Iraqi refugees live life of desperation
By Diane Sommer • April 12, 2009
A dark brown scarf is wrapped around Baneen's head and neck to hide the scar on her throat. But there is nothing that can mask the torment and pain imprinted on her dark eyes, eyes that have witnessed atrocities most people cannot comprehend.
I traveled to Damascus, Syria in November 2008 with activist documentary filmmaker Andrew Courtney to assist in finishing a film project he started in June 2008 concerning the estimated one to 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Damascus. We revisited several Iraqi refugee families he had documented to find out if anything had changed with their living conditions or resettlement status. I was most touched by the story of 12-year-old Baneen, her parents and her six siblings.
Baneen's family has been traumatized by many encounters of extreme violence inflicted by the militia in Iraq. Her mother Nahida is Sunni; her father Abdul is Shia. Before the U.S. occupation, they lived comfortably in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq's capital, where Sunni, Shia and Christians lived peacefully. Nahida was a member of the Ba'ath party, of which Saddam Hussein was a leading member. In December 2003, after the U.S. invasion, Saddam was captured by U.S. forces, leaving Iraq without a leader. Groups that had been repressed under his thumb came out in droves to assert their revenge.
In 2006 masked people with guns opened fire on Nahida's home and kidnapped her for 10 days, saying she was a Saddam element and a criminal. Gunmen shot out the lock on the front door. When her oldest son tried to stop them, they beheaded him and threw his head onto his younger brother's lap.
Ten-year-old Baneen was attending primary school in Baghdad at the time. One day the militia invaded her school and forced the school director to hand 12 children over to them. Baneen was one of the children. They were forced onto a bus, where all were beheaded - except for Baneen. She watched in horror as one of the men began to cut her neck. But someone had informed U.S. soldiers, who then followed the vehicle and Baneen was quickly thrown out. She was taken to a nearby U.S. military base for treatment.
In an ultimate act of violence, Baneen's family's house was raided and blown up - everything was destroyed. With financial help from friends, the family fled to Syria on a bus and have been living in a tiny apartment in Damascus for the past three years.
Refugees are not allowed to work, yet they must still find a way to pay for food and rent. This leads to a plethora of problems, including lack of education for children, prostitution, malnutrition and homelessness.
The day I met Baneen, she wore a T-shirt with a message written in English: "Happy World." Although dreadful memories and fearful images must flood her mind daily, Baneen said she will never give up hope for a peaceful world. Some day she just might become a powerful leader in the peace movement. I made a promise to Baneen and all of the refugees I met, to share their personal stories of despair and courage with Americans.
Millions of Iraqis have been targeted because of their religion, profession, ethnicity, or simply because they worked with Americans in some capacity. Mainstream media in the U.S. do not give due coverage to the victims of war crimes. It would inundate the news and arouse the public. The campaign of deceit that was designed to sell the Iraq war was the first of a series of war crimes and crimes against humanity by George W. Bush and his administration. Now it is up to us, the people, to prosecute the George W. Bush/ Dick Cheney administration in order to restore justice. There is no statute of limitations for war crimes.
Diane Sommer lives in LaGrangeville and is a writer, artist, social activist and the mother of two children.