February 17, 2007

Baghdad memories of pain where prayers find little hope

The Canberra Times

I first met Omar in the Baghdad Children’s Hospital, nine years ago. This frail little boy, with deep brown pools for eyes and long lashes, would be about 11 now, if he was still alive. But he’s not. He’s dead.

I’d like to tell you about Omar’s mother, the very beautiful Sheva and his strikingly handsome dad, Jamal, and how his sweet young sister Fatima insisted on babbling to me in a language I didn’t understand, as she encouraged me to eat the food her family had prepared.

I also want to tell you about Omar’s very softly spoken grandfather, who sat cross-legged on the floor of their Baghdad house and gently explained in careful English how some of his family were afraid of the possibility of war. A possibility that, back then, I thought was remote. The nervousness of these well-educated and compassionate people struck me as a little over-hyped. ”Many of the women are afraid,” he told me, ”but not her,” he said as he pointed to Omar’s grandmother, clad in her black abaya. ”She’s not afraid of anything,” he said, laughing and rocking back and forth. We all laughed then, even Omar’s grandmother.

I would also like to tell you about the extraordinary hospitality of these people. But this is a painful and difficult memory. As I sat eating the feast the family had spent hours preparing and laid out before me, using their best dishes and cloth, I really had no idea of how truly desperate these people were. It was 1998 and none of the journalists in town really believed Baghdad would blow. Not then.

I was in Iraq to report on the exodus of the United Nations weapons inspectors. Saddam Hussein had kicked them out, and the then head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), Australia’s Richard Butler had upped the ante. I spoke with him at the UN where he raged at our TV camera about weapons of mass destruction and the 40 missing war-heads, capable of ”millions” of deaths. I barged into Baghdad and subjected the former head of the Ministry of Information to a bully-boy interview, where he insisted his country had no WMD. I called him a liar.

The day I met Omar and his parents in the children’s hospital, I had teamed up with a polite and eager young Iraqi doctor, Yasser Raulf. He was a big fan of the Flying Doctors TV show and keen to find an Australian wife. While doing the rounds with Raulf, my crew and I watched with nauseating helplessness as three little children died. When the first of them began frothing at the mouth and convulsing, the attending nurse turned on her heels and walked away. After many years of sanctions, the hospital’s medical supplies had dried up. What few medicines made it through the UN’s Oil-for-Food program never managed to reach the children’s hospital. There were no basic antibiotics, no oxygen for the rusted tanks and no food for the sick and dying babies.

I found Jamal and Sheva standing in one of the hospital’s gloomy corridors, cradling Omar and looking lost. They had just been told to take the boy home because, despite his serious heart condition, the hospital theatres were closed and there was nothing anyone could do. After talking at length about Omar’s condition, Jamal invited my crew and me to dinner.

Later when we sat in the warmth of Jamal’s lounge room, sharing stories and laughing at our wobbly language skills, the reason for our invitation became clear. I think Jamal knew Omar would die. He knew it was probably too late for our Western wealth or contacts to help save his dreadfully sick son. What he wanted was quite simple. He wanted us to record a message to take back to Australia. This is what he said: ”We care about the people of Australia. What did they do to forbid the war? We didn’t make anything against Australia.”

Today the war I didn’t believe would ever happen has become the most dominant news story of my lifetime and that of my generation. None of us can witness the horrific images of human carnage that rip through our media daily without, at some stage, secretly feeling thankful that it’s all happening ”over there”.

I’d like to tell you more about Omar’s family, but I’m struggling with the tense. Should I be saying Jamal and Sheva ”are” or ”were”? A United States report puts Iraq’s civilian death toll at more than 600,000 – or 500 a day. George W.Bush says it’s more like 30,000. Tuesday’s thunderous bomb blast at the famous old Shorja market in Baghdad killed another 79. That market was right near Omar’s home. His mother and grandmother – the one who was never afraid – used to shop there every day. I suspect the whole family is dead now.

John Howard has suggested the leader of al-Qaeda should circle March next year and pray ”as many times as possible” for a Democratic victory in the US. Kevin Rudd – who is also a godly man – has an equally strong belief in prayer. But, while Jesus apparently loves Osama bin Laden, I doubt either Rudd or Howard spares him a Hail Mary.

However, perhaps both Howard and Rudd could spare a prayer for Omar’s family – for Sheva, Jamal and Fatima. Perhaps then they could even spare a few for Omar’s grandparents – the laughing grandad and the stoic but unafraid grandmother.

Only then, when the prayers are flowing, might the coalition of the gods willingly sit down at their next round-table summit and find a resolution to this appalling chaos. Or maybe not.


Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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