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"Your Visit Changes Everything"
Published on Thursday, February 22, 2001
Americans Travel to Iraq
“Your Visit Changes Everything”
by Kristine Swenson
They heard we were coming the day before. We rode through the countryside on dirt roads, soaking in the beauty of the fields and palm trees through the windows on the bus, escorted by an entourage of vehicles carrying soldiers and government officials. As we entered the village, curious faces turned toward us, following us with their expressionless eyes, and then their bodies.

Mark and I stepped off the bus, into a crowd of villagers. In the center, stood Falah, a confident 33-year old man with kind eyes. He invited us to follow him under a canopy of date palms on well-worn dirt paths into a courtyard framed by white, mud-brick walls. It was empty, except for his mother, at the far end. She was dressed in a long black covering, only her eyes were exposed, glancing at us, then looking away. The throngs of our entourage approached her; 18 members of our U.S. delegation, the assistant governor of the region, members of the national foreign ministry, two truckloads of soldiers, and a sizable showing from her village. Falah emerged from the doorway of their home carrying a large framed portrait of his younger brother and stood next to his mother in silence. I cried.

We introduced ourselves as friends. We told them we had heard the news of their great tragedy and had come to offer our condolences and tell them of a growing movement in the United States. A small group of people were driving a school bus from California to New York, telling hundreds of thousands of people in churches, schools and universities about the situation in their country, in memory of their son and brother. They had collected over 200 lbs. of school supplies for this village, along with messages of peace. Falah choked back tears and took a deep breath as he looked at the pictures of the Remembering Omran Bus Tour.

Mark and I were invited to enter the one-room home, dark on this day as the electricity was out, to meet other members of the family. All were dressed in black - in mourning. A large family, we met at least nine brothers, some uncles, and cousins, as a young woman nursed a baby and played with a toddler in the corner of the room. They told us their story…

On May 17, 2000, eight boys were harvesting rice in the field next to their village. An old small tractor was churning the ground, loosening the grains, tempting a flock of sheep to follow its tracks. Two boys were in charge of herding them back to the edge of the field. This was their world - the field, the sheep, the rice, and each other. At 11 a.m., everything changed. From the sky, a bomb dropped from a United States warplane into their midst. Omran, Falah’s 13-year old brother, was facing the place of impact, a few feet away. He was killed instantly. Shrapnel hit five of his friends, two of them remember nothing other than waking up in a hospital hours later. Thirty of their sheep were killed.

Standing in Omran’s home, eight months later, we saw the scars on the legs of a boy, maybe 12 years old, who was injured in the blast. I looked at his face and wondered what images appeared in his mind as he recalled the day. I looked at the faces of this family, and wondered what images appeared in their minds as they welcomed two Americans into their home.

We asked to speak with Omran’s mother, and a young woman pulled a straw mat and pillows from the shelf for us to sit on the floor. The three of us faced each other, with a photograph of Omran on the ground in front of us. His mother placed her hand on her heart and explained that since Omran’s death, her heart was filled with pain, and she could no longer speak. Then she picked up the photo of Omran, kissed it, and gave it to us to keep. It was her only photograph of her son.
Omran Harbi Jawair
Omran Harbi Jawair, a thirteen year old shepherd boy killed last May when American planes bombed his herd of sheep in the southern no fly zone of Iraq.

Falah entered the room, thanking us for the gifts we brought, yet reminded us that they, along with the entire U.S. Administration, “were not worth even the smallest finger on Omran’s hand.” We nodded tearfully. He continued by saying he didn’t want the two of us to feel the weight of responsibility for the terrible crime committed by our government, or the pilot of the warplane. Before our visit, the only people they had met from the West had been journalists from the Washington Post two weeks following Omran’s death. He told us the people in his village had never known Americans - and they didn’t know we had emotions. He said, “Your visit today changes everything.”

As we emerged from the dark mud walls of the home into the courtyard, the crowd of villagers gathered together suddenly pointed to the sky. I could hear a distant roar, and my eyes found the outline of a U.S. warplane flying overhead. They told us this happened every day.

Mark and I followed about a dozen men and boys from the village across a narrow foot-bridge over an irrigation canal, and 500 meters further into the field, now planted with barley. They pointed to the exact spot where the missile had landed, saying there were no visible pieces of the bomb, as everything had been tilled into the ground with the new crop. Across the field, we could see another herd of sheep being tended by a group of boys. Falah and the others said the same field was bombed just weeks after Omran’s death, and they gestured to the surrounding fields, saying the bombs have continued to drop periodically throughout the area. In a neighboring village, two parents and six children were killed as they walked across a road.

Mark knelt at the place where the missile landed and began to fill an empty film canister with soil. Immediately, a soldier and a boy about Omran’s age knelt down, taking turns with Mark, placing dirt and clover into the canister. It sounded as if the boy was laughing, until we saw his face. He was crying.

As we walked back into the village, looking back at the green fields, it was obvious that there were no military installations and no anti-aircraft facilities in this place. The planes flying overhead have the technology to differentiate between a goat and a human being from 30 miles away. This place was not a threat. These people were not our enemies. This tragedy was not an accident.

Leaving the village, I realized the impact of Falah’s message. “Your visit changes everything.” His world was forever changed… and so was mine.

Kristine Swenson is a student at the University of Seattle who was a delegate on the Conscience International trip to Iraq this past January. For more information, visit the Middle East Children's Alliance website.


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