Do you get it, yet?

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Friday, May 09, 2003 at 3:53PM :

Iraq Diaries

Do you get it, yet?
Caiohme Butterly, Iraq Peace Team

7 May 2003

A small boy points to the bullet holes on the van's sides, as he mimes a re-enactment of what made them, stiffening his outstretched arms into the barrel of a tank, frowning as he takes aim, and then unleashing a barrage of fire.

His sisters stand in the shade of their adobe-brick home nearby, observing silently. A welcome gust of breeze breaks the oppressiveness of this cloudless airless day, rustling their brightly-colored dresses.

Besuniya is a farming community, home to about sixty families barely scratching out a survival, and has been without electricity and running water for the past month and a half. Situated on the side of a highway running from Baghdad to Nassiriya, it is also the site of a shrine to a type of casual killing that was seen with regularity during the advancement of U.S. troops from the South of Iraq to Baghdad. Besuniya, whose entrance and perhaps existence would go unmarked in the blink of an eye in a moving car, greets visitors with a large bronze statue of two fellaheen, farmers– a man and a woman, scythes in hand.

Abu Samir, gesturing towards the two burnt-out, bullet-ridden vans, explains "They were ordinary people. During the war, everyone was confused. The Americans were saying one thing, the government another. People didn't know whether to stay in their homes or to try to travel to the villages, where it was safer. The vans were driving slowly down the road, because the Americans had made many check-points. There was no warning, the tank just opened fire."

This and twelve other similar incidents during the ten-day period claimed the lives of over ninety people in the Besuniya area alone. Many of the bodies of those killed still remain in the nearby Shamia Hospital, burnt or shredded beyond recognition. "They were all people trying to travel to safety. Women, children, elderly people – families. They committed no crime – except to believe their human rights would be respected as civilians", says Doctor Iyar.

The putrid, unmistakable smell of death remains in the buses – splinters of bone, charred flesh, hair, scraped off the seats by villagers and buried in a shallow pit nearby. As we stand there, a couple of U.S. army aid trucks, a rare sight, pass by, en route from Kuwait. An elderly villager spits in their direction. "I may not be educated, but we understand what is happening, why they have come" he says. "I would rather drink sea water than accept a single bottle of water from the Americans or Kuwaitis. Do they think they can buy our loyalty with their hand-outs?"

In Hilla, we visit the home of an elderly bus driver, Abu Ala'. He describes how he, a few days before the invasion of Baghdad, was slowly approaching an American check-point, waving his arm out the window, trying to decipher their instructions. He was frightened, he says, gesturing to his black and white Kefiyah (head-dress),that he would be mistaken for a fighter, so he told the 31 passengers behind him that he thought it better to return to Hilla. Some of the women, however, he says – urged him to stay put – "They were frightened, but laughing. They said – what do the Americans have to fear from a busload of women and children and an old man?" The tank, with no warning, fired directly into the crowded bus. The force of whatever was fired (some speculate that the Americans, like their Israeli counterparts, are using flachette shells) immediately severed the heads of two young women, slamming into the chest of another, leaving a gaping cavity in place of her heart, lungs, and ribcage.

Abu Ala' drove, with four flat tires, and severe burns to his own chest to Hilla Hospital, several miles away, to deliver his load of dead and wounded. After hours of trying to stem the bleeding of severed limbs, recalls a doctor, the floor was slick with blood. The death toll, of 31 passengers, was 27 dead. The morgue retains; in one of its units, along with 19 unrecognisable, unidentified bodies; a slidable trolly of small severed limbs and large pieces of flesh, not yet matched to their owners bodies. Hospital orderlies used shovels to clean the bus of shattered bones, brains, organs. One of them recalls "I found the foot and hands of a small child. When I went home to my own children that night I could not stop weeping."

Abu Ala', his wife confides to me as we sit together in their bedroom, held his head in his hands and would not speak to her for two days afterwards. "He feels responsible" she says, "but they gave him no warning."

On the way to Nassiriya we pass, on the side of the road, a convoy of 27 American army oil trucks. "Mabruuk"(congratulations) comments our driver to them – "you got what you came for." The 27 men, women and children killed in Abu Ala's bus also "got it." One of them, perhaps, for each oil truck. Iraqis are all having to "get it." That their precious blood had been cheapened, by all of us – those that deliberately take it by creating policies and weapons designed to starve, torture, degrade and kill, and those of us that remain silently complicit while lowering our eyes just that fraction of an inch necessary not to witness the glaring pain and injustice pulsating this beautiful, cursed land.

We will say it again, slowly. You have been liberated.

Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish human rights activist living in Baghdad.

-- Sadie
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