Remembering Incineration
Of Iraqi Civilians In Amiriyah


Important Side Note: For those of you with the audacity to write to me claiming it was a legitimate target because "American officials assumed it was for military purposes" just remember Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, Part IV, Section 1, Chapter III, Article 52: ... 3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used. (Like that would matter to you anyway) Baghdad Burning ... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend... Sunday, February 15, 2004
Dedicated to the Memory of L.A.S. So Happy Valentine's Day although it's the 15th. It still feels like the 14th here because I'm not asleep it's the extension of yesterday.
Do you know what yesterday marked? It marked the 13th anniversary of the Amiriyah Shelter massacre- February 13, 1991. Can you really call it an 'anniversary'? Anniversary brings to mind such happy things and yet is there any other word? Please send it along if you know it.
February 12, 1991, marked one of the days of the small Eid or 'Eid Al-Fitr'. Of course it also marked one of the heaviest days of bombing during the Gulf War. No one was in the mood for celebration. Most families remained at home because there wasn't even gasoline to travel from one area to the next. The more fortunate areas had bomb shelters and people from all over the neighborhood would get together inside of the shelter during the bombing. That year, they also got together inside of the shelters to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr with their neighbors and friends.
Iraqis don't go to shelters for safety reasons so much as for social reasons. It's a great place to be during a bombing. There's water, electricity and a feeling of serenity and safety that is provided as much by the solid structure as by the congregation of smiling friends and family. Being with a large group of people helps make things easier during war- it's like courage and stamina travel from one person to the next and increase exponentially with the number of people collected.
So the families in the Amiriyah area decided they'd join up in the shelter to have a nice Eid dinner and then the men and boys over the age of 15 would leave to give the women and children some privacy. Little did they know, leaving them behind, that it would be the last time they would see the wife/daughter/son/fiancé/sister/infant
I can imagine the scene after the men left at around midnight- women sat around, pouring out steaming istikans of tea, passing out Eid kilaycha and chocolate. Kids would run around the shelter shrieking and laughing like they owned the huge playground under the earth. Teenage girls would sit around gossiping about guys or clothes or music or the latest rumor about Sara or Lina or Fatima. The smells would mingle- tea, baked goods, rice comfortable smells that made one imagine, for a few seconds, that they were actually at home.
The sirens would begin shrieking- the women and children would pause in the midst of eating or scolding, say a brief prayer in their heart and worry about their loved ones above the ground- the men who refused to remain inside of the shelter in order to make room for their wives and kids.
The bombs fell hard and fast at around 4 a.m. The first smart bomb went through the ventilation, through the first floor of the shelter- leaving a gaping hole- and to the bottom 'basement' of the shelter where there were water tanks and propane tanks for heating water and food. The second missile came immediately after and finished off what the first missile missed. The doors of the advanced shelter immediately shut automatically- locking over 400 women and children inside.
It turned from a shelter into an inferno; explosions and fire rose from the lower level up to the level that held the women and children and the water rose with it, boiling and simmering. Those who did not burn to death immediately or die of the impact of the explosions, boiled to death or were steamed in the 900+ º F heat.
We woke in the morning to see the horrors on the news. We watched as the Iraqi rescue workers walked inside of the shelter and came out crying and screaming- dragging out bodies so charred, they didn't look human. We saw the people in the area- men, women and children- clinging to the fence surrounding the shelter and screaming with terror; calling out name after name searching for a familiar face in the middle of the horror.
The bodies were laid out one beside the other- all the same size- shrunk with heat and charred beyond recognition. Some were in the fetal position, curled up, as if trying to escape within themselves. Others were stretched out and rigid, like the victims were trying to reach out a hand to save a loved one or reach for safety. Most remained unrecognizable to their families- only the size and fragments of clothing or jewelry indicating the gender and the general age.
Amiriyah itself is an area full of school teachers, college professors, doctors and ordinary employees- a middle-class neighborhood with low houses, friendly people and a growing mercantile population. It was a mélange of Sunnis and Shi'a and Christians- all living together peacefully and happily. After the 13th of February, it became the area everyone avoided. For weeks and weeks the whole area stank of charred flesh and the air was thick and gray with ash. The beige stucco houses were suddenly all covered with black pieces of cloth scrolled with the names of dead loved ones. "Ali Jabbar mourns the loss of his wife, daughter, and two sons"; "Muna Rahim mourns the loss of her mother, sisters, brothers and son"
Within days, the streets were shut with black cloth tents set up by the grief-stricken families to receive mourners from all over Iraq who came to weep and ease some of the shock and horror. And it was horrible. Everyone lost someone- or knew someone who lost several people.
My first visit to the shelter came several years after it was bombed. We were in the neighborhood visiting a friend of my mother. She was a retired schoolteacher who quit after the Amiriyah bombing. She had no thoughts of quitting but after schools resumed in April of 1991, she went on the first day to greet her class of 2nd graders. She walked into the classroom and found only 11 of her 23 students. "I thought they had decided not to come" I remember her saying to my mother in hushed tones, later that year," but when I took attendance, they told me the rest of the children had died in the shelter" She quit soon after that because she claimed her heart had broken that day and she couldn't look at the children anymore without remembering the tragedy.
I decided to pay my respects to the shelter and the victims. It was October and I asked the retired teacher if the shelter was open (hoping in my heart of hearts she'd say 'no'). She nodded her head and said that it was indeed open- it was always open. I walked the two short blocks to the shelter and found it in the midst of houses- the only separation being a wide street. There were children playing in the street and we stopped one of them who was kicking around a ball. Is there anyone in the shelter? He nodded his head solemnly- yes the shelter was 'maskoon'.
Now the word 'maskoon' can mean two different things in Arabic. It can mean 'lived in' and it can also mean 'haunted'. My imagination immediately carried me away- could the child mean haunted? I'm not one who believes in ghosts and monsters- the worst monsters are people and if you survive war and bombs, ghosts are a piece of cake yet something inside of me knew that a place where 400 people had lost their lives so terribly- almost simultaneously- had to be 'haunted' somehow by their souls
We walked inside and the place was dark and cold, even for the warm October weather. The only light filtering in came from the gaping hole in the roof of the shelter where the American missiles had fallen. I wanted to hold my breath- expecting to smell something I didn't want to but you can only do that for so long. The air didn't smell stale at all; it simply smelled sad- like the winds that passed through this place were sorrowful winds. The far corners of the shelter were so dark, it was almost easy to imagine real people crouching in them.
The walls were covered with pictures. Hundreds of pictures of smiling women and children- toothy grins, large, gazelle eyes and the gummy smiles of babies. Face after face after face stared back at us from the dull gray walls and it felt endless and hopeless. I wondered what had happened to their families, or rather their remaining families after the catastrophe. We knew one man who had lost his mind after losing his wife and children inside of the shelter. I wondered how many others had met the same fate and I wondered how much life was worth after you lost the people most precious to you.
At the far end of the shelter we heard voices. I strained my ears to listen and we searched them out- there were 4 or 5 Japanese tourists and a small, slight woman who was speaking haltingly in English. She was trying to explain how the bomb had fallen and how the people had died. She used elaborate hand gestures and the Japanese tourists nodded their heads, clicked away with their cameras and clucked sympathetically.
"Who is she?" I whispered to my mother's friend. "She takes care of the place" she replied in a low voice. "Why don't they bring in someone who can speak fluently- this is frustrating to see" I whispered back, watching the Japanese men shake hands with the woman before turning to go.
My mother's friend shook her head sadly, "They tried, but she just refuses to leave. She has been taking care of the place since the rescue teams finished cleaning it out she lost 8 of her children here." I was horrified with that fact as the woman approached us. Her face was stern, yet gentle- like that of a school principal or like that of a mother of 8 children. She shook hands with us and took us around to see the shelter. This is where we were. This is where the missiles came in this is where the water rose up to this is where the people stuck to the walls.
Her voice was strong and solid in Arabic. We didn't know what to answer. She continued to tell us how she had been in the shelter with 8 of her 9 children and how she had left minutes before the missiles hit to get some food and a change of clothes for one of the toddlers. She was in the house when the missiles struck and her first thoughts were, "Thank God the kids are in the shelter" When she ran back to the shelter from her house across the street, she found it had been struck and the horror had begun. She had watched the corpses dragged out for days and days and refused to believe they were all gone for months after. She hadn't left the shelter since- it had become her home.
She pointed to the vague ghosts of bodies stuck to the concrete on the walls and ground and the worst one to look at was that of a mother, holding a child to her breast, like she was trying to protect it or save it. "That should have been me" the woman who lost her children said and we didn't know what to answer.
It was then that I knew that the place was indeed 'maskoon' or haunted since February 13, 1991 it has been haunted by the living who were cursed with their own survival.
Important Side Note:For those of you with the audacity to write to me claiming it was a legitimate target because "American officials assumed it was for military purposes" just remember Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, Part IV, Section 1, Chapter III, Article 52: ... 3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used. (Like that would matter to you anyway)



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