Life and Death on the Front Lines in Baghdad

in Baghdad

Anwar Adel Khardom points to her heavily pregnant, shrapnel-sprayed stomach as she fluctuates between composure and frantic, inconsolable grief: “what sort of life will this child be born into?” Her thirteen year old daughter Hadil, frail arms bruised and scarred with shrapnel, head bandaged with white gauze, remains wide-eyed and observant, fanning her mother with a woven fan as the heat of an oppressive, airless day reaches it’s midday climax. The room is crowded with relatives and friends who drink the bitter coffee and cry and keen in memory of Anwar’s husband, Adel, her 18-year old son Haider, 17-year old daughter Ola, and 8-year old daughter Mervat: all shot dead by U. S. soldiers seven days before.

“How could they, why did they do it-they must of known we were a family-how could they kill my babies?”, Anwar asks continually as she holds a picture of her beautiful, smiling children-immortalised on the black banners hung on the outside walls of her family home, each of their names with shaheed (martyr) scripted next to it, proclaiming the family’s tragedy to the hushed street outside.

The car that carried Anwar’s family into a line of fire that pumped more than twenty bullets through the windshield and chassis into the warm living flesh, vital organs and skulls of her husband and children remains outside. The seats and headrests were ripped apart by bullets and remain covered in faded, darkened bloodstains. Hadil’s blood-stained handprints on the outside of the car are the same colour, left there as she groped her way out of the car that held dead Ola and Haider and dying Adel and Mervat, trying to follow her mother as Anwar ran towards the house they had just come from, screaming for help.

No help came, at 9:30 p. m. on August 7 in Hyatt al Tunis, a residential neighborhood in Baghdad. U. S. soldiers continued to shoot so erratically at anyone attempting to aid the wounded that they proceeded to injure at least five other civilians and two of their own soldiers, as other troops stationed in a military base stationed at the end of the street joined in. Ground troops from the First Brigade, First Armoured Division started to fire round after round into the darkened street, shattering the quiet of a summer night and destroying the remnants of tolerance held by that, and many other communities, towards an occupational presence whose benign veneer grows thinner by the day.

When the twenty minutes of constant shooting stopped, three civilians were dead and more wounded. Saef A. , a 21-year old university student , who drove in a car with two friends down the same road into the path of U. S. occupational forces (who were in the process of raiding and searching a local store, and, having been subjected to the standard continual diet of misinformation and racism, suitably terrified enough to view all Iraqis as potential or actual enemies) was shot repeatedly and then–as his two friends, both wounded, leapt out of the car, witnesses report seeing a soldier approaching the car, point a gun with a grenade-launcher attached at the still-living Saef, and shoot, causing the car, and Saef’s body to be engulfed in flames.

Adel Abdul Kareem and his 8-year old daughter, Mervat were taken from the scene, still living, by a U. S. military ambulance, at ten p. m. They were not delivered to nearby Medical City Hospital until 11 p. m. , shortly after which they both died from their injuries and heavy blood loss. Ali Hussein Ali, 18 years old and Abbas Shamarwi, 19, the wounded occupants of Saef’s car were-according to witnesses-beaten by U. S. soldiers, hand-cuffed, had hoods put over their heads, taken into military custody and detained for two days at a nearby military base. They were then disappeared for over a week. Abbas is now been held in administrative detention at the Airport prison, Ali’s location is still unknown. Anwar’s remaining daughter Hadil, was grabbed by a female soldier as she stumbled away from the car. She was shaken violently by the soldier, who then–Hadil testifies–pulled Hadil’s gold earrings from her ears and pocketed them, before Hadil ran away back to her grandmother’s house, alone, bleeding from her own wounds and covered with the blood of her dead brother and sisters.

The August 7 killing of six civilians is not an isolated event–excessive use of force by Occupation forces, breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, live ammunition being used as a form of crowd control, and civilians killed at checkpoints has become a regularity, as those responsible are not brought to justice, and a growing sense of unaccountability reigns. What distinguishes the shooting on the 7th, is more the horrific nature of all of the deaths and the terrible loss that they have left Anwar and Hadil, in particular, struggling to deal with. Distinctive, too, is the blatancy in which a high-level cover-up is being orchestrated. The causes of death on the death certificates of all of those killed have been left blank. The Forensics doctors of two hospitals are rumoured to have come under pressure from the U. S. Army. The doctors are not available for comment. Neither are officials from the Occupational Administration. The only people in the U. S, army who have commented on the incident have lied. We interviewed Captain John Mostellar, commanding officer of the military base where the soldiers responsible for perpetuating the killings are thought to be stationed. Dismissive of the incident, Mostellar claimed that an internal investigation had taken place, which would not be made public. His seniors are denying knowledge of the investigation. We were directed by Mostellar to visit official army spokespeople at the airport prison, and promised that official co-ordination would take place to ensure the meeting took place. Upon arrival we were not allowed past the front gate. One eye-witness at the scene claims that Mostellar, whom he had met the week before at the military base, was present while the raid on the shop took place and present during the subsequent killings. Iraqi police officers stationed at the First Brigade’s base, who had contact with Ali and Abbas while they were detained believe that they were disappeared because they witnessed too much. “They don’t want the true story known-the soldiers are to blame for the deaths”stated one policeman.

The families of those killed have decided, with support and endorsement from Voices In the Wilderness, Occupation Watch and Belfast-based law firm Madden and Finucane, to launch a call and campaign demanding justice. Tomorrow Anwar and Hadil, Abu Saef and others along with representatives from the groups participating in the campaign, will hold a press conference to demand an independent, international, transparent, public investigation into the killings, and others like them. The families are apprehensive, though determined. So are we. As volunteers with Voices, as solidarity activists on the ground we have become increasingly more critical of the hostile and violent nature of this occupation, which can only elicit a response of growing hostility and violence. Our response to the escalating violence is to support the growing civil society currents of grassroots organizing and non-violent resistance, and we too are being subtly targeted and intimidated. In our accompianment of communities at risk, through months of endless meetings, discussion, debate with human rights groups, trade unions, students, religious groups, Marxists, artists, the unemployed, neighbours, friends and foes, we are trying to make the connections and forge essential links of support between social justice groups outside and a growing movement within Iraq, to break the isolation and heighten the security of the growing voices of dissent here. This support is being viewed as a threat by those in whose interests it serves to promote prolonged chaos, instability and violence. We have been participating daily with the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq for the past nineteen days in colourful, creative, powerful sit-ins outside Bremmer’s H. Q. and actions such as marches and teach-ins. The union is demanding jobs or, in their absence emergency social security benefits of 100 dollars a month per family. U. S. soldiers have arrested, detained, brutalized and intimidated over 70 of the union members, including the Union’s leadership, calling them thieves and demanding the immediate suspension of the protest. A participant in the sit-ins, the founder of the Iraqi Womens’Freedom Organisation, Yanar Mohammud is continually verbally abused by soldiers for her presence. Yanar, an incredibly brave, articulate returned exile has spearheaded a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of honour killings and to highlight the soaring increase, post-war, of abduction and rape. She shares office space, in a squatted bank, with theWorkers’ Communist Party, who broadcast daily community pirate radio. In negotiations with a subordinate of Bremmer’s, high-ranking U. S. officials tried to convince her and other Union representatives that we are Israeli spies and provocateurs who “do not really care about the welfare of Iraqis. ” When this failed to convince another official claimed that we were undercover journalists trying to provoke “violence” and “disorderly behaviour”in order to gain an exclusive story. Following the unsuccessful attempts at smearing us, as we continued to participate in the sit-ins, -which we believe received more media coverage and were kept a little bit safer with internationals present-we were threatened with arrest and deportation. One soldier stuck a gun to a friend’s chest, threatening “accidents do happen in this part of the world. ”

We are slowly, gradually walking beside men and women who are speaking truth to power and we are being made aware of the risks. The threat of an occupying presence of total impunity as well as a backdrop of escalating, senseless, unpredictable violent crime is forcing us to examine our own fears and vulnerability. A member of our household was shot in the back of the head, probably mistaken for a soldier, another volunteer attacked and robbed. I was nearly abducted at gun-point, but managed to escape. Another friend , a journalist, was killed last night. We hear of gang rapes and horrible violations every day. Our sleep, as is that of five million other people is punctuated by the sounds of unexplained gunfire and explosions. The fear in Baghdad is corrosive and tangible-one can literally breath it in–as a society struggles through a period of extreme terror and uncertainty. I am, perhaps for the first time in my life, deeply afraid. There is seldom refuge for vulnerable human flesh here, now. I have confronted death so many times now, of friends, of those around me, in Zimbabwe, in Latin America, in Jenin, that I do not fear it. I am afraid, however of a senseless death, a stray or intended bullet. I want desperately–as do most human beings–to live, to love, to continue to struggle, to resist the policies and practices that deny so many people the right to live with dignity.

The killing goes on–the assaults are numerous. It is not only the bullets and boots and racism of the occupation but the continual reminders that U. S. foreign policy will not respect the sanctity of Iraqi life, human rights, sovereignty and genuine self-determination anymore now than they have in the past. The assault of poverty and unemployment–the over 60% of Iraqis currently unemployed, the vital monthly rations being half of what families received before the war. The assault of a complete lack of security and material well-being. A day without electricity constitutes a state of emergency in the U. S. Families sweltering for almost five months in 120 degree temperatures, confined to spend long airless, breathless, nights in the confines of their homes–kept there by curfews and fear–does not. The assault on freedom of speech and expression–the seeming lack of awareness within the Occupational Administration that Iraqis do not need newspapers to incite them to violence–that witnessing, daily, the increasing brutality of this occupation is provocation enough. The assault on the living memories of Iraqis–that the victims of an in incredibly brutal dictatorship are not given the time or space to process, to examine what allows a or any Saddam to consolidate power. No time to examine, to record their narratives–nor time to heal, before being plunged–collectively–into another chapter of uncertainty and insecurity.

As counter-balance to the continuing assault on Iraq, civil society and activism currents are emerging and evolving and gaining cohesion and sophistication. This is what keeps me here. I fluctuate between fear and a crystal clarity that there is no other place I should be now. That witnessing and accompanying, and supporting the emergence of a non-violent resistance movement here is vital. That love, compassion, commitment and rage–for Anwar and every other brother and sister like her–will keep me here. That a front-line is never an easy but sometimes necessary place to inhabit.

CAOIMHE BUTTERLY is an Irish human rights activist in Baghdad with Voices In the Wilderness. For more information about the Relatives and Friends for Justice Campaign, or about the Union of the Unemployed’s continued sit-in protest, please contact her at: masasa73@hotmail. com