Columnist Vijay Prashad: Those left behind after terrible wars

  • Iraqi security forces fire tear gas during clashes with anti-government protesters, in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday. AP

Published: 11/11/2019 6:00:19 PM

From two different worlds, a common feeling. The series in the Gazette on those left behind after lives lost to opioids came just as the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, filled with brave protestors.

Baghdad was not alone: It was joined by Santiago (Chile), Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Beirut (Lebanon) and more. These are protests against austerity, against a world order produced by the very rich for their own narrow gain.

Nor is the Pioneer Valley alone as the wickedness of heroin courses through the world. Bewilderment at the state of the world produces pain and suffering at one pole, and protest at another. That much is clear.

But I was not thinking about reactions to the disorder on the planet. I was thinking of my Iraqi friends who were also “those left behind.”

Dinner with Khalid, Sahar.

Khalid, a veteran journalist who had covered both U.S. wars on Iraq, invited me to his home. I knew Khalid as a secular man, a person whose moral compass had been constructed against the terrible sights he had seen in Fallujah and in Ramadi. Entire cities had been flattened by U.S. bombing, and schools of children had been diseased by depleted uranium. He stood against this. That was all he needed.

Sahar, also a journalist, greeted me at their apartment’s door, her face covered by a cloth. That surprised me. Nothing in Khalid had prepared me for this kind of piety. Sahar shuffled me in, offered me a drink (another discordant note against the piety), and seated me. Khalid was not home yet. He would return soon. Their apartment was modest, the detritus of children and a busy life. Sahar stood in such a way that I could not see her face. We talked of wars and of the end of wars.


Soon, Khalid returned. He poured me another drink, and then a couple each for Sahar and himself. She sat in a chair, drinking arak, chatting about politics. When she rose to check on the stove, the scarf that covered her face fell slightly. Half her face had been burnt, the skin darker and mottled. Both Sahar and Khalid noticed the concern on my face. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “It” referred always to both the incident that burnt her face, and to the burn on her face.

In 2007, Sahar and her three children were going through Baghdad, when a bomb exploded, killing one of her children, and shattering the side of her body. Terrible violence like that happens instantaneously, the mind shuts down so that memories are few, but the body is too soft to protect itself. The death of her child enveloped her, making her own injuries unimportant.

Illegal War.

The phrase “those left behind” from the Gazette series struck me, reminding me of people like Sahar and Khalid, who had been “left behind” from wars that they did not welcome, but which came crashing furiously down on them. This was Bush’s war, an “illegal war,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said. But neither Sahar nor Khalid can sue anyone or find any way to manage their own grief.

There is no proper count from this war, no way to measure exactly how many people died and how many people were injured and how many people suffer from the trauma of these million tragedies. There is barely any acknowledgment of the depleted uranium used in the war, no one listening to Dr. Samira Alani of the Fallujah General Hospital who has — for over a decade — been trying to get attention to the terrible birth defects and heart ailments in her area.

Serial Deaths.

Bush’s war produced a cascading set of tragedies for Iraq, where there seems little exit from the grief. From the embers of the war came ISIS and al-Baghdadi — whose death has often been announced, but who now seems to have actually been killed; out of that war came a much more sectarian Iraq, where the protests over the past few weeks have seen ordinary people hope against hope for a different kind of government. Those left behind find themselves in their own wars, the dead walking amongst them.

Sinan Antoon’s sublime novel “The Corpse Washer” tells the story of Jawad, whose job it is to prepare the corpse for burial. As he uncovers the face of a man whose corpse he must wash, Jawad is startled to find that it resembles a friend who had died many years ago. “But,” he says to himself, “I’ve already seen him dead in my own arms once before.” Jawad is left behind; he is left to wash all the corpses.

Vijay Prashad is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He lives in Northampton.
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