On April 5, 2003, U.S. forces pushed into downtown Baghdad. The next day, they encircled the city and heavy fighting broke out. Bombs leveled entire buildings, tanks thundered down the streets, and the sounds of gunshots reverberated through the air.
There was intense fighting in the neighborhood where Vivian Salim and her family lived. Terrified, she and her husband Izzat grabbed their three children and jumped into the car, trying to escape to a safer place. They were driving down the street when they crossed paths with a U.S. tank. With no warning, the soldiers in the tank began shooting straight at the car. Salim screamed, pleading with them to stop, but the soldiers just kept shooting.
When they finally stopped, they discovered that they had just killed a family of unarmed civilians. Vivian Salim's husband, her 15-year-old son Hussam, her 12-year-old son Waseem, and her daughter Merna, age 6, were all dead.
"I saw the bullets enter my children's heads," she said. "My son was sitting right next to me when the bullet went through his forehead. One minute I was a mother, a wife with a family; the next minute my family was gone."
The soldiers ordered Vivian to leave, and to leave her family's bullet-ridden bodies behind. "After a week of pleading with the Americans, they finally gave the bodies back to us. We took them to the church where we washed them, prayed for them, and then buried them." Vivian Salim now lives with her elderly parents.
The U.S. military never acknowledged their terrible mistake, never apologized to Salim for her loss, and never offered her any financial help. Now, nearly three years later, Salim and six other Iraqi women have been invited by the women's peace group CODEPINK to come to the United States to tell their stories and push for an end to the occupation of their country. The other delegates are doctors, engineers, journalists and humanitarian aid workers. One delegate, Anwar kadhim Jwad, is also a widow whose husband and children were killed by U.S. soldiers at an unmarked roadblock.
But when Vivian Salim traveled across the long and dangerous desert road from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan on February 2 to solicit a two-week visa from the U.S. Embassy, her visa application was rejected. The Consular officer told her that she failed to show convincing evidence that she would return to Iraq. When the CODEPINK staff called the State Department to object, they were told that Salim did not have "sufficient family ties that would compel her to return." Anwar Kadhim Jawad, the other delegate whose family was killed by U.S. soldiers, was also rejected for lack of sufficient family ties.
"It's outrageous," said activist Cindy Sheehan, who will be in Washington D.C. to greet the Iraqi women's delegation. "First we kill these poor women's families, then we tell them they don't have sufficient family ties. First we invade their country, then we refuse to allow them to visit ours."
Gael Murphy, a CODEPINK cofounder who has been coordinating the delegation, is working with Congress to try to reverse the decision. "These women have no desire to stay in the United States. We had a very hard time convincing them to come, but we told them how important it was for Americans to hear their stories," Murphy said.
CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans, who has led several fact-finding missions to Iraq, suspects that other factors influenced the State Department's decision. "These women's stories are heartbreaking, and the administration doesn't want the U.S. public to hear them. They don't want the American people to know how cruel this occupation is, or to know that the majority of Iraqis want the U.S. troops to leave," Evans said.
The Bush administration insists it is bringing democracy to Iraq; yet refuses to listen to the wishes of the Iraqi people. Now we see just how far the administration will go to keep the voices of Iraqis away from the American public.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and the human rights group Global Exchange. For more information about the delegation, visit womensaynotowar.org.