"Sounds of Grief, Pain and Hope"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, September 03, 2003 at 2:37PM :

Sounds of Grief, Pain and Hope
John Farrell
Voices in the Wilderness, via electroniciraq.net
1 September 2003

A strong, male voice singing crisp Arabic woke me in the pre-dawn hour of August 26, calling the city of Baghdad to prayer. According to my housemates, I must have slept through an incredible clash of gunfire, helicopters and tanks that night. I am such a heavy sleeper that I don't hear tanks and APC's rolling down our street at night or gun battles happening just around the corner. Maybe I would be a little more nervous here if those sounds did keep me up at night, but in fact I do hear those noises often enough while I am awake that they have become commonplace. I am not startled now unless the gunfire is almost right outside our window. At the same time, however, these are not the only sounds that I hear in Baghdad. I also hear the welcoming words of "Salaam Alaikum", or "Peace be with you," wherever I go. It's the most common greeting that I hear from Iraqis.

On that day I went with Caoimhe Butterly and Ewa Jasiewicz to visit the family of Anwar Al Kawas. Anwar had recently had a Caesarean section and was lying on the couch in her family's living room with her relatives all around her and a newborn baby in her lap. On August 7th, a trigger-happy shooting by US soldiers killed six people, four of them from the Al Kawas family. The car carrying the Al Kawas family was resting at an intersection in their Baghdad neighborhood when there was a random explosion nearby, perhaps from an electrical transformer. The two patrols of US troops who happened to be in the neighborhood immediately opened fire on the three carloads of civilians. Anwar's husband Adel Abdul Kareem was killed along with her 18 year-old son, Hadir, 16 year-old daughter, Ola, and 8 year-old daughter, Mervat, as well as two other people, one in each of the cars that was traveling ahead of the Al Kawas' car. Anwar and her 13 year-old daughter, Hadil, escaped the car, although Hadil's arms were plugged full of shrapnel. While Anwar rested outside the car, Hadil ran to get home safely in the night and to tell the others in her family. She says that she was grabbed in the arms by a woman soldier and shaken while a woman soldier repeatedly yelled at her in English some words that she did not understand but have now been burned into her memory: "Go! Go! Go! Go!" Her arms still have dark bruises because of the pressure of the soldier's grip on the shrapnel in her arms.

The mother, as she crawled out of the car, left handprints in blood all across the dashboard. The car now rests, covered in a funeral-like shroud, next to their modest home with a traditional black memorial banner flapping in the wind directly above it. She says that there were bullets flying into the car from all directions, since the Army had troops stationed down both sides of the street at that particular intersection. As these two cars pulled up to the intersection, the soldiers were in the process of interrogating and beating a shop owner whose store they were raiding, supposedly to find out information about some resisters of the occupation. Witnesses say that when the bullets began to fly, Anwar's husband yelled out repeatedly in English, "Stop, we're a family! Stop, we're a family!"

Instead of heeding Adel's cries, the soldiers continued to destroy the three cars with bullets and explosives, eventually killing Ali Heckmet, the driver of the second car and Saif Raed Azqwi, one of the three young men in the first car, and then capturing and detaining the other two men from that car. In the third car, the Al Kawas family vehicle, the shooting killed Hadir and Ola at the scene of the crime. Adel and his 8 year-old daughter Mervat were badly wounded, but since they were not taken to the hospital by the US troops for more than an hour, they died because of blood loss, doctors assert. However, none of the six death certificates, which the families received from the military, have listed the cause of death; they are all blank. This will make it very difficult for the families to advocate for themselves as they seek admission of liability and compensation from the US military for their deaths.

Eyewitnesses from the neighborhood say that when the shooting stopped one of the soldiers began to approach the second of the three cars with a grenade launcher fixed on his weapon. The soldier carrying the grenade launcher walked up so close to the car that he could have easily seen that Ali Heckmet was defenseless and either dead or badly injured, which he presumably was. The soldier then fired a grenade into the car, immediately incinerating the vehicle and the young Ali with it. The two young men who survived and managed to crawl out of the second car were beaten, handcuffed, had their heads covered with bags, taken to detention for three days and then disappeared for weeks. No reason for their arrest was ever given to their families and the military has never produced evidence of any weapons found in any of the vehicles.

Anwar hosted us warmly with a smile that often morphed into a grimace of pain at her discomfort following her recent surgery. Her family, including her mother, daughter and brothers were very hospitable. A young boy served us water graciously and smiled at me often in an attempt to communicate through our language barrier. Ewa and Caoimhe chatted with the family in Arabic, discussing a recent visit that the family had received from US military officials, who had set up a meeting time to discuss their demands for compensation. Their story has received a fair amount of press, and some people think that that is why they're getting any attention at all from the US. However, in order for them to get any compensation or admission of guilt from the US military it will likely take years of bureaucratic red tape and difficult hearings that could, in the end, I fear, be more harmful than they are helpful. At the same time, to let the pressure off the US on cases like this one only furthers the lack of accountability that these soldiers have.

Paul Bremer has stated in a press conference that people who are killed at checkpoints will not receive compensation because of the seriousness of the threat that his soldiers are facing. "Let's face it", he said, "the soldiers are riding around with their fingers on the triggers." In fact, it seems to me that the entire US military is occupying this country with its finger on the trigger, its most powerful firepower ready at a moment's notice with no sense of the cultural or humanitarian sensitivity that would be necessary to provide a safe environment for a diverse civilian population.

Since my first visit to the Al Kawas family, their meeting with the US military to discuss compensation has been inexplicably cancelled. On the day that it was supposed to happen Caiomhe, Ewa, Iman (from Occupation Watch Baghdad) and I waited for them with their lawyer, Barak, at the gates of the military compound where they were supposed to meet with military officials. The family never showed up because they had already found out that it had been cancelled. The US set up a meeting to discuss her family's demands and then cancelled the meeting without telling the family, only bothering to inform her cousin's family a day before the meeting. They told the Al Kawas family that the meeting would be set for a future date and that the family would be notified when and if it was in fact rescheduled. The family has had no control over this process, if you can call it a process. In addition, no one in the family or in the neighborhood has been called forth to tell their side of the story, even though there are plenty of eyewitnesses who were there when it happened. The Army's investigation is purely internal and has no outside checks and balances whatsoever. So far, the US has been able to avoid accountability in this incident and in others, and if you ask me there is nothing more frightening than a scared bully with the most powerful weapons in the world and no accountability.

If the noise on the streets at night doesn't keep me awake, then the thought of this does. All the tanks and weaponry in the world could not make a more hideous sound than a superpower covering its tracks with lies, denials and blatant disregard for human rights. Now more than ever we need an international criminal court which will hold all soldiers accountable for their actions, not just the ones who aren't protected the stars and stripes on their shoulders. Now more than ever we need to hear the voices of conscientious US citizens and people around the world, confronting the abuses of the US military might in Iraq. Now more than ever we need to see portraits of the resiliency of ordinary Iraqis who have endured war, dictatorship and sanctions over the past 33 years and are prepared to continue doing so, retaining a brand of dignity that is reflected in their hospitality towards others, even in the midst of grief and pain.

Right now, though, I feel much less like a voice in the wilderness and much more like eyes and ears in the wilderness, just trying to hear what people are saying about the situation and see what the US is doing here (especially what they're doing behind the scenes). Making any sense of the chaos here is infinitely challenging, and I know that I am experiencing only a small part of the uncertainty that people face on the streets. In the meantime, I will try to train my ears to hear the sounds of peace, prayer and hospitality, with the hope that these sounds hearken of the possibility for a better situation for Iraqi people living under occupation and a better world where human rights are both stated and protected, even under US authority.

-- Sadie
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