Sophia's Peace Work

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Al Jazeerah

The elderly woman dressed all in black with tattoos on both wrinkled cheeks sat down at our feet before the rubble of her destroyed house as we tried to explain our presence. She didn't look pleased and after awhile she got up and left. Her neighbor, a lawyer, was the spokesman for the neighborhood in a small farming village called Al Jazeerah not far from Ar-Ramadi, which is a part of the Sunni Triangle where resistance to the U.S. forces has been high. The lawyer didn't look pleased either.

He told us that it was potentially dangerous for him. All these people have come to talk and take pictures but nothing ever changes. Nothing is ever done to make up for what they have lost. People are starting to question him. Perhaps some of the westerners coming are spies. Who are we really? Have we come to take pictures of the men and hand them over to the U.S.? Why should they trust us at all?

The story we are told is that on the 22nd of November, 2003 at 5:30 pm in the evening a military raid occurred at the house. The men and woman were brought outside and a search of the house was conducted by the U.S. forces, some entering from the front and some from the rear. They told us that once inside the house, an incident occurred that resulted in the death by friendly fire of four American soldiers. Out of fear, shock, anger or a combination of all three, the soldiers spray the entire area with gun fire and execute the three men that were outside the house. Not far away, we are
told, the mosque was letting out after evening prayers. Five men were driving towards the house where the raid was taking place when a tank fired upon the vehicle, killing everyone inside.

The details of this story are a collective memory of everyone in the community. Everyone has their story to tell. It is written in the creased frowns on the old woman's face and in the wide eyes of a young child as he told us of what it was like to see a vehicle explode into fire. I can not vouch for the truth here. The Christian Peacemaker Team, with whom I had come, had been to the village before. All that they know for sure is that eight people were taken to the morgue, others were injured, one vehicle is a smashed heap sitting at the local police station, and one house lies virtually in ruin.

Who were we anyway? What would talking to us bring? If we couldn't bring back their men or bring some kind of compensation, what good were we? It was an uncomfortable moment because we could see the validity of their questions and we understood that this community needed to vent its frustrations. We had come to help them begin to rebuild. Nearby was the foundation of a new house and two large piles of rock that needed to be broken. One by one, we wandered over to the rock piles and began to break and sort the rocks for building.

It was an awkward start. For one thing there were at least forty children staring and giggling at us and a large number of adults with dubious looks upon their faces. But slowly as we started to work through the pile, there was a kind of a loosening that took place. The children and some of the adults lent a hand with the work. There were jokes and bits of broken English and Arabic traded back and forth. The old woman came back to sit nearby and I looked up at her once to find a smile upon her face. It wasn't much. It was only one day. But it felt good to be working with these people. By the time of our departure, they told us that we were welcome to visit anytime.

There has been a simmering debate amongst the freelance journalists and peace activists that are working here. If you side with the Iraqis in some of these villages, does that mean you side with the Resistance? We are aware that the possibility exists that some of these village and townsfolk that we meet could be telling us stories of the injustices they have suffered at the hands of the Americans and then later that evening could be firing mortar shells at the American bases in their midst. For myself, I tend to look at a house that has been destroyed and not think too much about who destroyed it. I can't do anything about what happened. I just know it is simply time to rebuild.

On our way home from Al Jezeerah, as we were passing the lights of Abu Ghraib prison where the U.S. forces holds many of its detainees, I saw my first mortar attack. I felt the pressure wave through the thin-skinned walls of our van as we were driving past. There is so much destruction going on in this country and not enough rebuilding.


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