by Celeste Fremont, 5/1/2003
TO MOST AMERICANS, the war in Iraq began the night of March 19 when the first $18 million GBU-31 “bunker buster” was dropped on a residential compound near Baghdad University with the hope of eliminating Saddam Hussein in one tidy strike. But for most Iraqis, the bombing started years earlier. In the case of an Iraqi woman named Um Haider, war arrived at her doorstep in earnest one morning in the winter of 1999.
It was shortly after 9 a.m. on January 25, 1999, the day before midyear school exams. The weather was gray and cold with occasional streaks of sunshine. All morning Um Haider — a schoolteacher herself — had been sitting at the kitchen table helping her two oldest kids prepare for the test while the two younger kids, Haider, 6, and Mostafa, 4, amused themselves nearby on the floor of the two-story cement-block house in Jumeryiah, a working-class slum at the north end of Basra.
As is sometimes true after profound trauma, Um Haider remembers the day with the detail of lace. She remembers that her then-11-year-old daughter Hind sat to her right and was struggling with mathematics; that Hamza, the 9-year-old, sat to her left, reading history and geography. She remembers how, at around 9:15 a.m., the two younger boys grew stir-crazy and started to fight; that she was tired and wanted to quiet them, so she fished out a few Iraqi dinars and suggested they walk to the corner store to buy some sweets. She remembers the look of delight on the small boys’ faces as they snatched the money and ran out into the chilly, mid-winter daylight.
After a few minutes of peace, the studies were again interrupted by a sound that, at first, Um Haider thought was an old, rusty truck rumbling down the road. Then her dishes and glassware began rattling violently and jumping from their shelves; the kitchen washbasin wrenched itself from the floor, window glass exploded in shards, and the truck rumble grew to a roar so high and enormous that it sucked all other sound out of the world — as a Boeing AGM-130 satellite-guided cruise missile, with a 2,000-pound MK-84 Blast Fragmentation Warhead, hurtled from the sky into the street in front of her house like the wrath of some psychotic deity.
Um Haider: ‘In Sha’Allah’
Um Haider and the older kids were thrown to the floor by the blast. When the ground was still once again, Hind and Hamza began weeping hysterically, their faces streaming with blood. Um Haider felt blood on her face too. She examined her older children and found that their cuts, caused by flying window glass, were superficial. Then, with a rush of dread, she remembered the two youngest boys. Screaming their names, she ran barefoot into the street.
Outside there was devastation. The dust and smoke were so thick, she says, it seemed eerily as if night had fallen. Rocks and other debris covered everything. People poured from surrounding houses, their expressions crazy with shock. She screamed again, Haider! Mostafa! and ran past homes blasted garishly open, others completely demolished. But there were no little boys. As her gaze slowly adjusted to the landscape of ruin, she was finally able to pick out two small lumps beneath the rubble.
She recognized Mostafa first. “He looked like he was asleep, but then he woke up, and I saw his face and his body full of blood, and he cried, ‘Momma! Momma!’”
Then she saw Haider lying, as if asleep, under the litter of missile and rock and wood, beneath his head a circle of blood. “I touch him, talk to him, but he never answered me,” she said later. “He never moved. He stayed sleeping. Then I know he’s dead. I can’t hide it from myself. I try but I can’t. So I have to try to save the life of my other boy, Mostafa.”
With a neighbor’s help she carried both boys to the closest health clinic, where Haider was pronounced dead. Mostafa, alive but critical, was transferred to the city’s main hospital for emergency surgery, where he stayed for the next 30 days, Um Haider along with him. When he came home, Um Haider didn’t go back to work for another seven months. “I couldn’t,” she said. At first she stayed because Mostafa needed constant attention. His wounds had to be bathed several times a day, and he shrieked in terror whenever she left his side. But she also stayed, she said, because she was paralyzed by misery.
When seven months were up, Um Haider put her grief away and went back to teaching the 47 elementary-school girls who had been her charges. She also did something else: It is her variation of a tradition among certain Iraqi women to call themselves by the name of their eldest son. Um Haider’s legal name is Akbal Fithyab. Now, she told everyone she would be known ever after as Um Haider — mother of Haider. “I took the name to say to everyone that I will never forget my other beautiful son, not for one day, not for one hour.”
According to Pentagon spokesmen, the missile that likely killed Haider and five others, wounding 64 civilians, wasn’t aimed at Basra at all. The intended target was a radar installation located near the village of Abu Faloos 20 miles to the south. Another missile fired that day from a second bomber hit Abu Faloos itself, killing 10 and injuring 30. They were fired as part of an American and British policy put in place in April of 1991, six weeks after the end of the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. and Britain began patrolling a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, ostensibly to protect the Kurdish population. In August 1992, a southern no-fly zone was added after a Shiite Muslim rebellion (first backed by the U.S., then abandoned) was brutally crushed.
Initially, Iraq rarely challenged the no-fly zones, although it considered them illegal as they were instituted unilaterally by the U.S. and Britain, without benefit of a U.N. resolution. But in December 1998, Saddam’s forces began firing on aircraft entering Iraqi airspace, and the allies retaliated with bombs and missiles. The result, according to Hans von Sponeck, the coordinator of the U.N. Humanitarian Program in Iraq from 1998 to 2000, was bombings that occurred, on average, every three days. Von Sponeck became so alarmed that he dispatched a team of U.N. observers to document civilian casualties. By December 2000, they reported 144 civilians dead and 446 wounded by no-fly missiles. The irony, a furious von Sponeck observed, was that the casualties were visited on exactly the populations that the no-fly zones were allegedly trying to protect.
I first began talking with Um Haider four days after the Iraq war officially began in mid-March. By that time, she was no longer in Basra but had just arrived in Amman, Jordan, where, with the help of some American human-rights activists, she was trying to get her son Mostafa to Los Angeles on a medical visa.
Although Mostafa, now 8, had survived the missile, his health was precarious. His left hand was so badly mangled that two fingers and part of his palm had to be amputated. More significantly, the blast had lodged more than 30 pieces of missile fragments in his head, his torso, his back, his butt, his liver, only a few of which could be removed. Now, one of the fragments had worked its way into his hip joint, while another was migrating toward his spine. Basra doctors told Um Haider that either piece could cripple or paralyze Mostafa if not removed soon. No one in Iraq was skilled enough for the delicate surgery, the doctors said.
For an Iraqi, getting a U.S. medical visa is both difficult and expensive. But before Um Haider could apply for the visa, she had to get out of Iraq, a proposition that was, in some ways, even harder. Fearing a brain drain, the Iraqi government had long been reluctant to issue passports to professionals such as university professors, scientists, and schoolteachers like Um Haider. Despite the efforts of activists who took up her cause, the passport issue dragged on for months. As luck would have it, the papers came through on March 14 — five days before an American invasion was set to begin. The timing left Um Haider with an awful choice. If war broke out, she’d be separated from Hamza and Hind, now 13 and 15, who must stay in Basra with their father. Yet, if she didn’t try for the U.S. visa, what would become of Mostafa?
Um Haider chose Amman and the visa. Then the invasion began, and she was driven crazy by worry. Added to her fears for her kids in Basra, there was the matter of her mother and sisters in Baghdad, their house hazardously close to the airport and some other “important” sites. Since coming to Amman, Um Haider had been unable to get through to her kids by phone — although, at the beginning, at least, she could sometimes get through to Baghdad. Between calls, while she waited for word on the visa, Um Haider sat in front of the television in the lobby of the Al Monzer Hotel, obsessively watching the unfolding war news. “Sometimes the only information I can get of my family is to watch Al-Jazeera,” she said. “It’s very hard. But what can I do?”
For the next two weeks I talked to Um Haider nearly every night. Although her English was serviceable, it was far from fluent. Yet, she had a natural facility for psychological and emotional nuance, and we soon established a rhythm of communication. It helped that we were both women, both doting mothers.
I also found her to be a fascinating bellwether for the opinions and desires of ordinary Iraqi people — those whom CNN and MSNBC seem content to all but ignore.
On March 24, Um Haider reached Baghdad by phone and learned that her mother and sisters had moved to the home of an aunt in another, safer part of the city. Even so, she said, the family described the bombing as intensive and terrifying, especially since the big B-1s began dropping their payloads. Surprisingly, Um Haider also said that most Iraqis she knew still believed their army would somehow repel the allied forces. “For Iraqis,” she said, “the problem isn’t whether we like our president or not. The problem is that we don’t want our country to be occupied. This is our country. It’s the same way you say, ‘This my house. I can change this or that piece of furniture. You cannot.’ That’s how Iraqi people feel.”
The Al Monzer Hotel, where Um Haider was staying, is a small but pleasant place frequented by aid workers, activists and other international types who don’t have much spending money. Peace advocates recently expelled from Baghdad were holing up there, as was an Egyptian mother of two whose Jordanian husband had run off with another woman. But, among both patrons and staff, Um Haider and Mostafa were clearly the favorites. Mostafa is a winning child, they said, small for his age, with big, meerkat eyes, and a habit of hiding his mangled left hand when in the presence of strangers, while Um Haider astonished everyone with her courage and good humor, especially now, in the face of circumstances that grew more worrisome daily.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy, however, seemed to have little sympathy for her situation and issued a firm no to Um Haider’s visa request. This caused the American activists aiding her to turn up the pressure. A Los Angeles-based Web designer named Cole Miller launched an Internet campaign that, in a matter of days, resulted in hundreds of e-mails. Then Miller, Chris Doucot of the Hartford, Connecticut, Catholic Worker, plus a Texas photographer named Alan Pogue and Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based human-rights organization, persuaded some U.S. Congress people including Dennis Kucinich and Lloyd Doggett to make pestering calls. After days of the barrage, U.S. consular official Larry Mitchell told Miller that he would see what he could do.
On March 25, Um Haider’s spirits were briefly leavened when she talked to her sister who had gotten through to Basra. “So finally I have news of my children,” she said. “My daughter says that the bombing is on the countryside, not near to the city.” Made chatty by relief, she described her daughter as quiet, “but clever in school,” while her son, she said, likes football and computer games. “He knows everything about computers and says if I get to the U.S. I must bring him a computer game and a PlayStation.”
But war is a mercurial thing, and by afternoon Um Haider was spooked again. “Just now I hear very bad news about Basra,” she said. “I hear that the bombing is intensive, many people are injured, but now I can’t call to find if my children are okay. Sometimes I think I can’t stand it.”
The following day, there was finally good news on the visa front: American consular official Larry Mitchell told Cole Miller that the paperwork was approved, pending some kind of pro forma background check that may take a few weeks.
For a while everyone was euphoric. But then, on Thursday night, three of Baghdad’s telecommunications buildings were bombed. On Friday some phones worked, but not where Um Haider’s family was living. Friday was also the day that a popular market in a northeastern suburb of Baghdad was bombed. On American television the casualty images were sanitized. But on Al-Jazeera the camera entered the hospital to show the wounded and dead, among the latter, two small children lying curled and still on a single slab. Um Haider stared at the onscreen image, then put her face in her hands and sobbed so hard those nearby became concerned. “We tried to comfort her,” said Miller. “But what can you say, really, except I’m so, so sorry my government is doing this? Really, what can you say?”
By Sunday, the rest of the telecommunications buildings had been hit, and it was clear that no one — save journalists with satellite phones — would be calling in or out of Baghdad for the foreseeable future. The loss of phone communication shook Um Haider. “Last night I dream that Hamza, my beautiful son who loves computers, is injured,” she told me quietly. “Now I always imagine only the bad things, not the good things. So I can’t sleep at all, I just pray and pray.”
As was often true in our conversations, Um Haider’s mood eventually swung from fear to optimism. One odd moment of light, she said, was a scene she saw earlier on Al-Jazeera. “After the Americans bombed the Ministry of Information, hundreds of people — poets, singers and actors — went up on the roof of the building, and stood there and cried, and sang in beautiful voices to the people of Iraq. They hold our flag, and sing our national song. For us, this is a very, very beautiful sign,” she said. “It means that the Iraqi people challenge the enemy. They challenge the bombing. Even though many people don’t like Saddam, we must resist because we can’t let anyone control our country, you understand? We can’t let anyone control us.”
Bad news about Basra triggered Um Haider’s most difficult days. She was measurably undone on Wednesday, April 2, when Basra was reportedly being bombed on both the south and the west. “Now the noise of the bombing must be very close for my children,” she said when I reached her, her voice sliced thin by anxiety. “I imagine how afraid they are when they hear this sound. The Iraqi people must have a — how do you say it? — miracle,” she said. “We must have a miracle to save us.”
On April 3, the capture of the Baghdad Airport, killing 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in the process, was the big news, and Um Haider reacted to it with surprising fury. “President Bush doesn’t have the right to do this . . . We have done nothing to him.” She said the capture of the airport had shaken her confidence about the war’s outcome. “All my ideas are changing because nothing is turning out the way most Iraqi people thought it would. We didn’t believe that the Americans would be able to enter Baghdad. But what we believed has not come true,” she said. “Sometimes I think I should forget about the visa and return to Iraq. I tell myself I must be patient and strong. But I want to go there to join with the lives of my family now. They are suffering and I need to suffer with them. Here I can eat and drink and do many things. But now maybe my boy and girl may have no water, and little food.”
Earlier, we’d talked about the effect of U.N. sanctions on her family, how<
basic rations like rice, sugar and tea were usually available, but any kind of decent fresh food was absurdly expensive. In the past few years, things had gotten so bad that, to afford eggs and meat, she’d gradually sold all the gold jewelry she’d had since girlhood, plus every piece of furniture in her house, except for the family’s sleeping mats and a single radio. Today, she’d heard the only uncontaminated water available in Basra was being sold in bottles at a premium. “So what are my children to do?” she asked bitterly. “If I die I don’t care, as long as I am with my family.”
On Saturday, April 5, her mood continued to pitch and sway. “Now I do nothing but watch the television,” she said. Evidently some Americans at the hotel were trying to return to Baghdad and Um Haider was seriously considering going with them. “I need to know what has happened to my family,” she said, her voice pale with exhaustion. “In sha’allah — God willing — they are fine. But I need to know. I cannot be here anymore. I need to know.”
I wanted to tell her it was unimaginable that something could happen to her kids in this war. But we both understand it was imaginable. Um Haider’s family had become collateral damage once already. Now thousands of bombs had been dropped, thousands of “liberated” dead and wounded were yet uncounted. And when those dead were finally given names, would Americans really grieve? Or were Iraqi children somehow a bit more expendable than our own?
By Monday, April 7, no permissions had been granted to re-enter Iraq, but a call arrived from consular official Mitchell. The background checks had come through. Yet, when Um Haider and Cole Miller arrived at the embassy, the computers were down, and the visa could not be issued. Dejected, they were walking out of the building when Mitchell raced down the hall after them. “The computers are up again,” he yelled. “Come on back to the office and let’s do it.”
That night, there was a huge goodbye party at the Al Monzer. A feast was prepared by both guests and staff. Bottles of Arak liqueur were passed around. Then, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Um Haider, Mostafa and Cole Miller flew out of Amman. It took forever to clear customs in New York, so they didn’t actually touch down at LAX until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
A few days later, Um Haider and I met face-to-face for the first time. By then, the photo-op footage of 100 Iraqi men toppling Saddam’s statue that played across American TV screens with giddy, self-congratulatory frequency had been replaced by news of the looting of the museum and libraries of Baghdad and reports that between 10,000 and 20,000 Shiite residents of Najaf and Nasiriyah had demonstrated against the U.S. occupation.
We had arranged to rendezvous at a mosque near to where she is staying. Even from a distance I could spot Um Haider easily. She is a strong-featured, handsome woman with appreciable charisma and a smile that unfolds wide and radiant. She hugs me without hesitation and says she’s relieved to be here because she will finally get help for Mostafa. “Everyone I meet is so kind,” she says. “And doctors here say they can make Mostafa well. In sha’allah,” she adds. “In sha’allah,” I agree. In the meantime there is no news of her children in Basra, and she says she’s trying not to let this make her crazy.
And about the future of Iraq? “Before the war,” Um Haider says, “I would want to tell President Bush, ‘You have other choices instead of causing casualties of many innocent people.’ Now it’s done, I want to say, ‘Leave the Iraqi people to control their matters themselves. It is our country, not yours. Our future, not yours.’”
“In sha’allah,” she adds. “In sha’allah,” I agree.
POSTSCRIPT: On Thursday, April 17, I’m able to call Um Haider with the news — passed to me via an activist still in-country — that the Baghdad family, at least, is unharmed. “They are fine?” she asks several times. “All of them?” All of them, I assure her.