Sunday, April 18, 2010

23rd Blog

April 18, 2010

Since we last wrote, we have had two very different experiences. We saw our first Iraqi sporting event when AUI-S’ women’s basketball team played a team from a school from Karbala in southern Iraq, and the second was a visit to the town of Halabja last week-end. These two experiences couldn’t have been more different.

First, let me tell you a bit about the basketball game. One of the more important facts to remember is that almost all of these girls had never held a basketball or played the game until two years ago. Another important fact to remember is the team they were playing comes from a university that trains physical education teachers. But I cannot tell this short story without reminding you that we come from Indiana, the basketball state of the US. That all being said, let me say this game was the most entertaining game we have ever watched. There were times when it appeared to be more of a comedy than a sporting event because none of the players was particularly skilled at the basics of basketball. The score at half time was 10 to 8, with the opposing team on top, and most of the points earned from the foul line. The women from the other team were extremely physical and the officials didn’t always call blatant fouls. The stands held some extremely exuberant and loud fans who provided lots of cheers. Our women persevered and won the game in the end and there was great celebration including a fan party held for the women back on our campus. But the game had great symbolic value: in a part of the world that still struggles with according women full participation in society, here were 10 women on a basketball floor, playing their hearts out in front of cheering fans, fully valued for who they are. See picture below of our team in the huddle.

Where the basketball game was just good fun, the visit to Halabja was a very sobering experience. This is the city on which Saddam’s air force dropped hundreds of poison gas bombs on March 16, 1988, killing over 5,000 people and leaving many more with life-time injuries. At the time of the gas attacks the city of Halabja was actually in the control of the Iranians (this being in the time of the eight year Iran-Iraq war), so the first persons on the scene were Iranian soldiers. The number of dead was so large that the soldiers could do no more than to put the bodies into hastily dug mass graves in the city’s cemetery. See two photos below. The first is of one of the monuments on top of a mass grave containing 1,500 bodies. The second of a series of tombstones on which are inscribed family names. The stones are in place only to memorialize the families; no one knows in which mass grave the bodies are now buried.

This gas attack has always been a tragedy to us, but it is so much more real knowing some of our students’ families actually lived through this event. Events on the ground on that fateful day were so arbitrary. In the photo below this paragraph you will see three students standing with us; all are from Halabja. The family of one of the students fled in one direction and were saved because of the wind carried the gas away from them. The family of another of the students also fled, but in the wrong direction. The wind blew the gas toward them and they died.

One more Halabja story: in the museum dedicated to the victims of the gassing of Halabja, the names of all of the victims are etched in the glass walls of the museum. One name is Zmnako, noted in the photo below with green tape around it. Zmnako was an infant at the time of the attack, and in the chaos that followed, was separated from his mother. All had thought that he had been killed and his body put into a mass grave, so his name was placed on the wall. Unbeknownst to people in Halabja, he had been rescued by people who assumed his family was dead. He was placed into the home of an Iranian Kurdish family who adopted him. He grew up there and after the death of his adoptive mother, learned something of his background in Halabja. The good end of this story: after doing some research, he discovered that his birth mother is still living and as of a few months ago he has been reunited with her. The green tape around his name says he is alive, not dead. We can only imagine the disbelief and joy of his family in Halabja on being re-united with him. He is now a student at AUI-S.

Perhaps we are reading our students incorrectly, but our sense is that where they could be so bitter, there appears to be a willingness to move on and be part of a constructive future. We can only hope that their aspirations bear fruit in the future. The privilege of knowing them has certainly enriched our lives.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments to our AUI-S email accounts:;

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010

22nd Blog.

After a fairly routine week of classes, on Friday, April 2, we joined four other faculty members in a day-trip to a mountainous area south of town called Qaradagh. Near this village, high on the side of a sheer face of rock, is an Assyrian era (7th c. BC) carving of a victorious king with hammer in hand and two vanquished foes at this feet. The climb to this area is a challenge, and in lawsuit-happy America would probably be declared off-limits for fear of someone falling and filing a liability suit. But the climb was worth it. The carving is imposing, if somewhat difficult to make out.

As interesting as the sculpture is, even more interesting is how on pleasant weekend days, Kurdish folks head to the hills with automobile trunks and truck beds full of all of the equipment necessary to fix whole meals. Wherever the land levels to a plateau, folks drive off the road, spread out blankets, and spend the day. Sometimes large groups gather, bring a small generator and sound system, and have a picnic accompanied by the dance music that everyone seems to enjoy. It was not unusual to see groups of people lined up to dance, and of course the beautiful Kurdish clothing was everywhere.

On two occasions we stopped to take in the sights, and on both occasions were asked by nearby families if we would like some tea – the very strong, heavily sweetened, variety that is popular here. On the second of these occasions we were asked to sit with an extended family, perhaps 15 people over at least three generations. Fortunately one member of the family spoke good English and so there could be some genuine conversation. It turns out that the patriarch of the family is in his late 60s, is from the nearby village, and has been involved since the late 1950s with the peshmerga – the freedom fighters who were such a thorn in the side of Saddam Hussein. The old man said two things: we thank you Americans for helping us to be free of Saddam; if you support Israel to be a state, why can’t you support a state for Kurds? Somehow we moved beyond the tension implied in the question and simply enjoyed the children. As the sole female of AUIS faculty, Carolyn was approached by the women in the group who wanted pictures taken with her. One of the grandmothers entrusted me with a 5 month old baby. See pictures below.

During the time we talked and drank tea with the family we could look down the hill to a large lake called Darbandikhan, the east side of which, we were told, is Iran. That’s how close we were to Iran.

As we made our way from Qaradagh to the lake we went past a new village that was built on top of an older village that had been gassed and destroyed by Saddam. A truly sad grave yard alongside the road contained the remains of whole families that died from the results of poison gas. Our driver indicated that 122 people in the village died. See next photo.

I (Carl) had thought that after returning to the US and getting reacquainted with our family, I might organize a tour of this area for some hardy and adventurous Americans. But I tell you that all-day travel around here continues to be a challenge. There simply are no public toilets anywhere, and restaurants as we know them are few outside of the larger towns. In spite of the lack of facilities, northern Iraq continues to be a fascinating place to live, and we continue to learn from new experiences each day.

Even as we write this blog, we have learned of the death of Robert Schleiger, one of Carolyn’s favorite uncles who lived in Loveland, CO. He battled cancer valiantly for the past year or so. Fortunately Carolyn was able to talk with him last week, before he slipped into a coma, and she could say her good-bye to him. This is the second of our beloved relatives to die this year while we are away from home. My Aunt Mary Sneed died earlier this year in Charleston, WV. Like Carolyn and her uncle, I was able to talk with her while she was still conscious, about a week before she passed away. We have had to grieve from afar.

On this Easter Sunday, we wish for all of you a meaningful day of rest and reflection on the meaning of resurrection.