by Cathy Breen, NY Catholic Worker
“Can you help us!” cries the voice over the phone from Damascus. “There are explosions and killings in our neighborhood. We are afraid to leave the apartment. Where can we go?” I have no words to advise or comfort them. We are helpless to know how to intervene on their behalf.
Many months have passed since I last wrote you. Reports of the tragic plight of Syrians having to flee the violence of their country have been filling the media. The UN has officially asked neighboring countries to remain open to Syrians. But the same countries are closed to Iraqis, and the media is silent regarding the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria. They have no option other than to return to Iraq…. to the country from which they were forced to flee.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive an email or desperate phone call from Iraqi refugees we know in Syria, from trusted Iraqi translators who know them, or members of their families living here or in Canada. I just received news that yet another Iraqi refugee family in Syria has returned in desperation to Iraq. In haste they took one of the free planes sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki from Damascus to Baghdad.
A UN refugee agency official reported on Tues, Aug. 7th that more than 22,000 Iraqis have fled the violence in Syria for their home country in less than three weeks (AFP, Aug. 7, 2012, The Jordan Times). And we see the violence in Iraq escalating. In June of 2012, at least 544 people were killed in Iraq. Last month, July, the death toll was at least 325, with 700 wounded. We are fearful for the well-being of those returning. Will it be like going from the frying pan back into the fire?
Just recently an Iraqi family with three little boys and a one-year old daughter returned to Iraq. Iraqi children were being kidnapped with break-ins and killings escalating in their neighborhood outside of Damascus proper. About two weeks ago, they related to us that they are now back in Iraq, in a dangerous area going from “friend’s house to friend’s house.” While in Syria, they were accepted for resettlement to the U.S. They want to know what hope, if any, there is for them?
I was in Syria in December of last year during the celebrated U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. I felt ill as I read the words of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Baghdad and those of President Obama welcoming the troops back at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Panetta, former head of the CIA, said to U.S. troops in a quiet ceremony in Baghdad:
“The cost has been high, in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people, but because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity, for a free, independent and sovereign Iraq…it is because of you and those who served here during the past eight years, that we are able to be here today to mark the end of this war….We may have ended the war, but we are not walking away from our responsibility.” (American Forces Press Service, Dec. 15, 2011)
Iraqis continue to bear the brunt of war. In my last two trips to Jordan and Syria (Mar.-Apr. and Nov.-Dec. 2011), I purposely sought out and met with Iraqi individuals and families who had recently fled Iraq because of assassinations, kidnappings and death threats. Their experiences dispel the myth that the war is over. How foolish of Mr. Panetta to suggest that the U.S. has ended a war. The Iraq war is far from over.
It is the longest war in U.S. history. The First Gulf War in 1991 was followed by years of devastating economic sanctions. The 2003 U.S- led “Shock and Awe” campaign and subsequent war unleashed an atmosphere of chaos, carnage and killing that seems to have no end. The mere passage of time cannot undo the damage that our nation has inflicted upon the people of Iraq, and the disastrous undermining of international law that went along with our policy. As truth is the first casualty of war, so the recovery of truth is the first step toward accountability.
As you know I have been following the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria (as part of Voices for Creative Nonviolence) since 2005. The generosity and support of so many of you over the years have made these trips possible. More often than not, my letters to you seem filled with distressing news. On a more cheerful note, Kathy Kelly is with us in N.Y. City for a few days having just returned from a month in Afghanistan. It is so good to have her close at hand. I hope these lines find you well and ever involved in the struggle for peace.