February 13, 2007
It is sixteen years since the Ameriyah Shelter in west Baghdad was bombed,
incinerating all but eight, inside. Figures for the souls lost, still vary
from four hundred and five to over twelve hundred, the registration book was
incinerated along with those who had sought refuge, women,children, students
and on occasion, the very old. The men stayed out to make room for those whom
they wished protection - and to rescue others from the ongoing carpet
bombing. The Shelter was only used over night.
The shelter had been built to withstand a possible nuclear attack, during
the eight year, western driven, Iran-Iraq war. Walls three metres thick with
the roof reinforced by the near indestructable steel 'mesh' used to support
four or six lane road bridges. The only vulnerable point was the ventilation
shaft. Iraq had chosen a Finnish company to build shelters throughout
Baghdad, selecting the company because of perceived Finnish neutrality and
commercial integrity. The company, reportedly passed the plans to the US
prior to the 1991 onslaught.
I visited the Shelter just months after the bombing. We were a group from
various countries and arrived in the early, sparkling sunlight. So unscathed
was the building from the outside, that we had not realised where we were,
talking and laughing under a sky still painted with dawn's translucenct
trails and myriad shades of orange and ochre.
Entering, there was a stunned silence. The smell of burning flesh still
overwhelmed. I found myself tiptoeing through the blackened interior, under
the melted piping, tiptoeing through the screams. There were sooted plastic
flowers laid in dark corners, pathetic scraps of bloodied gauze. The only
light was from the near perfect spherical entry point of the missiles,
illuminating below, the great crater where they fell, the jagged remains of
the centimetres thick steel mesh, hanging, a 'surgical strike' indeed, as a
knife through butter - against women and children.
The Shelter, as during the Iran-Iraq war and in 1991, had been a safe haven
in abnormal times. With electricity bombed, the huge generators allowed the
children brief childhood normality: watching television, playing video
games, reading, playing, homework - and the bombs could not be heard. The
rows of bunk beds were a treat, with a rush to get the top bunk, a joyous
eyrie of escape and escapism.
There were two vast floors, the top for sleeping, studying, socialising,
sharing meals, the lower had showers, kitchens, a medical centre. When the
bombs fell, the heat incinerated those on the top floor - and the vast water
tank on the lower floor heated to bursting - boiling those showering, or
chatting whilst cooking the evening meal, or those whose ailments were being
treated and the medical staff.
The breast high 'scum' on the walls, was the flesh of those who perished. On
the upper floor is the seared 'shadow' of a mother, holding her baby.
Hiroshima revisited. I could bear the screams no longer and fled out and in
to the sunlight. Noticing a small, blackened, brass plaque on the wall, I
asked a Jordanian friend what it read. He struggled with the translation for
a moment, the: 'It is like when there is a crisis and civilian people try to
'Civil Defence?' I asked : 'Yes, yes, it says Civil Defence Shelter No:24.'
America had, of course, claimed it was a Command Centre for Saddam Hussein's
government. A lie, as ever, of enormity. Further, the U.S. had satellites
watching everything (which continued through the embargo years, as now,
clearly visible, blinking away like vast stars, floating, rotating.) A
consistent comment over numerous interviews in the area and Baghdad, about
the Shelter horror, that first vist and over subsequent years, was that for
three days before, a satellite had been rotating over the district.Thus it
would have recorded women and children entering it at dusk and leaving at
dawn. That night there would have been a particular procession and it was
the eve of the festival of Eid and with no means of cooking at home for the
fast breaking, women took their food to prepare in the kitchens and their
festive gifts, to wrap under the lights.
When the fire engines arrived, the rescuers could hear the screams, until
they began to fade away - but the great metre thick steel door, with airline
type handles to seal it from the inside for safety, was glowing like a
furnace, then as it melted, re-sealed itself. Dante, revisited. To have
poured water from gaping missile hole in the roof, would have subjected
those inside to boiling steam.The fire Chief, the toughest of men, who had
seen the unimaginable and directed rescues over many years, faltered as he
said, of the remains they finally brought out: 'We thought we were bringing
out only children and wondered why they were there alone - then we realised
the (adult) bodies had (contracted) to child size with the intensity of the
Anwar, then eighteen and a student ran to help, with a friend with whom he
was staying, nearby. When talking of that night, he too faltered and
stilled, then gestured with his hands, saying: 'The peoples, the bodies,
they had gone so small - like this ..' There is a haunting tale told by Umm
Rheda (mother of Rheda) who left the shelter temporarily to take some
preparations home. Whilst she way away, the bombs fell her children were
incinerated, with Rheda, her eldest daughter. When all the emergency
services experts, the army which was drafted in, had failed to open the
door, she begged and screamed to try. It opened: 'Rheda opened it for
me',she says.The fire Chief confirmed that Umm Rheda opened the door.
The Shelter, over time, became a shrine, the bereaved, visitors brought
momentos, pictures of the dead, the babies, the mischevious, the young
mothers, the earnest students, stared from the walls. The floor was cleaned
and polished, but the skin, the shadows, the seared walls and the screams
remained. Until 2003, this was a unique U.S. wickedness. Another was an
early act of their invading troops : to storm it (with their boots on of
course) and search this sacred, sobbing site, for weapons. And now courtesy
again, of the U.S.A., all Iraq is Al Ameriyah.
Three days before the Shelter bombing, Dick Cheney, now Vice President and
General Colin Powell (designated a 'dove' by the George W. Bush
Administration) visited the US Air base at Khamis Mushat, Saudia Arabia
(slogan: 'bombs are us' and 'we live so others may die.') After a pep talk
to troops, they both signed two thousand pound bombs: 'To Saddam with fond
regards', wrote Cheney ('A General's War', General Bernard Traynor and
Michael Gordon, Little Brown, p.324.)
When the Shelter was bombed, frantic calls followed incase the bombs might
have been involved in this massacre. Cheyney's bomb apparently fell on
northern Iraq, dropped by a Major Wes Wyrich. What souls Powell's decimated,
is seemingly unknown.
The Ameriyah Shelter was bombed on the night of 13th/14th February : the
celebration of Eid, St. Valentine's Day and the anniversary of the fire
bombing of Dresden. When I put this to a U.S. General and remarked on the
'coincidence', he looked me in the eye and said: 'Kinda neat, eh?'