The Unwilling Witness


BridgeWe arrived in Falluja to see people gathered around two burned-out S.U.V.’s. Insurgents had gunned down four Blackwater security contractors who were driving through the city; a mob had set the vehicles ablaze. My reporter’s instincts carried me, almost against my will, through the sea of rioters, to where the bodies of the contractors had been dragged — a bridge over the Euphrates about a half-mile away. Two bodies were on the ground, their jackets still smoking. A boy of about 10 was kicking one of them, yelling, “Pacha, pacha,” the name of an Iraqi dish made from the head of a sheep. It crossed my mind that this child could not be human. Then my attention turned to the bodies swinging mutilated from the bridge. I felt briefly disoriented. Hordes of people glared at me, a stranger in a small, insular city. I pretended to be part of the crowd. “These Americans deserve this destiny!” I yelled. I knew I would be the fifth body if I were exposed as a reporter for a U.S. paper. When I returned to the bureau in Baghdad, I resolved to quit my job with The New York Times. It was too dangerous and too upsetting to witness the seething violence so closely. A few years later, after losing two of my Iraqi colleagues at The Times, both of whom were murdered, I finally did leave, to pursue a graduate degree and get away from a lifetime of war.

I never imagined that on the quiet streets of Cambridge, Mass. — a world away from the chaos of Iraq — I would meet Donna Zovko, the mother of one of the murdered contractors. Zovko had come to attend an event at Harvard; a friend introduced us, knowing that I had been in Falluja just after her son was killed. We met for breakfast in an Au Bon Pain on a rainy Sunday in late winter. The woman sitting across from me was soft-spoken and warm, referring to me as “a young boy” (I was 39) and asking me about my life in Iraq. I learned from Zovko that, as I was standing in that mob in Falluja, she was listening to a radio report of the deaths of four Americans in Iraq. She had e-mailed her son Jerry, telling him to be careful. Two hours later, she learned that he was among the four killed. In the cafe, she became suddenly quiet, and her eyes fixed on mine. “Please tell me what happened to my son,” she pleaded. “Why he died like this.” I started to cry. I didn’t know how to tell her about the terrible scene I witnessed. I replied elusively: “He was killed quickly. He was shot.” My words hung in the air. “Then why was he burned and dragged?” she asked quietly. “Why did they do that?” As she spoke, my thoughts rushed to my own mother. I told Zovko that my brother was executed by Saddam Hussein’s security forces in Abu Ghraib. What if our situations were reversed and Zovko had seen my brother killed? What could she say to my mother to explain how or why it happened? We consoled each other. In that moment, there was no difference between Jerry’s mother and mine. Each had lost her beloved oldest son to a violent, unjust end: Jerry was 32; Sadoon was 36. Zovko told me that she was not angry with the Iraqis who murdered her son. Instead, she empathized with Iraqi mothers who lost children to the American forces.

The American invasion of Iraq took place 10 years ago this month. Even before the invasion, I lived most of my life in war zones, losing friends and relatives with numbing frequency. We thought the trauma of war would be over when Hussein was deposed in 2003, but it extends past the execution of a thug. Ten years ago, I called the Iraq war the right war, but now, I cannot say that I know that such a thing exists.

More here. (Note: Abdulrazzaq Al-Saiedi is a former New York Times reporter and a Nieman fellow at Harvard. He is currently a senior researcher with Physicians for Human Rights.)