- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

As American families mourn and suffer through the loss of more than 3,500 of their loved ones in the war in Iraq, an estimated 70,000 Iraqi civilians also have died. This is the story of just one of those deaths, told through the eyes of a sister.

BAGHDAD

It took many months to get the courage to write this. Violent death has become so common that it is difficult to find anyone living in Baghdad — four years after the U.S. invasion — who has not had someone in their family die. We all struggle to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning, the will to go on with our lives.

My younger sister Luma and I were so close growing up. We were different: She a stylish head-covered woman in a Muslim society, whereas I loved going to work each day with my head uncovered, in fashionable Western dress. It was never easy for me, but Luma was always there providing comfort, encouragement and advice in a culture where tradition and modernity always created an uneasy mix, within our family and in the world beyond the walls that surrounded our father’s house.

I was happy for Luma when she became engaged. One could tell she and her future husband were in love. After the wedding, when she went to live with her husband, we used to speak by phone several times each day, telling each other what we had done, Luma in the classroom where she taught a class of a secondary school girls and me working as a translator, mostly with Westerners. She brought cookies she had baked when her husband would bring her over to the house. We would go out shopping, visiting friends all day long until her husband came to take her back. As Baghdad became more and more dangerous, I would call on the cell phone while they were still in the car, just to make sure they arrived home safely.

As soon as she became pregnant, I began shopping for the baby, buying clothes and trinkets on the way home from work. I loved the small, colorful items as they gradually accumulated in my room. Would it be a boy or a girl? We didn’t know. I was counting the days until Luma would give birth. As she approached her ninth month, I began urging her to begin her maternity leave, but she insisted on working as long as possible. Finally she agreed, and on the morning of Dec. 26, which was to be her last day at work, she awoke early, prepared breakfast for her husband and went to school with plans to have lunch and spend the afternoon with fellow teachers. They planned to walk to a restaurant, believing that walking would help facilitate the birth. Her due date was just a week away.

That day, the school bell rang and Luma headed to her classroom upstairs on the second floor, where she gave her girls their first semester grades. She also wanted to say good-bye because it was her last day.

She never made it. At 10 a.m. an explosion outside the school shattered the classroom windows and sent a piece of shrapnel into her right thigh. Her blood spread like that of a slaughtered sheep across the classroom floor. The girls started crying and screaming in panic and others rushed upstairs, thinking at first that she had gone into labor after the shock of the explosion. When they saw the blood coming from her thigh, they improvised a stretcher from a blanket, carried her to a police car that was standing near by the school and drove through Baghdad’s clogged traffic to nearby Al-Nu’maan hospital.

The doctor said he did not have what he needed to stop the bleeding, so they took Luma to another hospital.

It was 12:15 p.m. when my brother-in-law called. By then, Luma had been bleeding for nearly two hours. He assured me that Luma would be fine, and there was no need to worry, but I could tell by the tone in his voice that the situation was serious. It took us — my older brother, his wife and me — more than an hour to reach the hospital. I ran inside, down halls with people whose voices I could not hear and a feeling of numbness all over. We found her in the X-ray room, covered in a blanket with her husband and two of her colleagues at her bedside. She was moaning quietly. I could only blow a kiss toward her pale yellow face and whisper under my breath: “Stay safe. I am waiting for you.”

Later, a doctor appeared and asked us to provide her at least 10 units of A-negative blood, a rare type. They said they had none at the hospital. I remember shouting and crying and screaming in the hospital’s passages, asking for the director-general’s office, but he never appeared. Finally, we managed to locate two units of A-negative blood. I would have given Luma all of my blood, but our blood types didn’t match. I began calling relatives and friends. One of my brothers donated two units, another relative two more. By the time a cousin arrived to donate two more units, the baby had already died. Another cousin arrived to donate two more units of blood, but by then it was over. Luma had passed on a few minutes earlier.

She died at about 10:20 p.m., after struggling with pain for nearly 12 hours. I fell to the ground. Everything stopped inside me. Why should such things happen? I wished I could turn back the clock and stop her from going to the school that day.

That was 14 months ago. She is gone, but my memories with her are still alive and everywhere, in each corner of our father’s house, where we grew up together. The places we used to visit together, to go shopping, even the fingerprints she left on my forehead when trying to massage away my headache are still there. She would call every day to check whether I had eaten my lunch, or to check whether I was sick or well. Now the phone is silent. She died once, but I feel like I die every day because of the sadness. Tears roll down my face every day. I can hardly eat, or take care of myself and have lost interests in the world around me. I wish I could die just to be near to her.

A few days after Luma died, she came to me in a dream and said: “Jenan, you were absolutely right when you said that I died at 6:00 p.m. and not at 10:20 p.m. but no one believed you. I already died at 6:00 p.m. as you said, but I was so sorry about the baby who died inside me, my poor baby suffered and was in a lot of pain before he died.”

In the dream, “I said, ‘No, dear, do not worry, it is OK, you can be pregnant again and have another baby.’ ”

Then Luma said, “No, everything is over now,” and tears rolled down her face.

The baby’s stuff still sits in our house: the small cradle, clothes, toys, Pampers, shampoo, soap, the small chair on wheels, the wading pool and even the small bag Luma prepared to take to the hospital when it was time to give birth. It all sits in a separate room. I look at it every morning and then close the door. My body shivers whenever I see a little baby these days. I doubt I can ever carry or hold a baby in my arms, because each baby reminds me of the child that died inside Luma.

I still feel Luma sitting beside my pillow most nights to help me sleep when I have trouble sleeping. Luma loved her house plants, and she brought me some of those plants. I water them when they are thirsty. Sometimes, I put on her clothes. They still have her smell. I gave her mobile phone to one of our sisters. When she calls, Luma’s name appears on my phone. Messages come with Luma’s name.

Once, Luma came to one of our friends in a dream and said: “I am not fine because Jenan is so sad and upset. I do care about her. Please ask her not to be sad for me. I never died. I am still alive. I am living a wonderful life here.”

I wear a gold necklace around my neck with Luma’s name engraved in big letters in English. Sometimes people on the street will say her name out loud, thinking it is my name. They ask me, and I can tell them a little bit of the story. Luma passed away, but she lives with me. I pray to her, ask her to help me. She is more than a picture or a name worn on my neck. I still depend on her, and she stays with me most of the time.


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