Here in Baghdad, along the Tigris River, a gentle dawn and the sweetest of birdsongs were more precious than ever following a horrific night of intense bombardment. With the calm morning came relief after learning that the families of friends who work at the hotel are “o.k.” Abu Hassan, a pro at charades, pantomimed what happened in his home. He pointed to the windows in my room, held up five fingers, touched the floor and then affirmed, “Finished.” Five windows had shattered. Then he swung his arms around to imitate a ceiling fan, also “finished,” ? it had crashed to the floor, and next he crouched down with his hands on his head to indicate what the children had done. Riyadh then told us that his brother and father were “finished” in the 1991 Gulf War ? making a gesture of falling asleep, which meant that both had been killed during the war, and then he mimicked wiping tears from his eyes to explain that his mother had wept through the night, remembering past agony while quivering through the present one. Abu Hassan and Riyadh live in the impoverished Saddam City section of Baghdad.
At 8:00 p.m. last evening, I sat on a second floor balcony of our hotel watching tracer lights flash across the sky. The first round of bombing seemed distant and in the calm that followed, Neville suggested that perhaps that would be it for tonight. We joked about Neville’s prediction, quite exact, that bombing would begin precisely 45 minutes after he lay down to take a nap. “You’ll just have to stay awake now Neville,” said Ed. Our levity was broken by thundering explosions that repeatedly shook our hotel building.
I darted to my room, swiftly poured a cup of coffee, pocketed a handful of cotton swabs, grabbed my journal and a few books and then hurried down two flights of stairs to join other hotel residents and staff in the ground floor “tea room.”
I saw Marwan, age 12, and his nine year old sister, Dima, surveying the adult’s faces. Thankfully, all of us were managing to appear calm, and Marwan and Dima followed suit. A Christian woman made the sign of the cross while a Muslim man unrolled his prayer mat (he hotel owner, a devout Muslim, has invited his Christian neighbors to stay with us).
We settled in to endure a long night of bludgeoning attacks on Baghdad. The cotton swabs were handy for playing pick-up sticks and making a tic-tac-toe grid. Cathy Breen produced a few lumps of clay which we made into markers. Mohammed, our friendly cab driver, picked up a tiny pink lump and popped it in his mouth, expecting it to be a gumdrop. Did he do it on purpose? Anyway, it was a brilliant distraction that sent the children into gales of laughter.
Tomorrow we’ll plan a birthday party for Amal who turns 13. Last night, a cake appeared in the tearoom in celebration of Mother’s Day. Tiny Zainab and Maladh, daughters of the hotel night manager, have warmed up to me and let me help their parents rock them to sleep. And so it goes. As Operation Iraq Freedom storms on, we’ll liberate ourselves from any government’s efforts to sever natural bonds between us.
As I write, I can hear explosions in the distance. Clouds of smoke are billowing in every direction. We’ve heard that last night’s casualty list includes 207 wounded, four of whom died in hospitals. News reports say that more than 1,000 Cruise missiles were launched last night, and the US may be planning to release many more tonight. On a beautiful spring day, welcome to hell.
KATHY KELLY is in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness’s Iraq Peace Team. This article originally aappeared on electronicIraq.net, a joint project from Voices in the Wilderness and The Electronic Intifada.
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