By Jim Douglass
John’s question — Are you the One? — remains with me when I visit Ameriyeh shelter in Baghdad.
Four young men lead us into the darkness of the Ameriyeh shelter. The candle held by the leader was our only light until we approached the center. There the huge gash in the ceiling revealed how the two bombs had entered at the target’s bull’s-eye, a ventilation duct. Light streamed into the darkness through the opening, illuminating beneath us a a bomb-sealed door to the second level of the shelter.
The incineration of 1700 people in the Ameriyeh shelter at 4:30am on February 13, 1991, had been done with an economy of war technology. Only two bombs to seal all the doors: the first blasting open the roof; the second serving to destroy the electrical system controlling the shelter’s outer exit doors. Then the 2200-degree (Celsius) heat from the bombs quickly burned up the women, children, and older men of the 400 families allowed into the shelter. Only 30 victims survived, by escaping through an emergency exit in the rear. They bear terrible scars, physical and psychic.
In the center I looked up at the daylight, entering at the same angle that the U.S. bomb did. The light broke through crumbling shreds of concrete, with girders hanging like the petals of a flower.
And beneath our feet must have been the bone remnants of the people who were trapped inside.
We are silent. These realities, and our complicity in them, enter into our consciousness as the bombs did the shelter.
Afterwards, outside in the sun, a man walks up to me. He is Mohammed, 23 years old. Two of his uncles and two of their children died there.
Mohammed says something I had not heard, but hope is true: “The pilot cried.”
He adds, “No honor. Just babies, children and parents.”
One of the young women with us is sitting on a block of concrete, feeling the horror and the responsibility of what we have seen. A neighborhood girl dressed in red pants and shirt, with blue sandals on, comes to the woman. She puts her arms around her, comforting her.
The girl’s name is Nadia. She is nine-years-old, a fifth grader from the neighborhood. Like everyone in Ameriyeh, she has lost friends and relatives, but her immediate family is alive. Her little sister is nearby; her father and mother are across the street, giving us friendly waves.
From what inexhaustible well do these people draw their forgiveness and compassion? My friend is sobbing as Nadia talks to her softly.
A boy is crossing the street toward us, bringing a pitcher of water. His brother is with him, carrying a tray with cups on it. The pour cup after cup of cold water for us, to slake our thirst in the Baghdad heat. I remember being warned repeatedly before the trip not to drink the water, contaminated from the U.S. destruction of Iraq’s water system. Cholera is a distinct possibility.
These people who have suffered so much from our bombs keep repeating that it was not our fault. They say they understand that. We must not blame ourselves.
We drink their water as communion.
For us the One who is to come is here. Emmanuel, God with us, is here in the forgiveness of these people.
REFLECTION: Have you ever had an Emmanuel experience, a time when God was present to you in a special way? Recall it and be present to that coming of God for a few minutes.
This reflection is from The Nonviolent God is with Us: Reflections for Advent 1992 by Jim and Shelley Douglass. Jim Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace and the author of JFK and the Unspeakable.