Baghdad residents are being told that war with the United States is imminent and they face rationing of rice, sugar, flour and powdered milk, a Virginia Beach woman who was trapped in the Iraqi capital for a month said yesterday.
Zaroohi Babooriam, 68, who was visiting her sister when Iraq attacked Kuwait last month, said that the Iraqi people still are weary from a brutal eight-year war with Iran and are frightened by the prospect of another war.
Babooriam arrived at the Newark airport Wednesday and is the first freed captive from this area to discuss her ordeal publicly. She said the multinational embargo that has nearly shut down the flow of food into Iraq is taking its toll. This week, Baghdad residents were issued coupons that limit the amount of food they can buy, she said.
"Everyone there is under so much pressure. All they hear on television and radio is the Americans are going to attack . . . and war is coming," said Babooriam, an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen who has lived in this country for 30 years.
Babooriam, a widow, said she went to Iraq in July to visit relatives and had planned to return Aug. 6. But after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, she was told she could not leave Baghdad.
Babooriam stayed with her sister and said she was not harassed by any of the thousands of Iraqi troops on Baghdad's streets. She was free to travel in the city, but armed troops were at the city limits to prevent anyone from leaving.
Babooriam's daughter, Norik Checkosky, of Middletown, N.J., said yesterday that she had no contact with her mother from the day of the invasion until Aug. 19, when telephone service to the small house rented by Babooriam's sister was restored.
"Until the 19th, we were going through hell," said Checkosky, who explained that for two weeks her mother was without medication for dizziness and arthritis. "There were times I thought I'd never see her again . . . . But once I found out she was with family, I knew she'd be okay."
Checkosky said relatives in Baghdad told her that the city's streets have been flooded in recent weeks with homeless foreigners, many of them Indians and Filipinos, who came to Iraq to work as laborers when most of the nation's young men were fighting the war against Iran. "There are a lot of desperate people there," Checkosky said.
Despite warnings of war and food shortages, Iraqis are struggling to retain some normalcy in their lives, Babooriam said. While confined to Baghdad, Babooriam attended a wedding of a family friend. It was a lovely ceremony, she said, but something was missing: a cake. "They did not want to use up the flour, sugar and eggs," Babooriam said. She said food shortages have forced many Baghdad restaurants, including almost all of the better ones, to close. "There are only a few fast-food places left," Babooriam said. "The bigger ones are closed. They need chicken and meat."
Occasionally, Babooriam said, Baghdad stores receive food shipments from Kuwait. Several days ago, fresh fruit from Kuwait was quickly snatched up by customers in Baghdad, she said.
Babooriam's confinement came at a time that otherwise would have been one of celebration for her family. Babooriam said her nephew, an Iraqi soldier who had been a prisoner of war in Iran for nearly eight years, was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Babooriam, who said she monitored news on the Middle East by listening to Voice of America radio broadcasts, said she was in frequent contact with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and visited the embassy compound. "They kept telling me to wait, they were doing everything they could," said Babooriam, who was born in a tent in the Iraqi desert in 1922.
On Monday, Babooriam received a call from an embassy official, who told her she was being freed. She left Baghdad Tuesday aboard an Iraqi Airways plane, which took her to Amman, Jordan. There, she and the other Americans being released boarded a Virgin Atlantic Airways airliner, which took them to Cairo, London and, finally, Newark. Checkosky said her mother suffered from dizziness throughout the trip home, but was feeling better yesterday and planned to return to Virginia Beach today.
Iraq's food shortages kept Babooriam from having her favorite breakfast, so yesterday Checkosky went to a nearby bakery and bought her mother "the biggest, warmest bagel I could find."