This is the farm village that Cliff Kindy, leader
of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), refers to as the "razor wire place."
It's actually a small town, around half of which the U.S. Army has unrolled
concertina razor wire, and completed the effect with a checkpoint and curfew.
Six CPT members are returning for an update from the residents on the latest
U.S. raids and detentions.
On the 30-mile trip from Baghdad, the city falls away as we drive into open
countryside. Approaching Abu Hishma, we pass a small house about 150 feet from
the road that is now a pile of rubble. Our interpreter, Sattar, said the house
was destroyed because "it was too close to the road and coalition forces
With a minivan stuffed full of westerners, we arrive 10 minutes before the
5pm curfew, wondering if we'll be allowed to pass the checkpoint into the
district cordoned off by the wire. Just before reaching the gate, our driver
spots his brother, coming in from the fields in a pickup. They exchange a few
words and we follow his brother closely through the checkpoint staffed by the
ICDC, the Iraq Civil Defense Corps. They look into the van briefly, smile, and
wave us through.
Inside the wire, kids of all ages spill into the narrow streets from all directions,
smiling, laughing, and waving joyfully. The streets are all dirt, barely more
than lanes, some still quite muddy from rains several days ago. The minivan
bounces along, perilously close to the edge of the ditch to let vehicles coming
towards us pass. There is really nothing resembling a berm, and the kids back
up on mere inches of muddy lane to let us by, still laughing and waving. Some
shout "Saddam, Saddam" but it's not clear how much of the shouting
is a political statement and how much is kids being kids for a rare carload
of westerners. Each time we turn a corner it appears we're about to run over
a youngster, or at least knock one into the ditch, but somehow, just as Baghdad
drivers avoid accidents in the most impossible situations, the children remain
Our contact, Aziz Musla Hussain, a local journalist, is nowhere to be found.
We are creeping along narrow lanes with a boisterous bunch in tow, moments before
the curfew hour, not sure where we are going to stay. The driver offers the
hospitality of his home as a last resort. The CPT members decide to call on
the local sheik responsible for the welfare of about 25,000 residents of Abu
Hishma, some inside and some outside the wire.
We are welcomed warmly by Sheik Mohammed Abbas Alawa's oldest son, Shalon.
He is nearly fluent in English, learned while studying Recent U.S. History at
the University of Baghdad. Sheik Alawa enters momentarily. After discussing
the issues of the day in Abu Hishma, we are served our second chicken and rice
dinner of the evening. The first was only two hours ago in the village of Abu
After eating, drinking tea, and further discussion, fabric cushion mats and
blankets are brought in for bedtime. Sheik Alawa makes sure everyone is comfortable,
leans his AK-47 against the wall next to his pillow, and retires.
The next day begins early. We are soon on our way to listen to more stories
from the people of Abu Hishma.
Cliff says this is a farming village, but it is unlike any farm or village
I've seen in the U.S. There, rural population centers range in size from
hamlets of a few homes, to small cities with their emblematic water towers.
The farmhouses are always widely scattered, single-family homes with accompanying
barns and outbuildings – the typical white frame house and red barn – often
surrounded by enough lawn to require a miniature tractor.
But in this place north of Baghdad, a farm village is something completely
different. The homes are much smaller. A few have postage stamp-sized yards,
but in most cases lawns are replaced by barnyards – meaning that the chickens,
goats, cows, manure piles, and mud-hut outbuildings are literally a few steps
out the back, or sometimes front, door. Mixed in with the animals and sheds
are bundles of neatly stacked fruit tree prunings, dead cotton plant stalks,
and other material that appears ready for the stove. The roads are not more
than single dirt lanes. Hard up against either side of these lanes are earthen
walls about four feet tall, with rounded edges. Colorful blankets air on second-story
The muddy lanes pose too much of an obstacle for the usually unstoppable local
drivers, so we walk. The kids mug for the camera, run and jump in front of,
alongside, and behind us. Some wear light jackets against the chilly morning
air. Most are barefoot, oblivious to several varieties of manure dotting the
First stop on our Abu Hishma walking tour is ahead on the left, a victim of
what the Glossary of Military Terms & Slang from the Vietnam War refers
to as "H & I," or harassment and interdiction fire: "Random
artillery (or aerial) bombardments used to deny the enemy terrain which they
might find beneficial to their campaign; general rather than specific, confirmed
An outline of a house foundation frames a perfectly-centered bomb crater 15
feet deep and 30 feet wide. Destroyed 10 days ago at 8:00 a.m., by a single
bomb, the dwelling was home to a family of seven who miraculously were not there
at the time. But the youngsters bring other evidence of the blast to our attention.
One of their pals, Hahmed Fadhil, wears a gauze patch taped over the right
eye he said he lost when the bomb exploded. Two boys poke a stick at an orange
and white cat that has achieved immortality for having died in a bombing. We're
shown window frames in homes two blocks away, where cardboard replaces the glass
reportedly shattered by the same explosion.
A hundred feet up the lane, a smaller bomb crater is off to the side. Before
we hear its story, we're distracted by six U.S. helicopter gunships roaring
low overhead. They pass quickly.
We return to the cars and drive a short distance to our next stop, a slightly
larger farmhouse on the edge of the village. It is the home of Yasseen Taha,
a 33 year-old farmer who attended evening classes at the University of Baghdad's
Islamic Studies program.
On October 17, Yasseen's brother, Aziz, and his wife, Majida, were shot
and killed by troops from Lt. Col. Sassaman's base, according to Yasseen's
uncle, Muhnna Azazzal, who spoke with us.
On that day at about 4:00 p.m., U.S. troops and tanks stationed at the former
Iraqi airfield three kilometers south of the Taha home, came from that direction
toward the village, "firing randomly," said Azazzal.
Yasseen's younger brother, Aziz, a fourth-year student in the University
of Baghdad's English Studies department, was struck by one of the bullets
and mortally wounded. Yasseen's wife, Majida, knelt to help her brother-in-law
and was hit by a bullet and killed instantly. She left three children, the youngest
15 days old. Aziz died within two hours, but in the meantime, Azazzal said,
U.S. soldiers surrounded the scene, telling neighbors to keep back and denying
Aziz any first-aid.
Aziz' sister, Asmaa, said that she witnessed the carnage that day. Seeing
her brother shot and bleeding to death, she began to cry hysterically. An American
soldier responded by firing his rifle into the ground near Aziz' dying
body "to mock my grief," she said.
Just then, we witnessed what looked like another H & I incident. Two helicopters
flew low over the village, circled, and fired machine gun bursts into an open
pasture a couple hundred meters away. "They do it just to scare us,"
one villager shrugged, or as a former Iraqi soldier later told me, "we
used to call it 'showing the teeth.'"
Muhnna Azazzal resumed his narrative. Ten days after the October double murder,
U.S. troops arrested Yasseen. Soldiers had been attacked in the vicinity, Azazzal
explained, and Yasseen was a prime suspect, having just lost two family members
to Army shootings. Three months later, the farmer from Abu Hishma still sits
in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, still denied visitors. Azazzal, his uncle,
said he later heard from released detainees that Yasseen was accused of "terrorist
A rooster crows in the Taha farmyard. Chickens scratch in a small, neatly-fenced
grass front yard. Three helicopter gunships roar overhead. In the dirt side
yard are two red heifers, an earthen oven, a mud brick outhouse and piles of
stacked brush. Several small Holstein dairy cows graze in a narrow, rich pasture
just beyond the lane. Yasseen's uncle, Muhnna, says with equal parts hurt, disappointment
and anger in his voice, "soldiers that do these kinds of things don't deserve
to be called Americans." Two more helicopters roar in from another direction.