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
The Al Monzer Hotel, where Um Haider was staying, is a small but pleasant place frequented by aid workers, activists and other international types who don't have much spending money. Peace advocates recently expelled from Baghdad were holing up there, as was an Egyptian mother of two whose Jordanian husband had run off with another woman. But, among both patrons and staff, Um Haider and Mostafa were clearly the favorites. Mostafa is a winning child, they said, small for his age, with big, meerkat eyes, and a habit of hiding his mangled left hand when in the presence of strangers, while Um Haider astonished everyone with her courage and good humor, especially now, in the face of circumstances that grew more worrisome daily.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy, however, seemed to have little sympathy for her situation and issued a firm no to Um Haider's visa request. This caused the American activists aiding her to turn up the pressure. A Los Angeles-based Web designer named Cole Miller launched an Internet campaign that, in a matter of days, resulted in hundreds of e-mails. Then Miller, Chris Doucot of the Hartford, Connecticut, Catholic Worker, plus a Texas photographer named Alan Pogue and Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based human-rights organization, persuaded some U.S. Congress people including Dennis Kucinich and Lloyd Doggett to make pestering calls. After days of the barrage, U.S. consular official Larry Mitchell told Miller that he would see what he could do.
On March 25, Um Haider's spirits were briefly leavened when she talked to her sister who had gotten through to Basra. "So finally I have news of my children," she said. "My daughter says that the bombing is on the countryside, not near to the city." Made chatty by relief, she described her daughter as quiet, "but clever in school," while her son, she said, likes football and computer games. "He knows everything about computers and says if I get to the U.S. I must bring him a computer game and a PlayStation."
But war is a mercurial thing, and by afternoon Um Haider was spooked again. "Just now I hear very bad news about Basra," she said. "I hear that the bombing is intensive, many people are injured, but now I can't call to find if my children are okay. Sometimes I think I can't stand it."
The following day, there was finally good news on the visa front: American consular official Larry Mitchell told Cole Miller that the paperwork was approved, pending some kind of pro forma background check that may take a few weeks.
For a while everyone was euphoric. But then, on Thursday night, three of Baghdad's telecommunications buildings were bombed. On Friday some phones worked, but not where Um Haider's family was living. Friday was also the day that a popular market in a northeastern suburb of Baghdad was bombed. On American television the casualty images were sanitized. But on Al-Jazeera the camera entered the hospital to show the wounded and dead, among the latter, two small children lying curled and still on a single slab. Um Haider stared at the onscreen image, then put her face in her hands and sobbed so hard those nearby became concerned. "We tried to comfort her," said Miller. "But what can you say, really, except I'm so, so sorry my government is doing this? Really, what can you say?"
By Sunday, the rest of the telecommunications buildings had been hit, and it was clear that no one — save journalists with satellite phones — would be calling in or out of Baghdad for the foreseeable future. The loss of phone communication shook Um Haider. "Last night I dream that Hamza, my beautiful son who loves computers, is injured," she told me quietly. "Now I always imagine only the bad things, not the good things. So I can't sleep at all, I just pray and pray."
As was often true in our conversations, Um Haider's mood eventually swung from fear to optimism. One odd moment of light, she said, was a scene she saw earlier on Al-Jazeera. "After the Americans bombed the Ministry of Information, hundreds of people — poets, singers and actors — went up on the roof of the building, and stood there and cried, and sang in beautiful voices to the people of Iraq. They hold our flag, and sing our national song. For us, this is a very, very beautiful sign," she said. "It means that the Iraqi people challenge the enemy. They challenge the bombing. Even though many people don't like Saddam, we must resist because we can't let anyone control our country, you understand? We can't let anyone control us."
Bad news about Basra triggered Um Haider's most difficult days. She was measurably undone on Wednesday, April 2, when Basra was reportedly being bombed on both the south and the west. "Now the noise of the bombing must be very close for my children," she said when I reached her, her voice sliced thin by anxiety. "I imagine how afraid they are when they hear this sound. The Iraqi people must have a — how do you say it? — miracle," she said. "We must have a miracle to save us."