The 51st Star

By Banen Al-Sheemary, Senior at the University of Michigan

Day 5: Waiting for the darkness to fade away and the light to break in was nerve wrecking. I was anxious to get out of the car and to step onto the sands of Iraq for the first time since my family had fled after the first invasion in 1990. This is the land of the two rivers, the Cradle of Civilization. I just wanted to hold Iraq in my hands. I was cold and exhausted because of the long ride from Damascus. I arrived to Fallujah. The sun began to rise, making the sky different shades of orange, pink, and red, as if a canvas appeared before my eyes. My heart was beating fast. I took a breath and looked up. The sunlight made the horror in front of me a clear picture. A picture that will forever remain with me. With this single glance, I quickly wished that I had never come. The car sped away leaving a cloud of dirt behind it. The air cleared and I was still standing, unable to move. I wanted to get back into the car and drive far away from this unknown place. I wasn’t prepared to see how much the occupation of Iraq had broken the country. Reading articles, statistics, and news reports never prepared me for this.
I walked through a town that had been destroyed and deserted. Seized, conquered, and forgotten. I stood as if I was stuck in place. Stuck like the people of Fallujah, unable to escape the poverty, fear, and despair. I stared in awe and disbelief. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I could not breathe properly even if I tried to. I fought back tears. With clenched fists and my body trembling with weakness, I knew I had to keep moving. I had to get away. Is this the Iraq that I had come back to? I trudged along with my head down, unable to face the repeating images that I would witness for miles ahead. I felt myself wanting to fall and crumble to pieces, just like the buildings around me that had been blown to pieces in 2004 by American forces. Blinking as if I had just awoken from a nightmare of sorrow and uncertainty, my mind collided with reality. Surely, this is how the citizens of Fallujah must feel on a daily basis. With death and wreckage everywhere, the souls of the dead filled the air. I again had to stop and regain myself. The thought of thousands killed on these same sands made my tears flow uncontrollably. Now I understood why articles claimed Fallujah was hit the hardest by American forces. How hard I cried for Iraq. Silenced.

Overwhelmed, I left for Baghdad only to realize the actual depth of America’s occupation. On the way, I stared out the window and saw American soldiers in their trucks parked alongside the road. I jumped out of my seat and asked the driver to stop, because I wanted to speak with them. He and everyone around laughed. I sat back in my seat frustrated. What was I supposed to do? The frustration only grew when my thoughts drifted away to my wait at the Chicago Airport. Hundreds of soldiers returning from Iraq, walked by, as they were being applauded and filmed by a news station. One soldier was stopped by a man sitting nearby. “Thank you for protecting our country,” the man said as he shook his hand.

Hours dragged on before I got to Baghdad. I held my breath. My mother had warned me about Baghdad before I left. I could hear her voice replaying in my head, as I constantly prayed for my safety. I am my mother’s favorite child! I knew with her praying for me, I would be safe. It kept me going whenever I sensed my strength waning. “Don’t utter a word of English -they’ll know you’re American. Don’t wear all black. Shiites get kidnapped and killed every day. Wear a colored scarf and sweater! If you pull anything out of your suitcase, make sure it doesn’t have any English writing on it. People will know.” This wasn’t the Iraq that I knew. Before, it was a diverse country. Between people, differences were valued and cherished. That part of our culture had obviously changed. As if trying to conceal certain parts of my identity, I got out of the cab and asked God for a simple request: Please let me return to my mother.

I set my bags and suitcase in the bedroom near the living room. Tired from the constant traveling, I wanted to nap before I went out to cautiously roam around Baghdad. I unpacked my suitcase, and chatted with the family I was staying with. The electricity went out and I went back to my room to sleep. I suddenly heard three loud bangs. It was a deafening sound. A sound that meant over a hundred killed in just seconds. These people simply vanish from this earth leaving behind a mourning community. I huddled in the corner of the room. Is this the life that Iraqis must endure? Must humans live through this as the world watches? Silenced.

Day 6: “You know, my niece, her husband, and the three little girls with them were all killed by American soldiers. My niece was seven months pregnant.” Um Laith, a tiny-65-year old woman, who I was staying with, was telling me about her family. “The soldiers had blocked the roads with their tanks for hours and hours. She was seven months pregnant and left the car to walk because she got tired. American soldiers fired on her and the cars near them. They killed everyone in the car. Silenced. I turned my face away and warmed my hands by the small gas heater she had placed nearby as we ate a simple breakfast. The electricity was out so the small gas heater would do for now. “The soldiers bombed the electricity company and the water facility here. They said the companies were harboring terrorists. They bombed the facilities within two days of their invasion! It happened so fast, we didn’t even have time to leave. We have to do with what the government offers to us, thank God.” I had become accustomed to the biggest interference of living a normal life -electricity outages. Everything revolved around whether or not the electricity was available, which it often wasn’t. I helped her clean up afterwards. I opened the fridge up to put away some of the untouched food. The fridge was dark and empty. Keeping food in the fridge wasn’t an option, so families had to spend money to grocery shop every morning. Eating out was an alternative. It was less costly, but very unhealthy. Even the everyday task of eating, such a simple aspect of life, was complicated to such extremes by this brutal occupation.

Hearing the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque, I went to the guestroom to pray. Afterwards, I walked throughout the neighborhood to breathe in the air. I needed to breathe. I had been waiting for an explosion to sound off or an ambush by a random militant group to occur within seconds of opening the door. I could see my breath in front of me, and I still felt suffocated, small, and trapped from the fear and paranoia. I felt the same down south, in the “safer” areas of Iraq.

Day 11: My cousin ran outside my uncle’s home and stopped in front of me. He glared at me, and then looked at me like I was stupid. “You’re not in America! Why would you step outside by yourself? Do you know how many people have been kidnapped here?” All I had done was walk two steps outside the noisy house to call my mother. This was a sad reality that people faced. A fact of life. Knock on any door in the neighborhood and ask if a family member of theirs has ever been killed or kidnapped, and you would get a “yes” from an overwhelming majority. I went back inside to the main living room and my cousin annoyingly mentioned my extreme actions to my family and the guests that were present. A lady I didn’t know looked at me and softly said “My mother left to Karbala years ago, and they were stopped on the way and taken. I haven’t heard from her since. I know she’s gone.” The police don’t even bother looking. They are most likely dead, killed by militant groups. No tears. No sadness, as if it was a normal occurrence- A trivial event in life that one must get over. Silenced. She cupped her hands tightly together. “Allah kareem,” she whispered. God is generous. I left the room to catch a breath after the woman stopped talking. Many of these groups were foreigners perpetuating the so called “wide scale civil war.” The other militants had been funded by the American government in the beginning of the invasion. These groups expanded, uprooting Iraqi life and culture.

Four weeks have passed and I’m now in Ann Arbor. Was this the reality? Do humans suffer like this, and the world doesn’t give them a second glance? Are Iraqi lives of less value? Are they of any value? This is their reality, not mine. These are the stories of silenced, oppressed, and invisible people. Stories that deserve to be told and remembered. Strength and courage are lessons to be learned from the Iraqi people. I came back trying to cope with my experiences. I was affected and scarred. I felt hopeless, being thousands of miles away. All I can do is share their stories.

After the supposed troop withdrawal, people applauded the “liberation” of Iraq. This was as if life for Iraqis suddenly improved and the broken pieces of Iraq were put back together. The question of whether life is better in Iraq before or after the invasion is irrelevant. Millions of Iraqis are still suffering, their lives forever fragmented. It’s the same life for Iraqis- just a different Saddam.

Driving through Iraq, I constantly saw the Iraqi flag raised everywhere. I wondered to myself why they didn’t just raise the American flag. With America’s tight grasp on the government, Iraq’s oil, and the strategically placed bases, the American government has complete authority and control over Iraq. The colonial grip on Iraq is strangling it from any progress, justice, independence, and peace. America’s newest colony ought to be recognized. A new star should be stitched into the American flag. Iraq has become the 51st.

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2 thoughts on “The 51st Star

  1. wow Banen, this is a really well written and detailed description of what it’s like in Iraq. It’s daunting and at times difficult to keep your eyes open and absorb the situation in these circumstances but I’m glad you had the courage to because I learned so much from your experience and from this piece.

  2. Thank you so much Banen for sharing your experience. I had chills from beginning to end and you really opened my eyes to the reality of the occupation’s effect. The story of the Iraqi people is an undocumented aspect of the war so I thank you for giving us insight of the continued struggles they face.

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