Simple Acts of Kindness
by James Rupert
Deep into a war that, willingly or not, we must call ours, what should our purpose be? Working in Iraq last fall, I found my best answer to this question from meeting Ala Imad.
It was Baghdad's first day of school since U.S. forces had overthrown Saddam Hussein. As any reporter might, I visited a school to write a story about it. Ala was one of forty-nine sixth-grade girls crammed into a small classroom.
When I asked the students what they knew about Americans, they of course replied from their experiences. Americans wear body armor and helmets, and ride on tanks or trucks, the girls said. And as curious as you might be about them, it's best to keep away, because if something threatens or frightens them, they are quick to fire their guns—in almost any direction. In the class, almost everyone seemed to know of someone who had gotten hurt or killed that way.
Ala was eager to tell her friends some astonishing news. She was the one girl in class who actually had spoken to some of these Americans. “They have kids at home—our age!” she exclaimed. “They said they miss them and they try to keep talking to them by e-mail.”
I scribbled this in my notebook. Iraq's 24 million people and the 150,000 U.S. soldiers who effectively are made to rule them are for the most part separated by barriers of language, guns, and fear. Ala's discovery that some of the soldiers have children seemed a hopeful sign that some bit of human recognition had burst the divide.
“Where did you meet these Americans?” I asked Ala. “In the marketplace,” she said, and I bent my head to the notebook to write it down.
When I looked up, Ala was sobbing.
It was a lie. She hadn't met them in the market; they had burst into her home in the wee hours of the night and rounded up the family at gunpoint. Someone had told them that Ala's father was a loyalist of Saddam Hussein. The soldiers searched the house for weapons, and through an Iraqi interpreter, they questioned her father at length. A couple of days later, they came back and questioned him again.
Now, weeping, Ala was afraid that she had made a terrible mistake in speaking of this publicly, for now the soldiers might become angry and come back to take her father away.
How to heal this child's wounded heart? As the most transient of visitors to her life, I could offer no more than a few well-meant words that surely would soon evaporate before Iraq's more violent and enduring realities.
I told Ala that American soldiers, unlike Saddam's thugs, certainly would not arrest her father simply because she had told her story. (Reality is that U.S. forces have arrested thousands of Iraqis for reasons that their families cannot learn or understand.) I told her that I, and my friends and neighbors in America, certainly did not want the innocents killed or injured, did not want Iraqis to fear every time a loved one left the house. (Reality is that the streets of most cities are more violent and frightening than at any time in most people's memory. Much of the violence of Saddam's day simply has moved from inside the police stations and security offices to neighborhood streets.)
That we Americans want Iraqi children to be safe in their homes or walking to school should go without saying. Among Iraqis, it does not. And there, perhaps, lies our work.
Any healing of a war must begin with reaching the wounded, to let them know that we hurt with their pain, that we grieve with their grief, that we want for their children what we want for our own.
Iraqis must not be permitted to know Americans only as soldiers, inscrutable and dangerous with their strange language and the guns they fire readily. The soldiers, God help them, do what they can. They often struggle against the impulses of combat to avoid killing an innocent. As trapped as they might feel in an isolating, uncertain mission, they spend off-hours painting a school here, rebuilding a clinic there.
But the need to reach millions who are wounded in body or in spirit is too great not to be the work of all Americans. The chaos, the big-power politics that seem to drive policy, the withdrawal of even the United Nations—all can make it too easy to despair of implementing our own personal Iraq policies. But there are ways, as you can find on page 36.
As we stand witnesses to this war that we must call ours, let us consider what work we might call ours.Look again at Ala's picture. For an American stranger who told her that she and her classmates and her family counted, that smile was the reward. When ignorance and fear are deepest, the simplest act of kindness is unexpected and therefore most powerful. Love can surely never be more resonant and magnified than when extended across the chasm of war.