Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Four of my friends were killed by a huge double roadside bomb..."

Via Salam Adil, this powerful account from an Iraqi college student. The first comment indicates it was also featured in NY Times Select.

When I look at the calendar, the blackest day of my year is June 11.

It is quite ironic that my personal tragedy bears more than a passing resemblance to the more collective one, all it takes is to turn the 6 upside down.

This post was published in a slightly modified version in my last New York Times group blog, I consider it one of my best posts to date.

In the movie “Syriana,” George Clooney labels the first Arab dude to appear in the film - a terrorist, naturally - as “son of a goat.” I have heard this “nickname” in other forms enough to assume it is more than a passing oddity. Since I am an Arab and proud of it, I am also a son of the goat, however, today I am allowed my right to speak. This is what I say:

Four of my friends were killed by a huge double roadside bomb that exploded in Karada on Sunday June 11. That’s right, four, count them … that is, if you can identify their bodies. Forever gone — can you imagine that? Since you are all comfy in your air-conditioned rooms sitting on armchairs, sipping Pepsi or Kool-Aid or whatever it is that you care to sip while your sons and daughters go safely to colleges and your spouses sleep in bedrooms million miles away from here, I’d like to take the opportunity to offer what it feels like to be insane amidst the apocryphal hell of Iraq, both weather-wise and people-wise.

I wish I could fill the rest of my article with expletives, but since I am writing for The New York Times, I can’t. So be it.

They were the best of people. Two of them, my best friends, were Shiites; another was Sunni and the other was Christian — an example of unity that can never be portrayed in a million years by the hypocritical fake advertisements they numb us with on TV. Three of them lived in the internal hostel because their families were abroad, and each one’s story is sadder than the other.

Ninos, the Christian, was perhaps the kindest person I ever met, the type that fills you with a warm glow when you speak with him … you connected to a forgotten fountain of happiness that was spurred by his natural do-goodness. He had just two weeks until he would have finished his final exams and returned forever to the safety of Kurdistan, where his Assyrian family resides.

Yahya was a Sunni from Mosul, also a nice guy: He could not even hurt the ground he stepped on. (He and Ninos were roommates, and were called “the saints” by their neighbors.) His family had moved to Egypt after being threatened. He had one week until he was to leave for home, and on top of that, get married. The girl in question is in our academic department. She is now in a state of paralysis.

The third, Hobi, was a Shiite of Turkish descent from Karbala. He was my best friend. The day before, I asked him if we could take a picture together since this was the last year of college and I would probably never see him again after he set off for Spain, where his mother lives. Little did I know I would get that picture, and that it would be a picture of his grave.

I remember precisely the moment when I got the phone call at 10:30 p.m. telling me that three of them were dead.* The time went very slowly. The room, just a minute earlier moist and extremely hot, became sullen and cold. In the living room Nancy Ajram was loudly assuring us of her undying joy and devotion, strangely out of context.

I went upstairs and wept alone. I wept all day, frequently looking at the mirror and gesturing incoherently … Robert DeNiro would’ve been ashamed …

The next day, while I was walking in the protest in which the three coffins were held up high and marched around the college courtyards, everyone was crying, everyone was shouting — it was a terrible sight. But when I heard the shouts “No! No to Terrorism!” up ahead, I didn’t feel a thing. They were exploiting us, we the people, we the good people of Iraq who never looked at our good friends as Sunni, Shia and Christian — these divisions did not exist. We cried for them together. We prayed the Islamic funeral prayer over all three of them, even though it is supposed to be unacceptable in Islam to pray for the Christian dead. I didn’t feel that I wanted vengeance towards Zarqawi in particular. I didn’t know why then, but I think I do now: because it is not only Zarqawi who is to blame.

My world has not been the same since that day. Everywhere I go there are small marks that bear their faces or actions of the past (like when England wins in the World Cup, of which Hobi was a great fan), and the lectures that Ninos used to make clear to us less-gifted students, and the countless pictures, tokens of a better time that I cannot bear to look at again. Even when I close my eyes to sleep, nightmares creep in and welcome me. Yesterday I dreamt I was killed by marines; before that I was abducted by militias … it goes on and on.

And there you sit, comfortable in your ignorance, sipping on your Pepsi and choking on your Burger King while I tell you the a story of one of those statistical body counts. You are to blame. Your ignorance was a major cause of all this.

I remember back in 2003, when the Americans were still treated as curious aliens. Children of all sorts walked to the American soldier, the proud, brave liberator … Strangely, he was Mexican in origin and the first question that he asked was, Sunni or Shiite? See what I mean? In my past three articles, you can clearly see that I went with the sectarian trend of my times, but now I see my grave mistake — it was a trend undoubtedly ignited, encouraged and adopted by the ignorant anti-terrorist-pro-divide-&-conquer U.S. liberals. It was with difficulty that I identified my friends today, my dearly loved friends, as “Shiite” and “Sunni” and “Christian.” I will never do that again.

Later that night, I printed out a glorious color picture of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the flag of Iran, and the American star-spangled banner, put them one on top of the other in the backyard, the American flag on top of all, and set them all to flame … I didn’t feel a goddamn thing. I don’t consider my actions in the above paragraph justified, even morally correct. I apologize for that, but it’s the truth. Heck, I’m going to write to Bono to ask him if he can do a song about my friends, but I’m not hoping for much.
I said that four people were killed, but only talked about three. The last person, Saif, survived the explosion and was hospitalized with third-degree burns. I visited Saif that first day; his face was completely unrecognizable. He kept asking me about the fate of the three others, tears stuck at the corner of his eye. I told him they were fine.

Five days later, I had a dream where I met Sayoofi on the streets. He looked much healthier but somehow out of touch. I woke up giddy and expectant that day; He died that afternoon.I did visit him on that last day and he told me the story of the explosion. It contained some interesting details :

Saif: “When the explosion occurred, the four of us were walking hand in hand. All of a sudden I felt myself hurled 50 meters in the air, and felt a severe burning all over my body. I wore a t-shirt which eased the pain on my arms; not so for my legs. All around me people were burning and moaning horribly; the stench was unbearable. I could still walk and I crossed the street, calling for anyone I saw for help. When I reached the other side, I flung myself in a pool of mud and water — people came and started throwing cold water on me. I had barely settled when a second larger explosion rocked the streets. I looked behind me and saw the building set to flames, Ninos [the Christian] was beside me: his face was white and something had entered his stomach.”

Here Saif stops with tears running down his face to ask me for the zillionth time about the other three. I tell him that they are resting just as he is.

As for the second explosion: that explains why the body of Yahya (the guy from Mosul) was so unrecognizable. When we saw him at the morgue, he was a big piece of coal. It’s likely that he did not have the luxury of walking away from the second explosion.

Saif: “Afterwards, a police vehicle came and picked both of us up; he drove a short distance before throwing us back on the streets, saying that he did not know the route! A passenger bus picked us up next. Ninos fainted and became very white [we now know that his lung was destroyed], then another police car picked us up. He dropped us at Ibn al-Nafees hospital, where they separated me from Ninos. They ignored me for half an hour and let me burn silently until I barricaded the nearest doctor I could find. My uncle worked in the hospital and he managed to transfer me to the Italian hospital [which is where we were now].”

Two important points: The first policeman was probably in on the explosion, which occurred near a jewelry store; he probably left my injured friends there to guarantee his share of the loot. Second, nothing works in Iraq except by connections (which got Saif into a better hospital). Even if Ninos’s injuries had been treatable, he probably would have died just the same because of negligence and the dirty conditions in the hospital.
The last time I felt genuinely happy was ten days before the explosion, on Graduation Party day. When I look at the pictures now, they seem to be from a blurry and distant past. Many students from our class are packing up and leaving. I was a strong supporter of staying in Iraq before these events, because (a) call me stupid, but I loved my country, and living abroad sucked for a variety of reasons, and (b) unlike Zeyad, a rare case of someone who became a popular blogger and got accepted to journalism school in the U.S., I can only afford to work or study here in Iraq (in Amman, where my family resides, jobs are hard to find and school is expensive.) The truth is that even after the explosion, I was still undecided, but a story a friend told me the other day — a horrible, Hollywood-like experience that is too long to be told here — changed my mind permanently.

I am sorry, but nobody of sane mind can live here … We Iraqis have been so used to being kicked and dragged through the mud that we did not recognize the abyss in which we found ourselves. But there comes a time when you look around see your world for what it is and cannot take any more of it. I hate to be a whiner, but I tell you nothing but the absolute truth. Iraqis today are strange, sorry creatures — confused, constantly paranoid, and filled with distrust and hatred.

I wish I could tell you how can we fix this. Although the Americans had the upper hand, in my opinion, they no longer do — it’s been a lost in a sea of blood. When I return to our area these days from college, I come into a real-life “Vanilla Sky” ghost town — streets are vacant, some shops are open but their doors are near-shut and people with guns stand at the door. Shiite purging has finally reached us and it did not manifest in small ways: there is a dried pool of blood about 100 meters away from my house.

The only solution I can think of comes from an old Soundgarden song:

Black Hole Sun, won’t you come and wash away the rain

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