Twelve years after the bombs fell on Baghdad, the enduring spirit of one Iraqi girl remains unforgettable

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Sisters stand outside their front gate in Baghdad shortly after the 2003 invasion Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Two girls stand outside their front gate in Baghdad shortly after the 2003 invasion
Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Twelve years ago this week I sat in my Santa Monica apartment glued to coverage of President George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign against Baghdad. The surreal images of bombs exploding in the night sky were tangible to me because I had just returned from a visit to Iraq. Women had stopped me on the street there and begged me to go home and ask the president not to bomb them.

In 1991 Bush’s father dropped 90,000 tons of explosives on Iraq, hitting homes, hospitals, water and sewage treatment plants — necessary structures that Iraqis were unable to rebuild during the following decade of sanctions.

That first day of the 2003 bombing, Bush dropped 10 times that amount on Baghdad alone — 900,000 tons of explosives that destroyed every government building, except for the Ministry of Oil.

When I returned to Iraq a few months after the initial bombing, I tried to find some of the people who had touched me so deeply during that first visit. It was nearly impossible among the rubble.

I had met 12-year-old Sura at Amariyah, the neighborhood bomb shelter where 400 children, women and men had taken refuge in 1991. We dropped bombs directly onto the shelter that year, incinerating the families inside.

Amariyah stands as a monument to war’s horrors. Grainy photos of bombing victims line the reinforced cement walls. Wilting floral wreaths litter the stained concrete floor. Rebar protrudes at impolite angles through layers of sheet metal curled like chocolate shavings from the intense heat. Shafts of sunlight stream through the bombs’ gaping entrance point, throwing eerie shadows over the haunting scene.

When I met Sura, she was acting in a televised commemoration of this grim national tragedy. During a break, the chirpy little girl took my hand and led me around the shelter, pointing out the shadowed outlines of mothers who had died clutching their babies, of the bloody splotches preserved in full horror, of the scum of skin that baked off boiling bodies and clung to the shelter’s walls.

Trying to find Sura on my return to Iraq after the invasion, my translator and I drove the labyrinth of Baghdad streets, passing American tanks and bombed-out buildings as we went. Though mail was not allowed between our countries, Sura and I had optimistically exchanged addresses. In a neighborhood pockmarked by bullet holes and engraved with terrifying memories, my translator pulled over and disappeared behind a gate.

As I stood waiting on the sidewalk, I began to worry: Will this girl remember me? How will her parents feel about a strange American showing up at their doorstep? Is she even alive?

Iraqis did not welcome me during my second trip as they had on my first. Rumors had spread that American troops had deliberately cut electricity to certain neighborhoods to retaliate against Iraqis for not turning in their guns. No power, no water, no refrigeration. No A/C. Tempers rose with the temperature — an exhausting and volatile 120 degrees well into evening.

I waited nervously in the heat outside Sura’s apartment, attracting a crowd of laughing children. “Hello mister! Where are you from?” they sang.

Then, through the corner of my eye, I saw a streak of red as Sura exploded through the gate. She leapt into my arms, throwing multiple kisses to my left cheek, then to my right, then to my left again, laughing and chatting and kissing in one excited, jumbled moment.

I blinked back tears, overjoyed that she was not one of the “collateral” casualties of the war and, selfishly, that she remembered me. Sura grabbed my hand and pulled me upstairs to show me off to her family, chatting excitedly in Arabic as if I could understand her.

She led me into the living room where my translator was already seated. I was given the chair of honor amid profuse apologies for the stifling heat. “Karada” (electricity), said Sura’s father with irritated gestures at the silent ceiling fan, reminding me that my country had killed their power.

“It’s time for the Americans to go,” Sura’s father said through my translator. “We have no electricity, no water. We are glad Saddam is gone, but now the Americans need to go, too.”

Sura watched her father solemnly and looked to him for confirmation before answering any of my questions.

I handed her photos I’d taken of her, including one of the two of us that she touched to her heart. She leapt up to get a small album of photos that showed off her dazzling smile.

I asked her if she wanted to be a model. “No,” she answered, eyes flashing at her father. “A dentist. But, I like being an actress.”

Our conversation turned political again. I asked Sura why she thought the war occurred.

Without hesitation or a glance toward her father, she answered in one word: “Oil.”

Santa Monica resident Kelly Hayes-Raitt is finishing a book about her travels. She blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com.

Editor’s Note: This column has been revised to correct errors in the editing process.

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