Remembering Anthony Shadid: In Iraq — A boy who was ‘like a flower’

From Baghdad on March 30, 2003, Anthony Shadid wrote: On a cold, concrete slab, a mosque caretaker washed the body of 14-year-old Arkan Daif for the last time.

With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif’s olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif’s right arm and right ankle with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the back of Daif’s skull.

The men in the Imam Ali mosque stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words of his father, was “like a flower.” Haider Kathim, the caretaker, asked: “What’s the sin of the children? What have they done?”

In the rituals of burial, the men and their families tried, futilely, to escape the questions that have enveloped so many lives here in fear and uncertainty. Beyond some neighbors, family, and a visitor, there were no witnesses; the funeral went unnoticed by a government that has eagerly escorted journalists to other wartime tragedies. Instead, Daif and two cousins were buried in the solitude of a dirt-poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood near the city limits.

The boys were killed at 11 a.m. today when, as another relative recalled, “the sky exploded.” Daif had been digging a trench in front of the family’s concrete shack that could serve as a shelter during the bombing campaign that continues day and night. He had been working with Sabah Hassan, 16, and Jalal Talib, 14. The white-hot shrapnel cut down all three. Seven other boys were wounded.

The explosion left no crater, and residents of the Rahmaniya neighborhood struggled to pinpoint the source of the destruction. Many insisted they saw an airplane. Some suggested Iraqi antiaircraft fire had detonated a cruise missile in the air. Others suggested rounds from antiaircraft guns had fallen back to earth and onto their homes.

Whoever caused the explosion, the residents assigned blame to the United States, insisting that without a war, they would be safe. “Who else could be responsible except the Americans?” asked Mohsin Hattab, a 32-year-old uncle of Daif.

“This war is evil. It’s an unjust war,” said Imad Hussein, a driver and uncle of Hassan. “They have no right to make war against us. Until now, we were sitting in our homes, comfortable and safe.”

As he spoke, the wails of mourners pouring forth from homes drowned out his words. He winced, turning his head to the side. Then he continued. “God will save us,” he said softly.

At the mosque, hours after the blast, Kadhim and another caretaker prepared Daif’s body for burial — before sundown, as is Islamic custom.

Bathed in the soft colors of turquoise tiles, the room was hushed, as the caretakers finished the washing. They wrapped his head, his gaze fixed, with red and yellow plastic. They rolled the corpse in plastic sheeting, fastening it with four pieces of white gauze — one at each end, one around his knees and one around his chest.

Kadhim worked delicately, his gestures an attempt to bring dignity to the corpse. He turned Daif’s body to the side and wrapped it in a white sheet, secured with four more pieces of gauze. Under their breaths, men muttered prayers, breaking the suffocating silence that had descended. They then moved toward the concrete slab and hoisted the limp body into a wood coffin.

“It’s very difficult,” said Kadhim, as the men closed the coffin.

On Friday, he had gone to another mosque, Imam Moussa Kadhim, to help bury dozens killed when a blast ripped through a teeming market in the nearby neighborhood of Shuala. The memories haunted him. He remembered the severed hands and heads that arrived at the Shiite mosque. He recalled bodies, even that of an infant, with gaping holes.

“It was awful and ugly,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this.” [Continue reading...]

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