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.
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