Yesterday, I eagerly awaited a visit from a friend who had just arrived from Iraq.
We greeted each other warmly and marveled over having managed to stay in touch with each other through ten years, this in spite of distance, siege, warfare, occupation and his recent, acute need to maintain a low profile. Then he showed me his passport. Success! In it was a stamp allowing him to travel for six months to another land. “Tomorrow, we go!” he said, his usual upbeat and cheerful derring-do apparently intact.
When I last saw him, in early April, he told me that he had received a letter threatening him with death if he didn’t leave his home. Believing the threat was serious, he quickly moved his family to a village where they could live with in-laws. This was only a temporary solution. His best bet was to build a one room home for his family, adjacent to the home of other relatives living in a more remote village, and then to join the hundreds of Iraqis seeking visas to flee Iraq.
I asked him to tell me what had happened since his hasty departure from Amman five weeks ago, when he had dropped a quick email to say there was an emergency in Iraq and he had to leave. Instead, he pulled out his camera.
“I have pictures,” he said, --indeed he did. He showed me at least 100 pictures. His youngest daughter playing with goats outside her new home. His oldest son patting a duck. The older daughter helping dig the foundation for the new home. His wife bringing food to those working in the field. One after another, the pictures flashed on a tiny screen.
A steady narrative accompanied the pictures. The children are adjusting to living in a one room home, just built, without tiles or plaster. Nylon sheets cover the windows. They’ll deal with the matter of schooling later; just now, schools are on vacation.
The children play with three sheep, the neighbor’s cows and two dogs. They run in the open air, and a bevy of children live nearby. At first, they didn’t have a toilet, --we laugh over pictures of his children squatting in an open field. He’s worried about mosquitoes at night.
I was puzzled about why it was so important for me to see all of these pictures when what I really wanted to know pertained to current situations in Baghdad and other cities.
Finally it dawned on me. I should understand that these pictures are the prized possession he’ll carry with him as he leaves his beloved family, abruptly facing a future laden with uncertainty. When will he see them again?
Later, he told me that when he and his family first moved out of the city, his father and his youngest son had been separated for three months. When they were finally reunited, my friend snapped a photo that captured the grandfather embracing the little boy. My friend wanted me to see this picture as clearly as possible. He tinkered with the camera, trying to enlarge the photo. How typical of my friend to understate his own distress, hoping I’ll understand by studying the picture of his father who openly wept when he held the grandson.
Cathy Breen sat us down for a home-cooked meal in the small hotel where we stay. Following dinner, my friend began to explain the events leading to his departure. He translated for his traveling companion, adding his own anecdotes from time to time, as they told us the gruesome, all too familiar accounts of people, some of whom they knew personally, who had been abducted, tortured and killed.
Toward the end of a three hour conversation, my friend’s companion relied on his own English to articulate the pain. “If I stay, I will be killed. What can I do?” he asks. “Maybe I will find some chance. Every day, I miss my wife, my children, my family. Before, my father, my mother, my brother, and I, and our children, we all live together. I cook for all. Now, all the people are afraid.” He shows us how they cower, how U.S. soldiers aim at them and shout at them. Trying to control his agitation, he asks, “Why? Why am I here now? I have two children, very beautiful. I have wife, very beautiful. I want to sleep with my wife, make the dinner, --my wife is in one place, my mother in another, my brother still another place, I am here. All these problems, Why? For the freedom?!” He continues with the long list of indignities suffered by Iraqis whose infrastructure only deteriorates. The occupiers have done almost nothing to help rebuild while, in his view, new rulers will continue looting Iraq. “Believe me, this is the blackest point in American history,” he says. “But please,” he pleads, "send our voice to honest American people.”
And what is it that honest American people can do?
The honest Americans can put the U.S. administration on notice that “staying the course” is not a strategy, that this course has been bloody, dirty, reckless, and wrong. The honest Americans can feel wretched remorse over every dime handed over to the warmongers who lead the U.S. and do their best to stop the hemorrhaging flow of dollars that fuels ongoing war. As countless Iraqis flee from their homes, we must beg one another, in the U.S., to slow down and think about where our country is going. As the majority of Iraqis live without basic securities, we must insist that the U.S. government pay for reparations rather than continue to bankroll the military expense accounts.
We bade goodbye to our friends on the eve of their departure. My friend added our photos to his collection of family portraits.
Kathy Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence