In the Desert of a Storm ~ يوميّات حرب

أياد الحسيني

زيد نعمان ماهر

اللوحة: أياد الحسيني

فحوى السطور:

هذه السّطور جزءٌ يسيرٌ من يوميّاتِ حربِ عاصفةِ الصّحراء، الحرب الّتي شنّتها دولٌ كبرى على وطني العراق، فدمّرتْه وأمعنتْ في تحطيمِ مقدَّراتِ دولتهِ وإيذاءِ شعبِه. ليبدأ بها عهدٌ من التنكيلِ الأمَميّ بالعراق طال ثلاثينَ عِجافاً ووضعَ شعبَه اليوم على حافّةِ الهاوية. في هذي اليوميات أسجّل مشاهداتي ومسموعاتي وأنا أعيش الأيّام بالسّاعات، بل وبالدّقائقِ أحياناً، إذ يختلط الشّأن العامّ بالشّأن الخاصّ فتظهر المشاعر والانفعالات والآمال والخيبات ونحن نخوض حرباً بدَت سرياليّةً في تفاصيلها وتركتنا نتساءل لثلاثين عِجافٍ: لماذا؟

Diary of a Resident of a City Once Called Dar al-Salaam1When the founder of Baghdad, Abu Ja‘far al-Mansour, envisioned his creation, he called it Dar al-Salaam, meaning the home of peace

Zaid N. Mahir

Painting: Ayad Al-Husseini

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished diary of the 1991 Gulf War.

Day Two
It is six in the morning, the 18th day of the month of January, 1991. I can hear the cocks crowing, as I light a second candle and begin writing in this diary. Now that more than 24 hours have passed since the War on Iraq began—in the name of liberating the State of Kuwait—staying alive feels like a good reason to write and make as much sense of an insane war as can be made.

I could not write yesterday, and I did not even try to. But the memory of the first day of the war is fresh and the details cannot wait to take their place on the blank pages of this diary before giving way to the details of a new day.

I vividly remember the first few minutes and the first few hours of this surreal war. Yesterday, Thursday, around 2:30 after midnight we woke up to the heavy sounds of bombs dropping on Baghdad—the bombs shook the house and, with it, our sense of time and place. Looking out the window of my room on the second floor, I saw my neighbor Mohammad and his family in commotion—it was the commotion of civilians making a last-minute decision to evacuate their home, as though taken by surprise. By four o’clock, the family was gone, leaving behind their oldest brother Riyadh. Why would he, an elementary school teacher, stay? I have no idea, but I plan to ask him next time I see him.

We stayed indoors—my mom and dad, my younger sisters, and I. As the bombing continued, it was clear that none of us five was going back to sleep. It was also clear that we were experiencing those horrific moments differently from one another: my parents were responding to the situation with self-composure, the kind that parents would show in the presence of younger members of the family; my sister Asma was looking apprehensive as she restlessly listened to the sounds of the falling bombs; and our youngest, Thuraya, appeared to be unshaken by the horror of the night. Meanwhile, the radio was on, as we all gathered in the family room downstairs waiting for the end of the night.

It was not until around five that the heavy bombing of Baghdad eased up, and then stopped. We were relieved as the night was ending on a quiet note. Some of us made tea; others prepared to pray, while voices from nearby mosque minarets were heard: it was time for the dawn prayer, and it felt like a much-needed break.

At seven in the morning, President Saddam Hussein addressed the nation. He called upon the Iraqi people to be patient in the face of the calamity, praising the armed forces and promising victory in the war. As he did, we noticed that we had lost the electrical power supply and, with it, the land-phone service, and that we were losing the main source of our water supply. We would have to use the water we had stored in a tank on the roof of the house, and we wondered: how long will it last?

With the loss of power, the radio became our primary source of news. As we listened to the state-run stations, a series of announcements issued by the General Command of Iraqi Armed Forces followed the president’s speech to report to us what was allegedly going on in the war. These announcements—communiques, as the government called them—were mostly focused on Iraq’s military response to the Allies’ air raids and long-range missiles. Apparently, the war was being fought in the sky and nothing was happening on the ground.

I managed to have a nap in the afternoon before another round of air raids and bombs rocked the capital. This time the sounds of heavy bombing had an eerie sense of closeness and as the sun was setting, that eeriness made room for fear, and fear was the thing we dreaded the most. With every explosion, we grew visibly restless. In less than an hour we, a family of five, were making the only decision we could make. We would go to the backyard and stay there for as long as our bodies permitted or until the bombing stopped. It was cold but we had no choice.

In the backyard, we wondered whether we should stay in Baghdad or travel to Samarra, which is about a hundred kilometres to the north-east of the capital; it is the town of our tribal roots, where we have family farms and homes. My father thought it was a good idea, as did my sister Thuraya, but no decision was made; instead, we thought we should wait to see how the situation would evolve. By 10:00 in the evening, as the bombing was easing up and the night looking to be calm, it was clear to us that the cold was more than we could endure; we went back inside and turned on a space heater in the family room. The heater worked by kerosene; it was the kind most Iraqis used to warm a medium size room.

Inside, we prepared supper, while listening to the state-run radio stations reporting to us what was going on in the war: the official reports included locations where, they said, fighting was taking place and a number of enemy fighter jets were shot down by Iraqi anti-airplane functions. The whole situation felt surreal. When supper was ready, Asma and Thuraya were too tired to eat. They would soon turn in, leaving us—me and our parents—to finish an aimless discussion of the war.

We survived the first day of the bombing on Baghdad and as the second day started, an explosion shook the house around 5:30 today. It was not clear to me if the explosion was a bomb or a missile. But would that have made a difference had we been killed?

We are alive and being alive feels like a good reason to write and make as much sense of an insane war as can be made.
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At 8:00 in the morning on this second day of the war, January 18th, Radio Monte Carlo announced that Iraqi missiles hit Israel. That was Saddam Hussein’s response to the Allies’ bombing of Iraqi cities and towns. RMC reports that in some Arab countries, people are cheering the missile attack as a bold move in an unequal war between one country, Iraq, and an alliance of thirty-three countries some of which are world powers. However, RMC is wondering if this attack on Israel will not aggravate the situation.

Not everyone around me seems to be happy, though, and I understand. Iraq’s missile attack against Israel may be used by the United States and its allies to justify a ruthless escalation of air bombing against civilians. After all, the United States is known for its use of prohibited weapons in modern wars—they have done it before: what’s going to stop them from doing it again?

Regardless, it feels good to be able to strike back in retaliation, especially when you are overpowered: it gives you the incentive to stand your ground and not lose hope. This is good news, I thought; I turned to my family and said: let’s have a good breakfast. They didn’t seem to be interested, but I proceeded to make scrambled eggs for everyone.

It is 11:40 and breakfast is over. A short while ago, a spokesman for the Iraqi military command confirmed the attack against Israel, saying that the missiles hit their targets in Tel Aviv and Haifa. I don’t know why I instantly remembered my neighbour Mohammad and his family: of all the voices I had heard while they were getting ready to leave—voices of children and adults in commotion—the sharp voice of an infant crying continuously has not left my mind. The spokesman also said that the missile attack was Iraq’s response to the Allies’ bombing of Iraqi cities and towns and killing of innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, my family has now made plans to leave Baghdad for Samarra and the plans are carried out immediately. My father and two sisters will leave in Asma’s vehicle; my brother Safwan will leave with his wife, Nidaa, and their three sons. The family will leave in a convoy of 2-3 vehicles in the afternoon. My mother and I are staying in Baghdad, as is my brother Yaqdhan.

While preparations are underway, I am thinking of some of my closest friends and wondering what they are doing. My longtime friend, Sami Sadiq, was drafted two years ago and is serving the last few months of his term at the Ministry of Defense in Bab al-Moadham, which is less than three kilometres to the south west of where we live. Rumour has it that the Ministry was targeted with missiles yesterday morning, and I would like to believe that my friend and his fellow soldiers managed to evacuate their offices in time.

I am also worried about my high school friend Zaid al-Ameri, who lives in the neighbourhood with his sick father, hard-working mother, and two younger sisters. I know they had plans to leave Baghdad once the war started; I also know that they have relatives living in the outskirts of the city; but with the loss of phone services I have no way of knowing anything about them now. Besides, I have just learned that the early morning explosion we heard had happened a few hundred meters away from my friend’s house: Nadi al-Qadah, a large social club for senior Iraqi army officers and commanders, was targeted and seriously damaged.

And I am worried about a young lady with whom I made a connection in the last couple of months before the war began. She lives a few blocks away with her mother and two of her older siblings. A recent graduate of the University of Baghdad, Hana has already let me in on some of her fears if the war broke out. “It’s not losing the war I’m afraid of,” she would say on one of our dates, “but the mobs and thugs and criminals who will take over cities and towns and kill people on identity or race, once this war is over.” To Hana such fears are not baseless, as the memory of the eight-year war against Iran is fresh: the numerous bloody battles of that war kept the Islamic Revolution of Iranian ayatollahs from taking over Iraq, but the war ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.

It’s 4:00 in the afternoon of this second day of the war. A couple of hours ago, my family—with the exception of my mother, brother, and me—left for Samarra and as soon as they did, I went out in my vehicle and drove around for a while in the vicinity of our residential area. The streets were quiet and the traffic was thin. One could see a few pedestrians and fewer vehicles. Shops were closed as were gas stations and convenient stores. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the residents in this large area had left their homes and the city, too.

On my way back, I dropped by the house where my older siblings live with their families; now that everyone but Yaqdhan has left, my intention was to pick him up and bring him back with me. At his house, I met my cousin Sa‘d and his younger brother Bassim and they both looked upset. Sa‘d had just learned that he was summoned to serve in the Reserves corps: he will have to make plans for the safety of his wife and their two children but also for his own mother. He will have to drive them all to Samarra and come back to Baghdad immediately. As soon as my two cousins left, Yaqdhan and I got into the car and drove back to our house.

It’s a few minutes before 6:00 and I am writing this paragraph hastily. About half an hour ago, at the sound of the local district siren, my mother, brother, and I rushed out of the house into the backyard, and sat under the old olive trees. Visibly scared, my mother said prayers that were hard to hear against the deafening noise of air raids. In a few minutes, the raids ended and the noise was replaced by calm. But my mother seemed besides herself, and Yaqdhan suggested that we all spend the night at his house instead of mine: changing the immediate environment may be comforting to us all, he says. Mother agrees.

It’s 8:20 and we are at my brother’s home; the radio’s turned on to one of the few foreign stations that we can get here: Radio Monte Carlo. They say Iraqi state television has just shown two American pilots whose fighter jet was shot down yesterday by anti-airplane functions; the two men looked distraught and did not say more than a few words to the Iraqi war correspondent on site. Earlier, we managed to get the Voice of America broadcasting in Arabic, and they were reporting the number of planes shot down by Iraq: 72.

It’s 9:30 and we have just had supper with my cousin Bassim, who arrived a while ago and was all by himself. He says he has returned from Samarra after driving his oldest sister, Lamya, and her children to a family farm. Lamya’s husband is staying in Baghdad, though. A senior administrator and program director at the Ministry of Information, Harith Abood is required to be in or around his office for as long as it takes, Bassim says.

The evening continues quietly, interrupted briefly by three short sirens, as we listen to Bassim telling us what he has directly learned from his brother-in-law, who has the coveted access to several, different media outlets—Arabic, regional, international. Besides, as an experienced and trusted state radio director, Dr. Abood has the privilege of staying in touch with senior Iraqi officials and even with the president himself. According to Bassim, in a brief meeting with major Iraqi media figures at the Ministry of Information in al-Salhiya district, Saddam Hussein said: “I will bring you victory clean cut.”

It’s a few minutes before midnight; my cousin left an hour ago; my mother is asleep; and my brother is getting ready to turn in.

In the news, world-wide protests against the war continued for the second day in a row: Russians gathered in big numbers in Moscow to condemn the Soviet Union’s passive stance; a large mob in Kabul set three banks on fire; big rallies continued in major Arabic cities against America and Israel. In these troubled times, news of world-wide protests sheds light of hope like a candle in a dark room.

The evening is thus ending on a hopeful note; it’s the kind of hope people need in a war as surreal as this war.
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* When the founder of Baghdad, Abu Ja‘far al-Mansour, envisioned his creation, he called it Dar al-Salaam, meaning the home of peace.

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