there and to make clear to everyone that we were not helping anyone more than another. But that is always difficult, because there are always groups that are more predominant in different areas and are more in need.
Over the last two years, Christians have left Baghdad en masse. You have a number of Assyrian, Chaldean and several Armenian churches in Baghdad and one way to see what is going on with the communities is through church attendance and that has gone way down. There were also a lot of Christians in the northern city of Mosul, and many of them left that city as well.
I don’t think anyone has a good estimate on how many people are still left. Many of the Christians that are in Baghdad now don’t have the means to move. Others who could not leave the country went to Kurdish-controlled Erbil and Dohuk. Those that had the means left the country as soon as they could, especially if they were targeted. A number of Christian missionaries working in Iraq were also killed.
Reporter: Did you meet any Armenians while you were there?
Dedeyan: No, the most I did was to talk to a couple of Armenians on the phone. That’s when the security situation kicked in and my colleagues did not want me going out to the local churches.
Reporter: Were you ever in a conflict zone before?
Dedeyan: The only other conflict area I have been to is Karabakh. I went in 2003, together with a small Armenian language class of Prof. Kevork Bardakjian [of the University of Michigan]. Obviously, there has been a truce there for many years and although the conflict is not completely resolved, the attitude there is that the war is over, finished and we won.
In Stepanakert, I talked to college students and their concerns were more with Karabakh’s isolation from the rest of the world and the need to overcome that.
It was my first-ever trip to Armenia and, as I think for any Armenian, it was very significant for me. You have a sense of going back to your roots. And I am the only one in my family to have gone back there.
So, honestly, going there you get this feeling of almost apprehension, you are sort of curious about how the locals receive a Diaspora Armenian. You ask yourself: How close can I get to them, will they see me as one of their own?
Sometimes you talk to various Armenians in the Diaspora and hear different views. Some say: oh, they were not very nice to us, and others say: they feel like we abandoned them. And other Western Armenians felt like the locals went down on them for whatever reason.
I did not find that at all. Obviously there were times when I was the tourist – so people like tourists, because they bring money. But the hospitality was pretty overwhelming, a nice surprise almost. [And the attitude was] very much like: We are all Armenians, forget about the differences.
Reporter: So you left Iraq after your contract was up?
Dedeyan: Yeah. I finished my contract. I could stay longer and I thought about doing that. I was glad that I was part of a team that had an impact. But when you really look at your work in the general context, you feel like it was really a drop in the bucket.
I would tell anyone interested in Iraq: don’t turn away from Iraq! Don’t say: it is not my problem. That’s how I am afraid things will wind up in Iraq.
I didn’t go there to make money. And definitely one of the hardest things for me was to leave Iraq, because you get a feeling that you are abandoning people. They become family: Sunni, Shiites, Christians, you have gone through something together. [When you say goodbye] you see adult, hardened guys crying.
But when my contract was up, I felt that for my own sanity it was time to take a break.
Reporter: Has it been difficult getting used to normal life?
Dedeyan: Well, I took a long break from work. I adapt pretty well to different situations. I know other people who have gone through the same experience have difficult time adapting. Some of them were pushed to a point where they lost it.
I have nights when I can’t sleep and I probably would never be able to really explain my experience there to someone who was not there. But the trauma is certainly worse for soldiers who are coming back, having experience with violence and danger in the streets day in and day out.
Part of my ability to adapt here is that I was able to keep my sanity there. To do that I had to put things in broad perspectives – my laid back [nature] helped, but also my faith which prepared me to accept the world as it is. I don’t have illusions about the world not having a lot of evil or injustice.
And that God put me in this world to carry my light, if you will.
Emil Sanamyan's articles on Armenian-Americans, Armenia and its neighborhood.