[saymaListserv] Fwd: Baghdad Burning: Anniversary of the Amiriyah Shelter massacre- February 13, 1991

Michael Austin Shell bright_crow at mindspring.com
Fri Feb 20 08:59:53 JEST 2004


This is a posting from the Baghdad Burning weblog, maintained by a young 
Iraqi woman who uses the online name River.

It is very distressing, but we Americans need to know these things.

God help us.


>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)
>- posted by river @ 4:15 AM

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