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To not forget CNN's Arwa Damon '99 reports from Iraq
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To not forget
The pain here is choking - a dark, suffocating sorrow. “They took my husband away in front of me. I found his body in the morgue a few days later. He had multiple bullet wounds and his eyes had been gouged out,“ one woman told me, forcefully twisting a tissue in her hands, as if it somehow could ease her agony. She didn’t want her story told, too afraid that she would meet the same fate as the man she loved.
But her husband was one of the many bodies found in Iraq “bearing signs of torture.” How many times have we journalists reported that phrase?—as though it didn’t involve gut-wrenching screams of pain, skin scraped off or fingernails ripped out. How many times have we reported death tolls from one horrific bombing or another?—and not gotten across the truth that these are lives literally blown apart, that a child won’t ever hug her father again, that a mother won’t see her son’s wedding day. No matter how hard we try to communicate these truths, Iraq remains a nation filled with untold tragedies.
I’ve smiled twice on TV while covering a story from Iraq. The first time was when Iraq won the Asia Cup in soccer, and the second was when it became apparent that five-year-old Youssif was going to get help. Youssif’s is one story of the pure evil that has been unleashed here. An innocent child playing in front of his home, he was doused in gasoline and set ablaze by masked men. All that was left unscarred were his large dark eyes, peering out of his deformed face. But more unnerving was the lifelessness in them. None of us expected the level of generosity Youssif’s story generated.
I remember reading the comments on the CNN Web site, watching as more viewers posted that they wanted to help; then the e-mails and phone calls began. And then it all snowballed into something so big that we—all across CNN—could barely keep up with it. Even as I write this, a smile breaks across my face, remembering what it was like to know that we’d eventually be able to call Youssif’s father and say, “Your child is going to get help.”
With the tremendous outpouring of support came the realization that there are still people out there who care, that compassion does exist.
I think that, as much as it meant to me, it meant even more to our Iraqi staff—who were closely involved and crucial to putting Youssif’s story together. Most of the time Iraqis feel that the rest of the world has abandoned them; it’s not lost on anyone that the numbers of dead are often just that—numbers—and this is a war no one wants to deal with anymore.
Day after day we try to condense the intensity, complexity, and tragedy that is Iraq into our stories. We try to tell stories of individual struggles, pain, and sorrow, hoping that we can create some sort of bridge that will cause those outside this nation to care about what is happening to those within.
No matter how hard Iraqis try to shield themselves and those they love, they often fail. But somehow they keep fighting the devastation and despair. Nahla, who works at a radio station, is one of them. She is tall, slender, elegantly dressed, and with a firm handshake. Looking at her, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what she’s been through. “This numbers game, you always think that you are exempt from the numbers,” she told us, referring to the daily death toll. “You’re pained by them, but you are outside of them.” Until April 14, 2007, when her world shattered. There was an explosion on one of Baghdad’s bridges. Ten people were killed. Her husband, Mohammed, was one of them.
“And with it I am motionless,” she said. “I feel like it is a game of musical chairs—one time you are hit, another time someone else is. Now, my son and I are out of the game completely, completely…” She added, “Truly, life was in color, and now it is in black and white.”
The image of the man she loved—tall and proud, a doctor who moved his family back to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein because he believed his country needed him, a father who doted on their six-year-old autistic son—was forever changed. Burnt into her memory is the image of his charred body, melted together with nine others, a twisted pile of black scorched flesh. And yet her voice was calm, only breaking down at the very end of our conversation when the pain rose to the surface and she couldn’t suppress her dry sobs.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard these stories, and yet I can’t stop feeling the chills. And I can’t stop looking at these women in amazement and awe. Life in Iraq has forced people to confront such horror that it would leave many of us paralyzed. Where do they find the strength to keep going?
Some don’t, living out their lives as hollow shells, just waiting for this wretched existence to be over. Yet so many others refuse to be beaten down, refuse to allow the horror that is Iraq to kill their spirit.
“You have been beaten, pushed, kicked, and blindfolded,” is how Yanar, who heads the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, described today’s Iraqi woman to us. “You cannot see, you cannot hear, but you are kicking back. You fight for what you deserve. You should not be turned into a prisoner.” In returning to Iraq, she left her family and her comfortable life in Canada and came to Baghdad to build her growing army, an organization aimed mainly at safeguarding women’s rights. Living at times more like James Bond than a mother of a nine-year-old, she told us, “At many stages I had to change my house, and my address is secret. Nobody knows where I am other than, I would say, ten very close allies.” She spoke nonchalantly, the surrealness of what she was saying apparently seeming natural. And in Iraq it is. This is a country where the parameters of what’s accepted as “normal” have to shift if you are to survive.
“For me it’s not patriotism, what brings me here. It is that all the people I love have been crushed,” Yanar explained. “This cannot happen, should not happen, cannot be allowed to happen.”
What we cannot allow is for the world to forget Iraq.