Driving with Baba in his white pickup truck, you’ll never run out of things to talk about. He loves to talk and tell stories. My favorite stories of his are about Iraq. Being raised by Iraqi parents and living in diaspora my parents’ stories about their beloved land was one of the few bridges I had to it.
It started with a discussion about the October 2019 revolution, where Iraqi civilians are still demanding civil and human rights to be bestowed upon them by their government, which is riddled with corruption. I was telling him about a presentation I was doing for my food and culture class, focusing on a nutritional analysis of Iraq. We started talking about basic living needs and security not being met and how were people to even focus on nutrition without these basic necessities? We began talking about the 90’s sanctions and U.S. led 2003 invasion and the detrimental effects they had on Iraq’s food system and many self-sufficient food industries in the country.
He told me about the Gulf War Air Campaign – how he went to tie his shoes while watching television and witnessing the first bombs fall on the place he lived and loved his entire childhood. He stayed bent over his shoes holding his laces frozen by the terror happening on the screen in front of him. He stayed that way for hours. He never tied his shoes.
He told me about the Amiriyah shelter bombing. It was February 13th 1991. Two 2000 pound laser guided “smart bombs” sent by the U.S. Air Force punctured through this supposed safe haven from aerial bombs. The first bomb cut through 10 feet of the reinforced concrete fortress. A time-delayed fuse… then an explosion. Minutes later the second 2000 pound bomb followed the path cut by the first. A time delayed fuse.. then a second explosion. More than 400 civilians, mostly women and children, died. Baba told me people melted. Those on the upper level were incinerated by the heat, while boiling water from the shelter’s water tank was responsible for the rest of the murders.
People melted. Not all died immediately. Blackened charred hands fused into the floor and ceiling – whatever was left of it. Many lost entire families. There were photographs of it, Baba remembers. He recalls a man referring to it as a “melted chocolate bar”. So much anger to be felt at the face of inhumanity in the midst of all this pain and loss. We can’t even grieve in peace.
Baba tells me how he calls his mother in Iraq. Pleading with her for any way to help. He held his fingers together as he told me her response.. “yeast”. Yeast. It was quiet. All to be heard was the loud humming of Baba’s pick up truck. I looked away from him as tears welled up in his eyes. I looked down at my own hands trying to hold back my own tears. “She just wanted to make bread” I said, stating the obvious but trying to detract from the pain that was flooding back to him 28 years later. This pain now shared between us. Quiet but loud all at once.
U.N. imposed sanctions initiated the U.S. led “Food for Oil” Program which rationed food in Iraq including staples like rice and flour. These food rations were not sufficient for the needs of the population and many innocent civilians went hungry. These sanctions would later cause 576,000 children, 5 years and younger, to starve to death.
Yeast is all bebe asked for but she received much more. Baba tells me he had just been laid off, all that was left in his bank account was $3000, rent to pay, three small children and another one on the way, mama being pregnant with me. He pauses and says “Alaa, this is why your mother is so great. She told me send it all. Send everything.” Every penny they had. It went quiet again. And so Baba sent it all. Bebe got her yeast among a truckload full of other supplies. I don’t know how my parents did it. How they managed it after but they did. Always generous. Always.
U.S. intelligence claimed the shelter was a military command-and-control center, however it was in fact a civilian bomb shelter. No military personnel were present when the bombing occurred. A Human Rights Watch report noted that the Pentagon conceded that the bunker had been used for civil defense during the Iran-Iraq war, and US officials “gave no warning that they considered its protected status as a civilian shelter to have ended.” Human Rights Watch also stated, “The United States’ failure to give such a warning before proceeding with the disastrous attack on the Amiriyah shelter was a serious violation of the laws of war”. No warning was ever sent to allow civilians to evacuate. No one was ever held accountable.
I forget how much history and pain my dad carries when it comes to Iraq. How decades can go by and everything can so quickly and effortlessly come surging back like the pain came yesterday, like it never sat dormant all those years. It makes me wonder about all Iraqis and all their lost stories. Every one of them scarred by its history. Those that left and those that remained. I want the world to know these stories and to feel them. To understand one another, to know Iraqi pain, loss, hopes, dreams, and strengths, who carry the burdens of 2003, before and after it. Who still carry. Who still live. Who still fight. And who still carry more. Who rise. Who remain hopeful.
By Alaa Al-Shujairi