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Black Wings: Love, Loss and Life as a Humanitarian Aid Worker in Iraq

By

It was a cool, blue morning in Baghdad. I stood in the rubble of a bombed out building, a shell of what it had once been. The roof was completely gone and the sun cast a bright yellow light down into its hollow space. The walls were streaked with black char and pockmarked with bullet holes. The jagged rectangle of a blown-out window stared back at me like the dark cavity of an eye. Through it, perched on a pile of rubble and wrapped in a black cloth was the small, round, brown face of a baby. It wasn’t crying, or moving, and for the brief moment that I stared at it I felt devastated at the thought that it might be dead.

I looked at the faces of the soldiers that surrounded me. There were at least ten of them, all there as my escorts. Their jobs were to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior and protect me from kidnapping or death. None of them seemed to see what I saw: that sweet, swaddled, saintly baby. They crept along, clutching their M4 rifles and scanning the landscape for signs of danger: the narrow barrel of a gun poking out from a shadowed doorway, or one of the numerous, ingenious places that an insurgent might hide an improvised explosive device (IED). The latest unthinkable place for an IED was hidden in the carcass of a dead dog. But we all knew that the future held even worse, more unthinkable places, and as I stood there I wondered with horror if that place was beneath an abandoned baby in the rubble of a bombed out building.

Just as I started to alert the soldier nearest to me of this suspicion, a woman in a long black Abaya emerged from the other side of the rubble, scooped the baby up into her arms and slumped away. The whole thing happened in less than a minute, but in that minute I went from never having a single urge to mother a child, to needing a child with my entire being.

I knew that minute was a microcosm of enormous changes occurring within me that I could only guess had a lot to do with being in a war zone.

I was 39 years old and newly married. My husband and I had been living in Iraq for nearly a year, working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a humanitarian aid organization. In recent weeks, we’d dodged bombs on a daily basis being lobbed into the green zone by militants in Sadr City. They came unannounced several times a day, dropping out of the sky with a quick hiss and a whistle before slamming into the earth, or a building, or a house. We lived in our flak jackets and helmets; we even slept in them.

My job as the Press Officer was to escort journalists into the field to see our aid projects and encourage them to write stories about the good things we were doing for the Iraqi people. I traveled down dangerous roads and to dangerous places. Places nicknamed “alligator alley” and “the triangle of death.” Places where many people – civilians, journalists, aid workers, soldiers of many different nationalities, had died. I traveled high profile, surrounded by armed Marines, most of them young enough to be my offspring, whose mandate was to protect me at all costs. I rode in armored tanks, humvees and MRAPS. I would leave my husband on a certain morning unsure if I’d come back alive or come back alive to find him dead.

Rarely did a journalist write one word about our projects. Journalists were not interested in how we were training Iraqi women to run businesses, or restoring dilapidated schools and hospitals, or rebuilding entire market places wiped out by suicide bombers. They were interested in dead bodies, charred limbs, burning cars and leveled landscapes.

But I kept trying. On the day I saw the baby, I was taking a reporter from USA Today down Baghdad’s Al Mutanabbi Street. Named for a well-known 10th century Iraqi poet, Mutanabbi Street was a small, meandering alleyway that ran downhill toward a muddy bend in the Tigris River. A maze of bookshops once lined its sidewalks. For decades it had been the place where Baghdad’s writers and intellectuals gathered, crowding into busy bookshops and cozy cafes. Iraqis knew it as the embodiment of an old saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.”

On March 5, 2007, insurgents exploded a car bomb in front of the popular Renaissance bookstore. It ripped through shop walls, setting books and stationary to flames and littering the street with blackened body parts. Thirty people died and more than 100 were wounded.

Several journalists wrote about the bombing and the scene of carnage left in its wake. But no one wrote about what happened next. On the day after the bombing, when shop owners who survived were wondering how they would feed their families now that their livelihoods had been destroyed, we walked down Al Mutanabbi Street offering grants to help them rebuild. On the day the USA Today reporter and I visited, more than 60 shops had been restored.

“Did you see that?” I asked the reporter, referring to the baby.

“See what?” he said. He carried no camera and no notebook. I knew he had no intention of writing a story about USAID’s restoration of All Mutanabbi Street.

It wasn’t that I didn’t see the importance of covering the many tragedies that happened every day in Iraq. From my relative safe-haven in the Green Zone, I could hear explosions across the river at all hours and see spirals of thick, black smoke rising up from clusters of buildings and cars. The rumble of explosions became the background “music” of my days and nights.

“It sounds like dinosaurs walking across the earth,” my husband said one night as we tried to fall asleep to the low rumble of bombings. I imagined large, scaly creatures stomping the earth, whole villages crushed beneath their feet. It was nearly impossible to sleep most nights through the sputter of gunfire, the thud of helicopters overhead, the red flicker and quick whistle of tracers ripping through the sky. It felt as if we’d been dropped into some prehistoric, pre-civilization era where illogical rules applied and ruthlessness was the order of the day.

But good things happened in Iraq too. Beautiful things. And I wanted people to know about them. Some nights, when I’d finally doze off despite the symphony of chaos outside my window, I would dream of a lone, idealistic journalist who’d show up at my door with one agenda: to cover humanitarian aid projects. “I want the American people to know how hard you’re working on behalf of the Iraqis,” he’d say, with a patriotic gleam in his eye. He was exceptionally good looking, a knight in shining armor sent to relieve the agony I felt because I simply could not convince any member of the press to pay attention to our work. I’d wake from these dreams in a state of relief, high on happiness, because the short time they had occupied my subconscious made for some of my better moments in Iraq. I’d feel giddy and thankful that, finally, people would know that Americans were not only taking the lives of Iraqis, we were saving them too.

Like the life of Mustapha Firas, a young boy whose father was driving toward a U.S. checkpoint near Baghdad’s airport when he was commanded to stop by U.S. soldiers. Confused by the soldier’s commands, Mustapha’s father didn’t stop soon enough and soldiers opened fire, spraying his car with bullets, somehow missing him, but shooting Mustapha in the head just above his right eye. Mustapha’s father tried to get him treatment at a local Iraqi hospital, but as most Iraqis know, Iraqi hospitals are plagued with inadequate equipment, poor facilities, and the threat of sectarian violence or kidnapping.

Mustapha was about to die. But someone in his neighborhood had heard of our program, the Marla Ruzicka War Victims Assistance Fund, named after an American humanitarian aid worker who was killed in a car bomb. Mustapha’s father showed up at one of our community centers, an injured Mustapha in his arms, and within hours, Mustapha was at a hospital in Jordan getting treatment that saved his life. He is 12 years old now and wants to be a doctor when he grows up.

I wanted news outlets to cover the story of Mustapha, and other stories like his, because I wanted people to know that our presence in Iraq wasn’t only about greed and power and control. Some of us were there to help, to show the Iraqi people compassion and give them hope.

I felt tired and sore on the morning I went to meet the USA Today reporter at our pick up spot in the Green Zone. The night before, I’d been forced to dive into a bomb shelter while walking to dinner from my office building. A rocket exploded at Liberty Pool next door to the compound where we lived. One person was killed and two injured. My husband and I went to Liberty Pool together almost every night after dinner to play a few games of billiards before going to bed. If the rocket had landed an hour later that night, we would have been there. Instead, when I heard the siren alert and a man’s voice scream, “Incoming! Incoming!” I dove to the nearest shelter, slamming my knee into its concrete barrier. Now, it ached as I walked to meet the reporter and our convoy.

When I arrived, a large, muscular, African American solider with chubby cheeks looked me up and down and said, “You’ll need some shatter-proof goggles, sweetheart.” His name was Billy. He handed me an enormous pair of clear plastic goggles and I slipped them over my helmet and secured them to my face. Billy took his seat next to the driver and our convoy headed down the street, passing through the check point known as Assassin’s Gate, and out into greater Baghdad.

“Is this your first time into the Red Zone?” Billy asked me, a common question, especially for a civilian female.

“No,” I said and tried to sound tough. “I’ve been all over, Ramadi, Fallujah, Taji.”

What I didn’t tell him was that this was my first time in a humvee, which felt like crawling into a dark steel box of death. It was much smaller and closer to the ground than the MRAPS I was used to traveling in, and I knew from research that it was poorly designed when it came to deflecting the explosion of an IED. Now, I understood exactly how an IED could blow off a person’s legs.

“Well,” Billy said and paused. From the small square window next to me I could see three women dressed from head to toe in black Abayas, loitering on an otherwise deserted street corner. “You’re going to see some very gruesome things today.”

But instead of very gruesome things, I saw the baby that day, and afterwards everything had changed for me.

In the weeks before coming to Iraq, my mother, who had a cutting way with words, said, “Look at you. You’re almost 40 years old and you have nothing.”

“Well, that depends on what you call something,” I said.

“No house, no money, no children.”

“I don’t want children.”

“Oh yes you do.”

No, I didn’t. Not then. Not ever, I thought. I’d never felt much of a maternal urge. Throughout the years, as each one of my friends inevitably announced that she was pregnant, my initial thought was, always, ‘there goes another drinking buddy.’ Then I’d conveniently slip out of her life. I was never the woman who ran up to new mothers and begged to hold their babies. I never felt a yearning, an ache to care for something small and innocent and needy, a drive to reproduce.

I was driven by other forces. I wanted to travel to remote places of the world; I wanted to lose myself in passionate love affairs; I wanted to devour the greatest books ever written. I wanted to gather as many life experiences as I could because I thought they would make me a better writer. Naively, I never put having a baby into this category. A baby would only hinder my growth with its uncompromising need to be cared for. It would rob me of precious writing and reading time. It would exhaust me emotionally and physically. I liked babies; but I didn’t want one.

Until that moment in Baghdad. As I stared at the shell of that bombed out building, the wind and the heat and the dust swirling through its vacant walls, I felt like I was staring at myself. For the short time the baby had been inside, laying on a black cloth in the rubble, the building held more than the sad and sorry remnants of yet another suicide bombing. It held promise and hope, love and life.

I returned to our compound to find my husband sitting on the floor of our small bathroom in his flak jacket and helmet, reading a book. “Duck and cover alarm,” he said and smiled a little. Iraq was changing him just like it was changing me. But most of the time we were too busy or scared to notice. The body armor was taking a physical toll: he’d been having painful muscle spasms in his back, and one day he pulled me aside, his eyes racing and his face covered in sweat, sure that he was having a heart attack. We rushed to see a doctor only to be told that it was most likely anxiety. Now, sitting on the bathroom floor next to me in the gray dusk light, his face looked older, lined and a little gaunt, his eyes tired and sad. He was no longer the sweet, boyish rock star I’d married. I sat down next to him, smelling of sweat and dirt and exhaustion.

“Let’s make a baby,” I said.

He looked at me, flabbergasted. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“I know,” I said. “But I mean it.”

“Why?” He asked.

I started to tell him about seeing the baby earlier that day, but I stopped.

“Why not?”

“Let’s think about it,” he said and put his head on my shoulder.

“I’m 40 years old,” I said, “we don’t have time to think.”

“We should be sure we’re doing it for the right reasons,” he said and sighed.

“But are there any wrong reasons?” I asked.

Maybe it was that most if the time, our work in Iraq seemed pointless, so small in the scheme of such destruction. Many of our projects failed, racked by corruption, attacked by insurgents, halted by lack of funding, or poorly executed by for-profit contracting companies. Our entire world at times seemed colored by injustice and corruption, suffering and loss, sadness and madness. The only thing that kept us going, that kept us from succumbing to the helplessness and defeat we felt in the midst of incomprehensible pain, was knowing that we could save lives like Mustapha’s, knowing that we could help victims of a heartless insurgency like the shop owners on Al Mutanabbi street, knowing that for every, say, 100 actions of injustice, there was one of compassion and love.

We worked 15, 16, 17-hour days there, but somehow we found a few moments to make a life. I remember those moments vividly. It was a warm evening in May. The air was gritty from rolling dust storms, the sky a pastel swirl of red dust and setting sun. The evening call to prayer could be heard in all directions. I loved the eerie note of calm and peace it brought each evening, despite the horrors of the day. It was the first night in weeks that we didn’t feel compelled to sleep in our bathroom, the only windowless room of our small concrete house where we could shut the doors and shield ourselves from the flying glass and debris of an exploding rocket. We crawled onto our tiny bed and wrapped ourselves up in each other, escaping the stress and the fear, briefly revived and alive, panting with passion and pleasure.

The next day, I left on one of the most important field trips of my time there: escorting three American and several Iraqi journalists to see the grand opening of a refurbished fish farm in Babil province.

The Euphrates Fish Farm had once been a showpiece of Saddam’s. It was built in 1979 within sight of his imposing palace on the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. But years of war, sanctions and strife had reduced the farm to a shadow of its former self. It could no longer meet demand by the local community for river fish, the main ingredient in Mazgouf, a traditional dish of fish, split open and cooked over an open fire.

Khudhair Abbas al-Emara, the farm’s owner, beamed that day, proudly leading the reporters through a maze of large water basins teaming with slithering, silver fish. Our project had helped him purchase millions of baby carp to sell to local fish farmers. We had refurbished his farm’s pumps and bought high-tech vans designed to sharply reduce the number of fish that died in transit.

“I’m very happy,” he said repeatedly about the transformation of his hatchery, which now employed 600 people. The farm’s output had gone from 2 million fish to 12 million in just a year. Continued success would have a far-reaching economic impact on the region. It would boost fish production and raise demand for locally produced fish feed. Water driven by the farm’s pumps would help irrigate area crops. Perhaps most importantly, it would create jobs and keep local Iraqis from joining the insurgency, something many did simply because they had no alternative.

I remember scores of children hanging around that day, peering gleefully into the water basins filled with fish. Four of the children belonged to the farm’s owner and they followed him everywhere, caught up in the excitement of the event, angling for the attention of reporters. They loved being photographed and kept offering their gleaming white smiles for the cameras.

It was our most successful public event. News stories appeared on several Iraqi TV stations and over the Associated Press wire. We were ecstatic about the coverage. I fanaticized about other US news sources picking up the story – CNN, Time, The Washington Post. Finally, people would know that Iraq wasn’t just about bombs and bodies.

But three days later, as a direct result of the news coverage, two of the farm owner’s sons disappeared, kidnapped by insurgents. This was meant to punish the owner for collaborating with Americans and send a grave message to other Iraqis who accepted our aid money.

When I learned of this, a slow, sick feeling spread across my chest and stomach. I realized my vulnerability, my naiveté; it hit me hard and fast and certain. I was the one who’d brought the journalists and allowed the cameras. I was the one who’d spent weeks and days and endless hours organizing, persuading, manipulating all of the forces that needed to come together in order to win publicity for the event. I kept seeing their faces, white teeth shining through muddied lips, and their eyes, round and full and innocent. I was sure they were being tortured in some Iraqi dungeon somewhere, a prison cell, a basement. I imagined them forced to take up arms, to work for the insurgency, to murder their own families. I imagined them scared and shivering, their bodies bruised by beatings, or, worse, beheaded.

I still don’t know what happened to them. I made multiple inquiries, but the answers were vague. I was told they were being held for ransom, most likely still alive, money would probably change hands. But I’ll never know the full extent of their suffering. My time in Iraq had come to this.

No one can truly know the numbers: how many children have died as a result of the Iraq war, how many wounded, how many orphaned, how many kidnapped, tortured, forced to kill. There are very few statistics on this, the worst part of the war.

But there is a photograph that has become an important representation of the cost of the Iraq war on its children; a photograph almost as famous as Huynh Cong Ut’s photo of Phan Thi Kim Phu, the naked Vietnamese girl running in agony from a napalm attack, her clothes burned off, her skin scorched and hanging from her arms. It is the photograph of Samar Hassan, a screaming 5-year-old girl covered in her parents blood, that photojournalist Chris Hondros snapped minutes after her parents were shot to death by American soldiers who mistook the family’s car for a suicide bomber near a Baghdad checkpoint.

I had looked at it several years ago when my husband and I were considering taking jobs in Iraq, weighing the pros and the cons of it. We were against the war, but this was a humanitarian mission. Could you be against the invasion but support rebuilding the nation? We did. Our friends and family didn’t understand this, especially those who decided never to talk to us again, they were so against our getting involved. Everything was very black and white to them; there was right and there was wrong and we were wrong. And yet, we felt that as Americans we owed it to the Iraqi people to help them if we could.

When I looked at the photograph of Samar Hassan back then, I didn’t see it for all that it was. I couldn’t. I had never been close enough to a war to truly understand the power it had to destroy lives. Now I could. I was no longer on the outside looking in. I could see the magnitude of pain it captured, the loss.

And here I was, partly to blame for the kidnapping of two young boys who might never be heard from again. I had a searing sense of the six degrees of separation we all have with the suffering of the Iraq war. How tied we all are to each victim and perpetrator. I wondered where Samar Hassan was now, who she was now. I wondered if I’d get out of Iraq alive, and if I did would I ever be complete without a child of my own, a child I would have the power to do right by, a child I could love and protect and make understand that everything we do has its consequences, that a good life is one where we make every effort never to be the source of another person’s suffering.

I recently went searching for more about Samar Hassan, and I discovered the real story of tragedy and redemption behind her iconic image. In addition to Samar and her two parents, there were five other siblings in the car that night. Samar’s brother, Rakan, suffered a bullet in his spine and was paralyzed from the waist down. Several of Chris Hondros’ other photographs from that night show Rakan on the ground, unable to move, then pressed against a wall in a state of shock, and finally being rushed to the hospital. US Senator Edward Kennedy led a team determined to help him. He was treated at Massachusetts Medical Center in Boston, and after months of care and rehabilitation, a healthy, seemingly happy Rakan was sent back to Iraq walking on crutches.

It would be so nice if Rakan served as a symbol of redemption and promise in an otherwise horrific string of events. But his story doesn’t end there. Rakan was killed in June 2008 when insurgents bombed his new home, his family targeted for accepting American aid.

Soon after the kidnapping at the Euphrates Fish Farm, my husband and I left Iraq. We flew to Koh Samui, an island off the coast of Thailand where everything was quiet and serene and beautiful. I was sitting on a beach, watching a yellow sailboat glide slowly across the clear, still water of the bay when I realized I had missed my period. I bought a pregnancy test from a nearby store and waited until morning. I left Dan sleeping and slipped into the bathroom. I peed on the narrow white stick and watched as a pink plus sign appeared. I was pregnant. In a moment, the world felt like a better place, full of kindness and possibility and love. I thought I could already feel something deep inside of me, growing. It felt like a miracle, a victory. What else could we have done? At the very least we had made a life. We had made a life in the middle of all that death.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Jamy Bond is a fiction and nonficition writer. Her work has appeared in The Sun, The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Peace Corps Writers and on National Public Radio's The Sound of Writing. She received a Fulbright grant in creative writing and spent three years in Mozambique researching and writing a novel. Most recently, she spent a year in Iraq working for the United States Agency for International Development. Her essay, What Feels Like Destiny,published in The Sun, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. More from this author →