Saturday, February 11, 2006
We were collected at my aunts house for my cousins birthday party a few days ago. J. just turned 16 and my aunt invited us for a late lunch and some cake. It was a very small gathering- three cousins- including myself- my parents, and J.’s best friend, who also happened to be a neighbor.
The lunch was quite good- my aunt is possibly one of the best cooks in Baghdad. She makes traditional Iraqi food and for J.’s birthday she had prepared all our favorites- dolma (rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, onions, peppers, etc.), beryani rice, stuffed chicken, and some salads. The cake was ready-made and it was in the shape of a friendly-looking fish, J.’s father having forgotten she was an Aquarius and not a Pisces when he selected it, "I thought everyone born in February was a Pisces…" He explained when we pointed out his mistake.
When it was time to blow out the candles, the electricity was out and we stood around her in the dark and sang "Happy Birthday" in two different languages. She squeezed her eyes shut briefly to make a wish and then, with a single breath, she blew out the candles. She proceeded to open gifts- bear pajamas, boy band CDs, a sweater with some sparkly things on it, a red and beige book bag… Your typical gifts for a teenager.
The gift that made her happiest, however, was given by her father. After she’d opened up everything, he handed her a small, rather heavy, silvery package. She unwrapped it hastily and gasped with delight, "Baba- it’s lovely!" She smiled as she held it up to the light of the gas lamp to show it off. It was a Swiss Army knife- complete with corkscrew, nail clippers, and a bottle opener.
"You can carry it around in your bag for protection when you go places!" He explained. She smiled and gingerly pulled out the blade, "And look- when the blade is clean, it works as a mirror!" We all oohed and aahed our admiration and T., another cousin, commented she’d get one when the Swiss Army began making them in pink.
I tried to remember what I got on my 16th birthday and I was sure it wasn’t a knife of any sort.
By 8 pm, my parents and J.’s neighbor were gone. They had left me and T., our 24-year-old female cousin, to spend a night. It was 2 am and we had just gotten J.’s little brother into bed. He had eaten more than his share of cake and the sugar had made him wild for a couple of hours.
We were gathered in the living room and my aunt and her husband, Ammoo S. [Ammoo = uncle] were asleep. T., J. and I were speaking softly and looking for songs on the radio, having sworn not to sleep before the cake was all gone. T. was playing idly with her mobile phone, trying to send a message to a friend. "Hey- there’s no coverage here… is it just my phone?" She asked. J. and I both took out our phones and checked, "Mine isn’t working either…" J. answered, shaking her head. They both turned to me and I told them that I couldn’t get a signal either. J. suddenly looked alert and made a sort of "Uh-oh" sound as she remembered something. "R.- will you check the telephone next to you?" I picked up the ordinary telephone next to me and held my breath, waiting for a dial tone. Nothing.
"There’s no dial tone… but there was one earlier today- I was online…"
J. frowned and turned down the radio. "The last time this happened," she said, "the area was raided." The room was suddenly silent and we strained our ears. Nothing. I could hear a generator a couple of streets away, and I also heard the distant barking of a dog- but there was nothing out of the ordinary.
T. suddenly sat up straight, "Do you hear that?" She asked, wide-eyed. At first I couldn’t hear anything and then I caught it- it was the sound of cars or vehicles- moving slowly. "I can hear it!" I called back to T., standing up and moving towards the window. I looked out into the darkness and couldn’t see anything beyond the dim glow of lamps behind windows here and there.
"You won’t see anything from here- it’s probably on the main road!" J. jumped up and went to shake her father awake, "Baba, baba- get up- I think the area is being raided." I heard J. call out as she approached her parents room. Ammoo S. was awake in moments and we heard him wandering around for his slippers and robe asking what time it was.
Meanwhile, the sound of cars had gotten louder and I remembered that one could see some of the neighborhood from a window on the second floor. T. and I crept upstairs quietly. We heard Ammoo S. unlocking 5 different locks on the kitchen door. "What’s he doing?" T. asked, "Shouldn’t he keep the doors locked?" We were looking out the window and there was the glow of lights a few streets away. I couldn’t see exactly where they came from, as several houses were blocking our view, but we could tell something extraordinary was going on in the neighborhood. The sound of vehicles was getting louder, and it was accompanied by the sound of clanging doors and lights that would flash every once in a while.
We clattered downstairs and found J. and the aunt bustling around in the dark. "What should we do?" T. asked, wringing her hands nervously. The only time I’d ever experienced a raid was back in 2003 at an uncle’s house- and it was Americans. This was the first time I was to witness what we assumed would be an Iraqi raid.
My aunt was seething quietly, "This is the third time the bastards raid the area in 2 months… We’ll never get any peace or quiet…" I stood at their bedroom door and watched as she made the bed. They lived in a mixed neighborhood- Sunnis, Shia and Christians. It was a relatively new neighborhood that began growing in the late eighties. Most of the neighbors have known each other for years. "We don’t know what they’re looking for… La Ilaha Ila Allah…"
I stood awkwardly, watching them make preparations. J. was already in her room changing- she called out for us to do the same, "They’ll come in the house- you don’t want to be wearing pajamas…"
"Why, will they have camera crews with them?" T. smiled wanly, attempting some humor. No, J. replied, her voice muffled as she put on a sweater, "Last time they made us wait outside in the cold." I listened for Ammoo S. and heard him outside, taking the big padlock off of the gate in the driveway. "Why are you unlocking everything J.?" I called out in the dark.
"The animals will break down the doors if they aren’t open in three seconds and then they’ll be all over the garden and house… last time they pushed the door open on poor Abu H. three houses down and broke his shoulder…" J. was fully changed, and over her jeans and sweater she was wearing her robe. It was cold.
My aunt had dressed too and she was making her way upstairs to carry down my three-year-old cousin B. "I don’t want him waking up with all the noise and finding those bastards around him in the dark."
Twenty minutes later, we were all assembled in the living room. The house was dark except for the warm glow of the kerosene heater and a small lamp in the corner. We were all dressed and waiting nervously, wrapped in blankets. T. and I sat on the ground while my aunt and her husband sat on the couch, B. wrapped in a blanket between them. J. was sitting in an armchair across from them. It was nearly 4 am.
Meanwhile, the noises outside had gotten louder as the raid got closer. Every once in a while, you could hear voices calling out for people to open a door or the sharp banging of a rifle against a door.
Last time they had raided my aunts area, they took away four men on their street alone. Two of them were students in their early twenties- one a law student, and the other an engineering student, and the third man was a grandfather in his early sixties. There was no accusation, no problem- they were simply ordered outside, loaded up into a white pickup truck and driven away with a group of other men from the area. Their families haven’t heard from them since and they visit the morgue almost daily in anticipation of finding them dead.
"There will be no problem," My aunt said sternly, looking at each of us, thin-lipped. "You will not say anything improper and they will come in, look around and go." Her eyes lingered on Ammoo S. He was silent. He had lit a cigarette and was inhaling deeply. J. said he’d begun smoking again a couple of months ago after having quit for ten years. "Are your papers ready?" She asked him, referring to his identification papers which would be requested. He didn’t answer, but nodded his head silently.
We waited. And waited… I began nodding off and my dreams were interspersed with troops and cars and hooded men. I woke to the sound of T. saying, "They’re almost here…" And lifted my head, groggy with what I thought was at least three hours of sleep. I squinted down at my watch and noted it was not yet 5 am. "Haven’t they gotten to us yet?" I asked.
Ammoo S. was pacing in the kitchen. I could hear him coming and going in his slippers, pausing every now and then in front of the window. My aunt was still on the couch- she sat with B. in her arms, rocking him gently and murmuring prayers. J. was doing a last-minute check, hiding valuables and gathering our handbags into the living room, "They took baba’s mobile phone during the last raid- make sure your mobile phones are with you."
I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and I got closer to the kerosene heater in an attempt to dispel the cold that seemed to have permanently taken over my fingers and toes. T. was trembling, wrapped in her blanket. I waved her over to the heater but she shook her head and answered, "I.... mmmm… n-n-not… c-c-cold…"
It came ten minutes later. A big clanging sound on the garden gate and voices yelling "Ifta7u [OPEN UP]". I heard my uncle outside, calling out, "We’re opening the gate, we’re opening…" It was moments and they were inside the house. Suddenly, the house was filled with strange men, yelling out orders and stomping into rooms. It was chaotic. We could see flashing lights in the garden and lights coming from the hallways. I could hear Ammoo S. talking loudly outside, telling them his wife and the 'children’ were the only ones in the house. What were they looking for? Was there something wrong? He asked.
Suddenly, two of them were in the living room. We were all sitting on the sofa, near my aunt. My cousin B. was by then awake, eyes wide with fear. They were holding large lights or 'torches’ and one of them pointed a Klashnikov at us. "Is there anyone here but you and them?" One of them barked at my aunt. "No- it’s only us and my husband outside with you- you can check the house." T.’s hands went up to block the glaring light of the torch and one of the men yelled at her to put her hands down, they fell limply in her lap. I squinted in the strong light and as my sight adjusted, I noticed they were wearing masks, only their eyes and mouths showing. I glanced at my cousins and noted that T. was barely breathing. J. was sitting perfectly still, eyes focused on nothing in particular, I vaguely noted that her sweater was on backwards.
One of them stood with the Klashnikov pointed at us, and the other one began opening cabinets and checking behind doors. We were silent. The only sounds came from my aunt, who was praying in a tremulous whisper and little B., who was sucking away at his thumb, eyes wide with fear. I could hear the rest of the troops walking around the house, opening closets, doors and cabinets.
I listened for Ammoo S., hoping to hear him outside but I could only distinguish the harsh voices of the troops. The minutes we sat in the living room seemed to last forever. I didn’t know where to look exactly. My eyes kept wandering to the man with the weapon and yet I knew staring at him wasn’t a good idea. I stared down at a newspaper at my feet and tried to read the upside-down headlines. I glanced at J. again- her heart was beating so hard, the small silver pendant that my mother had given her just that day was throbbing on her chest in time to her heartbeat.
Suddenly, someone called out something from outside and it was over. They began rushing to leave the house, almost as fast as they’d invaded it. Doors slamming, lights dimming. We were left in the dark once more, not daring to move from the sofa we were sitting on, listening as the men disappeared, leaving only a couple to stand at our gate.
"Where’s baba?" J. asked, panicking for a moment before we heard his slippered feet in the driveway. "Did they take him?" Her voice was getting higher. Ammoo S. finally walked into the house, looking weary and drained. I could tell his face was pale even in the relative dark of the house. My aunt sat sobbing quietly in the living room, T. comforting her. "Houses are no longer sacred… We can’t sleep… We can’t live… If you can’t be safe in your own house, where can you be safe? The animals… the bastards…"
We found out a few hours later that one of our neighbors, two houses down, had died. Abu Salih was a man in his seventies and as the Iraqi mercenaries raided his house, he had a heart-attack. His grandson couldn’t get him to the hospital on time because the troops wouldn’t let him leave the house until they’d finished with it. His grandson told us later that day that the Iraqis were checking the houses, but the American troops had the area surrounded and secured. It was a coordinated raid.
They took at least a dozen men from my aunts area alone- their ages between 19 and 40. The street behind us doesn’t have a single house with a male under the age of 50- lawyers, engineers, students, ordinary laborers- all hauled away by the 'security forces’ of the New Iraq. The only thing they share in common is the fact that they come from Sunni families (with the exception of two who I'm not sure about).
We spent the day putting clothes back into closets, taking stock of anything missing (a watch, a brass letter opener, and a walkman), and cleaning dirt and mud off of carpets. My aunt was fanatic about cleansing and disinfecting everything saying it was all "Dirty, dirty, dirty…" J. has sworn never to celebrate her birthday again.
It’s almost funny- only a month ago, we were watching a commercial on some Arabic satellite channel- Arabiya perhaps. They were showing a commercial for Iraqi security forces and giving a list of numbers Iraqis were supposed to dial in the case of a terrorist attack… You call THIS number if you need the police to protect you from burglars or abductors… You call THAT number if you need the National Guard or special forces to protect you from terrorists… But…
Who do you call to protect you from the New Iraq’s security forces?