By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov|
TO MOST AMERICANS, the war in Iraq began the night of March 19 when the first $18 million GBU-31 "bunker buster" was dropped on a residential compound near Baghdad University with the hope of eliminating Saddam Hussein in one tidy strike. But for most Iraqis, the bombing started years earlier. In the case of an Iraqi woman named Um Haider, war arrived at her doorstep in earnest one morning in the winter of 1999.
It was shortly after 9 a.m. on January 25, 1999, the day before midyear school exams. The weather was gray and cold with occasional streaks of sunshine. All morning Um Haider — a schoolteacher herself — had been sitting at the kitchen table helping her two oldest kids prepare for the test while the two younger kids, Haider, 6, and Mostafa, 4, amused themselves nearby on the floor of the two-story cement-block house in Jumeryiah, a working-class slum at the north end of Basra.
As is sometimes true after profound trauma, Um Haider remembers the day with the detail of lace. She remembers that her then-11-year-old daughter Hind sat to her right and was struggling with mathematics; that Hamza, the 9-year-old, sat to her left, reading history and geography. She remembers how, at around 9:15 a.m., the two younger boys grew stir-crazy and started to fight; that she was tired and wanted to quiet them, so she fished out a few Iraqi dinars and suggested they walk to the corner store to buy some sweets. She remembers the look of delight on the small boys' faces as they snatched the money and ran out into the chilly, mid-winter daylight.
After a few minutes of peace, the studies were again interrupted by a sound that, at first, Um Haider thought was an old, rusty truck rumbling down the road. Then her dishes and glassware began rattling violently and jumping from their shelves; the kitchen washbasin wrenched itself from the floor, window glass exploded in shards, and the truck rumble grew to a roar so high and enormous that it sucked all other sound out of the world — as a Boeing AGM-130 satellite-guided cruise missile, with a 2,000-pound MK-84 Blast Fragmentation Warhead, hurtled from the sky into the street in front of her house like the wrath of some psychotic deity.
Um Haider: 'In Sha’Allah'
Um Haider and the older kids were thrown to the floor by the blast. When the ground was still once again, Hind and Hamza began weeping hysterically, their faces streaming with blood. Um Haider felt blood on her face too. She examined her older children and found that their cuts, caused by flying window glass, were superficial. Then, with a rush of dread, she remembered the two youngest boys. Screaming their names, she ran barefoot into the street.
Outside there was devastation. The dust and smoke were so thick, she says, it seemed eerily as if night had fallen. Rocks and other debris covered everything. People poured from surrounding houses, their expressions crazy with shock. She screamed again, Haider! Mostafa! and ran past homes blasted garishly open, others completely demolished. But there were no little boys. As her gaze slowly adjusted to the landscape of ruin, she was finally able to pick out two small lumps beneath the rubble.
She recognized Mostafa first. "He looked like he was asleep, but then he woke up, and I saw his face and his body full of blood, and he cried, 'Momma! Momma!'"
Then she saw Haider lying, as if asleep, under the litter of missile and rock and wood, beneath his head a circle of blood. "I touch him, talk to him, but he never answered me," she said later. "He never moved. He stayed sleeping. Then I know he's dead. I can't hide it from myself. I try but I can't. So I have to try to save the life of my other boy, Mostafa."
With a neighbor's help she carried both boys to the closest health clinic, where Haider was pronounced dead. Mostafa, alive but critical, was transferred to the city's main hospital for emergency surgery, where he stayed for the next 30 days, Um Haider along with him. When he came home, Um Haider didn't go back to work for another seven months. "I couldn't," she said. At first she stayed because Mostafa needed constant attention. His wounds had to be bathed several times a day, and he shrieked in terror whenever she left his side. But she also stayed, she said, because she was paralyzed by misery.
When seven months were up, Um Haider put her grief away and went back to teaching the 47 elementary-school girls who had been her charges. She also did something else: It is her variation of a tradition among certain Iraqi women to call themselves by the name of their eldest son. Um Haider's legal name is Akbal Fithyab. Now, she told everyone she would be known ever after as Um Haider — mother of Haider. "I took the name to say to everyone that I will never forget my other beautiful son, not for one day, not for one hour."