Family members left behind by those who have died violent deaths amidst the occupation of Iraq, whether they are Iraqi or American, have every reason to be bitter. After all, each death is due to an illegal occupation as the result of an illegal invasion of a sovereign country (although the United States government disputes this view). With over 1,340 dead US soldiers and an estimated 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians as a result of the war and occupation, there are many families left behind engulfed in grief.
In a recent delegation to Amman, Jordan, US family members who lost loved ones in the conflict in Iraq came to the Middle East to meet with Iraqis who had lost loved ones. The delegation was sponsored by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group, and Code Pink, a women’s peace activist group based in Los Angeles. The groups represented in the delegation were Military Families Speak Out and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Preceding reconciliation, the families shared stories of violence and suffering, particularly from Iraqis who face a daily battle of survival in the hell that has befallen their country under US occupation. A
Shi’ite Muslim man spoke at the first meeting of the delegation. His brother was detained by soldiers last summer while giving a speech at the offices of the Human Rights Organization of Hilla.
“The Americans raided the place and made everyone lie down. They randomly shot nine people and injured them. Then they put two people on the wall and executed them by shooting them in the head. These were religious people. They then detained my brother and one other person,” he said.
After living under a brutal dictatorship for his entire life, now with the opportunity to tell the story of his brother to people from the country who now occupied his, he took the liberty of saying how things
were even worse now for his people under US occupation, using his own brother as an example.
“I come from a family who were fighters against Saddam. Saddam discriminated against my family and our whole tribe. Thousands of us,” he said, “My brother is a sheikh, he is a religious man in Hilla. He used to take sermons during Saddam’s time against Saddam. He was detained for speaking against Saddam.”
He said his brother was suffering more in Abu Ghraib at the hands of the US military than when he was detained by the former regime. His family went months without being allowed to contact his brother, “They would not charge my brother with anything, and for three months they set appointments, then canceling them.”
His brother has now been detained for seven months, and he added, “After three months I met with him and he was paralyzed in his arm and leg, because he had been shot by a taser gun. They kept him in a small black box for many days.”
At a later meeting between Iraqi and American families that was filled with tears, a sheikh from Fallujah also shared the horrendous story of his son-in-law’s execution by US soldiers last week.
“I am happy to be a Muslim which taught me brotherhood, love and peace for everybody on this planet, no matter who they are or what they are doing,” he began, “The closest people to Islam are people who say they are Christians.”
“We used to think the worst dictator was Saddam Hussein. I was one who was persecuted by him. I used to wish that somebody would come to liberate us. The occupation troops came to help us get rid of this dictator. All of the people where I used to live decided not to fight the occupation troops because we thought they are going to bring security and withdraw because this is what they told us. Everyone knows what it means to liberate a country.”
He spoke of what he saw during the invasion in April 2003, “I saw with my own eyes they destroyed the shops, the institutes and they allowed people to steal everything, and killing was collective.”
“We used to say maybe this is only the first days…but a month after the occupation the troops went at night to places and broke the doors, entered, stole things, and let the thieves steal,” he said angrily, “We began to compare the dictatorship to the occupation. We compared the criminal Saddam to criminal Bush.”
He spoke of his son-in-law, Sheikh Mouofa. On the 24th of December, his home was raided and Sheikh Mouofa was shot by soldiers.
“I saw him on the ground surrounded by blood,” he told the military families, who were all weeping. Mouofa’s wife heard the two bullets, as she was in a nearby room.
Three days later the family was told by the military that the assassination was a mistake.
After pausing to collect himself from his grief he added, “A human being is very dear and precious in Islam. Any believer of any religion is our brother, no matter what their beliefs.”
“This is what we believe, not like Bush. He prefers oil rather than human beings,” he added while holding up a photo of two little girls.
“Two days after their father was killed these children were asking for their father. Their father was killed by the people who were supposed to make their dreams come true.”
He pleaded with the delegation, as well as continuing on about atrocities he has witnessed in his country.
“We criticized Saddam for the mass graves. We have mass graves daily now in Iraq. Houses in Iraq are destroyed on people as they sleep. I saw them detain a man and take him in front of his family,” he said to the audience. “They tied him to a chair with a rope, they beat him with the butts of their rifles, then they shot and killed him. Then they took his brothers.”
He continued, “We seek your help. We tell you, please help us get rid of these troops. Not to shed blood, yours or ours. At the funeral of my son-in-law some people shouted that America is the enemy of God. But I don’t accept this, because I know that in America there are other people like you.”
“I feel terrible hearing about these atrocities in Fallujah and all around Iraq,” replied Fernando Suarez del Solar of Los Angeles. He and his wife Rosa lost their son, Jesus, on March 27, 2003 when he stepped on a US cluster bomb while fighting in Iraq.
Suarez, after wiping away tears, added, “I understand and share your grief because I also have a young grandson who is left orphaned. Because of two people, Saddam Hussein and George Bush, who made harm to humanity.
I would like you to understand the great suffering in the US from this war that is so unjust. I know the numbers are very unequal but in the US there are children who have been left orphaned. We share your suffering. You have a great responsibility today to avoid that the hate against us grows. And we the parents how have lost our children have a great responsibility for stopping the hate with this loss. With hate we get nowhere. Only with love. My heart goes out to you.”
The sheikh patted his heart with his hand repeatedly while saying, “Thanks for these words that come from the heart.”
The exchange between the two men symbolized what occurred with the peace delegation, where shared loss and grief was transformed into solidarity and a commitment to work for justice.
“My son’s birthday was last month,” said Suarez, “He died so we could have this moment. He wanted to give his life to help Iraqis. Thank you for being together today my brother and you are all part of my family.”
Suarez was told by the military that his son had died by being shot in the head during battle. After further investigation, Suarez learned his son was killed when he stepped on an illegal, unexploded US cluster bomb in Diwaniyah during the invasion.
Nadia McCaffrey lost her son, Sergeant Patrick McCaffrey, on June 22, 2004 in Iraq. He’d joined on September 12th, 2001, because he wanted to do something to help his country. He too left behind a wife and children, as did Jesus and the sheikh’s son-in-law.Speaking about her loss at a press conference later at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, McCaffrey said, “I blame the government. I blame Bush. I’ve never felt any resentment towards the Iraqi people. The last picture I have of him was holding white flowers given to him by Iraqi children, just before he was killed.”
One of the main goals of the delegation was to bring medical supplies and money donated by people in America in order to bring relief to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Fallujah. After the US military assault on the city in November, it is estimated that 75% of the homes and buildings have been bombed to the ground, and the remaining 25% received at least moderate damage.
“I am aware and I don’t defend the horrible crimes the troops have done in Iraq. I’m ashamed of what’s happening,” said Fernando Suarez when he met with Iraqi doctors, “But you have to understand that they are not all the same. You can’t say that all people from the US are criminals. Just like we can’t say because some Muslims are terrorists all Muslims are terrorists.”
“A year ago when I was in Iraq I learned to love Iraqi people,” said Suarez, referring to his trip to Baghdad last year to visit the spot where his son died, “We have to work together. Sitting around here
talking, you are going back to Iraq and tell them there are people from the US, and we will go back and denounce how a corrupt government has turned our children into beasts.”
At another meeting between the delegation and Iraqi families, Suarez continued, “You have to understand that our children were forced to go to Iraq, they didn’t want to go. Sometimes it is survival, but that doesn’t justify that they don’t help people, or that they abuse prisoners. That is why yesterday I asked for your forgiveness. Maybe the medicine we bring can help 100 children survive. But we are working to help the whole country survive.”
Suarez brought several large suitcases of medicine and medical supplies he’d collected from donations raised. “If this helps just a few Iraqi children,” he said, “then I am happy.”
The sheikh from Fallujah, also at this meeting, summarized the feeling of the delegation. While holding up a picture of his deceased son-in law, the sheikh said, “This man was killed last weekend,” then holding up the photo of his two children added, “These two kids will not see their father again. This
moment should be a lesson for us all. Let us say the truth for all the people. To the people whose presidents lied to them, and media helps them in their lies. Let’s have one position. Blood is precious, on the contrary to what Bush wants. Let’s try to prevent our people from participating in this unjust war.”