On January 20, 1999, Mustafa (who was four-years-old at the time) was playing outside his home with his six-year-old brother, Heider, in the Al Juramya neighborhood of Basra in southern Iraq. At 10 in the morning, an American cruise missile landed in the street in front of their home — an artifact of the no-fly zone bombing that the United States has carried out over the last twelve years. Mustafa’s brother, Heider was killed instantly, and Mustafa was seriously injured. Two of his fingers on his left hand were blown off, he had a serious head wound, and much of his body was filled with shrapnel from the exploding missile.
Four years later, Mustafa is a lively, friendly, outgoing boy of eight, who has massive scars on his body and head. He walks with a limp from the piece of shrapnel lodged in the ball joint of his right leg, which causes pain and damage with every step. Mustafa also has numerous aches and pains from the shrapnel still embedded throughout his torso. His doctors are most worried about the shrapnel in his hip, another piece in his backbone, and a third piece, which has worked itself to the edge of his liver.
Iraqi and American doctors who have examined Mustafa indicate that he will have a very short life if some of the shrapnel is not removed very soon. Um Heider and Mustafa have been to the U.S. Embassy in Amman three times in the last two weeks, pleading for a medical emergency visa to come to the United States.
After dinner in Amman, we gathered to watch TV, just as BBC was beginning to broadcast pictures of the massive bombing of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. I could see the pain and horror run through Um Heider’s face as she stared at the wanton destruction of her native city. Um Heider had grown up in Baghdad and her mother and fifteen-year-old niece still live there. She could identify, by name or function, almost every building panned by the television camera as it burst into flames from the descending bombs and missiles.
When pictures shifted to Basra, Um Heider’s face froze into a grimace of pain. Basra is her home city, the current location of her husband Salah (forty-three), her other surviving son, Hamza (thirteen), and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Hind — the child who most feared this war. On Wednesday, the last day before the end of the Bush deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, students in Hind’s school had all said goodbye to their teachers and classmates, knowing that they might never see them again. Now Um Heider knew that her daughter was experiencing the fate that she had dreaded for so long, and Um, her mother, was not there to comfort her.