By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
On April 3, the capture of the Baghdad Airport, killing 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in the process, was the big news, and Um Haider reacted to it with surprising fury. "President Bush doesn't have the right to do this . . . We have done nothing to him." She said the capture of the airport had shaken her confidence about the war's outcome. "All my ideas are changing because nothing is turning out the way most Iraqi people thought it would. We didn't believe that the Americans would be able to enter Baghdad. But what we believed has not come true," she said. "Sometimes I think I should forget about the visa and return to Iraq. I tell myself I must be patient and strong. But I want to go there to join with the lives of my family now. They are suffering and I need to suffer with them. Here I can eat and drink and do many things. But now maybe my boy and girl may have no water, and little food."
Earlier, we'd talked about the effect of U.N. sanctions on her family, how basic rations like rice, sugar and tea were usually available, but any kind of decent fresh food was absurdly expensive. In the past few years, things had gotten so bad that, to afford eggs and meat, she'd gradually sold all the gold jewelry she'd had since girlhood, plus every piece of furniture in her house, except for the family's sleeping mats and a single radio. Today, she'd heard the only uncontaminated water available in Basra was being sold in bottles at a premium. "So what are my children to do?" she asked bitterly. "If I die I don't care, as long as I am with my family."
On Saturday, April 5, her mood continued to pitch and sway. "Now I do nothing but watch the television," she said. Evidently some Americans at the hotel were trying to return to Baghdad and Um Haider was seriously considering going with them. "I need to know what has happened to my family," she said, her voice pale with exhaustion. "In sha'allah — God willing — they are fine. But I need to know. I cannot be here anymore. I need to know."
I wanted to tell her it was unimaginable that something could happen to her kids in this war. But we both understand it was imaginable. Um Haider's family had become collateral damage once already. Now thousands of bombs had been dropped, thousands of "liberated" dead and wounded were yet uncounted. And when those dead were finally given names, would Americans really grieve? Or were Iraqi children somehow a bit more expendable than our own?
By Monday, April 7, no permissions had been granted to re-enter Iraq, but a call arrived from consular official Mitchell. The background checks had come through. Yet, when Um Haider and Cole Miller arrived at the embassy, the computers were down, and the visa could not be issued. Dejected, they were walking out of the building when Mitchell raced down the hall after them. "The computers are up again," he yelled. "Come on back to the office and let's do it."
That night, there was a huge goodbye party at the Al Monzer. A feast was prepared by both guests and staff. Bottles of Arak liqueur were passed around. Then, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Um Haider, Mostafa and Cole Miller flew out of Amman. It took forever to clear customs in New York, so they didn't actually touch down at LAX until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
A few days later, Um Haider and I met face-to-face for the first time. By then, the photo-op footage of 100 Iraqi men toppling Saddam's statue that played across American TV screens with giddy, self-congratulatory frequency had been replaced by news of the looting of the museum and libraries of Baghdad and reports that between 10,000 and 20,000 Shiite residents of Najaf and Nasiriyah had demonstrated against the U.S. occupation.
We had arranged to rendezvous at a mosque near to where she is staying. Even from a distance I could spot Um Haider easily. She is a strong-featured, handsome woman with appreciable charisma and a smile that unfolds wide and radiant. She hugs me without hesitation and says she's relieved to be here because she will finally get help for Mostafa. "Everyone I meet is so kind," she says. "And doctors here say they can make Mostafa well. In sha'allah," she adds. "In sha'allah," I agree. In the meantime there is no news of her children in Basra, and she says she's trying not to let this make her crazy.
And about the future of Iraq? "Before the war," Um Haider says, "I would want to tell President Bush, 'You have other choices instead of causing casualties of many innocent people.' Now it's done, I want to say, 'Leave the Iraqi people to control their matters themselves. It is our country, not yours. Our future, not yours.'"
"In sha'allah," she adds. "In sha'allah," I agree.
POSTSCRIPT: On Thursday, April 17, I'm able to call Um Haider with the news — passed to me via an activist still in-country — that the Baghdad family, at least, is unharmed. "They are fine?" she asks several times. "All of them?" All of them, I assure her.
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