Can We Feel the Heat?

I am travelling as a peace witness in Iraqi Kurdistan.  We visited a sheikh whom I had met in Fallujah in 2012.  He and his family were forced to flee to Kurdistan about two years ago.  Fallujah iis being held by ISIS.  None of the residents are allowed to leave.  People are dying of starvation. 

We met in the rented apartment of another sheikh who also fled Fallujah with his family.  Although he is sick with cancer, both he and our sheikh friend welcomed us warmly.  We were graciously served sweets and tea.  In the course of our visit, we were joined by yet another sheikh from Ramadi.  The U.N. recently reported that the destruction in Ramadi, also in the Anbar region, was the worst they had witnessed in all of Iraq.   

Outwardly everything seemed so normal that at first I forgot I was with people now counted among the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced in Iraq.   In the next couple of hours though, we would hear many tragic stories that would dispel any thought of “normalcy.”

“We have lost everything” our sheikh friend said.  “We are like babies just being born.  We’ve lost schools, universities, houses, bridges, hospitals, markets.  All gone.  People in the U.S. need to know what their government did to the Iraqi people.  All this pain, destruction and hurt. “ Our host told of a woman who had no breast milk to feed her baby as she herself was starving.  However, she had a goat and, for a while, she was able to give this milk to her baby son.  Then the goat died.  At this point of the story the Iraqi woman translating for me was unable to continue.  Overcome by sorrow, she began crying and left the room to collect herself.  I learned later that this mother searched desperately for someone to give her baby to in order to save his life.

After a lengthy open discussion, we were invited to join the sheikh’s wife, watching children with other women of the family in a second room.  Again a very warm welcome belied an all-too-grim reality.  This woman’s mother, sister and daughter are all currently trapped in Fallujah, with 10 children in their collective care.  On occasion she is able to reach them by phone.  The women in Fallujah weep to her across the line.  They are reduced to eating grass.  “We can do nothing to save them!” the sheikh’s wife said.  “The government doesn’t help!  We don’t know how this is possible!” It was incomprehensible to me – I find myself simply unable to imagine this family’s pain. “We have a saying” she said. “People far away from the fire, don’t get burned.  They don’t feel the heat.”  Across that phone line, and waiting for the next call, she feels it. 

As we stood to take our leave, we embraced.  They thanked us for the visit. Photos were taken to remember each other by, and I recorded all of the names of their loved ones in Fallujah so they will not be forgotten.  I would write those names here, and include the photo for those who read this, but I am fearful to do so.  My friends’ situation is so precarious already