Iraq’s Mothers of Battle
Athra has a recurring dream.
Her eldest son, Haider, appears before her. He is wearing his brown camouflage Iraqi national guard uniform, and his hands are bound behind his back. He is pacing in a darkened room that looks like a cell. His mouth is open. He is screaming, but no sound comes out.
Haider is alive and free, but Athra believes her nightmare is a vision of his future.
She has seen the videos of captured Iraqi soldiers that the insurgents post on the Internet. The first videos, widely aired on television, usually show them pleading for their lives. Often, a few days later, a second clip airs showing them being shot dead or beheaded.
In a neighboring area of Baghdad, Mariam, 45, a Fallouja native, has taken refuge in an abandoned hospital after fleeing two weeks ago before the imminent U.S. attack on her hometown. Her sons would kill Haider if they met him.
Mariam’s three eldest sons are foot soldiers in the Fallouja insurgency, residents of the city who joined the rebels. She is not ambivalent about their commitment to killing government security forces.
“A fatwa has been issued to behead any ING [Iraqi national guard member] that enters Fallouja and is caught,” said Mariam, who like Athra asked that her full name not be used because she feared for her sons’ safety. “We consider them traitors.”
This is now the dominant front of the war in Iraq. Transcending explicitly sectarian or ethnic lines, the division is between Iraqis who fight for the interim government and those who struggle against it.
So far in this Iraqi-on-Iraqi battle, the results have been lopsided, with the insurgents staging brutal attacks on those wearing the uniforms of Iraqi government forces, who unlike U.S. troops are usually less well armed and less well trained than the guerrillas. In the last week alone, at least 40 were killed. And in a single incident in late October, 49 national guard recruits were executed in an ambush.
The way the two mothers view their sons’ lives -- and potential deaths -- speaks volumes.
For the mother of the guardsman, who longed for her children to lead quiet lives, each day brings dread.
For the mother of the mujahedin, inspired by a combination of religious faith and righteous indignation at the U.S. military presence, death brings glory.
Although she is now a refugee and her possessions hang in worn plastic bags from nails on the wall, Mariam is every inch a matriarch, proud of her children, perhaps proudest of her three sons -- all in their early 20s -- who stayed in Fallouja to fight the “infidels.”
“They are still there, protecting the city,” she said, adjusting her cream-colored hijab.
She sat cross-legged on the bare floor of the hospital, surrounded by her two younger sons, her three daughters and a few of her grandchildren.
For the Sunni Muslim mother, the mujahedin are friends and caretakers, and she does not question their choice of enemies. Interim Iraqi Prime Minister “Iyad Allawi said the mujahedin are using civilians as human shields,” she said. “These are lies. It was the mujahedin who helped us leave Fallouja; they found us a car.”
Mariam professes not to worry about her sons’ fate. “Even if they die, they are martyrs, we know they will be in heaven,” she said. “Eventually we all die, but at least if they die now, they will have died for a reason.”
Her sons were not active in the insurgency until the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was publicized in April. Widely seen photographs showed U.S. troops torturing Iraqi prisoners, forcing them to simulate sexual acts and otherwise humiliating them in front of their peers.
“When they began to join was after the Abu Ghraib pictures. How could we bear that?” Mariam said.
In recent weeks, her sons have all but vanished. They do not tell her exactly what they are doing. Even before she came to Baghdad, they stayed away from home for much of the day and night.
“For a while now we haven’t seen much of our men because they were guarding the streets and searching for spies,” she said. “When I call them, they tell me, ‘Don’t worry about us, we are only eating and sleeping,’ but we know, we know what they are doing. They will not tell us if they are fighting because they don’t want to worry us.”
For Mariam, the days of uncertainty ended when she learned this week that her sons survived the Fallouja offensive, escaping from the city on the fourth day of fighting and making their way to Baghdad by desert roads.
With Americans bombing homes and storming mosques where insurgents had taken cover, her view of the situation is straightforward: Her sons are protecting the family land and property; the U.S. and allied Iraqi forces are intent on destroying it.
As for the Iraqis fighting alongside the Americans, Mariam views them as the most ignoble of all. “The Iraqi national guard is like the Americans -- maybe worse than the Americans because they are traitors to their Iraqi brothers,” she said.
Her daughter Esra, 26, nodded vigorously. “They are after money and success,” she said. “Our men are after jihad.”
Mariam already knows where her sons will be buried -- in the martyrs’ graveyard in Fallouja’s soccer field. But the days of mourning them will resemble those for other Fallouja fighters. It will be a celebration.
“You serve juice instead of coffee, and we even have people play music and drums,” she said. “My neighbor’s son was killed by the Americans, and his sister distributed candy -- it was like a wedding.”
For Athra, the guardsman’s mother, the thought of rejoicing in her son’s death is unimaginable. She says her nightmare jolts her awake every few days, her body shaking and sweating, her face covered with tears.
A mother of two sons and two daughters, Athra begged 19-year-old Haider not to join the national guard, but he wanted to earn money and the pay was good: $350 a month.
“This was the only job he could get -- he tried for so many jobs,” she said, speaking at a cousin’s house because she was afraid of talking about her son’s job in her own.
“When he told me he was joining,” said Athra, 38, “I knew it would be his end.”
Since September, when Haider joined the guard, she has lived furtively, afraid of divulging her son’s employment.
“I haven’t even told his relatives,” she said. “Even his little sisters and brothers don’t know. I am afraid they might say something to the neighbors. I am afraid there are spies among them.” The cousin in whose home she spoke is an exception, and Athra trusts her only because she has known her since childhood.
The woman who lives next door to her is from Fallouja -- a place of darkness to Athra, a Shiite Muslim who covers her clothes with a black abaya and her hair with a black veil. Fallouja is almost entirely Sunni, and these days Shiites venture there at their peril.
“Her brother lives in Germany, and she boasts that he sends money to the mujahedin fighters. This woman hopes her son will die because then he will be a martyr,” Athra said. “I don’t know what kind of heart these people have.
“She considers my boy a coward because he is not fighting with the Falloujans.”
Haider never wears his uniform in the neighborhood. When he leaves his post, he carries it home in a bag. Aside from her cousin, Athra has only one friend with whom she can talk about her fears, a woman whose son is also a guardsman.
Much like the mothers of the mujahedin, she never knows where her boy is. For their own protection, the guardsmen are not told where they will be posted.
“I am afraid the day will come when he will be sent to Fallouja or Ramadi,” she said.
Just the sight of guardsmen in Baghdad brings tears to her eyes. She sees each as her son -- vulnerable, disliked, a target. Twice she has been on bustling Haifa Street, in a heavily Sunni neighborhood, and seen the empty uniform of an Iraqi national guard soldier hung up like a scarecrow to warn off anyone from joining.
Hung nearby was the black flag of the Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad militant group, which has spearheaded the Fallouja insurgency and claimed responsibility for many brutal attacks, including beheadings.
Now Athra’s son is home for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which ended Monday. But she takes little comfort from it. “Even when he’s here, I have an ache inside because I know soon he will leave,” she said.
She’s haunted by the gift he presented to her and her husband before he left for his first posting: a photo tableau. In the center is his portrait in his national guard uniform, and on either side a small picture of each of his parents. It is the style used as a memorial when someone has died. “I felt that he put that up because he is going to die,” she said.
Such fears are known to the mujahedin mothers as well. Beneath the brave front, Mariam, too, has a catch in her voice. She glances quickly at the TV set showing pictures of U.S. tanks firing into Fallouja homes. She admits that she comforts herself by saying over and over one of the first prayers she taught her boys as children: “I trust myself to the hands of God.”
Often when Mariam calls her sons -- as she did until the Fallouja fighting started in earnest and she could no longer reach them -- they tell her that they still say their prayers.
“I like to think of them saying that prayer now,” she says.