I’ve been reading the excellent, heart-wrenching book “Walking Through Fire” recently, written by one of my heroes, Peggy Gish. Some of the stories shared in this work are so utterly compelling and so widely unknown in Western media and journalism that I feel led to share them here for readers to hear and consider how the stories affect their narrative of the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.
This story is narrated by Peggy, and she changed the names of the persons interviewed to protect them.*
“Nassim and Family, farmers, south of Baghdad”
We sat in a modest home on a fruit farm just south of Baghdad while Nassim, a sturdy, medium-built man of about thirty-five, with scars on his wrists from cuts made by handcuffs, recounted what had happened to his family. Because an explosion along the road near his farm killed a U.S. soldier traveling in a convoy, American forces conducted night-time raids in all the homes in that area. Soldiers entered Nassim’s family’s house and took him, along with his father and two brothers, to the Al Dora Refinery Plant. For twenty-four hours they were handcuffed with their heads covered. Soldiers periodically kicked them and beat them with rifle butts. Then they were moved to the Scania U.S. Military Base and kept in tiny solitary confinement cells for nine days.
Interrogators accused Nassim of setting bombs and threatened to force him to do sexual acts with a man and send pictures to his wife if he didn’t confess to the crime. Three and a half months later, he and his brothers were released, but not their seventy-four-year-old father with multiple health problems. It seemed a common practice to detain many from a family, and then release all but one to insure that the other members didn’t cause problems when they got out.
We had seen the strip along both sides of the road where soldiers burned bushes and trees to take away hiding places for resistance fighters. We saw the two-feet-deep, fifteen-feet-diameter crater from the explosion that had ended the soldier’s life.
Next to Nassim was his nephew, Ziad, a twenty-four-year-old physician’s assistant with large scars on his face. His nose was crooked from being broken eight months earlier in one of the three raids on his uncle’s home, where he was staying to keep the trees watered and protect the women and children of the household while the older men were imprisoned. “About 4:00 in the morning,” he said, “I was asleep on the floor with other family members when American soldiers forced their way in. Before I could get up, one of the soldiers started beating me in the face with the barrel of his gun and broke my nose. It was bleeding and I had to breathe through my mouth. They cuffed me and put me roughly in the back of a truck. They laid me down on the end of the truck bed so that soldiers stepped on me when they climbed in and out.
As he spoke, I thought of my youngest son, Joel, who was a physician’s assistant living in relative safety.
Ziad continued, ‘When we got to the base, they grabbed me and threw me down on the ground with my hands still tied behind my back. I understood some of what the soldiers were saying- they called us ‘animals.’ At night (in January) soldiers poured ice cold water on us and wouldn’t let us sleep. When a doctor was treating my broken nose, another soldier came in the room and hit me. The doctor told him, ‘Don’t you see I am trying to heal him, so don’t beat him. Treat him like a human being.’ The soldier snapped back, ‘A friend of mine died.’ ”
Tears came to Ziad’s eyes and he stopped talking to us, seemingly to reign in his feelings. Farhad, another uncle, a slightly balding man of about fifty also in the room, interjected quietly, saying, ‘When Ziad was released, we couldn’t see his eyes, his face was so swollen up.’
I looked at Nassim’s mother, Sarah, and his wife, Eman, who had served us tea and sat quietly the whole time the men were talking. I took the opportunity of that pause to ask the women what they had experienced during the house raids. I had to be persistent, because Nassim interrupted his mother several times. When he finally let her talk, she said, trembling, ‘For four or five months after the raids, I had trouble sleeping. I would stand by the door, afraid.’
Eman took us to another room and showed us where soldiers smashed in the door that wasn’t locked and broke glass shelves and the door of a cabinet. There, she said, they grabbed her and threw her on the floor. She pulled up her sleeve and showed us a still slightly swollen and bruised place on her arm. She said her mother-in-law and her one-year-old daughter suffered psychologically. The baby seemed anxious and lethargic so they took her baby to a doctor.
As they appeared finished, Farhad vented feelings that seemed to be building up in him. ‘If my brother was killed by U.S. forces, I wouldn’t got out and kill all Americans. If you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t shoot another human being. I have no right to.’
Farhad grimaced as he continued. ‘I hate Saddam, but he never treated us like this, driving tanks in our streets, shooting at people. I understand U.S. soldiers have to protect themselves, but things are getting worse. If soldiers have to go into homes, they could treat the people with respect and not kick in the door and beat people. Instead, they’re very aggressive and have no manners, no human sense. They said they were coming to bring freedom. It’s almost two years- they must leave now. My father, who’s still not home, is a respected man. This farm has been in our family for generations. Besides, if I were going to set a bomb against Americans, I certainly wouldn’t put it out near my own property!’
I (Nathan) have many questions this story sparks for me. How about you?