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
According to Pentagon spokesmen, the missile that likely killed Haider and five others, wounding 64 civilians, wasn't aimed at Basra at all. The intended target was a radar installation located near the village of Abu Faloos 20 miles to the south. Another missile fired that day from a second bomber hit Abu Faloos itself, killing 10 and injuring 30. They were fired as part of an American and British policy put in place in April of 1991, six weeks after the end of the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. and Britain began patrolling a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, ostensibly to protect the Kurdish population. In August 1992, a southern no-fly zone was added after a Shiite Muslim rebellion (first backed by the U.S., then abandoned) was brutally crushed.
Initially, Iraq rarely challenged the no-fly zones, although it considered them illegal as they were instituted unilaterally by the U.S. and Britain, without benefit of a U.N. resolution. But in December 1998, Saddam's forces began firing on aircraft entering Iraqi airspace, and the allies retaliated with bombs and missiles. The result, according to Hans von Sponeck, the coordinator of the U.N. Humanitarian Program in Iraq from 1998 to 2000, was bombings that occurred, on average, every three days. Von Sponeck became so alarmed that he dispatched a team of U.N. observers to document civilian casualties. By December 2000, they reported 144 civilians dead and 446 wounded by no-fly missiles. The irony, a furious von Sponeck observed, was that the casualties were visited on exactly the populations that the no-fly zones were allegedly trying to protect.
I first began talking with Um Haider four days after the Iraq war officially began in mid-March. By that time, she was no longer in Basra but had just arrived in Amman, Jordan, where, with the help of some American human-rights activists, she was trying to get her son Mostafa to Los Angeles on a medical visa.
Although Mostafa, now 8, had survived the missile, his health was precarious. His left hand was so badly mangled that two fingers and part of his palm had to be amputated. More significantly, the blast had lodged more than 30 pieces of missile fragments in his head, his torso, his back, his butt, his liver, only a few of which could be removed. Now, one of the fragments had worked its way into his hip joint, while another was migrating toward his spine. Basra doctors told Um Haider that either piece could cripple or paralyze Mostafa if not removed soon. No one in Iraq was skilled enough for the delicate surgery, the doctors said.
Um Haider’s Mission:
Making Mostafa well
For an Iraqi, getting a U.S. medical visa is both difficult and expensive. But before Um Haider could apply for the visa, she had to get out of Iraq, a proposition that was, in some ways, even harder. Fearing a brain drain, the Iraqi government had long been reluctant to issue passports to professionals such as university professors, scientists, and schoolteachers like Um Haider. Despite the efforts of activists who took up her cause, the passport issue dragged on for months. As luck would have it, the papers came through on March 14 — five days before an American invasion was set to begin. The timing left Um Haider with an awful choice. If war broke out, she'd be separated from Hamza and Hind, now 13 and 15, who must stay in Basra with their father. Yet, if she didn't try for the U.S. visa, what would become of Mostafa?
Um Haider chose Amman and the visa. Then the invasion began, and she was driven crazy by worry. Added to her fears for her kids in Basra, there was the matter of her mother and sisters in Baghdad, their house hazardously close to the airport and some other "important" sites. Since coming to Amman, Um Haider had been unable to get through to her kids by phone — although, at the beginning, at least, she could sometimes get through to Baghdad. Between calls, while she waited for word on the visa, Um Haider sat in front of the television in the lobby of the Al Monzer Hotel, obsessively watching the unfolding war news. "Sometimes the only information I can get of my family is to watch Al-Jazeera," she said. "It's very hard. But what can I do?"
For the next two weeks I talked to Um Haider nearly every night. Although her English was serviceable, it was far from fluent. Yet, she had a natural facility for psychological and emotional nuance, and we soon established a rhythm of communication. It helped that we were both women, both doting mothers.
On March 24, Um Haider reached Baghdad by phone and learned that her mother and sisters had moved to the home of an aunt in another, safer part of the city. Even so, she said, the family described the bombing as intensive and terrifying, especially since the big B-1s began dropping their payloads. Surprisingly, Um Haider also said that most Iraqis she knew still believed their army would somehow repel the allied forces. "For Iraqis," she said, "the problem isn't whether we like our president or not. The problem is that we don't want our country to be occupied. This is our country. It's the same way you say, 'This my house. I can change this or that piece of furniture. You cannot.' That's how Iraqi people feel."