The Monster by the River
Eleven-year-old Hamza sits facing a wall. Alongside him are his two older brothers, father, uncles and grandfather all in a row, like birds on a clothes line. The song of insects trails in through the open front door. They bump into the strange sounds being uttered by a man in a US military uniform. A translator sitting next to Hamza magics the foreign words into a question. ‘What do you know about the bombs on the street?’ No one has the answer. The translator doesn’t need to interpret Uniform Man’s punches. Violence is the same in any language.
"Shut up, you fat kid," the US soldier yells as he takes a crying Hamza into another part of the house to be interrogated. Again, the soldier asks him what he knows about the bomb that was planted on a street one hundred meters from Hamza’s house in Heet, northwest of Ramadi.
Hamza thinks this is the moment to be brave. "If you want info, come get it yourself."
Smothering a smile, the translator turns Hamza’s words into something else.
The US officer threatens him with prison if he doesn’t tell.
"If you do that," Hamza reasons, "you will be the terrorist."
I met Hamza at the American University of Sulaimani where he studies Business Administration. He was a student in my critical reading and writing course, where the class reader included Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World's Wife. Nothing beats explaining the madonna/whore complex or the infamy of John and Lorena Bobbitt to bond with a student.
This is my second time teaching in northern Iraq, and fifth in the Middle East. Students everywhere are great, but the inherent loveableness of Kurdish and Iraqi students draws me back. No matter what horror they have experienced, their humor and generosity triumph. Hamza is no exception. Built like a quarterback, with his mirrored sunglasses and short spiked hair and high fade, he looks like a college football player. Faculty members often comment that he doesn’t seem like he comes from “here”.
Heet is a small, Sunni city with blooming fields and orchards entwined with canals on the banks of the Euphrates River in the Sunni Triangle (1) of Anbar Province. Before the invasion, daily life had its predictable rhythm. Hamza’s life centered on school: studying, eating, sleeping. Friday afternoons were special because the government showed a movie on television. Maybe that’s where his love for cinema began.
In March 2003, the US launched an airstrike on the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. The following day, coalition forces entered the Basra Province from their massing point close to the Iraq-Kuwait border. The Anbar province saw little fighting in the initial invasion. But then in late April, 2003, US soldiers killed seventeen Iraqis in Fallujah at an anti-American demonstration, igniting violence in the region. By the time the US forces reached Heet, resistance supporters had gathered in strength and number (2). Conditions in the Anbar Province favored the resistance: the area is predominantly Sunni, and in a post-Saddam Iraq, Sunnis were a religious minority without power. Saddam had been more popular in Anbar than anywhere else in Iraq and much of the Iraqi weapons industry was located in Anbar. After the fall of Saddam, the resistance looted most of the known ninety-six munitions sites as well as armories and weapon stockpiles (3). The resistance and foreign fighters also used the Euphrates River Valley as an infiltration route to move fighters from the Syrian border to Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah (4). These routes would again be used when ISIS made its move a decade later.
One man’s resistance is another man’s terror.
Hamza recalls the American forces entering Heet with toys, footballs, books and food. They set up in Al Asad Airbase, the Lion’s Base. Meanwhile the resistance planted bombs at night for the coalition forces and collected them at dawn so the public wouldn’t get hurt. The resistance beheaded or shot anyone who worked with the Americans. They would videotape their operations and leave them on discs around the city for people to see. Some mornings Hamza awoke to streets littered with discs, other mornings to streets scattered with dead bodies.
As resistance fighters filled the city, guns became available on the black market for as little as ten dollars. Once, an American convoy of four Humvees and a tank stopped at an intersection forty meters from Hamza’s school. Now you see it; now you don’t. Half the tank is gone; half lies in a ditch. The Humvees started shooting. The resistance fighters yelled at the teachers to pull the students inside. One long minute stretched, the soldier’s minute. The resistance fighters returned fire with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The next day, the students found hands, brains, and helmets around the school yard. Hamza and his friends would gather the stray bullets from the streets, crack them open to collect their powder and light it on fire. At twelve years old, this became his pastime.
In 2004, the house to house searches began in Heet. At first, Hamza remembers, the soldiers were friendly: they spoke English with Hamza’s father, took pictures with family members, removed their gloves to shake hands.
After Saddam Hussein was deposed, Coalition Provisional Authority Chief Paul Bremer disbanded the military apparatus of Iraq. As the security situation deteriorated and the resistance grew, the US military set up and trained a new security force, the National Guard of Iraq, to help the US army fight the resistance (5). The National Guard and the US army would search houses together. One night, Hamza and his family heard the neighbors screaming as the search unit kicked in their door. Hamza’s father opened his door and waited.
Would you go to bed at night with your door unlocked or ajar? This became a habit in Heet.
During a house search, women and children were locked in a room together. The men were gathered in the yard of the biggest house to be interrogated. They were herded into the courtyard as the search began. It was cold and Hamza froze in his T-shirt.
No one found the resistance disks hidden in the sofa, but Hamza’s father’s army rifle was discovered along with its license. The soldiers hit the men, tall and small, in the courtyard. Hamza reassures me, ‘Pain is temporary. Something else will take its place.’
Hamza is a wise philosopher inside a teddy bear of a young man.
When I ask him how he doesn’t hate Americans, Hamza says, ‘They’re not the main reason for the destruction of Iraq. The people didn’t stand together.’ Hamza is referring to the spiral of sectarian violence that began in 2006 when Al-Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Al-Aksari Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites for Shia Islam. This set off a wave of Shia reprisals towards Sunnis, which led to Sunni counterattacks (6). Hamza says that when the US army invaded, the Shia flourished and started executing anyone named Omar (Omar is a typical Sunni name). In 2006, when Hamza’s brother went to university in Baghdad, he had two identification cards: one Sunni, one Shia. Hamza tells me, ‘You get used to going around and maybe being blown up. You don’t give up details about family. You learn to lie. You learn to be Shiite with strangers.’
Kids, especially in this part of the world, are resilient. After 2003, Hamza tells me the “internet came in” and, like teens across the globe, he gorged on MTV, American films and TV shows. Listening to music and memorizing lyrics helped him learn English. He tells me he has always wanted to try a prime rib steak with a glass of red wine. He must have gotten that image from some American film.
While in high school, Hamza was accepted into the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) and traveled to the US for four weeks. He tells me how much he likes my adopted home of New York City, where he bought his snow globes of Manhattan. After high school, he was accepted to the American University of Iraq in 2014. Like many college freshman, he was to live in a dormitory on campus and packed accordingly. In the family compound he left his flat screen TV with its massive DVD collection and his cherished snow globes.
It’s October, 2014, when ISIS enters Heet. ISIS takes over police stations and demands that people surrender or they will be killed and left in the street. Outside the police station, a guard exits, holding his rifle above his head in surrender when a sniper protecting the building shoots the guard. ISIS storms the building, killing everyone. They throw the sniper alive from the top of the building. ISIS approaches another police station with a tractor shovel. They order the police to remove the concrete blocks and to surrender. When they don’t, ISIS opens fire until the police run out of ammunition. Then, ISIS bulldozes the concrete blocks and slays all the policemen. Again the slain are denied burial. This public brutality coerces the local population into submission. Within two weeks, Heet is under complete ISIS control (7).
Hamza’s dad and brother are living in Heet when ISIS takes control. Post invasion, Hamza’s father worked with the UN as the Anbar coordinator reporting on humanitarian conditions in the area. As a result, he now risks public execution. Father and brother flee to Baghdad, which compared to Heet, is a safe haven.
Imagine leaving a family compound it took you thirteen years to build. Imagine leaving the second home you had recently completed, an apartment, three retail spaces and a few empty lots – everything you had worked for. This is the price of freedom. ‘Come back or we take all your property” is the ISIS ultimatum. Sometimes Hamza wonders who is sleeping in his bed, watching his DVDs on his flat screen TV, admiring his snow globes. Hamza’s mother’s words come back to him, ‘Son, don’t save anything anymore. Live for the moment.’
When they flee, Hamza’s dad and brother take only money and jewelry, which can be easily hidden, because they can’t look like they are leaving. At the checkpoint, Hamza’s father shows his teacher ID and is allowed to continue on to Baghdad. This is 2014, when it was easier to sneak out of Heet. Now, ISIS has sealed Heet to use civilians as a human shield. ISIS militants travel with women or children to exploit the US rules of engagement, which try to avoid collateral damage (8). ISIS leaders also embed themselves in civilian communities so they cannot be targeted in drone strikes.
The 2003 invasion brought knives, guns and bullets to the streets. ISIS has brought a lion in a cage. If you break the rules, your punishment is to go in the cage. This new era of violence has spawned another resistance. Spies from the resistance plant devices to read the heat signature of bodies in places where ISIS gathers. The Iraqi army, trained by the Americans, sees the heat signatures and targets those places.
Nowadays, people pay smugglers to get them out of ISIS controlled territories. If you’re Sunni, it’s risky to go to Baghdad because the Shia militia controls it. Hamza reports there is no Sunni militia. ‘People think all Sunni are ISIS. Sunnis run away from ISIS and run into Shia, who execute them.’
Today Hamza and his father live in Sulaimania in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Hamza is grateful to his adopted city. He tells me that 1.5 million Iraqi refugees live in Kurdistan while Baghdad doesn’t let refugees in from the Anbar province. Hashad Shahby, a Shia militia fighting ISIS, guards Baghdad. The final entry point into Baghdad from the west is called Bzebz, and it is controlled by a smaller militia from Hashad Shahby called Hez Ballah (Party of God) (9). Members of Hashad Shahby sometimes extort money from refugees fleeing ISIS. When a family drives a car to the checkpoint, sometimes the militia takes their car and forces the family to walk across the border. If the family is coming from Anbar and there is a woman in the car, the guards sometimes demand to have sex with her before the fleeing family can enter the city. Refugees sleep around the checkpoint, hoping to gain entry. Some are kidnapped and ransomed. Some die in interrogation. Some disappear.
Beyond the checkpoint, the Tigris River calls them.
1 The Sunni Triangle was a center of strong support for Saddam Hussein’s government. After the 2003 invasion, it became a center of armed Sunni opposition to the Coalition forces. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunni_Triangle
7 http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/10/13/Iraq- pulls-troops- from-ISIS- held-Heet.html
8 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-children- human-shields- iraq-syria- us-airstrikes- civilian-casualties/
9 http://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/ocha-flash- update-iraq- crisis-ramadi- displacement-no1- 17-may2015
Alex Poppe is a teacher and creative instigator. A former actor/business consultant, she has worked in Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, Northern Iraq, The West Bank, Germany, and The United States. These places and their people inspire her work. When she is not being thrown from the back of food aid trucks or dining with pistol packing Kurdish hit men, she writes.