My Lionhearted Little Cousin
This week, Iraq has suffered a string of unrelenting bomb attacks against its citizens. On Monday, June 13, the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera reported a car-bomb attack against a "US military convoy" that killed two Iraqi civilians and wounded eight others. My reaction to this report was the same as many people's Ã¢â‚¬â€ a passing sadness accompanied by a sense of hopelessness, and yes, a degree of apathy at yet another among hundreds of similar attacks.
On Tuesday evening, I received a phone call from an aunt in Baghdad informing me that her 3-year-old son, my cousin Ahmed, had been seriously injured in a car-bomb attack in Baghdad. The crackling line and two-second delay did not hide the grief in her voice, nor my unenviable inability to say anything comforting.
My family often expresses gratitude that all of us survived three wars, one of which lasted eight years and saw all the family's adult males conscripted. It was only after the last of these that my disabled grandfather and grandmother were robbed and beaten in their home, and forced to leave a beloved country for Jordan, where the government treats them like unwelcome (though paying) guests.
I spoke to my grandfather soon after the attack. Having worked in the oil industry under British authority, his English is that peculiar sort learned from colonial newspapers, cheap books and mustachioed men in safari hats. I asked him how he was and he replied in his strong accent, rolling his 'r's, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Despite his injuries, I knew that the most hurt was to his pride and dignity: a grand old man unable to prevent strange men touching his wife of fifty years, taking his possessions and maliciously destroying things only he would value. They tore up his sixty-year-old newspaper clippings scrapbooks, broke bottles containing holy water he brought back from his pilgrimage to Mecca, and crushed a small straw basket he had bought at the age of six with money he made selling newspapers for the resistance.
This burglary was the prelude to a series of similar incidents. Most recently, my aunt, a producer and reporter, lost the use of her right hand after a targeted attack on the al-Arabiya television offices in Baghdad. She is a changed person, who can describe bloody events and look at gruesome images with a calm indifference that suggests deep trauma.
But never has the pain and anger been more gnawing than on hearing this latest news. Ahmed, my little cousin, was in London a few months ago. He has a strange, studious maturity about him, made more noticeable by his tiny size (even for his age), blond curls and wide, intent hazel eyes.
One day, I took Ahmed on his first trip to a zoo. We were watching the chimpanzees idling when we heard a crack of thunder in the distance. I was asking him a silly chimp-related question when I realized he was no longer at my side but had run off to hide in a sheltered, concrete corner. "The Americans have come to London!," he screamed as I tried to calm him.
I never once heard him talk about anything I associate with childhood. His conversation was full of "Americans,Ã¢â‚¬Â "tanks,Ã¢â‚¬Â "bombs" and even references to "those people.Ã¢â‚¬Â Even seemingly playful references to Rambo and his then-hero Spiderman were accompanied by his insistence that Spiderman will "free Iraq from the Americans."
Ahmed's father, my uncle, was imprisoned and sentenced to execution by the Saddam regime, for unspecified reasons. After thousands of dollars of bribes and numerous "meetings,Ã¢â‚¬Â he was released but remained under threat. Ahmed learned from the moment he could talk to avoid discussing his father with strangers. It entertained my family and pained me that when we asked for his full name, he answered, "Ahmed Rambo Assad (lion)". When I asked him why he chose this name, he said, "so that 'they' think Rambo is my dad and I am brave as a lion."
I could not then have found the words, but in retrospect I sense what I can only describe as a twisted innocence. It cannot be unique to Ahmed among Iraq's children. Now he is in hospital, suffering injuries inflicted not by his dreaded Americans but from people closer to the "they" of his earliest fears.
Every Iraqi family has a story that can convey the "human cost" of Iraq's nightmare. As they find no escape from intolerable daily realities, their children can never experience the privilege of innocence, learn how to play, talk about what children should.
As the adults in Iraqi children's lives, we bear much of the blame. Ahmed's story is a glimpse into the lives of all Iraqis, one that resonates to unseen and unheard depths behind the news reports informing us of the details of bombs, injuries and deaths. I can no longer ignore this unheard story and its implications for Iraq's future and am deeply ashamed that it took so much to bring it to my attention.