Dispatches from Iraq #5

Fallujah, Six Months Later

The following is a reflection written by Sheila Provencher, 32, who lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq, with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT is an ecumenical organization that works with local people in areas of violence (including the West Bank, Colombia and Iraq) to seek nonviolent solutions to situations of injustice and oppression. Sheila (shown at left in Iraq with a US soldier) joined CPT in Baghdad in December, 2003; she is currently back home in the United States spending the summer speaking to groups around the country about her experiences in Iraq. She will return to Baghdad in mid-August.

BustedHalo.com will feature Sheila’s occasional reflections on daily life in Iraq, the Iraqi people and the challenges they face during the American occupation.

May 2005

Now I will always think of Fallujah as the “city of brotherly love.” Philadelphia has no idea.

On May 6, 2005, I traveled to Fallujah with two fellow CPTers and fifteen Iraqi members of Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT) from Kerbala and Najaf. We were going to do a symbolic cleanup action, to show solidarity with the residents who had suffered so much since the military assaults in April and November 2004. It is important to note that the MPTers were all Shi’a Muslims. Here they were, on their way to a Sunni stronghold whose reputation as the “backbone of the resistance” fosters fear and mistrust among many Shi’a people in Iraq.

“Did you tell your family where you’re going today?” I asked Akeel and Mustafa,* two members of MPT who were riding in the same car. Akeel, a young lawyer, laughed. “I told my mother I was going to Baghdad and that I might go to Fallujah,” he said. “She yelled, ?What?! Please do not go to Fallujah!'”

Mustafa also smiled. “When I told my family where I was going, they said, ?Why do you want to go there? The people in Fallujah are crazy.'” We drove on.

The Fallujah highway sign was torn almost in two, but still it hung there over the checkpoint where Iraqi and U.S. soldiers wearily monitor every person who comes and goes. A young, helmeted Marine in sunglasses stuck his head in the car’s window. “You’re from where?” he asked in disbelief. Sami, speaking fluent English, responded with warmth and asked if he could take a picture.

Our American passports got us through the checkpoint. Anyone else would have been turned away. Since November 2004 anyone who does not have a Fallujah I.D. badge cannot enter the city­-even family members or friends of Fallujan residents. The checkpoint devastates the economy. An hours-long wait slows business, and wholesalers have increased threefold the prices for building supplies and foodstuffs in order to compensate for lost time and wages.

Once inside the city, the MPTers and I stared in disbelief. Bullet holes everywhere, houses and stores half-caved-in, mosques with gaping holes in the minarets and walls, and red spray-painted X’s on every door, marking the fact that the building had been searched and cleared by Marines. And yet, thank God, Fallujah was not the ghost town it was a few months ago. Many refugees had returned, and piles of fruits and vegetables, buckets and basins, were on sale as usual in a marketplace peopled by residents going about the business of their day.

At the Al Furqan Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Hameed al Jumaily welcomed us all. Officials from the Department of Municipalities provided orange jumpsuits, trash bags, and a garbage truck, and everyone went outside to clean up the street. Kids stared at me and the other two women as we swept trash while still dressed in our long robes and head scarves. Then the kids started helping, hoisting black plastic bags above their heads and heaving them into the garbage truck.

Some of the garbage we were too late to clean. “We found the Holy Qur’an, desecrated with human waste, in some of the houses,” the sheikh had told us.

Back at the mosque, the sheikh cancelled his usual Friday sermon and substituted an energetic speech that called all Sunni and Shi’a to come together as one family. The call for unity was more than a show­–it is a matter of life or death in Fallujah right now. The U.S. has deployed an almost all-Shi’a Iraqi National Guard (ING) unit to keep order in Fallujah. However, many soldiers are abusive in a sort of “payback,” anti-Sunni style developed by years of Shi’a suffering under Saddam’s regime. Many Fallujah residents complained to us that the ING soldiers are poorly trained and show little respect for lives or property as they cruise the streets of Fallujah in pickup trucks, waving automatic weapons in the air. Why the U.S. chose this unit is beyond me­–they exacerbate the already-existing interreligious tension.

The Shi’a MPTers joined their Sunni brothers at prayer for unity, while Zemen, Marwa and me prayed in the women’s area.

After prayers, the city officials took us on a tour. I had thought that the broken buildings and bombed-out mosques were the worst of the damage. But we saw an entire neighborhood bombed as flat as the surrounding desert. A man gestured at the rubble, pock-marked with grey tents marked by UN logos, to show us where his house used to be. I visited a family of four women and a baby who squatted in one tent the size of an average bedroom in the States.

I have not told you about the bodies. Of course they were no longer there that day, but I have seen photographs from November 2004 that will never leave my mind, photos of corpses half-eaten by dogs, black-burned bodies of people lying in their beds, and a young boy clutching a white rag. I saw the pictures in my mind again as we stood on the edge of that ruined neighborhood and wondered how many families lost people they loved.

The Director of Municipalities and Public Works pulled us back to present problems. The city is facing a crisis because of poor sanitation systems damaged by the military assaults. The U.S. forces evicted the Department of Public Works from its building, and so workers have set up temporary offices in Fallujah’s public library. “We only have seven working garbage trucks and three dump trucks for the entire city,” said the director. “The U.S. forces promised us funds for our department months ago, but so far nothing has happened. Can you help us?”

Finally, after all that, even without any promises of help that was beyond our means­-the city of brotherly love emerged. When we went back to the mosque, the sheikh led us to his home where a feast was spread. After lunch he presented a copy of the Holy Qur’an to every member of the MPT and CPT delegation. As the men said goodbye to each other, Sunni and Shi’a laughed and embraced. Men in this culture readily kiss each other on the cheek and form instant familial bonds, calling each other “my brother” and meaning it. I took pictures as they said good-bye.

“They were really nice, weren’t they?” I asked Mustafa, back in the car. “SO nice,” he responded with a sort of wonder in his eyes. Any fear or doubt had disappeared.

But this past weekend, the authorities found more bodies in the river and on the sides of the roads. If only that brotherly love could spread and save us from the fear that still grows in the rest of Iraq, the U.S., the world.

*Some names have been changed.