Friday, April 09, 2004

1991, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Many Iraqi bloggers are shocked with what's happening in Iraq these days. Part of the problem is they live in Baghdad. Baghdad residents didn't witness the Shia's uprising after "Operation Desert Storm" in 1991. Then, there was me, who witnessed the uprising. I was in the middle of it, and survived it. So, let's talk about 1991.

When "Operation Desert Storm" started in January 1991, I lived in Baghdad with the rest of my family. We spent the first two days between the kitchen and the living room -- of course, without electricity. We listened to the news from a battery-powered radio, which is a MUST HAVE when you live in Iraq.

I can't recall when Saddam attacked Israel with a missile. It was probably the second or third day. That's when everything changed and Baghdadees started to panic. We were sure Israel would strike back. I'm glad they didn't. We had enough missiles dropping on us. We didn't need an extra participant in the "Party of Body Shaking Noises." Isn't that weird? We had all those countries fighting us, but the idea of Israel striking back worried us the most.

My uncle lives in the city of Ammara. YES, Ammara. He's one of the FEW CHRISTIANS who ever lived there. He moved there with his family after he finished his accounting studies during the 60s. He loved the city and its people, and he decided to stay. At one stage, he managed three banks of the Missan governate. In short, people in Ammara swear by his name as we say in the Middle East. We call him the Sheik of Ammara, as a tease, for he's so popular in that city.

The phones were still working. My uncle kept calling and asking my mom "at least" to send the girls (my two sisters and I) to Ammara as there was nothing happening there. My brother decided to drive us girls to Ammara on his way to Basrah. And yes, it was all quiet in Ammara. My uncle invited other relative families from Baghdad. There were more than 20 people at his house.

Days were always fun. Nights were scary from time to time. The worst night was when a missile hit a house two or three blocks from my uncle's house. That was a hell of a noise. All I remember is the noise of broken windows at the house. I REALLY thought the missile hit our front yard. There was dust everywhere. The neighborhood men walked toward the dust direction.

Now, this is the sad part. The family who lived in that house had been away from their home since the start of war. THAT DAY, the family decided to come back home. I guess they were coming back to their fate. The only survivor was their youngest daughter, who was younger than 6-years-old.

We slept peacefully almost every night except for the night preceding the cease fire. That was a night to remember. I couldn't sleep for one second. The coalition jet fighters flew above the city all night. They didn't hit any targets. It was more of a psychological than a physical attack.

As you all know, Saddam lost that war (as usual). After three days, the Iraqi soldiers started pouring into the city. They were dirty, tired and hungry. Most of them walked from Kuwait to Ammara on their way to their home towns. My uncle asked the women with magic hands to cook a big amount of Byriani as fast as possible. We cooked the food and drove to Ammara's main road, where the soldiers were arriving. You had to be there to feel what it means to lose your pride. I hated Saddam at that moment. I hated what he did to those soldiers. I hated being an Iraqi.

The following days, we stayed home. We kept hearing ambulance sirens and gun shots. We had no idea what was happening outside. We didn't want to know. We thought the Iraqi Army was still fighting the American Army. I know, we were silly. What it was, the Shia fighters took control of the city. They drove the ambulances around the city as a sign of celebrating their new freedom, or whatever you may call it.

The following Saturday, my uncle went to work as usual. He never closed his bank during the war. His staff attended work every day as well. He came back after less than an hour with this cloudy look on his face. He told us a few masked men stopped him as he arrived at the bank. They asked him to go back home. They told him these were "The Sheik's Orders" and the bank will be safe as ordered by the Sheik. Who was the Sheik? He was one of Ammara's prominent Shia tribal leaders. Nothing was taken from the bank. The masked men really followed their Sheik's instructions till end of the uprising.

So, the uprising of Shia has started. The road to Baghdad is blocked. And there we were, Christian Baghdadee families stuck in the middle of a Shia uprising. Since we are Iraqis, we started creating all kinds of conspiracy theories concerning our future. Let me tell you, they were not fun conspiracies.

Do you think looting and burning of government buildings after the collapse of Saddam's regime last year never happened before? Let me correct your information. It happened during the Shia's uprising in 1991. I think it’s the Iraqi’s interpretation of freedom. The uprisers burned government buildings and took control of public transportation. The funniest scene occurred when people tore the roof off a bus (why? Could someone tell me why?). They rode the bus and kept driving around our neighborhood while screaming and holding their green flags.

Not everyone in town was happy with what happened. That wasn't freedom. That was chaos. BUT, some people had to show a sign of support, either for fear or support of the uprising. So, my uncle's neighbor, who was non-social by Iraqi standards, put a BIG green flag on his roof. My cousin looked up and said, "Wow, the embassy flag is up!"

Anyway, things were getting worse with rumors that the Shia were taking control of the south. The road to Baghdad was still blocked. Our hope of seeing Baghdad again started to fade.

After less than two weeks, on a sunny spring afternoon, there came a miracle. We started our lunch of rice and white-bean mirka (think soup), when my uncle came home and told us we ALL need to leave the city NOW. The Iraqi National Guards were on the outskirts of Ammara. The Iraqi Army dropped yellow flyers -- I still remember the color -- asking civilians to leave the city AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

We jumped from our seats and left the food on the table -- I still feel bad for not finishing my favorite meal. Each of us grabbed a wet towel (think chemical attack, which luckily didn't happen) and jumped into the cars. We didn't know where the hell to go. We followed the other cars. Everyone in the city was in a panicked mood. Still, we remembered to take a bag of home-made sweets. Iraqis can't live without good food.

We ended up at a farm on the road that goes to Iran -- that's what we were told. The owner of the farm was very nice -- as most Southern Iraqis are. He let people stay on his land. Unfortunately, we had to stay inside the car. No problem, we didn't want to be in the city. Staying in a car was great for us. The only person we asked the owner to have inside his house was my uncle's wife, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and needs special treatment. He was happy to let her stay with his household's women. We actually got an especially hospitable treatment for being visitors to their city. Everyone referred to us as "our Baghdadee visitors." That was my first camping experience, if you could compare it to camping. It may explain why I don't like to camp now.

The Shia fighters stayed in the city and fought the Iraqi National Guards. We heard gun shots and helicopters flew over our heads. The fight lasted until the next afternoon. Then the Shia fighters appeared on the road to the farm. We asked them how the fight was going. Two fighters, who -- from what I can tell -- decided to escape to Iran, kept walking and told us "the National Guards soldiers s***t on us." In Iraqi language, it means they lost the fight to the Iraqi Army.

In the afternoon, a group of men decided to drive back to the city to see if it was safe for families to return home. The fight was over by 4 p.m. We were home before 6 p.m. We were happy like never before. All was quiet in the city.

The next morning, my uncle and others decided to drive around town to see the damage done. I stayed home and enjoyed having a cup of Turkish coffee in the garden with the rest of the family. It was the nicest spring day I've had in my life because I was alive. To our amazement, the non-social neighbor removed the BIG green flag from his roof. Again, my cousin looked at the neighbor's roof and said, "Wow, the embassy flag is down!"

We were able to drive back to Baghdad after a few days. Entering Baghdad felt like entering paradise. It didn't matter the electricity was down. We were home. That's all that mattered to us then.

If you ever read my biography, you know I served as an assistant nurse for one year from Sept. 1990 to Sept. 1991. This service was required for female, non-engineering government employees.

I served in a hospital, which specialized in bone injuries and cosmetic surgery. After returning from Ammara, I went back to my job. I expected the hospital to be full of injured civilians or soldiers, but the beds were empty. After a day or two, our supervisor asked us to arrive at work early the next day. The injured National Guards, who fought the Shia uprisers, would arrive at our hospital.

The next day, the hospital atmosphere felt different. I looked into the rooms, each holds up to eight beds, and all were occupied with injured soldiers. My stomach started to hurt. I don't care what you think of the Iraqi Army. For me, those injured soldiers set me free and got me safe to my home in Baghdad. They were my heroes.

The hospital staff worked around the clock to make sure these soldiers got help. We didn't care about the blood or our fatigue. We had one thought in our minds: the men lying on these beds were our brothers, fathers and husbands.

You have no idea the joy we, the hospital team, felt whenever one of those soldiers made progress. We became good friends with most of them. It was joyful and sad to see them leave the hospital to go back to their families. As human beings, they were the sweetest guys I've ever met in my life.

This may explain why I respect soldiers of most countries. I know soldiers fight wars decided by their countries' politicians. They do their duties even if it seems brutal for many people.

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