By Manal Omar
Sunday, March 19, 2006
AMMAN, Jordan There was always a fear of sectarian violence in Iraq. But when I arrived in Baghdad almost three years ago, it was only that -- a fear. Back then, right after Saddam Hussein was toppled, the country was full of hope and optimism. And it was in that heady atmosphere that I found love when I met the Iraqi man to whom I am now married.
But the fear of sectarian strife became a searing reality for me last year, on the night before our wedding. Our house of celebration was transformed into a house of mourning when we learned that my husband's brother-in-law, Hussein, had been brutally murdered. As the mourners arrived, we turned away the florist and canceled the photographer. Our festival of love gave way to horror, as we realized that Hussein was just one of the many casualties of what Iraq was becoming-- a volatile mix of tribal tensions and local mafia-style killings.
A Shiite from the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad, Hussein had been traveling in the Sunni-controlled district of Tarmiyah where he went to a bank to withdraw money. These days, when I tell Hussein's story, people stop me at this point. "What was a Shia man thinking, going to Tarmiyah?" they say. But Hussein had worked in Tarmiyah all his life. He could never have imagined that he would be attacked by armed robbers; he would never have thought that, after his body was pumped full of bullets, it would be dragged through the streets behind his killers' car. Most people didn't think like that a year ago. Now Iraqis have to think like that every day, as hope has given way to constant fear.
Killed just 12 days after his 32nd birthday, Hussein left his wife, Rana, and three children, the youngest of whom was only 6 months old. His death was one of the incidents that sparked a full-blown tribal war between the Sunnis of Tarmiyah and the Shiites of Kadhimiyah. If districts in Baghdad are resorting to bloodthirsty feuds, you can only imagine what is happening in the outlying provinces and rural areas.
These schisms among communities were predictable -- and predicted. The most painful fact is that, early on, the feuding was preventable.
Something went awry. I am continually plagued by the question of how we in the international community could have gotten this so very wrong. I believe that we have dug a grave. And it is the Iraqis who will have to lie in it.
But who will be held accountable?
As soon as I arrived in Baghdad in those fear-free days of 2003 to open the Iraq office of Women for Women International, people from all over the world began calling and writing to ask me what it was like. I used to send out an e-mail journal in response. But over the past year, I've found it increasingly difficult to record what is going on. Even before my brother-in-law's death, I felt stymied. My last journal entry was on April 19, 2005, three days after peace activist Marla Ruzicka was killed by a roadside bomb. At that moment, I realized that the loss of friends and colleagues had become overwhelming. I was losing hope.
The truth is, I used to write to share whatever success stories there were from the people of Iraq -- to try to keep the pulse of hope beating. After Marla's death, I was afraid to admit that the hope we had been clutching was becoming impossible to hold onto.
I developed a means of coping. In order to continue my aid work in Iraq, I allowed myself to fall into the comfortable shadows of denial. And for a while it worked. But however desperately I tried to stuff my head -- like an ostrich -- into the ground, the political earthquakes and violent undercurrents forced me to the surface. Then the bombing last month of the Shiite shrine in Samarra shook me out of denial. There had been signs of sectarian strife long before that: The attacks on Karbala shrines and the kidnappings of young children were reminders that nothing remains sacred in Iraq. But on that late February day, my last glimmer of hope evaporated into thin air like the gold that once shimmered on Samarra's dome.
It must be hard, from a distance, to understand how the situation deteriorated so quickly. When I speak to Westerners about the pain of watching Iraq fall apart, I usually get little sympathy. "It is war; what did you expect?" people say. But those of us who worked in Iraq saw the flame of hope. Now we watch that flame sputter and bear witness to brutal efforts to extinguish it.
When people started to discuss the possibility of civil war two years ago, I didn't believe them; I insisted that the majority of Iraqis would rise above sectarianism. People now say that I have been proven wrong. But I remember a letter I received in the early days: A young woman from Tikrit wrote that she prayed Iraqis would remember that the strength of their country was in their mosaic of religions and ethnicities. If Iraqis had been left to themselves, I tell my doubters, they would have risen above this madness.
The countless international interventions -- from neighboring countries to the coalition forces -- destabilized Iraq at a time when its people needed support from the world. Some continue to be grateful for the collapse of the Baathist regime and entertain dreams that their nation may be on the road to recovery. But for many, the Samarra bombing crushed that dream.
I wonder at the way hope evolved into fear. I had come to Baghdad to help empower Iraqi women after decades of suffering from war and sanctions. Iraqi women had a history of exercising rights in ways other women in the region could not. I was confident that, with the resources and assistance that Women for Women International provides, they would easily reclaim their status.
My background is Palestinian, but I grew up as an American and was prepared to find communities that would reject me. But from Karbala to Fallujah, from Sulaymaniyah to Baqubah, people embraced me as one of their own. Looking back, it seems only natural that there I would meet the love of my life, a fellow employee of Women for Women International.
Against that background of trust, I worked with increasing numbers of widows and abused and marginalized women. But nothing could have prepared me to see Hussein's wife, my husband's dear sister Rana, become a widow. Through her pain, I catch a glimpse into the everyday life of women struggling to overcome the trauma of war. You see, it is not only those who are killed who are casualties, but also their families.
Every day, Rana faces reminders of her loss. There are religious pressures for her to respect the Islamic mourning period, which does not allow her to leave the house for four months. She knew she would have to violate those strictures and flee with her children to Jordan to avoid the battles that erupted after their father's death. Rana also faced the economic pressures of being the sole breadwinner for her children, never having worked outside the home. Rana also joined thousands of widows in a legal battle to protect her children's right of inheritance. Some interpretations of the Koran do not permit children to inherit their father's property if the grandparents are still living. Rana and her children were now at the full mercy of Hussein's family.
Rana brings home to me the fate of thousands of other Iraqi women. Yet she considers herself lucky because she was able to bury her husband. When Rana reminds me of this good fortune, my mind floats to the wife of one of our staff members. Her husband went missing in 2004. There are no clues of what happened to him; there has been no sign of his car or his body. Every night, I fall asleep imagining his wife and two kids anxiously waiting for him. And I tell myself that at least Rana knows her husband's fate.
Now Rana lives, as I do, in Amman. In my apartment building, only two of the 12 units are occupied by Jordanians. The rest are homes for Iraqis who have fled their homeland. Of the 10 apartments, eight are occupied by people who have come to Amman after a family member was killed or, more commonly, kidnapped. Now, the entire building is in mourning over what is happening in Iraq. Just a couple of months ago, the halls and the parking lot were filled with quips about the Saddam trial, and the discussion was about who would be going back to Iraq first. Now, none of us dare speak about going back to Iraq.
Manal Omar is the regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for Women for Women International.