Flying in the No-Fly Zone
The captain of the aging Boeing 727 Iraqi Airways flight 642 to Basra stands by the cockpit door greeting his passengers as they board the plane. His uniform is trim and well-pressed. Our eyes meet – beneath dark eyebrows his Arab eyes are marked with kindness and sadness. “Good morning,” I say to him in Arabic. “Morning of light!” he replies – the standard response in this part of the world.
The plane leaves its gate at the Saddam International Airport and taxis to the runway. There is no queue of planes waiting – there are no other planes. Flight 642 rises into the pale blue morning of light, and in a few minutes we are cruising at 25,000 feet.
Here in the no-fly zone are many secrets. No one knows where the F-16 fighter jets are patrolling in the blue above us. No one knows what they will choose to shoot at. In early March, 1991, two U.S. Air Force pilots watched helplessly, under orders not to intervene, as below them Saddam’s helicopter gunships massacred rebelling Iraqi Shi’ite forces. The U.S. did not want the Shi’ites to gain control in the region, preferring Saddam’s brutal hand to the possibility of an Islamic state allied with Iran. It is said those U.S. fighter pilots wept.
Secrets. Below I see roads, clusters of mud-brick houses and farm buildings, patches of crops. Four days later as we drive back to Baghdad on the ground I see these same areas from a different perspective. As the dull miles roll by I stare out the GMC Suburban’s windows – for no discernible reason my mind thumbs through a list of “b” words: blasted, benighted, bereft, blighted… One-room mud huts, little kids barefoot, gaunt dogs with noses to the ground looking for scraps – all the usual, banal secrets of poverty. They are secrets because we drive past them so quickly, or fly over them, shake our heads in resignation and never crack the hard shell of their secrecy: what it feels like to be condemned to no other choice.
As the plane banks in a wide circle around Basra, I imagine how easy it must be to make a game of shooting the little ant-size toy trucks below. In the port two large steel hulls lay on their sides in the water. Two days later a few of us drive south to the Kuwaiti border, stopping at a graveyard of vehicles pulled off one of the several “Highways of Death” where Iraqis fleeing from Kuwait were caught in a “turkey shoot”, as the fighter pilots called it. The burned-out carcasses of trucks, buses, cars, and tanks are spread over several acres. We are told not to touch anything, since the Americans used depleted uranium shells to blast through tank armor, the dust from which flew into the air and soil and still makes Geiger counters swing.
I stand next to the skeleton of a bus sitting on the sand, rusted, half its roof blown off. It reminds me of those photos of bombed-out buses in Israel, fresh with blood, the wails of the bereaved thick in the air. But the wails of those bereaved by this bus’s deadly end are long since silenced. I stare vacantly at the few seats left, their bare springs casting strange shadows on the floor. Secrets.
We land safely and I watch how the mostly men passengers bid each other goodbye – shaking hands, kissing each cheek, touching their hearts with their hands. I remember being in Denver Airport, seeing a solitary Arab-looking man make his way through the crowds and wondering how it must feel for him to be the object of so much restrained suspicion. Now I am in his position, with thousands of troops from my country 40 miles away, poised to attack. But I don’t feel enmity from these people. When I smile, nod, say “A’salaam alleikum” (Peace be with you) to strangers, they always nod and reply, “And to you, peace.”
The first afternoon in Basra we visit a children’s hospital, the region’s center for pediatric oncology. Ever since the Gulf War there has been a drastic rise in leukemia, lymphoma, breast, skin, and lung cancer, and of course malnutrition. A Dr. Jamash meets with us and patiently describes the by now familiar scenario: shortages of medicines, shots for chemotherapy, machines for radiation therapy, money for doctors and nurses. “The economic embargo has destroyed everything,” he says flatly. Dr. Jamash tells us of a dramatic increase in “strange cases not seen before” – congenital deformities with babies born eyeless, or with no face, or absent limbs.
The hospital is bleak, beat up, the windows and walls dirty. I find myself in a room with at least eight black-robed mothers caring for their sick children. I start taking pictures of them and showing them the results on the little screen of my digital camera. They laugh and point at themselves and ask for me to take more pictures. The atmosphere becomes joyful, the sick kids with hollow eyes smile, the old grandmothers pull their families together for one more shot.
The next morning a few of us go south, near the Highway of Death, to Safwan, a small dusty town on the Kuwaiti border where the cease-fire was signed in 1991 with the Americans. We track down a peasant family’s house where a young boy is said to be suffering from skin cancer. He was born six months before the Gulf War, and soon thereafter the first signs of skin cancer appeared. His parents lived and worked at that time on a small farm near where many Iraqi tanks were hit with depleted uranium shells. As I write this I want to stop, to spare you and me from remembering this, from prying into this secret held in a poor mud-walled compound on a forlorn road in a remote town, the dirt in front of the door swept clean, the little windowless room with palm mats on the floor, both the single clock on the wall and the calendar marking time’s meaning with gaudy pictures of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and there a broken plaque with the Arabic inscription “May Allah’s blessings be upon Mohammed and his family.” We enter and sit along the walls. The door darkens with the figure of the grandmother, covered with a black abaya, gathering herself together for this unexpected invasion of foreigners, her hand shepherding in the boy.
The boy’s name is Naathn Massim. He is wearing a dirty sweatsuit with a matching cap that has written on it “Camps Fashion.” He keeps his head down, chin to chest, and dabs a crumpled tissue to the open sores across his face. His nose is half eaten away, as are his eyes. We are told that three weeks ago he went completely blind. Naathn sits down next to his grandmother, who answers our questions. The boy has been seen by doctors in Safwan and Basra, she says, but they say nothing more can be done. “Allah kareem,” she says. “God provides.” Naathn’s hands move from dabbing on his nose to shooing away the constant swarm of flies that settle on him. Neville, a 72 year-old minister with us on the Peace Team, begins to weep. A bottomless pit of grief opens inside us, for this boy, for his family, for this country, for our country, for ourselves. If we could we would push away this secret we have uncovered, this dirty secret of the rotting flesh of an eleven year old boy, the end result of grown men calculating attack and counter-attack in distant well-lighted rooms.
Maybe this is all I can say. Maybe this is why I came to Iraq, to witness this secret. Maybe this is the most peace teams like ours can hope to accomplish – to look for a moment into the face of all that is lost in the catastrophe of violence, and then again and again re-commit to life.
That night four of us went to stay with a family in the poor Jumariyah district of Basra. We sat on the stoop on the dirt street while dozens of kids gathered around us. I began to sing songs for them, teaching them call-and-response lines. Six or seven boys around Naathn’s age hung on me, wanting me to keep singing. I remembered one song I used to sing to my own kids, “Gospel Train”, and the boys rollicked and clapped to its refrain: “Get on board little children, get on board little children, get on board little children, there’s room for many a’more.” The sounds of our songs rose up into the black sky, up into the no-fly zone, and beyond.Email This Post