Issue 2, Summer 2007


Collateral Damage
by L.K. Clark

Note for myself: The following is a transcript of two interviews I conducted after the incident at the Rasool home in which the subjects requested anonymity.

Both agreed to the interview only because they understood I represented The International Council for Women’s Concerns and would not use the material in some sort of exposé. I posed only one question: do you remember what happened on May 29, 2003?

Lance Corporal Steve Gill

Sure, I remember what happened. To tell you the truth, I can’t seem to forget it.

It was a Thursday, about 16:00 local time. Our squad was ordered to go to Hamman al Alil to pick up a prisoner. There were twelve of us, including squad leader Sergeant Frye and our driver. We were stationed in the next town over, so we got there quick, by 16:20.

An hour earlier, a couple of our guys nabbed an Iraqi for a weapons violation. They were holding him at the local police station. We needed to get information from the man before his supplier got wind of his arrest.

They apprehended him with ten AK47s, several grenades, three rocket-propelled grenades, and several other weapons in his possession.

It was fairly obvious that the guy—Ali Hashim—was only interested in defending himself. For that reason, our company commander thought we should cut him a deal. If Hashim would tell us where he picked up the arms, he could go free.

Two other Marines and I entered the police station with Sgt. Frye. An Iraqi police officer escorted the prisoner from his cell to speak with us. Though no interpreter was present, Sgt. Frye didn’t think we should wait for one. He wanted to resolve the matter quickly.

The sergeant resorted to communicating with his hands and crude drawings. After several minutes, Hashim understood. Or so it seemed. All that was required of him was to take us to the place where he had purchased the weapons.

We headed out in a humvee followed by a five-ton truck. Two to three kilometers from the police station, we came to the edge of town.

There, we stopped in front of a small stucco house close to the Tigris, hidden from its neighbors by densely growing palms. Our entire squad piled out of the vehicles. Hashim was placed in the back of the five-ton.

The sergeant entered the house with several other Marines to round up its occupants. Soon, a family exited the premises. There was one man, three women (who I assume were the guy’s wives), a boy, and four girls. The man and the boy were dressed in typical long tunics over baggy pants; the girls in basic kid clothes; and the women in simple homemade dresses. Their hair was pulled back into ponytails.

Though standard procedure calls for us to conduct a full body cavity search of detainees, Sgt. Frye decided to forgo the strip search because of the women. He didn’t want to make a tense situation worse. This, it turned out, was a grave mistake.

After a quick pat-down of the group, the sergeant took all but four of us into the house with him. Two Marines stood guard near the road, preventing any interference by visitors. The truck driver kept an eye on Hashim. I was ordered to guard the family.

I suppose most people would have felt sorry for the family. The women were forced to stand in front of men they didn’t know in everyday house dresses and uncovered heads.

I’m sure the kids, who ranged from a little girl of about three to a boy of eleven or so, had no idea what was happening.

I also have no doubt the husband was humiliated. He was powerless to protect his family.

Still, I didn’t feel too sorry for them.

It’s not as though I hate Iraqis. It’s just that I’ve never met one that I felt I could trust or respect. That might sound harsh, but if you’d seen and heard about some of the things these people do, I think you’d feel the same way. People who would rape a woman in front of one of her male relatives in order to punish that man, or who would throw a young child into the road in order to stop a vehicle, or who would settle scores with rival gangs by kidnapping innocent people are not honorable to me. It’s easier to remain emotionally detached from them.

I didn’t want to appear threatening to this family, especially to the women and children. I was holding my gun, but I had the butt stock leaning against my shoulder and the barrel pointed down.

I think things would have been fine if it hadn’t been for that dog.

The thing was a mongrel. He was large, though—bigger than a German Shepherd. He had scraggly, medium-length, walnut brown fur and long, floppy ears. I guess he was a mutt you could love. I assume the kids loved him. But I sure didn’t.

Shortly after the family was led outside, the beast started barking. No. Let me rephrase that. The dog alternately yelped, growled, yapped, and snarled at me. The whole time, his ears were flattened and the hair on the back of his neck bristled. He inched his way closer and closer to me, trying to find the ideal place from which he could make a full, lunging attack. I tried to repel him. I couldn’t very well give my full attention to guarding the family with an animal crouching in front of me, ready to strike.

First, I yelled at him, but that didn’t faze him at all. Next, I kicked him, which only seemed to further enrage him. After that, I tried to push him away with the barrel of my gun. Unsuccessfully.

Finally, the animal mustered enough courage to strike out at me. He latched onto my leg, yanked at it, let go, and then attacked again.

Somewhere in the back of my brain the voices of the three other Marines who were outside with me registered. “Shoot him!” “Smack him!” “Kick him in the head!” The words jumbled together in the throes of my mini-battle.

The demon got in four blood-tapping bites before I lift my rifle and bashed him on the head. Oh, and did I ever place that gunstock well. That dog fell like a rock, with no sign that he would move again. Ever.

I know that sounds brutal, but I had a job to do, and that miserable dog was doing everything in his power to keep me from my duty. There’s not a Marine I know who wouldn’t have done the same thing under those circumstances.

The family, however, didn’t understand. They went abruptly, totally, undeniably berserk. With their hands waving, they all started yelling curses at me (at least, that’s the way I interpreted them). I could imagine what they were saying, no translator required: “You dirty rotten American. You killed our dog. Our pet. What kind of heartless creature are you? You come to our country and you think you own it. You come into our house and walk in like it’s yours. Our dog tries to protect us from an armed stranger and what do you do? You kill him!”

Then, in the midst of all this commotion, the boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. I’m not talking about a jackknife or a switchblade here. This hummer had an eight-inch blade, and the kid ran directly toward me with it.

I yelled at him, “Get back,” and pushed him with the butt of my rifle. But, no. The boy hunched down, weaving from side to side, trying to find the best vantage point so that he could plunge that knife into my body and leave me the way I had left his dog. He was a kid, yeah, but one who obviously had experience fighting with a knife.

I had no choice. I swung the butt of my gun up with a single stroke, catching the side of the kid’s head. I followed that with a hard slam on the top of his head. He fell like a duck plucked from the sky by a hunter. He lay completely still.

The father scudded toward his son, paying no attention to me or my gun. His eyes scanned the body of the downed boy and he set his fingers gently on the boy’s cheek. Then, with fire in his eyes, he grabbed the knife from the kid’s hand and rushed toward me.

If you’ve ever seen any of those documentaries that show how Marines are made, you know that we’re taught to respond to threats instantly and decisively. Otherwise, it could cost us our lives. And so my body, my reflexes, and my training told me to take this threat seriously. I lifted my rifle and, without hesitation, shot the man in the head. There was nothing else for me to do.

That’s when the wailing began. We’ve witnessed it before lots of times. It’s one of those cultural things, totally different from anything back home. The women throw dirt on their faces and keen, loudly and for a long time. Typically, they keep this up until we either leave or give them what they want. In this situation, of course, I couldn’t–no one could–give them what they wanted. There was no way I could undo what had happened.

Within a couple minutes, Sergeant Frye and the rest of the squad came out of the house. After a thorough search, the only weapon-related items they found were some expended rounds of ammunition and a gas mask. Something was wrong.

The sergeant phoned the police. Minutes later, they arrived with an interpreter as per Sgt. Frye’s request.

They hauled the prisoner out of the five-ton and questioned him. I couldn’t hear the conversation because of the women’s wails, but my truck-driver buddy filled me in later. For some reason, Hashim had led us to the wrong location. This was not the home of his weapons supplier. This was his cousin’s house. Yes, he could take us to the supplier, he said. He wanted to know why they didn’t ask him to do this in the first place. I don’t know how they explained the boy or his dead cousin to him.

How do I feel about what happened? Sick. Angry. Rotten. Those women were left with a dead husband and a severely injured child (our corpsman verified the boy was alive, but gave us no prognosis about his recovery). Their lives—all of them—were ruined.

Still, no one can blame me. I did my duty. It wasn’t my fault it was the wrong house. This is war. Unfortunately, things like this happen.

I don’t know if I’ll ever tell anyone back home about this. I honestly don’t think people would understand. They don’t really know what it’s like to be in a war. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the sick realization you were part of what happened to the dead man in front of you–those are things they can’t imagine. As it is, they’re insulated, protected from most of the gruesome details. Some people probably wouldn’t even want to know. So it might be better if this kind of thing never made it to newsstands or television sets. I don’t know.

I hope the family can somehow forgive me for what I did to them.

I know I won’t forget what happened that day. Never.

Shivana Rasool

Remember? Of course I remember. The events of that day changed my life.

My two best friends were visiting me. Safia came with her son, Abbas, and Ersa brought her young daughters, Maha and Akila. Their children were quietly playing with my daughters, Lina and Nada.

Safia and Ersa were helping me to finalize my plans. They didn’t like the idea of losing me, but they understood why I had to leave.

We were quite free to meet, since none of us had jobs. After the war in ’91, we and countless other Iraqi women were told to leave our jobs and go home. What a stupid and wasteful order.

All three of us returned to our hometown. Before long, we were all married. Although our immediate prospects didn’t include jobs, we each had husbands we loved and looked forward to starting families.

Safia was the first to give birth. She and her husband, Maneer, were so proud of their new baby boy. But something dreadful happened during the delivery and Safia was left sterile. Still, Maneer was and is a good man. Safia and their son were enough to keep him happy. At least they were until that day.

Ersa’s is a sadder story. Years passed before she could conceive. Her husband, Abdul, became impatient. He took two other wives in short succession. The three women lived together under one roof, though not happily. Constant quarreling and bitter words almost destroyed Ersa, a sensitive woman by nature. When she felt she could endure no longer, she gave birth to a precious and beautiful daughter. Eleven months later, she bore another baby girl. Any contemplations of leaving her husband dissolved into a quiet, profound desperation. There was no way she could care for her girls without her husband’s income. Ersa loves her sweet Akila and Maha and would tolerate anything in order to have them in her life. Still, if only things were different...

Safia and I are Ersa’s only close friends. Quietly, secretly, she has uttered to us what she dare not say to any other: the one she truly blames for her plight is Allah himself. She feels that he alone is responsible for her being born and forced to live in this misogynistic society. Safia and I have voiced our protests at such words, but not loudly. I must admit I’ve felt the same.

So we were all gathered in my home with my husband, Taleb, in another room. He had only been home for a short time. I remember being glad I didn’t have to contend with his sour mood earlier that day. Since the war began, his temper has become intolerable.

It’s no surprise these days to hear large vehicles rumbling down our narrow street. It’s not even a surprise to hear gunfire nearby. But this was the first time we heard military vehicles stop in front of our house. We couldn’t imagine why. The children, all five of them, rushed to a window to spy on the intruders.

Soon, someone was rapping loudly on our door. Taleb opened it to soldiers, who barged in and entered our front room. We all huddled in fear.

Events slurred into one another after that. We held our children closely, trying to protect them from Allah knows what. Then we were outside, still clinging to one another.

These were Americans. The Americans I was thankful to have in our country. I knew they had sacrificed much to come to Iraq to rid us of the crushing rule of Saddam Hussein. But what were they doing at our home? We had no idea what they wanted or expected.

Most of the soldiers entered our house. We were helpless to resist the intrusion.

Two others stood near the road, rifles in hand, while another guarded the back of the truck. What was in there? Weapons? Prisoners, perhaps?

The final soldier stood only two meters from us. He didn’t aim his rifle at us, and for the sake of the children, I was thankful for that small blessing. The man was obviously ordered to keep us there. So there we stood.
It’s a strange thing how the brain works. For several moments, my mind turned its focus elsewhere. I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking about my girls or my friends and their children then. Or even about the American invasion and the subsequent infiltration of our country by radical Muslim Sunnis and Shias.

We faced undeniable horrors under Saddam, but there was one small blessing we enjoyed: we had the freedom to choose whether or not to wear the hijab (the Muslim headscarf). Now, though, the extremists feel they have the right to decide this issue. Professional women, schoolgirls, and even Christians are being forced to don the hijab.

Much worse, the radicals don’t see the horror of a family killing a daughter who has been raped. They consider this the way to expunge the stain she is said to have caused them and to protect their family reputation and honor.

In the vacuum that was created when the government fell, gangs have also arisen that harbor no qualms about kidnapping and raping women in order to settle scores.

Organized crime has become a virulent strain of domestic disease. These criminals traffic in cars, drugs, and women. I’ve been told the price of a woman is sixty British pounds.

So why, in light of all that has taken place in our country and was happening at the moment with my family and friends, was I thinking of something I overheard at the market recently? I don’t know, but I could clearly visualize it. A group of old men was passing time together, talking about the seemingly ubiquitous U.S. forces.

“How do you suppose those Americans are able to survive the heat with so much gear on?” one man queried. “They wear long-sleeved, closely-fitted shirts beneath flack vests. Heavy trousers clad their legs. On their feet, they wear boots, and helmets cover their heads.”

“I’m sure they carry some sort of personal air-conditioning,” one man answered.

“Yes,” another said. “I’ve heard those flack vests have a hidden cooling unit.”

“No, no,” yet another chimed in. “It’s in the helmets. I don’t know how it works, but it must be effective.”

“I don’t know,” a fifth man answered doubtfully. “That doesn’t seem possible. Though I did hear something else.”

“What?” the first man asked.

“Well, you know how they wear those sunglasses?”


“Well, I heard that some of them–the kind with mirrors–are a sort of x-ray machine. They can see right through people’s clothing.”

“You mean to say they can see though my wife’s and daughter’s clothes?”

“So I’ve heard.”

Can you imagine? I nearly burst out in laughter thinking about those silly old men.

I was snatched from my reverie by our dog, George. After the last war, my husband named the dog after the U.S. president who began that conflict. That Bush had called for Iraqis to take up arms against Saddam’s regime. Many did so, banding together in the cause of liberation. But Bush called his troops home. By the time Saddam Hussein was finished exacting his revenge on the rebels, 30,000 Iraqis had been killed.

Almost from the time we were forced out of the house, George began barking. And barking. He was particularly agitated by the soldier close to us. If the man let his guard down at all, I knew George would attack him.
Lunging forward, then drawing back again and again, George finally managed to break through the man’s defenses and bite him several times. The soldier reacted by smashing George on the top of the head with his rifle. I’m sure our dog was dead before he even hit the ground. We were all shocked. George was gone.

Horrified and angry, all we could do was cry out. Why did this happen in front of my girls? George was the only pet they ever had.

I knew that Safia’s son, Abbas, loved George as well. He played with the dog whenever they visited. But I never expected Abbas to pull a knife from his pocket and charge at the soldier in order to avenge the dog’s death. What was he thinking? He saw the man had a gun.

Then the unthinkable happened. The soldier struck Abbas, sending him to the ground almost as quickly as he had the dog. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Next, Taleb ran to Abbas, grabbed the knife from the boy’s hand, and hurtled toward the soldier. In the space of several heartbeats, Taleb was gone. The soldier shot him.

Overwhelming shock struck us all. As one, we began wailing, throwing dirt in our faces. The needless deaths of a child and a man. Why, oh why?

The answer to that question came the next day. A relative told us my husband’s cousin, Ali, had been in the back of the truck. He had led the soldiers to our home. It had all been a misunderstanding. I don’t know how things could have careened so out of control.

Fortunately, Abbas was not killed. Still, I’m sad for Safia. Her son must remain in the hospital for a long time; he may never completely recover. I hope Maneer loves them enough to stay with them.

I don’t mourn for Taleb. That very day, I was planning my escape from him and from Iraq.

Why from Iraq? The memories are too horrifying. The terrors friends and relatives suffered under Saddam were unthinkable. Gas attacks, acid baths, torture with electric shocks, and rape are just some of the nightmares I don’t want to remember.

My personal terror came from a place much nearer, though. For what reason, I’ll never know, but my friend, my love, my husband, turned into my worst enemy.

Somehow, something seemed to snap in the minds of Iraqi men after the first Gulf War. Polygamy, divorce, and domestic violence mushroomed. My own husband became a monster.

I could have tolerated divorce. But, no. Taleb beat me instead. He yanked out my hair in large clumps; it will never grow back. I lost three teeth after one beating; they won’t grow back, either. I think some ribs were cracked or broken; it hurts sometimes when I breathe.

But I am finally, joyously, free of him. If it’s possible, my girls and I will go to live with my brother’s family in Canada.

But even if we stay here, life will be different, better. Now I have a future; now I have hope and life.