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The Morning After the Slaughter at Nasser

Special Correspondent for Clarin
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Patrick Welch

Saja is five years old, her stomach slashed open by a piece of shrapnel. She is en critical condition. In the next bed, Duha is heavily sedated. His mother says he is twelve years old and his only sin was to go to Al Nasser market to buy the pencils he needed for school. Now he might lose a leg, and has another wound in his head.

Three-year-old Sajas was with his 12 year old brother when the explosion caught them. His brother died instantly. He survived because a doctor picked him up and carried him to the hospital. He suffered a serious chest wound. The are in the pediatric ward of the Al Nour hospital center, in the heart of the working class Shu-Ala neighborhood, the scene late Friday of the worst attack on civilians to date as the war enters its eleventh day. Director Hagi Razuki gives the cold breakdown in numbers: 58 dead, 47 wounded. Among the dead are 16 children and 7 women. Five more children are in critical condition and are unlikely to survive.

A few yards away, in the men’s ward, there is a young man of 20, seriously depressed and in intense pain. He manages to stammer his name several times before we believe that he is actually Saddam Hussein Jasem, like the Iraqi leader. He had gone to buy vegetables when the explosion caught him by surprise. He lost his left arm. It was not amputated at the hospital due to gangrene: he arrived in the operating room with nothing below his shoulder. “Only God knows why this happened to me,” he says through a translator before closing his eyes.

Two nurses in white wraps down to their ankles and covered also in white scarves to their waist come in with a cart to care for the wounded. Hasam, a man of 50 with one arm completely shredded and a deep wound on his leg still bleeding through the gauze, asks to speak a moment. “The journalists need to know that it was a massacre,” he says in a firm voice. “They killed and wounded civilians with no provocation. There are no soldiers here, no barracks. They killed mothers and young, innocent children. Ask Bush why he did this.”

What they call the Massacre of Hasam took place a little after six thirty Friday evening, the muslim holy day. Two bombs or missiles landed–no one knows what they were–as a crowd had gathered in the traditional Nasser fruit and vegetable market, in the center of the largest of the working class shi’ite enclaves on the outskirts of Baghdad. Shu-Ala is about an hour from downtown by a few highways that, in the middle of war, are completely packed with traffic. On one side of the district there are a few farms, on the other a highway leading to Mosul.

The next morning, a crowd wanders through the market, among the twisted shards of the stalls, pools of blood and a group of young men erecting a huge structure to serve as a makeshift morgue where the remains of the dead will be collected before burial. When I ask if anyone speaks English, Mushtak surprises me with a “Yo hablo espanol.” He is a student of modern languages at the University in Baghdad. He was at home when he heard the explosion. He arrived a few minutes later.

“It was horrible. There were bloody bodies everywhere. We couldn’t tell who to help first. I could see many who were already dead. A friend and I picked up a kid we knew and ran to the hospital with him, which is about five blocks from here. He’s hanging on, but he’s in real bad shape,” he says in broken Spanish.

He takes me on a tour of the barrio. A typical suburban working class neighborhood as in any major Arab city. I don’t know why, but it made me think of a certain section of San Miguel, outside Buenos Aires. The houses are low, all finished in a sort of light brown stucco. Only the main streets are paved; some alleyways are very narrow, lined with even more modest houses, separated by wire fences. The area is full of women covered in black from head to foot, and children kicking a ball or a can. men are talking in small groups. In plain view there are no military objectives, no communications installations or infrastructure which might justify an incursion by U.S. troops.

On the main street a stall is being built, about 20 x 10 meters, next to a smaller one which will serve as a kitchen. Under a canvas of many colors and stripes the families of the victims receive the condolences of friends and neighbors. Others sob quietly. All wear the necklace of the Sipje, the Muslim rosary. Some boys run up to offer chai, a dark, very sweet tea served in a small cup and drunk from a small plate into which it is poured to cool.

Mushtak introduces me to a friend, Hussein, about 18. He says he saw his father leave the house as he was fixing a bicycle. “I heard a terrible noise, which made me abandon the bicycle frame. I ran toward the market and saw my father on the corner, hit. It looked like he was trying to get back home. He was completely covered in blood. I couldn’t even tell where to check for wounds. He had gashes all over his body. We carried him to the hospital, but an hour later the doctors came out and told me there was nothing they could do for him,” Hussein explained, his face in anguish.

A woman passing by clutches her head and screams “Oh God, oh God.” Two men shout Allah u akbar ( God is great). Abdel hadi Adai approaches me and says he is an engineer; he lost his brother in the tragedy. He can’t understand what happened: “The Americans have all the technology to avoid mistakes like this. I saw how they bombed buildings downtown. They did it with incredible precision. The bombs hit in the center of the building and cause an implosion. They destroy everything inside, but leave the exterior intact. So how did they make this mistake? I can’t understand it.”

Abdel harbors the same doubts as many here in this neighborhood. Even if the power of the explosions and the number of victims left little doubt that these were allied bombs, some questions still remain. For example, the diameter of the crater left by the explosion is barely one and one-half meters wide and less than a meter deep. Nor can anyone explain how they could have been Iraqi missils. Yesterday the Pentagon claimed that seven Tomahawk cruise missiles missed their targets since the start of the war, though they denied that they had hit civilian installations.

A Spanish journalist who speaks some Arabic and who was in the hospital just after the attack says she overheard two men who had just lost their brother. One, in a moment of grief cried out “America la, America la; Iraq, Iraq” (freely translated as something like “It wasn’t the Americans; it was the Iraqis”). She said his brother then slapped him several times until he calmed down. Later, he made him promise not to mention it again.

The rest of the people are making do. Any questions they have will have to wait until after the war. Some turn to the Imam Moussa Kahim mosque, quite a bit more modest compared to the luxurious mosques elsewhere in the city. In two rooms the bodies are being prepared for burial. This will take place at noon, in the city’s Shi’ite cemetery; entry is forbidden to westerners.

In one room a ray of light shines through the window, splitting the darkness. The bodies of two men lie on a cement table. A cleric washes the bodies with a wet white cloth. On the floor are three coffins. They are awaiting another body and then they will begin the procession, in cars full of wailing women dressed in black.

In the second room a woman washes the body of a young girl. I see her from the corridor, through a half open door. The girl can’t be more than nine years old. On her body can be seen three major wounds, on her head, shoulder and leg. Another mother sits with her head in her hands, eyes closed, in the darkest corner of the house. There is a very strong odor, something like disinfectant. The woman rubs the white, destroyed body with a white sheet soaking in spiced water. Everything seems frozen for an instant, as if in a photograph. The ray of light streams through the window, the only sign of life amid so much death.

Traduccion Daniel Patrick Welch wpdanny@aol.com

Welch is a writer, singer and activist living in Salem, MA with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together, they run The Greenhouse School . He has sung and recited at recent antiwar events and was dubbed the ‘singing poet’ by the Salem Evening News for his rendition of the stirring antiwar classic “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” at a Poets Against the War reading. Some of his articles and other ‘fun stuff’ can be found at fringefolk.com/RFVD.html. Kurt Vonnegut, in his recent interview comdemning much about how Americans are taught to think (or not) suggested music as one of the few remaining truly promising avenues for reaching people. Welch is available for a limited number of engagements at antiwar events as scheduling permits. He can be reached via return email or at wpdanny@aol.com

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