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Casualties of War -- Who Weeps for Abeer?
Published on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Casualties of War -- Who Weeps for Abeer?
by Helen Zia

As the anniversary of the Iraq invasion approaches, another milestone has quietly passed, leaving a window into the protracted and unimaginable human costs of this war in Iraq and here at home. A year ago, 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi was stalked, gang-raped, shot in the head and her corpse burned in her own home in Mahmoudiya, Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers and one former soldier are charged with the crimes.

The soldiers were so confident of their abilities to achieve their intended crimes that they rounded up the Al-Janabi family from their daily chores in broad daylight. Pfc. Stephen Green allegedly shot Abeer's parents and 5-year-old sister to death in the room next to where she was being raped by Sgt. Paul Cortez. His buddy, Pfc. James Barker held the struggling, crying teenager down while two other soldiers, Pfc. Jesse Spielman and Pfc. Bryan Howard, reportedly stood watch.

All this in the middle of the day under the hot afternoon sun, March 12, 2006.

Such are the unpleasantries of invasion, war and occupation. The medical journal Lancet estimated in 2004 that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed, more than half of them women and children. Today, in the absence of accurate figures, that number likely has been far surpassed. To Americans, far from Iraq, these are presented as the sanitized statistics of collateral damage. But the Al-Janabi rape and murders were too well documented to ignore, just as the souvenir photos taken by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison forced Americans to see the torture being committed by their own troops.

The U.S. government and military are prosecuting the five accused men -- a sixth was charged with dereliction of duty -- without an inquiry into the pressures and rules of engagement that led "a really good kid," as Cortez was called during at his court-martial, to commit war crimes against civilians. In his sworn testimony describing how he and the others planned and carried out the rape and murders at the Al Janabi home, Cortez pointedly stated that he and his fellow defendants "weren't the only soldiers who talked about having sex with Iraqi women." In Islamic Iraq, "having sex" in this context can only mean rape.

Numerous observers, including soldiers themselves, say that abuses of Iraqi civilians are not uncommon. A report by Code Pink and the Global Exchange describes incidents where U.S. soldiers tortured female detainees, among them young girls, in the form of sexual abuse and rape, including stripping them naked, then burning their skin or dousing them with water. Sometimes women were tortured in prison cells near their husbands so that their screams could be used to torture the Muslim male detainees.

Under the War Crimes Act of 1996, which Congress passed overwhelmingly so that the United States could, under the Geneva Convention, prosecute North Vietnamese who tortured U.S. soldiers during the war in Vietnam, it is a federal crime for any U.S. national, whether military or civilian, to violate the Geneva Convention by engaging in murder, torture or inhuman treatment. Significantly, the statute applies not only to those who carry out the acts, but also to those who order it, know about it, or fail to take steps to stop it. Yet no officers or military brass have been questioned for their gross failure to stop the crimes in Abeer's home -- let alone for any military policies that contributed to these abuses. This is not surprising in an administration that has demonstrated, time and again, its predilection for blaming a fall guy and refusing to hold accountable those higher up in authority.

The White House and Pentagon choose to eschew prosecution for such crimes under the War Crimes Act, because it could implicate their own responsibility. However, their failure to recognize such war crimes also makes it impossible to acknowledge the psychological harm done to the soldiers who have been placed in horrific situations that can turn a really good kid into a war criminal. Where will returning soldiers get the treatment they need if they have been witnesses to or participants in war crimes and abuse of Iraqi civilians?

Family counselors and military mental-health workers have long recognized the psychological trauma exhibited by veterans of Iraq -- and that too little help is available for them. Only six counseling sessions are allowed for soldiers who are referred for service. Soldiers can also get counseling services through mental-health clinics, but mental-health visits are noted on their military records -- and thus can be used against them. For example, airborne soldiers cannot fly if they are being treated for depression, a career ender for troops in the 101st Airborne Battalion -- to which the five soldiers involved in the rape and killing of Abeer and her family belonged.

About 1.4 million soldiers, reservists and National Guard have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. So have several hundred thousand private contractors, such as truck drivers, who must traverse roads laced with Improvised Explosive Devices.

Because of low levels of enlistment, more than 125,000 "moral waivers" have been granted to enlistees who previously would have been rejected for service -- some because of criminal backgrounds. All are subject to the serious effects of post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health problems, yet the resources to help them and their families are too few.

Even as politicians call for national probes into the lapses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the medical treatment of returning soldiers, little mention is made of their mental health needs. If these veterans and private contractors don't get treatment for their invisible wounds, all of society will suffer with them.

At the end of his court-martial, Cortez apologized to brothers of Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi for turning them into orphans. His sentence for the capital war crimes he committed: 100 years, with possible parole in 10, minus his time served. For committing the gang rape of Abeer and four murders, he could be out in nine years. One can only hope that he receives the treatment he needs during his confinement before he rejoins the general population.

Cortez paused to wipe his tears at several points during his testimony, becoming most emotional when he expressed his remorse for letting his fellow soldiers down. But one year after the war atrocities that took her young life with violence and terror, who weeps for Abeer?

Helen Zia, a Bay Area writer, attended the court- martial of Sgt. Cortez in Ft. Campbell, Ky., for the Women's Media Center.

2007 Hearst Communications Inc. 


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