Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Water Can Bring People Together

Although the bombardment was far away from our house, we could still hear and feel the impact. Sometimes, it felt like the entire house was lifted and then thrown on the ground. My sister and I were the calmest people within our family, while my mother kept shaking and vomiting, my father looked pale.
The electricity was shut down almost right away. However, as I was in charge of supplies, I bought four kerosene lamps , batteries for the radio, flour, rice and other dry food .
We all gathered in a small hallway, as my mother and my father agreed that this hallway was the most fortified part of the house because there were three roofs on top of it.
My sister and I kept helping our mother get to the bathroom to vomit and then kept her hydrated, while my father watched with anxiety.
Finally, the night was over and the sun started to rise and everything began to quiet mysteriously.  If our house was standing still as well as all the houses in the neighborhood, then where did all the bombardment take place, and how long until it would be back again?
The entire day was quiet.
My sister and I tried to prepare a meal for the family after all everyone needed to eat. To my greatest surprise, most of the water that I had gathered was used in watching our faces, brushing, and watching the dishes. However, I insisted that the used water should be saved to be reused in restrooms.
Around the afternoon, I found that a line of people from all the houses in the neighborhood had started to grow in my backyard. I found out that there was a tap in my yard that was dripping, and people with their containers had lined up in front of that tap to get access to water.  There was a “Golden Mine” in my backyard.  My family house was the first to be built in this neighborhood. It was lower than other houses, as the road in front of it had been paved many times after.  Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Kurds (mostly women and children) were all lined up with their containers to be filled with water.  I kept the back door open so that people could assess that tap anytime. Sometimes, my family and I would be the last to enjoy our golden mine, as my father’s policy was to let others access it first.  My father believed (and still does) that there are noble values that should be respected no matter what.
The war continued day after day and night after night. My mother’s situation deteriorated completely. My father’s friend offered to host all of us in his ranch outside Baghdad. We traveled by car in about four- hour trip.  We could feel the bombardment in the ranch as much as we felt it in our house. My mother kept vomiting. However, there was no direct access to water, there was no dripping tap. Female members of the hosting family walked every day to the river to fill their containers. I started to accompany them.  After three days my family decided to go back home. I could not believe that we made it safely. The roads were empty and I did not feel safe at all.
The neighborhood was so happy to see us back, as they were concerned about not having enough water. One neighbor admitted that he jumped over our fence to fill his family containers.    
We had access to food because small shops opened during the day and closed in the afternoon. However, the prices went skyrocketed as the demands for goods increased.
Because of my mother’s health condition, my aunt’s family suggested spending the night in a fortified shelter near their home.  These shelters should stand against a nuclear attack—at least this was how the regime presented them. These shelters were built during the Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988 for the regime use only. However, they were opened to the public during the first Gulf War.  Many people believed that regime was actually telling the truth as everyone knew how the regime was paranoid about its safety.  Thus, my family and my aunt’s family spent the night in one of these shelters. It had a large hall where people sat on the ground using blankets or rugs and later slept in the same place. There were two sets of public restrooms, one for men and one for women. I did not sleep that night not even a wink. I did not feel safe at all as even though I could not feel most of the bombardment, I saw men wearing military uniforms and talking in their walkie-talkies. What were these men doing here? Supposedly, the shelter is for the civilian use only. My sister did not feel safe either and my mother could not sleep on the ground surrounded by strangers. My father was looking pale as usual.
Early morning we left with the intention of not coming back. However, my aunt’s family went for another night. Next morning, a news flash came out in our radio [3] , a shelter was bombed, because the coalition forces traced a military signal coming from it. It turned out that the regime was using the underground level of the shelter to communicate with its elements. However, the first level was full of civilians. Thank God my aunt’s family was not in that shelter. However, my cousin’s mother -in-law with her two grandsons, were in the bombed shelter. Following the bombing the U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney issued a statement urging Iraqi civilians to stay in their homes as they were the safest place for them.
The days were passing slowly;the fear of the unknown was dominating. I tried to keep busy. In the morning, I would bake bread using an oil stove,  then I would clean the dishes and wash the clothes. Nothing was washed unless it was necessary and every drop of water was saved.
Sometimes, I would read my law books, as I was a senior at the Law School.  My mother helped as much as she could, though her health condition was not helping her. My father also helped and provided moral support.
The men of the neighborhood agreed to share food supplies if necessary and each family declared how much food stock they had and promised to share when needed. 
As the ground campaign advanced on Feb 1991, our anxiety grew. No one was sure would happen and everyone was fearful from a brutal regime that could retaliate for any reason and for no reason. 
On Feb 27th, 1991, I was among many Iraqis who heard the order to the Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait. The order was broadcast on the radio. I wondered if the Iraqi soldiers on the ground had heard it. I knew they did not carry a radio set with them.
Two days after, Baghdad witnessed something unusual: black rain. The rain was of a black color. After the rain stopped, most houses’ roofs were covered in black. Then, we knew that the Iraqi troops set fire to around 600 oil wells as part of a scorched earth policy.
Finally, the war ended. However, the atrocities the regime committed against the Iraqi people did not end. The Shiites in the south were utterly crushed because they rose against the regime. Houses were burned, women were raped, and men were killed.
The Iraqi Marshlands were drained and around 500,000 were persecuted, killed, or became refugees. The economy was ruined because Iraq could not sell its oil anymore. The UN sanctions banned all trade and financial dealing with Iraq. The will of the Iraqi people was broken. They had to face two extreme challenges, a brutal regime and a collapsed economy.
Despite the difficulties, the atrocities, and the hardship, I graduated that year from the Law School. I passed my final exams studying on the kerosene lamp. I was lucky to have that lamp many students did not. I studied in my backyard because the electricity was interrupted often times. Passing the final exams was challenging. I was among 12 students out of 500 who graduated that year.
Living through this story, I learned many valuable lessons. In conflict and post-conflict countries, the first and the most important issue is the availability of water for the civilians. I also learned that despite our ethnic, cultural, or religious background we all need water. I also learned that women and children are the ones responsible for collecting water.
Water is a unifying element that can bring people together. Sometimes, they fight over it and sometimes they cooperate to access it.
I remember these lessons as the picture of my neighbors who came from different background lining up at my house will always be alive in my mind.

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