This is the farm village that Cliff Kindy, leader of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), refers to as the “razor wire place.” It’s actually a small town, around half of which the U.S. Army has unrolled concertina razor wire, and completed the effect with a checkpoint and curfew. Six CPT members are returning for an update from the residents on the latest U.S. raids and detentions.
On the 30-mile trip from Baghdad, the city falls away as we drive into open countryside. Approaching Abu Hishma, we pass a small house about 150 feet from the road that is now a pile of rubble. Our interpreter, Sattar, said the house was destroyed because “it was too close to the road and coalition forces destroy it.”
With a minivan stuffed full of westerners, we arrive 10 minutes before the 5pm curfew, wondering if we’ll be allowed to pass the checkpoint into the district cordoned off by the wire. Just before reaching the gate, our driver spots his brother, coming in from the fields in a pickup. They exchange a few words and we follow his brother closely through the checkpoint staffed by the ICDC, the Iraq Civil Defense Corps. They look into the van briefly, smile, and wave us through.
Inside the wire, kids of all ages spill into the narrow streets from all directions, smiling, laughing, and waving joyfully. The streets are all dirt, barely more than lanes, some still quite muddy from rains several days ago. The minivan bounces along, perilously close to the edge of the ditch to let vehicles coming towards us pass. There is really nothing resembling a berm, and the kids back up on mere inches of muddy lane to let us by, still laughing and waving. Some shout “Saddam, Saddam” but it’s not clear how much of the shouting is a political statement and how much is kids being kids for a rare carload of westerners. Each time we turn a corner it appears we’re about to run over a youngster, or at least knock one into the ditch, but somehow, just as Baghdad drivers avoid accidents in the most impossible situations, the children remain unscathed.
Our contact, Aziz Musla Hussain, a local journalist, is nowhere to be found. We are creeping along narrow lanes with a boisterous bunch in tow, moments before the curfew hour, not sure where we are going to stay. The driver offers the hospitality of his home as a last resort. The CPT members decide to call on the local sheik responsible for the welfare of about 25,000 residents of Abu Hishma, some inside and some outside the wire.
We are welcomed warmly by Sheik Mohammed Abbas Alawa’s oldest son, Shalon. He is nearly fluent in English, learned while studying Recent U.S. History at the University of Baghdad. Sheik Alawa enters momentarily. After discussing the issues of the day in Abu Hishma, we are served our second chicken and rice dinner of the evening. The first was only two hours ago in the village of Abu Siffa.
After eating, drinking tea, and further discussion, fabric cushion mats and blankets are brought in for bedtime. Sheik Alawa makes sure everyone is comfortable, leans his AK-47 against the wall next to his pillow, and retires.
The next day begins early. We are soon on our way to listen to more stories from the people of Abu Hishma.
Cliff says this is a farming village, but it is unlike any farm or village I’ve seen in the U.S. There, rural population centers range in size from hamlets of a few homes, to small cities with their emblematic water towers. The farmhouses are always widely scattered, single-family homes with accompanying barns and outbuildings the typical white frame house and red barn often surrounded by enough lawn to require a miniature tractor.
But in this place north of Baghdad, a farm village is something completely different. The homes are much smaller. A few have postage stamp-sized yards, but in most cases lawns are replaced by barnyards meaning that the chickens, goats, cows, manure piles, and mud-hut outbuildings are literally a few steps out the back, or sometimes front, door. Mixed in with the animals and sheds are bundles of neatly stacked fruit tree prunings, dead cotton plant stalks, and other material that appears ready for the stove. The roads are not more than single dirt lanes. Hard up against either side of these lanes are earthen walls about four feet tall, with rounded edges. Colorful blankets air on second-story balconies.
The muddy lanes pose too much of an obstacle for the usually unstoppable local drivers, so we walk. The kids mug for the camera, run and jump in front of, alongside, and behind us. Some wear light jackets against the chilly morning air. Most are barefoot, oblivious to several varieties of manure dotting the trail.
First stop on our Abu Hishma walking tour is ahead on the left, a victim of what the Glossary of Military Terms & Slang from the Vietnam War refers to as “H & I,” or harassment and interdiction fire: “Random artillery (or aerial) bombardments used to deny the enemy terrain which they might find beneficial to their campaign; general rather than specific, confirmed military targets.”
An outline of a house foundation frames a perfectly-centered bomb crater 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide. Destroyed 10 days ago at 8:00 a.m., by a single bomb, the dwelling was home to a family of seven who miraculously were not there at the time. But the youngsters bring other evidence of the blast to our attention.
One of their pals, Hahmed Fadhil, wears a gauze patch taped over the right eye he said he lost when the bomb exploded. Two boys poke a stick at an orange and white cat that has achieved immortality for having died in a bombing. We’re shown window frames in homes two blocks away, where cardboard replaces the glass reportedly shattered by the same explosion.
A hundred feet up the lane, a smaller bomb crater is off to the side. Before we hear its story, we’re distracted by six U.S. helicopter gunships roaring low overhead. They pass quickly.
We return to the cars and drive a short distance to our next stop, a slightly larger farmhouse on the edge of the village. It is the home of Yasseen Taha, a 33 year-old farmer who attended evening classes at the University of Baghdad’s Islamic Studies program.
On October 17, Yasseen’s brother, Aziz, and his wife, Majida, were shot and killed by troops from Lt. Col. Sassaman’s base, according to Yasseen’s uncle, Muhnna Azazzal, who spoke with us.
On that day at about 4:00 p.m., U.S. troops and tanks stationed at the former Iraqi airfield three kilometers south of the Taha home, came from that direction toward the village, “firing randomly,” said Azazzal.
Yasseen’s younger brother, Aziz, a fourth-year student in the University of Baghdad’s English Studies department, was struck by one of the bullets and mortally wounded. Yasseen’s wife, Majida, knelt to help her brother-in-law and was hit by a bullet and killed instantly. She left three children, the youngest 15 days old. Aziz died within two hours, but in the meantime, Azazzal said, U.S. soldiers surrounded the scene, telling neighbors to keep back and denying Aziz any first-aid.
Aziz’ sister, Asmaa, said that she witnessed the carnage that day. Seeing her brother shot and bleeding to death, she began to cry hysterically. An American soldier responded by firing his rifle into the ground near Aziz’ dying body “to mock my grief,” she said.
Just then, we witnessed what looked like another H & I incident. Two helicopters flew low over the village, circled, and fired machine gun bursts into an open pasture a couple hundred meters away. “They do it just to scare us,” one villager shrugged, or as a former Iraqi soldier later told me, “we used to call it ‘showing the teeth.'”
Muhnna Azazzal resumed his narrative. Ten days after the October double murder, U.S. troops arrested Yasseen. Soldiers had been attacked in the vicinity, Azazzal explained, and Yasseen was a prime suspect, having just lost two family members to Army shootings. Three months later, the farmer from Abu Hishma still sits in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, still denied visitors. Azazzal, his uncle, said he later heard from released detainees that Yasseen was accused of “terrorist acts.”
A rooster crows in the Taha farmyard. Chickens scratch in a small, neatly-fenced grass front yard. Three helicopter gunships roar overhead. In the dirt side yard are two red heifers, an earthen oven, a mud brick outhouse and piles of stacked brush. Several small Holstein dairy cows graze in a narrow, rich pasture just beyond the lane. Yasseen’s uncle, Muhnna, says with equal parts hurt, disappointment and anger in his voice, “soldiers that do these kinds of things don’t deserve to be called Americans.” Two more helicopters roar in from another direction.