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Neighbors in Iraq

5.1. 2010

Do we see an enemy or a neighbor in Iraq?

“Blessed are the eyes that see what I see,” Jesus said to his disciples, adding that many people don’t see clearly. Just then a lawyer questioned Jesus and Jesus turned the question to the love commandment and told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37).

Jassam Mohamed, an Iraqi medical assistant (left), hugs Weldon Nisly, whom he cared for when he was injured in a car accident in March 2003. Photo by Jamie Moffett

Jassam Mohamed, an Iraqi medical assistant (left), hugs Weldon Nisly, whom he cared for when he was injured in a car accident in March 2003. Photo by Jamie Moffett

“I remember you. I carried you,” he said, a revelation that was as straightforward as it was startling. For seven years I had remembered Rutba but did not remember being carried by someone after collapsing from injuries in Iraq. For seven years I had longed to return to Iraq, especially to Rutba, where some Iraqi people bandaged our wounds in a time of war. These Good Samaritans saw Cliff Kindy, from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), Shane Claiborne, from the Simple Way, and me as injured people rather than hated enemies.

Seven years ago when the U.S.-led war on Iraq began, I was in Baghdad with other members of CPT, “getting in the way of war.” We wanted to help the world see the war through Iraqi eyes—a different war from the “embedded” view seen on American television and newspapers.

On March 29, 2003, seven CPTers, including Cliff and me and a few others from the Iraq Peace Team, including Shane, left Baghdad in three cars. We were traveling across the Iraqi desert when our car blew a tire, careened into a ditch and turned over, injuring Cliff, Shane and me as well as a Korean peacemaker and our Iraqi driver.

Some Iraqi men in a car speeding the other direction saw us and stopped to help us while U.S. bombers flew overhead. These Good Samaritans quickly put us in their car and took us to a small clinic in Rutba, where an Iraqi doctor and his medical team treated us.

Iraqis and Americans together: In the middle, from left, are Peggy Gish, Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy and Shane Claiborne.  Photo by Jamie Moffet

Iraqis and Americans together: In the middle, from left, are Peggy Gish, Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy and Shane Claiborne.
Photo by Jamie Moffet

While caring for us, the doctor expressed distress that the hospital had been destroyed by U.S. bombs three nights earlier and asked, “Why would your country bomb our hospital?” He quickly added, “But don’t worry, we help anyone here; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Iraqis or Americans. You are our brothers, and we will take care of you.” He also apologized for their meager medical supplies and facilities. Cliff and I well remember having stitches put in our head with no anesthesia available.

When we were leaving, we tried to pay the doctor, but he refused to take money. Instead he asked us to tell the world about Rutba.

In the seven years since this life-changing event, we have remembered their generosity and told the story of Rutba. We have also longed to return and find the Good Samaritans who cared for us while our country invaded theirs.

Finally, in January, Shane, Cliff and I, along with Peggy Gish, another Iraq CPTer, made this journey. Joining us were Greg Barrett, who is writing a book about Rutba, Jamie Moffett, who is producing a film about Rutba, Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi leader of the Muslim Peace Team, and Logan Mehl-Laituri, an Iraq war veteran who is now a conscientious objector.

When we arrived in Rutba, we were escorted to the hospital where we were welcomed by Dr. Nazir and the mayor of Rutba. With typical Iraqi hospitality, we were served tea and juice. Both men insisted that we were their guests and graciously provided our lodging and meals during our entire visit.

A tour of the hospital let us see what they had rebuilt from the rubble of the earlier bombing. We heard the sad news that a little boy who was in the hospital and his father were both killed in that bombing. We saw a small operating room with an old operating table that had been dug out from under the rubble. We met a father and mother who brought their ill baby daughter to be treated at the hospital. We saw again that what they lacked in modern medical facilities and equipment they more than made up for with compassionate care, just as we had seen seven years ago.

The most eye-opening encounter for me happened one evening in the hospital guesthouse. We were visiting with hospital staff members when suddenly I saw the weathered face of a man standing in the doorway wearing a big smile. A puzzled feeling came over me at the sight of this strangely familiar face.

An unremembered yet familiar man walked in and said with delight, “I remember you,” pointing to Cliff, “I remember you,” pointing to Shane, and “I remember you,” pointing to me. Then he added to me, “And I carried you.” As Sami translated what he said, I grasped what it meant; he had been there and had carried me from the car into the clinic. Sa’ady Mesha’al Rasheed is the ambulance driver and was at the clinic when the Iraqi men brought us there seven years earlier.

I had told our Rutba story many times but had never mentioned Sa’ady carrying me from the car to the clinic because I had not remembered—until I saw his face in the doorway and heard him speak. Then my body remembered. With tears in my eyes, I thanked him and listened as Sa’ady told us what he remembered. He had been suffering from asthma that day, he explained, adding simply, “But you were collapsing, so I carried you.”

Sa’ady also shared other distressing memories of the war in Iraq. ‘We’ve been traumatized by the invasion,” he said. One night he and his family were awakened by the explosion of a bomb blowing open his front door, a terrifying sound that had been heard many nights in Rutba. They felt the terror of heavily armed soldiers storming through the house in the middle of the night. With quiet sadness but without malice he said, “It was painful for me to see soldiers pull down a cabinet filled with nice china I had bought for my wife on my travels. They destroyed everything for no other reason than to humiliate us. I kept silent because I was afraid of being handcuffed and tortured if I said anything. I will never get over that night. Our children have witnessed these things and will never forget.”

“Another time,” Sa’ady continued, “I was driving the ambulance, taking a pregnant woman to the hospital in Ramadi, three hours away. She was in labor, bleeding and in pain. American soldiers stopped us, put me face down on the ground for three hours while they searched the ambulance. They could hear the woman moaning and pleading for help. After three hours someone brought a dog to check the ambulance before they would let us go on to the hospital.”

We heard many other stories about life in Rutba the past few years. One man told us that during the years that U.S. troops occupied Rutba he and his family went to bed with their clothes on. Nightly raids humiliated women who were pulled out of bed and traumatized everyone as they handcuffed men and took them away. One young man was pulled out of bed and handcuffed wearing only an undershirt. He was forced to lie on the floor of a helicopter. It was a cold night and they left the helicopter doors open as they flew, and he almost died of hypothermia. Another summed up our return to Rutba when he said, “Your being here is good because you will help Christians see that Muslims aren’t terrorists and Muslims to see that Christians aren’t infidels.”

Our only disappointment was not meeting Dr. Farouq, the doctor who cared for us seven years earlier. He is now at the hospital in Ramadi near Baghdad, about three hours away, and could not get away to come back to Rutba while we were there.

Nevertheless our return to Rutba was also rewarded when we met Tariq Ali Marzoug, a nurse, and Jassam Mohamed, a medical assistant, who had cared for us seven years earlier. When Jassam came in, I eagerly reached out to shake his hand, but he reached out and gave me a big hug and said, “I welcome you with an Iraqi greeting.” With amazed delight he told us, “When I heard you were here I thought you must have forgotten something. I could hardly believe that you came such a long distance to see us.” We asked what they thought when Americans were brought to their clinic that day. Without hesitation they replied, “We did not see you as Americans. We saw you as injured people who needed help.” They assured us that this is not an exception but is the Iraqi way.

Jesus ended the parable of the Good Samaritan by asking who was a neighbor to the injured? The lawyer confessed that it was the one who showed mercy. Jesus concluded, “Go and do likewise.”

Weldon D. Nisly is pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church.

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