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A War With a Face We Can Recognize

Somewhere in Baghdad this evening, an Iraqi family sits down to their nightly iftar meal, breaking the daylong Ramadan fast that began at dawn. If they are fortunate, they are able to afford a festive meal at least a few times during the holy month. Still, for many who live amid a perilous world of economic embargo and now, another impending war, even the traditional Ramadan practice of breaking the fast by eating a few dates might be an unobtainable luxury.

If they are more fortunate, no one is out of work in this family, and none of them is sick or requires medicine the embargo prohibits. Tragically, many anti-leukemia drugs and other medicines desperately needed in Iraqi hospitals are banned because of their inexplicable appearance on a list of disallowed goods and materials.

Perhaps they also have a decent roof over their heads, and by some miracle their neighborhood has been spared the bombs and cruise missiles of the past decade. Perhaps they live near Al-Mutanabbi Street, one of the city’s age-old marketplaces, where life can seem utterly normal at times, unshaken by the terrors of the world beyond their avenue.

Perhaps they have not lost any of their children to disease or malnutrition in the years since the Gulf War, when the embargoes began. Or maybe they have. Perhaps there is an empty place, a bed no longer slept in, a story with an unwritten middle and end, where the tears and longing of life on earth were not allowed to play themselves out.

The suffering of wars and their inevitable aftermath are the shattering tragedies of psalms, of holy and often unheard laments. And tonight, as this family sits down to its meal of faith, they must wonder what the future – in which they will have little watch over their own destinies – will do to them. Perhaps next year, some of them will be gone, or hurt, or far away from this familiar place.

The future to these waiting and unconsidered people must seem especially bitter and empty, hardly worth investing with even the least of assurances.

If Americans could really put themselves in the place of this family, and do so without prejudice – if they could stand as one human family in the place of another – there very well might be no attack on Iraq.

With the return of United Nations arms inspectors to the country, the clock continues to turn toward the time and promise of destruction. Even if the inspectors are allowed to do their work, and succeed in eliminating the weapons our nation so deeply fears, there still could be a war, and little most of us could do to stop it.

Aside from our obligation as Christians to pray without ceasing for the peace and safety of Iraq, and for all threatened or oppressed people, we must try to recognize this probable war by the human face it truly has.

Mennonite Central Committee worker Edward Miller knows this face of the Iraqi people firsthand. Since March, Miller has been living in Baghdad, getting to know the people of the city and other parts of the country. His careful observations of the resilient lives being lived around him make galvanizing reading. However, in a recent essay posted on the MCC Web site, www.mcc.org, Miller wrote of the waning hope among the people there, of the growing certainty that upheavals are on the way.

Speaking to Shaddad Abdulkahhar, a struggling Baghdad artist, Miller starts to fathom for us the absolute weariness of an age-old civilization nearly shaken to death by decades of fighting and sanctions. Indeed, like so many of their Middle Eastern neighbors, the Iraqis are a people for whom war has become a fact of existence.

“People are so tired,” Shaddad tells Miller. “We cannot say that war is normal. . . . War is terrible.”
How long they will be able to tell the difference is hard to say. One supposes that after a certain point, the numbness felt in the face of such peril can no longer grow any deeper.

But as the days pass and grow shorter, as Ramadan draws to a close, let us remember this family in Baghdad. Let us remember them in their fear and uncertainty.

Let us remember them most of all when some night, God forbid, the bombs begin to fall again, dropped by an enemy who hardly knows them.

This article first appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review.