Will my family survive?
A local Iraqi-American calls Baghdad once a week to find out if his loved ones are dead or alive
Every Sunday morning, a man who lives in Davis makes a phone call to Iraq, a call he makes with the gravest of trepidation. This end-of-the-week phone call has become a ritual, an homage to anxiety and dread. The man has many relatives in Iraq, his native land, and all of the other days of his week are clouded over with worries for the safety of kin back in the place he left so long ago. He phones home on Sundays to gather the news, to see how his relatives have fared, to see, in fact, if they’ve survived another seven days.
“My name is Fadhil Al-Kazily,” he tells me, in measured tones. “I was born in Iraq in 1935. I’m an old man now. I lived in Iraq until I finished high school. I am an American by choice. I came here when things were good between my nation and this nation. Although my roots are in Iraq, my branches are in this country—my children, my grandchildren, my citizenship. The feeling I have sometimes is that my roots are being destroyed by my branches. I remember every bit of my childhood, and I feel those roots being destroyed by the part of me that has branched off in this nation.”
He pauses, thinks, begins again.
“Baghdad was a very nice place when I was young, in many ways similar to Sacramento. It has the two rivers—the Tigris and Euphrates—so there was a lot of greenery and many trees. There was a plentiful water supply, and palm trees all over the place. Now it’s a horror show. Now it looks like a war zone. Not even a third of the streets are useable, and Iraqis can’t drive on them, anyway. Going out in a car is an invitation to die.”
Al-Kazily moved to this country in 1964, along with his wife, “a lovely young Englishwoman,” to use his own descriptive phrase. They met and married while he was doing undergraduate work in Liverpool. After that, he got a job with Bechtel in the Bay Area and then returned to graduate work at UC Berkeley, gaining a doctorate in engineering. He’s been married for 49 years, and the couple has two grown children. He currently teaches engineering at Sac State.
“I also still have a very large family in Iraq,” he says. “I have seven brothers and one sister, and all are in Iraq except one, so I keep in touch with them every Sunday. Every Sunday morning is devoted to catching up on news from my brothers and my sister, and their children.”
The war in Iraq, as it is in the majority of American households, is unpopular in the Al-Kazily home. But unlike many Iraqi-Americans who lay low for their own safety, Al-Kazily has gone public with his dissent.
“I am a proud Iraqi-American, but most of my family are all in Iraq,” he said on the Capitol steps at a September 7 peace rally. “I live their daily life with them from here. You cannot imagine what they go through.”
Fighting back tears, he told the crowd that day, “Enough is enough. The crime has to stop.”
His worries are legitimate, of course. No one knows for certain just how many Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion of that nation unleashed hell upon the people there. No one knows how many perished in the initial “shock and awe” operation, the pyrotechnic display of U.S. might that set the war in motion. And no one knows just how many Iraqis have perished at the hands of U.S. civilian contractors, that shadow army of corporate-owned mercenaries who roam the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities with licenses to kill—and get-out-of-jail-free cards should anyone have the courage and the audacity to complain. Then, of course, there’s the unmerciful internecine killings in the sectarian violence, a raging civil war that has claimed an uncountable number of lives.
Estimates of the dead range from around 80,000 on the low end, to more than half a million on the higher end. The very disparity in the estimates stands as testimonial to the mess we’ve made of things in Iraq.
And it goes without saying that the vagueness about the number of Iraqi dead gives a lie to any possible concerns our leaders might have for the Iraqi people, who are, when it’s convenient, invoked as the reason we went to war in the first place, to free them from the callousness and cruelties of Saddam Hussein.
But it’s hard to imagine more callous indifference to those Iraqis than that found in our inability to keep track of the number of them whose deaths have been the direct result of our destabilization of that place. We are in charge, all fictions about Iraqi independence to the contrary notwithstanding, and what has happened under our watch is a nightmare of violence, greed, corruption, and madness. The collapse of the water and electrical systems has forced much of the remaining population to live in desperate squalor. Old Testament-style diseases have begun to reappear in the absence of the kinds of sanitation necessary to large population centers. Cholera, for instance, has recently turned up in Baghdad, and typhus and other end-of-days scourges have become common.
Perhaps Dylan Thomas had it right in the poem he wrote so long ago: “After the first death, there is no other.”
Unless you find, among those numbers of the dead, one of your own.
Fahdil Al-Kazily can account for two of those Iraqi deaths among his kin, though it’s probable that other people he knows in Iraq were hastened toward their demise in the collateral damage that follows such extensive destruction of a nation’s infrastructure.
“Before the war,” he says, “I traveled to Iraq every year to see my family. Early this year I managed to arrange to get two of my brothers to Dubai and Amman to visit with them. I begged them not to go back, but each one of them is a grandfather and they could not leave their grandchildren. Also, at their ages, they say ‘What would we do?’ It is too late for them to start all over again.
“But I will tell you truly, even with the stories they tell me, I can’t imagine their lives in Baghdad. Every time I pick up the phone to call them, I expect bad news. So far we’ve been fairly lucky, but there have been bad things that have happened. My last living uncle was killed three years ago. He was 81 years old, driving his own car in Mosul, in the north of Iraq. An American unit shot him. One reason they said they shot him was that he was driving too fast and didn’t obey their signal to slow down. The other report was that he was driving too slow and was suspicious. Witnesses said he did not see the military unit and he didn’t even know there was a military unit in the area.”
The way Al-Kazily speaks lends weight to his words. There is a directness that seems to be the product of having learned English in classrooms rather than on the streets. He speaks the near-perfect English of a scholar, but with emotion still intact.
“My eldest brother’s grandson died in Baghdad a few years ago,” he says, “from brain cancer, a young boy seven or 8 years old. His cancer was attributed to all the depleted uranium in Iraq. The U.S has dumped a tremendous number of bombs containing depleted uranium, a few thousand tons dropped on Iraq. Even some of the American soldiers have gotten sick. It’s been in the news, but it has been less widely reported here than elsewhere in the world.”
Depleted uranium, or U-238, is a toxic, heavy-metal byproduct of uranium enrichment that provides uranium suitable for use in nuclear weapons and reactor fuel. It is also used in munitions, as ballast for airplanes, in tank armor and other products. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Three years ago, Iraq’s provisional government asked the United Nations for help in cleaning up the radioactive metal dust spread across Iraqi battlefields by U.S. and British forces during the Persian Gulf wars. That request from the Iraqis was ignored by the United States military, which has defended the use of depleted uranium weaponry—prized for its tank-piercing and bunker- or cave-smashing ability—even though there was strong opposition against such use by scientists and veterans organizations around the globe. The United States has refused to provide money for clean up of depleted uranium, and has argued that the stuff poses little health risk.
Think for just a moment of Al-Kazily’s worries in terms that might translate to something closer to home. Before the American bombs began to fall, Iraq had a population roughly comparable to the population of California. Now imagine if Californians were sustaining hundreds of casualties each day, and those numbers had added up to a low-end estimate of some 80,000 people (or the equivalent of a city about the size of Citrus Heights or Chico, with everyone who lived in either of those places eliminated, dead, gone). Think of how the pain of all those deaths would spread among the survivors who had friends and relatives throughout the state, or half a world away. And think of how so many deaths would rattle the psyche of everyone living here in California. Think, too, of the spillover of that kind of insecurity and fear. Look what 3,000 deaths on September 11, 2001, did to a nation of 300 million, and then try to imagine what 80,000 deaths might do to a nation roughly one-tenth that size.
“Daily life is unimaginable,” Al-Kazily says. “Heat soars to 120 degrees, and there is no electricity, no air conditioning, and without electricity they cannot pump water, so they get water in whatever way they can. Iraq has been under curfew since the invasion. What that means is that everyone in Iraq is under house arrest from 7 at night until 7 in the morning. There are no movies, no social life, none of that, of course.”
Ironically, in a country that sits atop one of the world’s largest oil fields, gasoline is nearly impossible to get. “Gas is rationed,” Al-Kazily says, “and lines for gasoline are so long it can take a 24 hour wait to get gas. People who need gasoline badly enough spend the night in their cars because to drive after the curfew is suicide. But there are those who are beneficiaries of the problem. The black market sells gasoline if you can afford to pay the rates. Corruption is out of control now.”
He sighs heavily before going on. Three of his brothers and his sister live in Baghdad, so this is their reality he is describing.
“One of my brothers is a professor of art at the University of Baghdad,” he says. “School is officially open, so he goes to his classes, but mostly the students aren’t there. It’s unsafe for them to try to get to and from school, so the professors go to empty classrooms, then go back home. Occasionally, some students make it, but most don’t. And if they do make it, the curfew comes at 7 each night, and if the students haven’t made it back to their homes, they must spend the night wherever they find themselves.”
Nor are students the only ones who are endangered.
“That same brother who teaches art had his car hijacked,” he says. “Two men put a gun to his head. They let him go, but they took his car. Who knows who it was? He went to report it to the police, and they said, ‘Well, what can we do about it?’
“Here in California, if we lose power for even a few hours, we know the inconvenience. Gasoline pumps stop working, Safeway shuts down, PG&E says we have no power. You can imagine how quickly the inconvenience would turn to something much worse. You can’t even count on water in Iraq. You cannot imagine how big this tragedy is. And my family, by the way, is better off than most. They live in the better neighborhoods. I can’t imagine how other people are functioning there. ‘How do you manage?’ I ask. ‘We got used to it,’ they tell me. ‘We have kerosene lamps and we turned them on, and we got used to it.’ They grumble. They want a better life. They know of a better life. What they do is adapt. They get the best that they can get. Nobody’s venturing out. They never get the car out unless they have an absolute necessity.”
Again, he sighs.
“The family has suffered quite a few things. When I was talking with my family just last Sunday, I learned that the brother of my brother’s son-in-law was shot and killed in Baghdad. In Arabic culture the family is very extended, and central to our lives.”
Though he has family members across the Iraqi sectarian spectrum—Sunni, Shia, Kurd and Christian—Fadhil Al-Kazily says of himself: “I really don’t identify myself with any particular sectarian group. My family is so diverse in its affiliations and beliefs that I feel a kinship with all of them. I no longer think of myself in ways that pigeonhole me in ways that would separate me from relatives and countrymen.”
In the face of all that chaos and suffering, what does Al-Kazily think should be done?
He pauses before answering. It is, obviously, not an easy question.
“It cannot be fixed with occupation forces in place,” he says. “The main fighting in Iraq is against the occupation forces, and the occupying force is terrified of shadows. They think everyone is their enemy by now. Whenever they see somebody, they shoot. The American young soldier is told that whatever moves is your enemy, and they shoot because they are protecting themselves.
“But the worst part of it is the Blackwater kind of situation, and the U.S. government says that the Iraqis have no right to expel those private mercenaries who are not responsible to civilian or military justice. The occupiers have to leave so Iraqis can solve their own problems by themselves. But before they leave, the U.S. has an obligation to see the light and be human. We’ve been in Iraq for five years. Why haven’t they been able to ensure electricity, or water? They are only there to destroy. The only construction that has gone on is the U.S. embassy and the military bases.”
What does he say to those who still argue that abandoning Iraq would virtually turn that nation over to Al Qaeda?
“First of all, there is virtually no Al Qaeda in Iraq at all,” he answers. “What there is is a resistance to occupation, like the resistance that arose against the French in Algeria. Nobody anywhere seems to like a foreign power telling them what to do. Iraq is no different. Three or four million Iraqis have left Iraq. When are they likely to come back?”
And he has an answer to those who would question his loyalty to his adopted nation, or deny him the right to question American policy.
“I’ve probably been an American citizen nearly as long as George Bush has been alive,” he says, “and I know I’ve voted in more elections than he has. And I suppose I’m at an age when I cannot stay quiet, though I was vocal in my opposition to the Vietnam War, too. I cannot stand injustice. We live in a world capable of taking care of everybody, and yet we’ve fallen into a circumstance where greed has won, has triumphed over justice, and we cannot allow that.”
Tears well up in his eyes, and he takes a moment before he speaks again.
“I sit down and I think I am unfit to be alive at this time, and I wish I was dead. I don’t bear responsibility, but I am bearing the wounds. Both of my parents lived a very long life. When my father died a year after the first gulf war, I thought it was a good thing he didn’t live to see what has happened. He didn’t see most of the horrifying things. My mother died a year-and-a-half after the second gulf war began. When they took my mother out to the burial grounds, they were stopped by American soldiers and were told that only two people could go out to the burial ground, so only two people were allowed to see my mother into the ground. Two young men who were strong enough carried her body to where she was to be buried.”
He chokes up again, then collects himself once more.
“I would like to meet as many Americans as possible, and have them meet me, just so they can see what an Iraqi looks like before they kill him.”