In January of 2003, shortly before the U.S. bombed and invaded Iraq, I asked a dear friend, Umm Heyder, to tell me how she was feeling. “It is very hard,” she said, “when all you can do is to sit and to wait for your city to be bombed. And, you see,” she continued, “we have tasted war before.”
I’m in Amman, Jordan now, waiting for Umm Heyder to come here with her seventeen year old daughter, whom we hope will be admitted to an Amman hospital for very serious medical care.
I first learned of Umm Heyder’s story from my colleague Chris Doucot when our Voices in the Wilderness team delivered medical relief supplies to the Ibn Gazwan hospital, in Basra, in the spring of 1999. Umm Heyder was standing in a line of women seeking medical care, and Chris struck up a conversation with her. Umm Heyder introduced herself as an English-language teacher at a primary school in Jummuriyah, (the poorest neighborhood in Basra).
She told Chris that on January 25, 1999, a U.S. missile had struck her home in Jumurriyah, killing her oldest son. Her younger son, Mustafa, was wounded and maimed, but survived. She told him he was welcome to visit her and her family.
Through a succession of many visits, we began to understand the everyday consequences of economic warfare against Iraq. Throughout the period when, at U.S. insistence, the UN maintained brutal economic sanctions against Iraq, Umm Heyder was the only person in her household earning any income. Her salary as a school teacher amounted to $7,000 Iraqi dinars per month, equivalent to about $3 USD. Twenty-one people lived in her home. The family survived on meager rations provided under the “oil for food” deal.
A five-person Voices team moved into Jumurriyah during the summer of 2000 and stayed with families there for nine weeks. We spent more money to buy two day’s worth of bottled water, for our team, than Umm Heyder earned over the course of a month. Yet every time we entered Umm Heyder’s home, family members begged us to sit down and share tea with them. If a meal was being prepared, we were the first to be served. The simple, constant fare of lentils and rice tasted wonderful amid such hospitality.
We tried to remain in touch with her and her family throughout the anxious period of bombing, invasion and occupation, but visits have seemed impossible since early 2004, now that a visit to their home might cause danger for them. Westerners are suspect. Even the local hotels politely told us there was no room for us during a January, 2004 visit to Basra.
In August of 2005, Umm Heyder called the Chicago Voices office in a state of panic. Assailants had attacked the passenger vehicle in which she, her husband and her sixteen year old daughter, Hind, were traveling, just outside Basra. Hind had been shot in her face, the bullet shattering her jaw and teeth, lacerating her tongue. Umm Heyder took Hind to Baghdad for reconstructive surgery. Hind faced a long recovery and would need a second reconstructive surgery. The hospital conditions in Baghdad were so deplorable that Umm Heyder discharged Hind as soon as she could be moved, taking her to the Baghdad home of her mother and sisters. But Umm Heyder was too frightened of the violence in Baghdad to remain there for long. They moved back to Basra as soon as possible.
I recently met the surgeon who performed the first reconstructive surgery on the bones in Hind’s face. He detailed the dreadful problems patients and their doctors face in Baghdad. “We longed to taste the sweetness after sanctions would be lifted,” he said. “But when they were over, we could see no difference. The hospitals lack medicines, supplies and equipment. It’s hard to order supplies efficiently because you can’t predict when one or more disasters might occur over the course of a month, and with each disaster supplies are quickly used up in emergency care for victims.” He told us that security in the hospital where he worked had been infiltrated by corrupt people who allowed armed men to enter the hospital and kidnap a patient. They never heard from the patient again. The surgeon spoke about a colleague of his who was shot dead in his clinic, and he said that by now most of his colleagues have fled Iraq because of death threats, harassment and frustration.
When I spoke with Umm Heyder several days ago, a new tragedy had befallen their family. Gunmen in the street had stood outside the home shared by Umm Heyder’s mother, three of her sisters (one of them a widow), and a niece, making unspeakable threats of a return visit. The terrified women immediately fled Baghdad, carrying only their clothing, and have now moved in with Umm Heyder’s family in Basra.
Our surgeon friend intends to perform Hind’s second reconstruction surgery soon, at a hospital here in Amman where there is adequate security and supplies – we are all so grateful for this opportunity. But afterwards, he’s due back at his work as a surgeon and University medical school instructor in Baghdad.
I hope Umm Heyder can get here soon. She can’t come until she’s able to obtain a passport for her daughter, Hind. Bureaucracies move very slowly in Iraq. Once she gets here to Jordan, I’m anxious that authorities at the airport might turn her away. It’s hard to imagine how she could bear yet another dose of war’s bitter punishments.
I hope to welcome Umm Heyder here, to embrace her. I want her to get a break from living in an overcrowded home in a war zone. I want her to enjoy at least a short respite from providing care for so many people. And I hope her daughter, Hind, who at age sixteen literally tasted a bullet, will recover swiftly from a second surgery. Honestly, I don’t see how Hind could ever recover from the taste of war. She just turned seventeen. The U.S. has been at war with her every day of her life.
KATHY KELLY (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv