On the 10th anniversary, Militarism in Miniatures

By Lynn Koh
Mar 20, 2013

Snapshots of a decade of war, through the lives of refugees, immigrants, service workers, survivors.  Followed by a piece of mine first published by War Times in 2006. 

2006 I bump into Ali Hussein at a mosque in Damascus with my friends Gary and Muna.  We strike up a conversation, and learn he is an Iraqi refugee.  He surreptitiously invites us to his house the following day. In his home, we drink orange juice. “Whoever sees death would accept sickness,” he tells us. The US occupation has made even Saddam Hussein’s regime look preferable.  I think about Ali a lot these days -- wonder if he has managed to make a home in Syria, if he managed to smuggle himself to Greece as he hoped to, or if he stayed in Damascus only to flee violence again a few years later.

Gary and I are traveling through Jordan and Syria with a larger group of peace activists, meeting with organizations serving Iraqis that have fled the war. Muna is the translator and guide for our trip.  She left Baghdad – ‘crazy Baghdad’ she says – as violence spiraled through the city’s neighborhoods.  Her two sons are still there, living with their grandmother. After the trip, Muna will pack up and move to Lebanon, where she thinks it will be easier to make a living. Shortly after I return to California, Israel starts bombing Southern Lebanon. Muna will eventually reunite with her children in Brooklyn.

2009 I’m visiting Francisco, an older Filipino who is active in our union.  His wife Betty is home and as always during my visits she tries to make me eat something – a pungent stew or, if I’m lucky, fried bananas.   On their table is a picture of a young man in a beret and military uniform.  Betty explains how her son has returned from Iraq with traumatic brain injury, how once at the VA hospital he thought he was in battle and tried to take cover.   After my visit, Francisco walks me to my car.  He tells me that war is where you prove you are a man.

2004  I work the graveyard shift at a hotel front desk.  The night-time security guard, Richard, tells me how he almost wanted to punch Foad, an Iraqi in our engineering department.  It’s the day after the residents of Fallujah dragged the bodies of four military contractors through the streets and hung them over the Euphrates.  I’m too scared to say anything.

2003 The war has just started.  I’m in the living room of my housing co-op, watching it on a tv screen.  The next day, dozens of activists from our school go to San Francisco to take over the streets.  Some lock arms, some chain themselves together.  A  drama professor lectures the arresting police officers about the history US imperialism.  I stay on campus to organize the local rally and march.

At the end of the night, a friend tells me we must act as if the bombs were falling on our friends, our neighborhoods. 

2006 In Amman, Jordan, we meet Haj Ali, who works in an anti-torture NGO.  He says he’s the man in the picture.  That picture, the one with the black hood, arms splayed outwards, body balanced atop a box, electrical wires springing out from the body. I can’t decide if it matters whether or not it’s true.

2008 The fifth anniversary of the war.  Ana, a leader of our union, speaks at an anti-war rally.  Her son is deployed in Iraq, and she stays up each night wondering if she’ll get the call.  She's already lost her husband shortly after they immigrated from El Salvador.  The previous week, I visited her at her home to ask her to speak at the rally.  She lives in a trailer park, and has raised her kids in a space smaller than the hotel rooms she cleans every day.  I ask myself – if this were my hood, would I have said no to the recruiters?

2012 I'm driving to work when I hear about Danny Chen's suicide on the radio.  Every Asian American knows exactly what he went through – the taunts, the bullying, the bottled-up desperation.  Pressure can build in the precise way that causes implosion rather than explosion. 

2013 Another boy from New York’s Chinatown, whose father is also a cook and whose mom also did garment work, says he wants to enlist.  He’s my best friend’s brother.  

2006 Gary, Muna, and I have found a quiet spot in a hill overlooking Damascus.  We bought some soft drinks and are sitting down to talk about life, forget about things, and try to laugh.  The air is cleaner up here than anywhere else in Damascus or Amman, Beijing or Philadelphia, San Jose or New York.  The lights of Damascus shine familiarly below us and then taper out over the expanse of land.  Beyond the horizon, Francisco’s son is becoming a man; Ana’s son is listening to a recruiter; Danny Chen is getting ready for his freshman year;  Muna’s children are waiting for her in Baghdad; and across the border, for five more years, we will keep killing our brothers and sisters.

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Ali Hussein:  "Whoever Sees Death Would Accept Sickness"

By Lynn Koh

I'm in Damascus with my friend Gary and our translator and guide, Muna.  Gary and I are part of a delegation of peace activists visiting Jordan and Syria to talk with Iraqi refugees.  Gary's finishing up his M.F.A. in documentary film-making at Hunter College in New York City. When we're out on the streets he always has this look of determination on his face, making him appear tough and thoughtful at the same time. Muna is a young Iraqi woman who is herself a refugee:  she fled Baghdad to get away from both the escalating violence and a bad personal situation, and ekes out a living working for an NGO while translating on the side.

It's Sunday, the first day of the work week in Syria. The street we are on is bustling, packed with people window-shopping at the small stores that line the road.  We're here to meet Ali Hussein, an Iraqi who's been living in Syria for about a year.  We ran into him the night before while exploring Damascus, and he invited us to his house to talk about his experience in occupied Iraq. We've just bought some sweets for him as a gift, and now we're looking for Ali among the streaming lunch-hour crowd.  After some confused back-and-forth over cell phone we finally end up on the same street corner and follow him to his house.

Ali lives just off a busy road nicknamed "Iraqis Street". The invasion and occupation of Iraq has created an enormous number of displaced persons; estimates for Jordan, Syria's southern neighbor, range up to one million.  For now, Syria is welcoming of these refugees, but as more and more Iraqis try to escape that may change.  Here in Damascus, the poorer refugees live around Iraqis Street.  It's like the ghettoes of U.S. metropolises or, Muna tells us, the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City.

PART ONE:  Sickness and Death in Iraq

We head into Ali's living room. Ali introduces us to his mother, who has just come from Baghdad in order to see her son after their year-long separation.  Ali's young son brings us tall glasses of orange juice and then settles down in a cushy chair in the corner, while his five year-old daughter Mariam wanders in and out. Muna advises us to place the sweets we have brought on the small coffee table instead of presenting them as a gift. Eventually, we sit down, and Ali begins to tell us about Iraq.

"Whoever sees death would accept sickness," Ali says.  It's an Iraqi proverb.  For Ali, Saddam Hussein was a sickness, an oppressor and tyrant.  But his dictatorship was preferable to the chaos and violence of present-day Iraq.  "Before," he says, "the country used to be very safe. Now it's all misery."

Ali's family lived in Baghdad.  After the invasion, as state power disintegrated, militias began to control more and more of social life in Iraq.  The militias were organized along sectarian lines, increasing Sunni-Shia tensions. Ali's family got caught in the middle, when a Shiite militia kidnapped his Sunni uncle. They found his body in the morgue days later.  Ali shows us the photos he took in the morgue of his uncle's body; the evidence of torture is obvious.  He has two whole books filled with snapshots taken from different angles, as if documenting the crime might bring some kind of justice.

Some time after Ali's uncle was murdered, an explosion occurred near Ali's house in Baghdad. Neighbors told the U.S. military that Ali's brother had been involved in planting the explosives; soon thereafter, soldiers came and took his brother.  Ali claims that his brother had nothing to do with the explosion, and indeed many Iraqis do inform on neighbors merely to settle personal vendettas. 

The soldiers didn't tell any of Ali's family where they were taking his brother, so Ali went to the nearest American base to track his brother down.  There, they told him they didn't even have his brother's name in the system, much less his current location.  Then, Ali was leaving the base disheartened when a group of Iraqis began to shoot at him.  Ali figures they must have seen him enter the base and assumed he was a collaborator.  Ali didn't recognize any of them, but they figured out where he lived and left a message on his front lawn. "Your blood is wasted," it read, meaning that it would be right to kill him.

After the parade of US drones, Garner, Bremer, Allawi, Negroponte, and Khalilzad, after Bush's “Mission Accomplished” banner and endless “turning points,” liberated Iraq had become a weird mixture of irony and tragedy, where Ali could be targeted for supposedly collaborating with a military that had kidnapped his brother in the name of democracy.  And so Ali chose the sickness of exile over the literal death he faced if he remained in his homeland.  He left for Syria.

PART TWO:  Shadows in Syria

Leaving Baghdad was difficult and expensive.  Ali was a taxi driver, so he had a small car. He sold that and most of his other possessions to be able to travel. Still, he did not have enough money to take his family with him. He left them in Baghdad and lived alone in Syria for three months.  "I wish I could put Bush in that situation," he muses.

When he got to Damascus he found a job at a cellular phone store. The pay is meager and Ali barely makes it through each month. For a while, his family sent him part of their allotted food rations so he could have enough to eat.

Ali's family was eventually able to join him. He found a wealthy Iraqi in Damascus who became his friend, bought him some basic goods, and then financed his family's relocation to Syria. Ali explains that he didn't have anything to reward the man with, so he gave him his daughter. Ali's daughter is the man's second wife. Later, Muna tells us that she feels awful for the daughter, speculating that the daughter probably didn't know the man before her marriage, and is probably very young -- Ali himself is only 39.

Even now, with his family there, life is not easy.

"In Syria," Ali says, "you become a shadow of yourself. Even though you know the culture here, you never feel part of it.  Because you're not here by choice, and because of all the financial hardships."

PART THREE:  A Future?

Ali blames the Americans for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and sees himself as a casualty of U.S. geopolitical machinations. He doesn't believe Bush is really trying to implement freedom and democracy. "They want to be here so they can frighten the Islamic countries," he says.  Ali also thinks the Americans are causing and purposefully exacerbating sectarianism in Iraq, and claims that his friends have seen American soldiers planting bombs in both Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. This was not an uncommon thing to hear from the Iraqi refugees we met with.  It's a testament to the Iraqis' deep mistrust of the American military, and suggests the degree to which the occupation has lost any legitimacy for them.

Ali is grim about Iraq's future. He tells us that if the U.S. troops stay in Iraq, there will only continue to be more killing. If they leave, he is worried about the possibility of civil war.  But if the troops leave, he adds, "Iraqis will deal with the situation and maybe it will be better.  The different factions would calm down, and then their leaders would negotiate."

We ask Ali about his hopes for himself and his family. His answer is simple:  "I have lost hope." Syria for him seems like a dead end, an interminable procession of desperate months. He is saving money so he can get into Greece, where it is cheaper to live. He will have to be smuggled in a cargo container, and he isn't sure whether or not he will survive the trip. But he is going to try anyway.

After we thank Ali for his time and begin to leave, he invites us to eat lunch with his family; we can smell it cooking in the kitchen down the hall.  Muna suggests declining the invitation, because they are a very poor family and have trouble feeding their own children. After some debate, Gary and I agree.  But Ali insists.  As an Iraqi, he says he is ashamed not to eat with his guests after hosting them. It isn't proper. After a moment, we decline again, uncomfortably.

We are making our way down Iraqis street again when Gary feels a small tug on his shirt.  It's Ali's young son, with the sweets we left on their table. 

"No," Muna says, "these are sweets for Mariam." She doesn't want to hurt Ali's dignity by suggesting the sweets are for him, as if he couldn't afford it himself. The boy scurries back and we keep going. After a while, Muna turns to us. 

"They knew it was a gift," she tells Gary and me.  "It just, you know, reminds them."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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