Voices from Iraq: Ali Al-Shaheen

Mark Kukis, Voices from Iraq

“I cried for Iraq. To me the fall of that statue was a symbol for the fall of the country, not just one dictator.”

Mark Kukis’s Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009 collects testimonies from a wide range of Iraqis who experienced the United States invasion and the subsequent occupation and insurgency. Throughout the week we will feature excerpts from the book. The first is an account by Ali Al-Shaheen, who was a successful chicken farmer just south of Baghdad. The following is an excerpt from his account of the invasion and first days of the occupation:

We had a satellite dish, and all the news channels began reporting that Baghdad had fallen. We still had not seen any American troops. Then on the television we saw the images of mobs pulling down the statue of Saddam. I cried. My wife cried. Not for him, mind you. I cried for Iraq. To me the fall of that statue was a symbol for the fall of the country, not just one dictator.

In the days after that we never left our area. The mobs were everywhere looting, and a bunch of us from the neighborhood began organizing watches to try and keep our houses safe. We knew the mobs would come, because our area was wealthy and home to several prominent figures from Saddam’s regime. The looters came like ants. They started ransacking houses near us, in sight of the Americans. There was a tank at either end of the main road in our neighborhood, and six or seven shot-up cars sat on the street with several dead people in them who had apparently been killed by the Americans for whatever reason, getting too close to the tanks I guess. There were bodies on the street as well. The Americans were just sitting in the tanks overlooking this for days but not coming out. I went with some neighbors of mine who also speak English to try and talk to them. They shooed us away without speaking. So, we were left on our own to protect our houses. We set up roadblocks, and we would stand guard on the rooftops. If anyone saw anything, he would fire and we would all grab our guns. I always had with me in those days a Kalashnikov and a revolver.

We managed to keep ourselves safe even as the mobs tore through the houses around our block for four days. Eventually the mobs took what they could carry from the houses around us and disappeared, and all was quiet. Some of my neighbors suggested we try to talk to the Americans in the tanks again. I said no. They had refused to talk to us last time, and some attacks against them had already started. We could be killed if we tried to approach them again if they thought we were suicide bombers or something. Well, some of my neighbors went without me and tried to talk to them anyway. This time the Americans were willing to talk, but my neighbors could not communicate with them well. So they sent for me. I speak English, but I had never heard it like the way they talked with their southern accents. One said, Whaaat’s the prablam? I said, With all respect, all we need from you is some help clearing the bodies from the street. The flies were unbelievable. Huge balls of them were rolling over the street with the bodies there. They gave us body bags and said we could bury all the corpses except the ones in the cars nearest to the tanks. They did not want us near the tanks.

We buried about seven bodies just in shallow graves just in the partition of the road. I had to cover my mouth with a cloth, because the stench was horrid. The weather was warm, and these bodies had been out for days. They weren’t even bodies, just rotting remains.

Two days later the smell from the corpses in the cars near the tanks was so unbearable that the Americans shoved them off some distance with one of their vehicles but still left them sitting in the street. Six or seven days after that someone came running to me saying the Americans wanted to see me. I went to them, and they told me that if we wanted to bury the bodies now, we could. At this point, they were just piles of bloated, rotting flesh. You could see worms crawling out of them. Many had no heads. And the cars were so damaged that you could not just open the door and get them out. You needed tools. I told them we simply couldn’t do it. They said they would help by getting tools to wrench the cars open. They could not stand the smell any longer and were eager to do something. They got started, but I could not stand it and had to turn away. Somehow they got all these bodies out. I went through some of their identification cards. One of them was a pilot, a civilian pilot. I remember that. We buried him and the others from the cars there in the road along with the rest.

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