Kindness Amid Carnage

The Iraq we don’t see

| May - June 2008


One day in the summer of 2004, while I sat in the western Baghdad studio of Radio Dijla, Iraq’s first independent all-talk station, listening to a deputy interior minister being interviewed, a man named Haithem called in. His story sounded garbled and frantic: Late at night bandits had forced him off a highway overpass, destroying his car, crushing his chest against the steering wheel, and shattering his leg. After 12 hours, American soldiers found him under the overpass and called the Iraqi police, who stole his money and gun before loading him into an ambulance. The next day I went looking for Haithem in a modest neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. He lay sweating in a dark room, a radio and phone by the bed, sunlight burning around the window curtain. There was a towel wrapped around Haithem’s waist, and his bandaged knee was held in traction by metal pins and a primitive sack of bricks, sand, and lead weights that hung from a wire over the bed frame. It looked as if he were being tortured, not healed.

The same leg had been fractured by Saddam’s secret police in 1992. This latest injury seemed to have broken Haithem’s will; he said that he’d attempted suicide by sticking his finger into the power strip on the floor. “I have no manhood right now. I can’t feel my manhood. I’m asking you through the spirit of brotherhood to help me find compensation. I’m desperate—I have three children, how can I raise them, what can I do for them? I took money from my brother for cigarettes—it’s killing me to say this. I don’t want to go to charities as a beggar. I want to be a human being, and I want a human being in front of me who can give me my rights. I want any person to come and help me just like the Americans did—just for anyone to come here and help me as a human being.”

He was still marveling at the kindness of the American soldiers. This was his second encounter with Americans; the first occurred a month earlier and did not go well. On that night, he had been careening down a side street at high speed when a Humvee emerged from the darkness. Unsurprisingly, Haithem ended up on the ground with soldiers screaming at him. But the Americans who heard his cries from under the highway were different; they offered him water and dressed his wound. “This latest accident changed everything for me. I understood not everyone is the same. The soldier who treated me—the last thing he said as they put me in the ambulance was, ‘Don’t cry, you won’t die,’ and he wiped my tears. I never got the name of the soldier, and I’m sorry about that.”

In Haithem’s telling, the story became a parable of how some things had changed in Iraq while other, more fundamental truths had not. Ordinary Iraqis could now complain to a deputy interior minister on a call-in radio show, and the official might order his men to follow up, but the police were as corrupt as ever, the hospital care just as indifferent. Americans had humiliated Haithem and Americans had shown him humanity. But the Americans could not give Haithem the justice he craved. There would be no happy ending for him.



 

The Iraq war introduced entirely new kinds of cruelty to the world, so it’s strange how many of my memories are of kindness. I often think of Abu Malik, a bearded, imposing man, his leather coat buttoned tight across his chest. Abu Malik would have been a frightening sight at a militia checkpoint in Sadr City, but whenever I came to stay with friends at the New York Times compound on the east bank of the Tigris, where he was chief of security, Abu Malik threw his arms around me, kissed my cheeks, and told me, in the openly tender way of Iraqi men, how much all the security guards had missed me. The last time I saw Abu Malik, a family I knew in Baghdad had just received a death threat and was trying to find a safe route out of their besieged neighborhood and then out of the country. Abu Malik, whose house was near the family’s, got on the phone and offered these complete strangers safe passage to the airport.



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