My travel plans were not widely broadcast this time around. After an overnight flight from New York City, and a long layover in Istanbul, the plane set off for Iraq at about 3:30 in the morning. As the aircraft began the descent into Najaf, a sense of wonder rose in me as thousands of palm trees came into view. I felt like I was coming home.
Despite the early hour, three Iraqi friends were at the airport to welcome me. They insisted on stopping to buy kabab to celebrate my return. Such hospitality is commonplace here, and it puts me to shame.
Upon hearing about my intention to revisit Iraq, more than a couple of people close to me in the States asked “Why is it you are going to Iraq? What do you hope to accomplish?” I want to try and give answer to that question, if for no other reason than I have asked it of myself more than once.
In October and November of 2012, I had the opportunity (as part of Voices for Creative Nonviolence) to visit central and southern Iraq. This was the first time in nine years that I had been back. The six-week trip took me to Najaf, Karbala, Bashra, Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi. My purpose then, as it is now, was to reconnect with friends and get a sense of what Iraqis are living and feeling after so many years of war.
We get so little news from Iraq. According to the media coverage in the United States, or the lack thereof, the war against Iraq ended with the U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of 2011. But nothing could be further from the truth.
April 15 was a momentous day for us in the United States. On that day two bombs exploded at the Boston marathon, killing three people. This atrocity was covered around the clock for weeks on end, and will no doubt be memorialized for years to come. The New York Times front page headlines read: “War Zone at Mile 26: ‘So Many People Without Legs.’” I received emails from different friends in Iraq expressing their condolences and sadness.
April 15 was also a momentous day in Iraq. I cannot help wondering how many people in the United States heard about the 18 bombs that went off throughout Iraq that same day. At least 32 people were killed. And on April 23 protest clashes and random attacks left 111 Iraqis dead. On April 24 at least 86 were killed. On April 25 another 96 were killed. On April 26 at least 38 were killed as the unrest continued unabated. I wonder if condolences were extended to the families of those loved ones who were killed? And this has been the daily reality for over 10 years now.
Since the onset of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” until the end of 2011, we lost 4,486 U.S. troops. This is a figure we might be familiar with as it is commonly cited in the U.S. media. A figure we might not have heard is the following: 4,471 Iraqi civilians died as a result of ongoing violence in 2012. This is only 15 less than the total loss of U.S. troops over an 8 year period. Should this be of any concern to us here in the United States? How can this fact not be newsworthy?
More than one Iraqi told me during my trip last year “Your country brought the war on terror to our country. Your war on terror is being fought here!”
I fear that our country has never been able to acknowledge this tragic fact because it is so painful. But it is true. Suicide bombs were unheard of in Iraq before the U.S. led war and occupation, as was al-Qaida, except for pockets in the northern region of Kurdistan. With no border controls, with their army and police forces disbanded, everyone descended on Iraq from every direction, to pick as it were the carcass of a fallen animal.
Having been in Iraq for some months prior to the invasion, through “Shock andAwe,” and again in the fall of 2003, I am reminded of Iraqi friends who had received us like family into their hearts and homes. “Welcome” they said. “Peace be with you.” Each one uniquely individual, with a name — just like my nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters and family.
Not long ago I heard Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, being interviewed on the radio. Although the context was quite different, as he was speaking about gang youth, his words hold a universal message. “It is all about kinship. Everybody is so exhausted by the tenor of polarity in our country … We need to inch our way closer to a circle of compassion … so no one is standing on the outside.” He also spoke of standing in awe of what people have to carry, rather than standing in judgement. For years I have drawn inspiration from our Iraqi brothers and sisters, especially in light of the unspeakable burdens they have shouldered for so many years. I guess this is one of the reasons I have come to Iraq. Because of kinship. “It is all about kinship.”