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Candle Burning

I have walked the streets of Baghdad’s Karrada district when it was safe to do so. Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, no one worried about car bombs exploding in crowded markets, killing and maiming innocent people. In Karrada, the most recent atrocity committed on Iraqi soil has claimed over 200 lives, and the death toll is expected to rise. As Muslims around the world prepare to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the streets of Karrada are shrines for the dead. Candlelight and the sound of mourners weeping are all that’s left of a once vibrant part of the capital. In the charred ruins of shops and apartments, the search continues for those still missing since a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives, and what would have been a festive occasion ended in tragedy.

Tragedy upon tragedy has visited this ill-fated land between two rivers, land of date palms and stunning, blue-domed mosques, palaces in the sun and silent shepherds guiding their flocks. During Islam’s Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th to the 13th centuries, Baghdad served as the cultural, intellectual, and economic powerhouse of the Muslim empire. From its inception in 762 under the guidance and inspiration of Caliph al-Mansur, Baghdad quickly rose in prominence to become one of the most dynamic and prosperous cities of the medieval world. The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), Baghdad’s legendary academy and library founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 8th century, drew together diverse intellectual traditions from the Greeks, Persians, Sumerians, and Indians. Scholars from all parts of the empire came to the House of Wisdom with the common goal of preserving and expanding the world’s trove of knowledge in science, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and literature.

Originally called the City of Peace (Medinat al-Salaam) during the Abbasid dynasty, which ended with the Mongol invasion in 1258, Baghdad today is anything but peaceful. But there was a time when residents could go about their daily routines without fear of ending up as a pool of blood washed away in the aftermath of one more massacre. There was a time when a Westerner like myself could escort a group of siblings from their home to the shops lining one of Karrada’s busiest streets. The kids needed new shoes for school, and as a friend of the family and would-be Dad, I took them shopping one summer night. We peered into the windows of one shoe store after another in search of just the right kinds of shoes.

And when we found them, all seven of us trooped inside the shop where the owner patiently fitted each child with the perfect pair of shoes. Before leaving, they picked out new socks to go with their shoes, and after I paid the bill, off we went, hand in hand, sprinting down the street like a herd of wild, free-spirited gazelle.

After this past Sunday’s terrorist attack, I called the family and was relieved to hear that no one was hurt, though they dread having to leave the relative safety of their home to shop for food or other necessities. They tell me they want to leave Iraq and hope that as an American, I can somehow help them overcome bureaucratic hurdles to the immigration process.

I have written letters to lawyers and various officials on behalf of this family and other Iraqi families desperate to flee the violence, but I know the letters are only formalities that have little chance of expediting their immigration. But I write them anyway hoping my efforts, however small, will give the families some degree of comfort. It is the least I can do. After all, it was my government that bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the massive suffering that has afflicted Iraq. Yes, Sunday’s suicide bombing was the work of militants. They have killed and tortured thousands of innocents in cities throughout the country. But their bloody rampage is one of the tragic consequences of the war of aggression launched by the Bush Administration in 2003. As the Nuremberg Judgment of 1946 unequivocally states, a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” I would include the ongoing terrorist attacks in Iraq as one more manifestation of the “accumulated evil” resulting from Bush’s war.

Predictably, our mainstream media are rather miserly when it comes to covering the latest assault against the civilian population of Iraq. The horrendous loss of life in Orlando, Florida when a gunman opened fire in a popular gay nightclub and slaughtered 50 people merited front-page coverage and extensive interviews with survivors. Candlelight vigils to mourn the dead, a sit-in by members of Congress calling for the passage of gun control legislation, meticulous examinations of the shooter’s history, family life, religious and political orientations — these and other appropriate, necessary responses succeeded in keeping the story alive and bringing into focus the need to understand why these mass murders occur and why they are on the rise in this country.

No such attention is given to the latest mass murder in Iraq, though I have unearthed the occasional article, including a story on page 6 of the Tuesday, July 5 edition of The New York Times. But as far as I could tell, an outpouring of grief for the victims did not put a damper on this year’s Fourth of July celebration. In Boston, on the city’s famed Esplanade, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture primed the audience for the spectacular pyrotechnic finale. The bells were tolling throughout the city but not for the dead in Baghdad.

Today, with these words, I light a candle to remember the children who died in Sunday’s firestorm in Baghdad, the families who were obliterated, the individuals burned beyond recognition, the surviving friends and relatives looking for answers in the still-smoldering ruins and weeping in wave upon wave of inconsolable grief. My heart is with you, dear sisters and brothers. My hope is that others will light candles too and be moved to stand beside you and call in one invincible voice for an end to war in all its forms.

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George Capaccio is a writer and activist living in Arlington, MA. During the years of US- and UK-enforced sanctions against Iraq, he traveled there numerous times, bringing in banned items, befriending families in Baghdad, and deepening his understanding of how the sanctions were impacting civilians. His email is Georgecapaccio@verizon.net. He welcomes comments and invites readers to visit his website: www.georgecapaccio.com

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