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In Remembrance of Things Lost

As we slog through the scorching summer of 2012, I’ve been thinking about our drone attacks around the world, and about the sanctions against Iran. I’ve also been thinking about the deep love I’m sure Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all have for their own children.

And I’ve been dreaming of falling.

It is September 2002 and when I dream of falling I dream of Ayat, lying naked on her bed in Baghdad, her swollen belly slowly keeping time to my breath.

It is January 2002 and I am in the desert southwest of Baghdad, sitting beneath a sky of burning blue and gold. I am listening to Harbi Jawair remember his son, Omran, while I stare awkwardly at my hands. When I dream of falling I dream of Omran.

It is December 2001 and I am in in the home of Akbal Thyab and Salah as-Saraji, sitting in a room lit only by lamplight. I am thinking: what a blessing family is. When I dream of falling I dream of their son Haider.

Even after 10 years – Ayat, Omran and Haider all haunt me.

I remember Ayat Jabbar. Her name most commonly refers to the verses of the Qur’an. Each chapter in the Qur’an is a sura, or section, and each verse is an ayat. Literally, an ayat is a sign or a proof – but in Arabic an ayat is also a miracle.

I met Ayat at al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad. Ten years ago, al-Mansour was something out of Dante: halls overflowing with desperate families; gloomy rooms filled with young children struggling to survive their first years of life. Maybe half the lights worked. The rest were either burnt out or well on their way there, spitting only occasional illumination on the peeling paint and grime surrounding them. Short on cleaning supplies (along with everything else), there was an ever-present smell of blood and sweat and shit in the air.

In September 2002, I faced five-year old Ayat as she lay on her hospital bed, laboriously breathing, her belly so distended from cancer and malnutrition that she seemed almost to be pregnant and in labor. She was beautiful. She was a miracle. And she died.

I remember Omran Jawair. He was thirteen years old on May 17, 2000, when a U.S. missile exploded out of the sky to decapitate him as he watched over his family’s small flock of sheep in the village of Toq al-Ghazalat. When I went to his home with a Voices in the Wilderness delegation 20 months later, his mother broke down sobbing and couldn’t leave the house. His father served my companions and I tea outside their home, and spoke with us about Omran for almost an hour before we paid our respects and left them in peace.

I remember Haider as-Saraji. On January 25th, 1999, a U.S. AGM-130 cruise missile, topped with a two-thousand pound warhead, slammed into Jumhuriyya, a poor neighborhood in Basra. Another missile hit Khadasiyya, twenty-five kilometers away. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and seventeen people–including 6-year-old Haider–were killed.

Also among the other dead were three little girls from one family: nine-year-old Noor, two-year-old Thuha, and six-month-old Zeinab. Their mother, Saeidh, told reporters, “I want [President Clinton] to know how he put a hole in my heart. There’s not a minute I forget.”

How did our military respond to the fact that they had bombed a civilian neighborhood and killed innocents? The Pentagon said the bombing was an accident, and that the missile that hit Jumhuriyya had gone off course, and then they dropped tens-of-thousands of leaflets around Basra that said, “No tracking or firing on these aircraft will be tolerated. You could be next.”

I met Haider’s family in December 2001, and stayed in their home for three days. I watched them live and laugh with one another. I saw them in their daily lives and I understood that family is God’s greatest blessing. I also realized what a crime it is to steal a child from their family.

Though I never knew him nor anyone in his family, I remember a young boy named Tariq Aziz who was killed outside Norak, Pakistan last year when a US “Hellfire” missile blew up his car on October 31st, 2011. The missiles that killed Omran and Haider were launched from manned planes, but American technology has improved and today we use drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for these types of attacks. Also killed in the CIA drone strike against Tariq was his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan.

Ironically, at a meeting 3 days before his death, Tariq had volunteered to help collect evidence of the civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes. He was just 16-years-old and he was innocent.

I tremble for our country. I fear for our future. We are falling.

Some 200 children – including American children – have been killed by US drone strikes over the last decade, the majority of them in Pakistan (and these figures are dwarfed by the hundreds-of-thousands killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by non-drone-related violence).

Ayat’s death 10 years ago was a legacy of a violence done to Iraq. The collapse of the civil infrastructure in Iraq, including the collapse of the medical system and hospitals, was a direct result of the U.S.-led, international sanctions that lasted from August 1990 until May 2003. It resulted in hundreds-of-thousands of innocent dead.

Today, the increasingly severe sanctions against Iran are presented as the “humane” alternative to war. This is a false and morally flawed choice. The Iran sanctions are already causing suffering, and they are already being opposed by people who we should be listening to, such as Iranian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. If the Iran sanctions are kept in place or followed by war (as they were in Iraq) – I’m worried we will see thousands more of children like Ayat suffer and die for our politics.

I remember a Voices in the Wilderness delegation led by Father Simon Harak that went to Northern Iraq in late 1999. They visited Al-Zanaziq elementary school in Mosul. When the children there were told that the group was from America they became hysterical with fear. One boy was so afraid he began having convulsions. The teachers couldn’t comfort the children. In the end, their parents had to be called to take them home.

I often told that story when I used to give presentations on Iraq, and the people I spoke with sometimes told me that it was an example of Saddam Hussein’s terrible propaganda: the kids had been “brainwashed” by Saddam to hate and fear Americans.

Saddam was a killer and a terrible tyrant but, for me, I think it’s much more likely those children were reacting to the explosions they heard from the bombs that we regularly dropped near them. I think it’s more likely they were reacting to the fact that the United States had dropped a bomb on a home across from their school less than a month before, blew out the windows to the school, and sent several of the children to the hospital with severe lacerations. There was a reality those children lived with and it was not “propaganda.”

This is still a reality that children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere all live with (and some die from) to this day. According to the New York Times this isn’t a problem for the Obama Administration because: 

“Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that … in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” [emphasis added]

I am stunned. Politicians like to pretend that this is somehow “complex” – a difficult issue that can be debated and even supported as necessary and worthwhile.

It really isn’t.

To look at oppression and suffering and say that it’s complex is a damnable lie. It’s a terrible rationalization – a way of absolving ourselves of our responsibility to seek justice in our lives. Politics, including the politics of war, is often time-consuming and difficult, but I don’t believe it’s ever morally complicated. Father Harak once taught me a very simple test for any policy or act we might imagine.

The test goes like this: God is Life, God is Light, God is Truth.  Any policy that brings death instead of life, that brings darkness instead of light, or that requires lies to fulfill itself, cannot be from God. It cannot be just. It cannot be right. And it must be opposed. This is a unity expression as well: Life = Light = Truth. Any policy that’s based on lies, will bring darkness. Any policy that brings death must on some level, and by necessity, be based on lies. There’s nothing complex about it.

Father Harak’s test is echoed in the popular aphorism: The Will of God will never lead you where the Grace of God cannot keep you.

It’s astonishing that I actually have to make an argument (and a losing one at that) against murdering children, but this is the reality we ourselves have given birth to.

I mourn the loss of Ayat, of Omran, of Haider, of Tariq and Waheed and all our innocent victims. Almost as deeply I mourn the loss of our own innocence, as both Democratic and Republican politicians (and their supporters) enthusiastically embrace arrest without charge, imprisonment without trial, extrajudicial assassinations, and the presumption that our victims are all guilty of capital crimes until they are somehow posthumously proved innocent.

It is the summer of 2012 and we are lost. At the intersection of all our hopes and fears, indifferent to the ground, we are falling – wide awake, and seemingly helpless to prevent the fall.

Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American pacifist and writer. He has worked on peace and justice projects in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Middle-East.

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