Published Thursday, August 28, 2008 in The Register-Guard.
(HALABJAH, IRAQ) “I want to tell you my story. But can you bear more?” The man’s question was as insightful as it was gracious. It was late in the afternoon in Halabjah. The sun was still strong. Most days reach nearly 120° and today was no different. The electricity shut off about an hour earlier, prompting us to move from the living room to the porch, shaded by pomegranate trees.
I had just heard his relative’s story. I’ve never been invited to share such pain from such a short distance. He had recounted in excruciating detail his experience when Saddam Hussein gassed Halabjah on March 16, 1988. He lost five of his seven children in the six days that followed the bombings, and each loss was described as its own, as if he was burying them again, each in their own place.
Through the heat and the sorrow and the despair, generosity shone through every moment. Fanta Orange soda was served, more than once, keeping a teenage granddaughter feeling busy and useful. The youngest grandson came and went, sat for a while, then squirmed away, full of life in spite of it all.
So when the man expressed concern for others before telling his story, I can’t say I was surprised. The Kurds are a hospitable people, determined to take care of others, regardless of their own ability to provide.
“I was 20. On March 14, 15, and 16, everything stopped. There were many injuries. But no medicine. I had three brothers, seven sisters, my mother and my father. Only I survived that week.”
“My mother was cooking quick. Fixing food, and taking it to the cellar. We knew there was danger. She knew we had to eat.”
“I was outside when the first planes came. The plane came so low, I remember I thought it was crashing. It launched a rocket. I was hit.”
“For ten minutes it was constant bombing. There was a smell that was not natural. My friend was earlier in the military. He said it was Napalm.”
“We learned later they had 25 planes dropping gas bombs on us, five at a time. First they dropped paper, to measure the wind. They knew from the paper where the gas would go. They dropped their bombs and then headed back for more. Others dropped bombs while they got more. It was constant.”
“For six days we didn’t sleep. We were told if you sleep, you won’t wake up.”
“We made masks with cloth and salt and charcoal, so we could breathe, but the shelters were not a safe place. The bombing drove people into their shelters, where they thought they would be safe. But the gas was heavy. It went down and killed everyone in their shelters. I was young. I stayed outside. But the gas was everywhere.”
“First you feel kind of drunk. There’s a saying. ‘You can’t find your pockets.’ Then you can’t see, like a curtain is falling over your eyes. I tilted my head up and looked down my nose to see the ground.”
“I ran away. There was a big room where I stayed near the hospital. I think there were 80 of us there for two or three days.”
“It was very quiet everywhere. I went back to my home. There were bodies everywhere. Nobody had come to pick them up. Nobody was left to bury them. When I got home, I saw that my mother had been cooking, but there was nobody there. They were all in the shelter, all of them. They were all dead.”
He did not cry. He had told the story many times before. But I was his guest and I wasn’t sure I could bear more.
He finished his story, putting both of us into it. “Why do Americans let this happen? They won’t let their children watch violent movies, but yet they allow this. Why?”
Of course there’s nothing that could be said. My elder host changed the tone, if not the subject.
“Look at us, the Kurds. We love life. We wear colorful clothes. We dance. Even when we work, we dance.”
“I had two children who survived. My daughter was only three. Her son, my grandson, is now that age. He plays while we talk. We have a house. I’ve rebuilt this house four times.” He held up four fingers for emphasis.
“And now you are here. You are my guest. We know each other.”
“Everything we have we carry on our back. We want to empty our pack and stay in our home. We are a peace-loving people.”