Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Friday, September 19, 2003 - by riverbend

in keeping with my belief that we need to be more aware of what it is like to live on a day-to-day basis in countries other than the u.s., i am re-printing riverbend's september 19, 2003, entry in its entirety...

(to visit riverbend's blog, baghdad burning, click the title above)



The weather has 'broken' these last few days. It's still intolerably hot, but there's a wind. It's a heavy, dusty wind more reminiscent of a gust from a blow-dryer than an actual breeze. But it is none-the-less a wind, and we are properly grateful.

The electrical situation is bizarre. For every 6 hours of electricity, three hours of darkness. I wish they would give us electricity all night and cut it off during the day. During the day it's hotter, but at least you can keep busy with something like housework or a book. At night the darkness brings along all the fears, the doubts and… the mosquitoes. All the sounds are amplified. It's strange how when you can see, you can't hear so many things… or maybe you just stop listening.

Everyone is worried about raids lately. We hear about them from friends and relatives, we watch them on tv, outraged, and try to guess where the next set of raids are going to occur.

Anything can happen. Some raids are no more than seemingly standard weapons checks. Three or four troops knock on the door and march in. One of them keeps an eye of the 'family' while the rest take a look around the house. They check bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. They look under beds, behind curtains, inside closets and cupboards. All you have to do is stifle your feelings of humiliation, anger and resentment at having foreign troops from an occupying army search your home.

Some raids are, quite simply, raids. The door is broken down in the middle of the night, troops swarm in by the dozens. Families are marched outside, hands behind their backs and bags upon their heads. Fathers and sons are pushed down on to the ground, a booted foot on their head or back.

Other raids go horribly wrong. We constantly hear about families who are raided in the small hours of the morning. The father, or son, picks up a weapon- thinking they are being attacked by looters- and all hell breaks loose. Family members are shot, others are detained and often women and children are left behind wailing.

I first witnessed a raid back in May. The heat was just starting to become unbearable and we were spending the whole night without electricity. I remember lying in my bed, falling in and out of a light sleep. We still weren't sleeping on the roof because the whole night you could hear gunshots and machinegun fire not very far away- the looters still hadn't organized themselves into gangs and mafias.

At around 3 am, I distinctly heard the sound of helicopters hovering not far above the area. I ran out of the room and into the kitchen and found E. pressing his face to the kitchen window, trying to get a glimpse of the black sky.

"What's going on?!" I asked, running to stand next to him.
"I don't know… a raid? But it's not an ordinary raid… there are helicopters and cars, I think…"

I stopped focusing on the helicopters long enough to listen to the cars. No, not cars- big, heavy vehicles that made a humming, whining sound. E. and I looked at one another, speechless- tanks?! E. turned on his heel and ran upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. I followed him clumsily, feeling for the banister all the way up, my mind a jumble of thoughts and conjectures.

Out on the roof, the sky was black streaked with light. Helicopters were hovering above, circling the area. E. was leaning over the railing, trying to see into the street below. I approached tentatively and he turned back to me, "It's a raid… on Abu A.'s house!" He pointed three houses down the road.

Abu A. was an old, respected army general who had retired in the mid '80s. He lived a quiet life in his two-storey house on our street. All I knew about him was that he had four kids- two daughters and two sons. The daughters were both married. One of them was living in London with her husband and the other one was somewhere in Baghdad. The one in Baghdad had a 3-year-old son we'll call L. I know this because, without fail, ever since L. was six months old, Abu A. would proudly parade him up and down our street in a blue and white striped stroller.

It was a scene I came to expect every Friday evening: the tall, worn, old man pushing the small blue stroller holding the round, pink, drooling L.

I had never talked to Abu A. until last year. I was watering the little patch of grass in front of the wall around our garden and trying not to stare at the tall old man walking alongside the tottering toddler. Everything my mother had taught me about how impolite it was to ogle people ran around in my brain. I turned my back to the twosome as they came down the street and casually drowned the flowers growing on the edge of the plot of grass.

Suddenly, a voice asked, "Can we wash ourselves?" I turned around, stupefied. Abu A. and L. stood there, smeared with enough chocolate to qualify for a detergent commercial. I handed over the hose, almost drenching them in the process, and watched as the old man washed L.'s sticky, little fingers and wiped clean the pursed lips while saying, "His mother can't see him like this!"

And after handing back the hose, they were off on their way, once again… I watched them go down the remainder of the street to Abu A.'s home- stopping every few steps so L. could look down at some insect that had caught his attention.

That was last year… or maybe 9 months ago… or maybe a 100 years ago. Tonight, the armored cars were pulling up to Abu A.'s house, the helicopters were circling above, and the whole area was suddenly a mess of noise and lights.

E. and I went back downstairs. My mother stood anxiously by the open kitchen door, looking out at my father who was standing at the gate. E. and I ran outside to join him and watch the scene unfolding only 3 houses away. There was shouting and screaming- the deep, angry tones of the troops mixed with the shriller voices of the family and neighbors- the whole symphony boding of calamity and fear.

"What are they doing? Who are they taking?!" I asked no one in particular, gripping the warm, iron gate and searching the street for some clue. The area was awash with the glaring white of headlights and spotlights and dozens of troops stood in front of the house, weapons pointed- tense and ready. It wasn't long before they started coming out: first it was his son, the 20-year-old translation student. His hands were behind his back and he was gripped by two troops, one on either side. His head kept twisting back anxiously as they marched him out of the house, barefoot. Next, Umm A., Abu A.'s wife, was brought out, sobbing, begging them not to hurt anyone, pleading for an answer… I couldn't hear what she was saying, but I saw her looking left and right in confusion and I said the words instead of her, "What's going on? Why are they doing this?! Who are they here for?"

Abu A. was out next. He stood tall and erect, looking around him in anger. His voice resonated in the street, above all the other sounds. He was barking out questions- demanding answers from the troops, and the bystanders. His oldest son A. followed behind with some more escorts. The last family member out of the house was Reem, A.'s wife of only 4 months. She was being led firmly out into the street by two troops, one gripping each thin arm.

I'll never forget that scene. She stood, 22 years old, shivering in the warm, black night. The sleeveless nightgown that hung just below her knees exposed trembling limbs- you got the sense that the troops were holding her by the arms because if they let go for just a moment, she would fall senseless to the ground. I couldn't see her face because her head was bent and her hair fell down around it. It was the first time I had seen her hair… under normal circumstances, she wore a hijab.

That moment I wanted to cry… to scream… to throw something at the chaos down the street. I could feel Reem's humiliation as she stood there, head hanging with shame- exposed to the world, in the middle of the night.

One of the neighbors, closer to the scene, moved forward timidly and tried to communicate with one of the soldiers. The soldier immediately pointed his gun at the man and yelled at him to keep back. The man held up an 'abaya', a black cloak-like garment some females choose to wear, and pointed at the shivering girl. The soldier nodded curtly and told him to, "Move back!". "Please," came the tentative reply, "Cover her…" He gently put the abaya on the ground and went back to stand at his gate. The soldier looking unsure, walked over, picked it up and awkwardly put it on the girl's shoulders.

I gripped at the gate as my knees weakened, crying… trying to make sense of the mess. I could see many of the neighbors, standing around, looking on in dismay. Abu A.'s neighbor, Abu Ali, was trying to communicate with one of the troops. He was waving his arm at Umm A. and Reem, and pointing to his own house, obviously trying to allow them to take the women inside his home. The troop waved over another soldier who, apparently, was a translator. During raids, a translator hovers in the background inconspicuously- they don't bring him forward right away to communicate with terrified people because they are hoping someone will accidentally say something vital, in Arabic, thinking the troops won't understand, like, "Honey, did you bury the nuclear bomb in the garden like I told you?!"

Finally, Umm A. and Reem were allowed inside of Abu Ali's house, escorted by troops. Reem walked automatically, as if dazed, while Umm A. was hectic. She stood her ground, begging to know what was going to happen… wondering where they were taking her husband and boys… Abu Ali urged her inside.

The house was ransacked… searched thoroughly for no one knows what- vases were broken, tables overturned, clothes emptied from closets…

By 6 am the last cars had pulled out. The area was once more calm and quiet. I didn't sleep that night, that day or the night after. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Abu A. and his grandson L. and Reem… I saw Umm A., crying with terror, begging for an explanation.

Abu A. hasn't come back yet. The Red Cross facilitates communication between him and his family… L. no longer walks down our street on Fridays, covered in chocolate, and I'm wondering how old he will be before he ever sees his grandfather again…


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