Three years ago this month, Vivian Salim Mati drove with her family from their Baghdad home toward the airport highway to escape a bombing raid. As they were leaving the city, an American tank fired on them without warning. Mati recalls seeing the soldier shooting bullets from the top of the tank. Within moments, her husband, her two sons, her daughter and her mother-in-law were shot dead in the car. Mati received neither explanation from occupation forces nor compensation for her loss.
Earlier this year Mati decided to join a delegation of Iraqi women to visit the United States and recount her experiences in the war. Mati traveled the dangerous route from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, to obtain her US visa. However, her visa was denied on the grounds that she might overstay her visit because she lacked “sufficient family ties that would compel her to return” to Iraq. Her fellow delegates, who recounted this story, felt it especially grievous that the US government cited Mati’s lack of family–deaths for which America was responsible–to explain why she could not enter the country.
Code Pink, a national women’s group known for its creative approach to antiwar activism and signature pink outfits, sponsored and accompanied the delegation on a month-long nationwide tour. In their encounters with Americans, which began March 8 with meetings and events in Washington, DC, to mark International Women’s Day, the Iraqi women hope to convey the grim realities of the US occupation, one that has been essentially invisible to American citizens and lawmakers.
They are not just offering testimony about the impact of the ongoing violence on families and children; they have come to initiate change by lobbying for US accountability and withdrawal from Iraq. Like Cindy Sheehan, who focused America’s attention on the war by publicly grieving for her son, antiwar activists are making a subtle but important shift in focus from protest demonstrations to pushing for legislation, taking their personal experiences of the war into policy-makers’ chambers.
In their first public meeting in the United States, the Iraqi delegates spoke from the corner of a chapel in Manhattan and described the deteriorating conditions for women under the occupation. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, a pharmacist in a large hospital in Baghdad, explained the daily conditions in her workplace: wards full of bloody bodies from roadside explosives and shootings, and doctors who have few sterilization tools or other medical supplies. “And everywhere there are women–wives, mothers, daughters–crying for their dead loved ones,” she said.
“Death is the familiar in Iraq. It is normal to go to the hospital and ask about your friends and family,” added delegate Faiza al-Araji, a civil engineer living as a refugee in Jordan. The delegates choose words to describe the violence that are blunt and clinical–tanks, blood, torture and shrapnel–dispassionately reciting one loss after another.
While many accounts describe the brutality of war, others capture the more insidious aspects of occupation: a lack of clean drinking water, sewage-contaminated rivers, mounting theft and internal strife as people fight over mundane necessities like light bulbs and batteries, electricity that runs for only an hour a day–not long enough for hospitals to operate or for people to use the Internet. Worst of all is the normalcy of fear: of midnight raids, of random explosions and of one another. The results have transformed society–Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds are pitted against one another, and children’s psyches are warped by the traumas of violence and loss.