Carnage at Al Mansur
Published on Friday, August 8, 2003 by
Carnage at Al Mansur
by Felicity Arbuthnot

The Al Mansur district of Baghdad, where a truck bomb detonated outside the Jordanian Embassy, is a quiet, middle class suburb which has suffered disproportionate tragedy. The wide, tree-lined residential street which is its core, is home to embassies, old aristocratic lineage and many formerly wealthy artists, writers, sculptures, known throughout the Middle East.

The telephone tower, with its revolving restaurant, defiantly rebuilt (now re-bombed) after the1991 war, six inches higher than London's Post Office Tower, is the district's land mark. No local has forgotten the onslaught, beginning with graphite mesh of vast proportions being dropped over the tower, fusing and melting all electrical circuits in a gigantic, chilling firework display which lit up the entire district for the night hours.

In 1991, Mansur resident, Nasra Al Sa'adoon's daughter Do'ha and son, Verar, were ten and nine, respectively. With husband Mustafa, gentlest of passionate academics, they spent the blitzkrieg hours, huddled together in Nasra's study, duvet covered, priceless ancient multi language manuscripts and books, piled against the small window - protection from panes, potentially lethal shards. Duvets and history, protection against annihillitic destruction.

Without water, power, communication they survived. Mustafa and Nasra's bedroom windows were blown out - and never replaced. With the glass factory bombed, glass is an item of stratospheric value. Mustapha filled in the shattered spaces, painting a vibrant, joyous mural over the bricks.

When the war ended, on 28th February 1991, so had childhood. As with most of Iraq's children, innocence died in forty two days. Doh'a's was detonated by two Cruise missiles.

On the night of 13th/14th February, her best friend was having a birthday party at the Ameriyah Shelter, minutes away. They would stay overnight at the Shelter, returning when the bombing briefly lulled in the morning. The Shelter was built against nuclear attack during the Iran Iraq war. Self sufficient for power, water, with kitchens, showers, medical facilities, floor to ceiling bunks for the young, video games, televisions - normality restored for a brief hours.

As the afternoon of the party drew on, Doh'a's excitement evaporated, then she said she would not go. She must, her friend would be so hurt, said Nasra, they had even managed to find a present; wrapping paper, fancy bows. Nothing could change Doh'a's mind. The great Shelter was bombed that night, incinerating all but eight of those inside. Her friend was not among the eight.

In June 1993 Mansur was bombed again and three houses demolished. Killed with her husband and son, was Nasra's friend Suad Al Attar, renowned artist and glowing beauty. Hearing the bombings increasingly near they ran from the house - when the house was struck, they were killed by the blast waves. Day's later, I stood by the crater, all that remained of a home which had won its architect numerous prizes, it's light and space, inspiration for her superb, haunting paintings. "When they pulled her out, she looked like a beautiful, broken doll", whispered a neighbor, next to me. Was it "collateral" damage - or because she had created the mosaic of George Bush Sr's face on the steps of the Al Rashid Hotel, over which Iraqi's walked with glee on entering? Small revenge for apocalyptic destruction. The Rashid was also bombed and a twenty three year old receptionist killed.

Two years later I met Mansur resident, painter and sculpture Jabril Ibrahim Jabril, at a thriving showcase for artists, set round an ancient cobbled square, hung and spread with jewel colored carpets, candles lighting the still, balmy dark - hundreds hung from trees, ledges - illuminating every breathtaking artistry displayed. A visual feast. Chopin rang out through an open window in an upstairs room, hauntingly played. The pianist had lost his sight in the Iran-Iraq war - engendered by the US - and fueled by US-sold weapons.

Jabril invited me to his home and again, I was assaulted with beauty, his creativity so towering, writing of it was to fail descriptive adequacy - wonders to feed any soul. How had he survived the onslaught of 1991? He took me into an enclosed courtyard, laid with turquoise, cream and mellowed ochre tiles and scented with the limes and oranges which graced it. We sat down on a low wall, under the stars, then: "I had just bought my grandson a Walkman. When the bombings started, I sat just here and watched the tracers from the missiles over us and I would play Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Elgar, even Souza on it - and reassure myself that countries who could create such beauty could not be all bad."

"Write to me" he said "I will write back". I did, but there was no reply. He died, I discovered on my next visit, shortly afterwards. He could take the threats, the uglinesses no more, his friends felt.

In December 1998 after Prime Minister Blair announced a Christmas and Eid bombing, I finally managed to reach Mustafa on a terrible line, which did not, however, disguise his breaking voice and - I felt - heart. I had a terrible, unshakeable premonition as he described the damage to his beloved city, the "Paris of the ninth century" - formerly Dar Es Salaam - "City of Peace."

A month later, on January 17th, I rang from Jordan. A visa hitch had been ironed out. Photographer Karen Robinson and I were just in time to catch the last bus to Baghdad. Doh'a answered. "We're on our way, tell Mustafa to get the aubergines." Mustafa had devised the most delicious aubergine dish, specially for me and I could never get enough of it. "Felicity, we have a catastrophe, Mustafa is dead." He had died five minutes before, on the eighth anniversary of the start of the 1991 war.

When we arrived, sixteen hours later, to witness the grief was to know the unbearable.

Women and men grieve separately. I broke the taboo and walked to the house where Verar, seventeen, now head of the family, was taking the condolences of his father's friends, colleagues. He saw me through the window and came out, a child man, six foot four, gentle and dignified as his father, ramrod straight, it incumbent on him to honor his father in strength not weakness. To be strong for his mother and sister. I put my arms round him. Suddenly, just the child was there, drowning in unfathomable, unimaginable sorrow.

Somehow, they came through. Are they safe now? Phones don't work: the restaurant which was hit by two one thousand pound bombs in Dubya's 'smoke ' out' antics to find Saddam, is round the corner from their home, the Jordanian Embassy doors away. The earlier (US) Mansur slaughter, the families incinerated in their car, is yards away from the memories of those balmy aubergine nights, the laughter, wisdom, warmth, the glow of tiny glasses of Arak - a Middle East drink with more in common with a liquid hand grenade than an alcoholic beverage. When I looked at a bottle and discovered it was made by 'The Iraq Chemical Company', I knew I had finally cracked the mystery of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"God I hate this place , these people", say US troops repeatedly of Iraq. Are they all bad after all Jabril? Or do they just: 'know not what they do?'