by Kathy Kelly
April 22, 2003
I'm sitting in Amman now because of Sattar. Yesterday morning, he drove me here, from Baghdad. Silently, we passed through the shattered and wrecked streets. It was his story that persuaded me to leave.
For three weeks, we had waited anxiously for news about Sattar who, since 1996, has been our closest Iraqi companion. What a relief, four days ago, to see him finally walk into the hotel lobby. "Please, Sattar," I begged, "Share some of the oranges and dates we have upstairs." "Thank you," he said, "but I am fasting." He didn't tell us exactly what motivated his fast, nor would he disclose details about the swollen knob on his forehead.
When the war began, he took his family to live with relatives outside of Baghdad. After several days, he returned to check on the family home. A missile had hit a house nearby, and two brothers were missing. Sattar went to the Saddam Hospital in the impoverished and dangerous Al Thawra neighborhood to look for them. "I found it terrible," he said. "Many, many people were asking for help. One family with five injured people had gone from place to place, seeking help, and by the time they came to this hospital, five of the family members were dead. I was coming to ask about two, but I thought, here there are so many, all needing help, so I asked a doctor if he could use me."
Sattar joined thirteen volunteers who assisted three physicians as they tended hundreds of patients. "At first, I just helped to bring the medicines and move patients. You know, always before, I could not even look when people suffer blood and wounds. But I began to learn how to insert IV injections. I could clean wounds and wrap bandages." He worked at the hospital for twelve days. "There is one doctor, his name is Thamer," said Sattar, with a measure of awe, "and he stayed in the operating room for two days and nights, without a break, performing 75 emergency operations. We heard gunfire outside, but fortunately several sheiks and imams were able to protect the hospital."
"If you go to that hospital you can see many pictures in one moment," he continued. "Some people trying to kill, some people trying to steal, some people trying to help by cleaning the hospital, making food, and delivering patients, some sheiks and imams giving advice."
Some western press came to the hospital and talked with Sattar. An interviewer pressed the idea that Iraqis should be grateful for liberation. Sattar attempted to explain how much suffering he'd seen, but the reporter insisted on a positive spin. Sattar said, "Leave now."
His eyes welled up with tears when describing what he saw on the roads while driving in Baghdad. "I saw myself many tanks protecting the Ministry of Oil. They need the maps, the information. But they do nothing to help the people, the hospitals, the food storage. American companies are already trying to repair the oil refineries so that they can produce 2 million to 6 million barrels per day; this will bring the price of oil down. They can control the price of oil to serve American interests."
He also encountered a US tank in front of a huge storage site, where one to two years worth of grain and rice were stored. He heard a US officer with a Kuwaiti accent order the tank to blast open the entrance and then tell people standing there, "Take what you need. Then you can burn it."
After 12 days, Sattar returned to his family to let them know he was all right and to bring his brother Ali back to Baghdad. At a checkpoint, a US soldier questioned him. "I was wearing blue jeans and, trying to be friendly, he touched my pant leg and said `These are good.' I told him `Yes, but these were made in China, not in America.'" The soldier, surprised that Sattar spoke English, asked him, "Are you glad that we're here?"
"I said, 'No,' - again, Sattar's eyes filled with tears--`I wish I could have killed before you could destroy us. You have destroyed our homes, and our `big home.' (Baghdad). Now you should go home.'"
His brother tried to restrain him. "Are you crazy?" asked Ali. "What are you saying?"
The soldier told Sattar, "I could shoot you now."
"Yes," said Sattar, "You can do it. Nobody can do anything to you. You are strong now, but wait three months. After that what will you tell the people? You can't manage the situation yourselves. You can't protect the civilians from themselves."
Like many Baghdadis, Sattar is mystified about what happened to the Republican Guard and the regime in Baghdad. "Umm Qasr is a small village. They could resist for 15 days. Can you imagine that all the power in Baghdad couldn't resist for two days?"
He was silent for a few bleak moments. "Nothing has changed," he said. "Only Saddam has gone away."
"Sattar," I asked, "what will you do now?" "Tomorrow," he said, "I will go to Jordan and start driving again."
I winced. A talented, courageous and kindly man, a well educated civil engineer aching to use his skills, one who never joined the Baath party, who strove for over a decade to preserve the simple values of his faith and culture, must return to work as a driver, fetching more westerners to rebuild his war-torn country.
"Well, Sattar," said Cathy Breen forlornly, "now you won't have so many problems helping Americans cross the border."
"You are right," said Sattar. "This is your country now."
Shortly after Sattar left, Cathy Breen and I decided to pack our bags.
Thomas Paine once said, "My country is the world. My religion is to do good." I don't want a country. But enormous work lies ahead, in the United States, trying to convince people that our over consumptive and wasteful lifestyles aren't worth the price paid by people we conquer.
When we reached the Abu Ghraib dairy farming area, while driving out of Iraq, a terrible stench filled the air. We're told that many corpses of humans and cattle littered the ground of this area. It was on that stretch of the road that we passed a long line of US Army vehicles, headlights on, arriving to replace the Marines. The olive green convoy resembled a funeral procession. I felt a wave of relief that Voices in the Wilderness companions remain in Baghdad. Sometime, in the not so distant future, I hope to rejoin them. But, for now, I must find a way to say, clearly, "No, Sattar, Iraq is not my country."
Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness (www.vitw.org) and the Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a group of international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq through US bombing and occupation, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the West. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org