There are many words that come to mind about Iraq at this moment, but there is one word that springs to mind over and over again. That word is revenge .
“Kill him!” cried Sabria Salmen, who said she was 64 but who could, by the look of her, easily have been 84. Her dark face wrinkled and tattooed, her teeth stained and jagged, she was swathed in black in the broiling sun, but she had the youthful vigor of rage. ” Kill him! “
In any other setting, the sight of a pious old woman screaming for murder might seem bizarre. Not at a mass grave. For rousing the demons in an otherwise ordinary human heart, there can be nothing like digging with one’s bare hands for the bones of relatives who left in 1991 and never came back. These sick scavenger hunts have, of course, been going on in and around Hilla and Basra and Najaf, and will be going on at other patches of ground as yet unbroken. (“We’re just scratching the surface of this desert,” said U.S. Marine Col. Darryl Stanley.) But this one happened to be at Mehueel, near Hilla, a little over an hour south of Baghdad. Said Jaber Said Muhsin Al-Husaini, the 51-year-old farmer who owned the adjacent plot of land, told me that he had seen the whole thing. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., day after day from March 7 to April 6, 1991, Mr. Al-Husaini, along with his father and some of his five brothers, hid in some trees and watched as loads of bound and blindfolded people-mostly men, but some women and children-were driven in pickup trucks to a freshly bulldozed pit. As the people screamed ” Allahu Akhbar! ” (“God is great!”), a motley crew of gunmen-some uniformed military, some civilians, some fedayin -shot them en masse. As Mr. Al-Husaini recalled it, not every truckload of victims was shot in the same way. Some were pushed into the pit and then shot, and some were shot and then pushed into the pit. Accuracy and mercy being of equal irrelevance to the exercise, some ended up being buried alive.
Such a place is the lazy and heartless writer’s delight, for acquiring a volume of firsthand tales of the atrocious takes about as much effort as breathing in dust in the desert. In less than half an hour, I met: Fawza Hashim Al-Asawi, who was looking for the husband who, she believed, had been abducted for the use of his pickup truck for the transportation of victims, then killed as a witness, as well as one son for whose abduction she could think of no explanation at all; Qussi Abdu Khadim Jabar, who, like many, many other Iraqis, believed right up until the end of the war that her son, Jaber Mahmoud, might very well be alive in some hidden, perhaps underground, jail; 27-year-old Satter Aswed, the sole surviving son of his family, who is on the second stop of the tour he is making of all the mass graves in Iraq in search of any or all of his five missing brothers. All these people were standing on the worst imaginable kind of line, which had formed at the sight of a journalist. Some waited patiently, some impatiently, but they all waited to tell their stories at any length and in any depth, as if offering the right details in the right way would enable that journalist to furnish and stamp the form that would give them their loved and lost ones back.
The real process was much more labor-intensive.
“They will exhume a body, get the ID, write a number and stick it on a bag,” said Beirut-born, Michigan-raised U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Rababy. The lieutenant colonel’s fluency in Arabic was clearly of great use, and at the same time clearly of no use at all, in facilitating the proceedings. The plastic bags containing remains were white, as were the sheets of paper on which the names and numbers of identified victims were printed, as was Said the farmer’s gleaming Nissan S.U.V., on the windows of which the lists of names were taped. “The top of their happiness is to find a bag of bones,” said Rafid F. Al-Hussaini, the young, perspiration-soaked doctor who was walking around in a blue baseball cap that said “LA” on it, surveying the bagging of the bones. Mr. Al-Hussaini was nothing like a forensic pathologist nor a coroner-he was, in fact, doing postgraduate work in urology-but he had taken it upon himself to organize the approximately 65 volunteers.
Partly to direct their collective, penetrating gaze away from my total inability to help them, I turned the queue of storytellers before me to the matter of those who had hurt them. One after another, I started to ask them: What, if God or George W. Bush came to you and said that you and you alone could seal the fate of the person who sealed the fate of your loved one-you could set that person free, you could execute him, you could do anything in between-what would it be?
That was when Sabria Salmen came alive with her cries of “Kill him!”
By jumping up and down till her sandals were covered in dust, she indicated that she would kill her loved one’s killer by kicking him repeatedly with all her might, and then stomp repeatedly with all her might on his corpse. Her loved one was her son, Hassan Hadi Alwen, who had been 19 years old when he left the house on April 14, 1991, on orders to report to an army camp that, she said, he
“They took him from the street,” she said, having heard this from her neighbors, who said they saw. “They blindfolded him and they took him.”
At the time we were talking, neither of us realized that April 14 was a week after the date that the witnesses were giving as the end of the slaughter that had occurred here. She didn’t know that the last six days of looking and digging and asking here had almost certainly been six days wasted. Up until thoughts of revenge had animated her, she had just been standing there, holding out Hassan’s laminated identity card for me to take.
When I got around to doing so, I asked whether her husband was still living, and instantly wished I hadn’t.
” La .” She shook her head as she said the Arabic word for “no,” and then shook it again and again as she said it again and again, her head going faster and her voice going deeper into the chest before lunging out again. ” La. La. La-aa-aa .”
Then, through the wailing of a child who has been left behind in a crowd of strangers, she said something more.
“She is alone and she has got the heart of a mother,” said my translator, Ahmed Abu Moustafa, shaking his own head and calming his own voice. Like many of the Iraqi drivers and translators who have been carrying outsiders into such conversations, he was immersing himself in horrors that he took very personally, and finding this very hard to do.
Then came an even worse question for Ms. Salmen. Her son’s body was so long gone, and she had his identification card right here. If she did find him, how would she know?
Instantly, her tone became that distinctly maternal brand of businesslike, as if Hassan had failed to come home last night, but she had not as yet made any plans to panic.
“He is wearing blue jeans and a blue jean jacket with a diagonal zipper and a wide belt,” she said, tracing an invisible diagonal on her own breast.
Even at the grave, however, revenge against the men who had ordered it, dug it and filled it with human beings was not the only type of revenge being contemplated.
Said Jaber Al-Husaini, the farmer, wanted revenge on Arab journalists, which he planned to take by not talking to them, if and when they finally showed up. Whether or not it is true that none, in fact, had visited this site, is something I cannot verify. True or false, his statement of this as fact, and his interpretation of it, is revealing.
“French, German, Swiss, British, American, Korean-I have spoken to all these journalists,” he said. “Why not the Arabs?”
He answered his own question.
“They don’t want to show the world what Saddam has done!”
Here we have the flip side of a major war-related concern with regard to the American image in the Middle East. If intervention has made the United States and Britain unpopular in many Arab countries, non-intervention has made many Arab countries unforgivable to Iraqis.
“All Iraqis dislike all Arabs, because they helped Saddam kill his people,” said Majid Al-Araji, 40, considerably broadening the farmer’s indictment. Of course, I asked: If not for the acquiescence, if not the support, of many of Iraq’s Arab neighbors-Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan-wouldn’t the U.S.-led coalition have been unable to topple Saddam? And anyway, wasn’t it unrealistic to think that a country in the heart of the Arab world would be able to survive and thrive without any dealings with Arab governments?
” La .”
O.K., what if the U.S. and Britain, to whom these fellows were expressing such gratitude, came out and said that they needed the assistance of Arab governments to rebuild Iraq, or made the case that, say, trade relations with one or the other would greatly facilitate the creation of desperately needed jobs in Iraq? What would Mr. Al-Araji do then?
“I have to do whatever I can do. If there are demonstrations, I will go,” he fulminated. “If they make trouble, I’ll make trouble. We don’t need the new Iraqi government to deal with any Arab government.”
The women in the group begged to differ. Actually, as usual, there were no women in the group, now that the talk was of politics; in the six weeks that I have been in Iraq, whenever men have been in proximity, women have asserted themselves to me only to speak of their dead. Four women, however, were hovering on the periphery. After my translator had literally shooed the men away, they disagreed with the men. They told me that they were thankful to the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for having allowed the U.S. to invade from their territories. As for humanitarian aid, they were especially grateful to Kuwaitis for giving aid after what Iraq had done to Kuwait in 1990-91.
These being particularly shy, sweet women, they had to have their grievances coaxed out of them.
“There is no gas cooking,” allowed Lemia Hashim Abdu Rada, a 43-year-old mother of four who has a photocopied picture of her missing husband, but has not had kitchen fuel since the war ended. Before the war, Iraqis paid about 250 dinars for a tank of propane that lasted about a month. Now they pay 10,000 to 15,000 dinars, which means that most pay nothing at all and get nothing at all. “Now we try to make bread the old way, by collecting wood from the ground and making a fire,” she said. Breadmaking that used to take 15 minutes can now take up to two hours.
“We are not actually worried about the food,” they insisted. “We can manage it.”
“I have great hope for the future of Iraq, because the people are so tough,” Lieutenant Colonel Rababy, the Arab-speaking Marine coordinating the effort at the mass grave, said as he was getting ready to leave the site.
Half the time, I feel the same way. The other half of the time, though, I have great fear for the future of Iraq, because the people are so tired. “Tired” is a word that Iraqis very frequently use about themselves, and it is perhaps the key word that Americans must bear in mind about them in their current straits. Even when Iraqis are not being forced to endure things that make them angry or sick or frightened or sad-even when they are not being shot at or bombed out; even when their children are not, as some children still are, being blown up by the unexploded ordnance that they stumble upon or play with; even when they are not digging for the bones of their own dead with their own hands, or arguing over whether it is safe to send the kids to school in what is now their O.K. Corral of a country-Iraqis are forced to endure things which make them tired. On the best of their days right now, many Iraqi women have got to go into a hot desert to pick up sticks so they can light a fire and stand over it for a medieval amount of time, just to put bread in their families’ mouths. Under that same hot sun, many Iraqi men have to push their cars in interminable lines at gas stations, so as not to waste the very fuel that they are desperate to buy. They cannot, however, avoid wasting fuel in traffic, both because of those fuel lines and the fact that there are still so many major thoroughfares that have been cut off by U.S. forces. Anyone who wants to make an appointment with anyone else in most of Baghdad cannot do it by telephone, which means that people either have to send messengers, like 19th-century courtiers, or physically show up-which of course costs fuel, and money, and time in traffic, all to make a communication that might or might not reach anyone at the other end. Government workers have to stand in line for the $20 bonus that the U.S. government has promised them. If this does not make them tired, standing in line for the $20 bonus only to find out it has not come in yet will, as will trying to figure out the explanation why some workers have gotten the $20 and some have not. (There is no explanation.) Whether or not they are entitled to that $20, all Iraqis must face the fact that a month ago it was worth about 60,000 Iraqi dinars, and now it is worth about 20,000. Thus, they have to work exponentially more to get paid exponentially less, and this makes them tired.
So three cheers for tearing out the roots of dictatorship, and putting down the roots of democracy. But in many ways, the most urgent imperative that the U.S. must impose upon itself right now is the imperative to give the Iraqi people a rest.
Otherwise, tired though they will be, they will get tough-this time, on us.
Even at the grave where they vowed revenge on the Saddam regime, there was no shortage of people willing to hint, albeit reluctantly, at the possibility of revenge on the slayers of the Saddam regime.
“A message to Bush: He wants to change our life,” said Hadi Gawed Naji, the 70-year-old father of one son dead, two sons missing. “If they don’t get food soon, and water, the Iraqi people are going to fight with the Americans.”