Iraq without its Christians

Iraqi Christians have long prided themselves on being the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, but now they are fleeing the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

Ravaged by sectarian violence and persecution, Iraq’s Christians continue to flee into exile, prompting fears that this community, one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, could be facing extinction in its ancient homeland.
Religious and political leaders are blaming Western countries for encouraging the Iraqi Christians to emigrate, triggering old accusations that Western nations are plotting to displace the Christians from their Middle Eastern homelands.
The number of Christians in Iraq has declined by nearly half since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, according to various estimates, because of political upheaval, attacks, the forced expulsion of the Christians from their home areas and a lack of jobs and economic opportunities.
According to Christian officials, some 61 churches have been attacked in the decade since the US-led invasion of Iraq, with more than 1,000 Christians killed in the violence though not all of them in explicitly targeted attacks.
Nearly half a million Iraqis have died from war-related causes in Iraq since the US-led invasion, according to a study by the British-based group Iraq Body Count that was published last month.
The flow of Iraqi Christians out of the country spiked in 2010 after the Al-Qaeda terror group attacked a church in Baghdad in October of that year. This was the single worst attack on Iraq’s Christians since the US occupation, and it was one that left 50 worshippers and two priests dead.
While many Christians have fled to neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Turkey, others have sought refuge in countries as far as away as Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the United States. Some have moved to Christian safe havens in the Kurdish-controlled areas and cities of Iraq.
Life for Iraq’s remaining Christian population remains extremely difficult. Those who stay in areas under the Baghdad government’s control live in fear of violence, and they are subject to routine intimidation. Unemployment is high among Christians, and some of their businesses, including liquor stores, are often bombed by vigilantes belonging to Islamist fundamentalist groups.
Even those who have fled to Iraq’s Kurdish-controlled north are not better off. Though relatively safe from the bloodshed caused by the nearly daily bombings and sectarian tension in the rest of the country, they face different kinds of threat, such as the seizure of their land and ethnic discrimination.
Most Christians in Kurdistan live in community enclaves in order to feel more secure, and this week political and human-rights activists met in Erbil, the Kurdistan Regional capital, to probe means of combating what they called demographic changes in areas inhabited by Christians in northern Iraq, including those under Kurdish control.
While the consequences of the Christians’ flight may be readily understood, the underlying causes remain unaddressed. Many Iraqis claim that the Christians are not being singled out by mainstream Muslims, but that they have been victims of the nation’s ethno-sectarian divide and violence by extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda.
They argue that the Christians will be better off if Iraq’s feuding Muslim communities resolve their disputes and forge an all-inclusive political system that also includes minorities such as Christians.
Even many Iraqi Christian activists believe that the flow will stop if the government is able to guarantee security to protect the Christians, stop the land seizures, and moderate demographic changes in Christian-dominated areas and provide Christians with jobs.
Some Iraqi Christians have called for a separate Christian “federal entity” in the north of the country that they hope could guarantee them more autonomy and a better political status.
Iraqi political and Muslim leaders have been outspoken against the violence targeting Christians, while the majority of Iraqis are critical of the abuses. This week, the Shia imam of Friday prayers in the city of Najaf, Sadreddin Al-Qubanchi, pleaded with the country’s Christians not to leave Iraq.
“Iraq is a country for all its sons, and it should not see them emigrate,” he said.
The fear of a total exodus, however, has prompted Church leaders and Christian politicians to appeal for greater efforts to be made to tackle factors that could fuel this flight, including facilities to ease the Iraqi Christians’ migration.
Last week, Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, summoned several leaders of Middle Eastern churches to Rome in order to discuss the plight of Christians in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries and to urge them to stay.
The gathering followed a private meeting with 10 heads of Middle Eastern churches on the situation of Christians in Iraq and other parts of the region.
Pope Francis said that the Roman Catholic Church “would not accept” a Middle East without Christians, “who often find themselves forced to flee areas of conflict and unrest in the region”.
Before the meeting some top Catholic bishops had urged action to be taken on what they termed as “the phenomena” of the current migration and the tendencies of some foreign embassies to facilitate the granting of asylum visas for Iraqi Christians.
Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Louis Raphaël I Sako, had requested that this issue be discussed with the heads of the Christian churches and for “practical measures” to be taken to deal with an issue that “threatened the existence” of Iraq’s Christians. 
He had earlier criticised Western embassies for offering visas to the rapidly shrinking minority in Iraq.
“It is unfortunate that some embassies are facilitating the migration of Christians, which impoverishes the country of their skills and weakens their brothers who want to stay,” he told a UN-sponsored conference in Baghdad recently.
Gregory Laham, the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, has also urged European countries not to “encourage Syrian Christians to emigrate” from his country.
Iraqi Christian politicians have voiced similar concerns. On Saturday, Emad Youkhana, an Iraqi Christian lawmaker, urged foreign embassies and international organisations to “stop helping Christians to emigrate” from Iraq.
After the bishops’ meeting in Rome a statement said Pope Francis was concerned by “the situation of Christians, who suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East”.
“We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians,” he said.
Pope Francis has himself been criticised for encouraging emigration, however, after he called in July for “greater compassion” for migrants who make the hazardous crossing across the Mediterranean to southern Europe.
The majority of the Iraqi Christians belong to the ancient Eastern churches whose followers are almost all ethnic Assyrians and Chaldeans. Other denominations include Syriac Orthodox, Armenians and Protestants.
The emigration of Christians from Iraq began in the aftermath of World War I, and it has greatly picked up over the last decade. There were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the 2003 US-led invasion, but now there are about 500,000, according to various assessments.
The roots of the Christian emigration problem in Iraq’s modern history date back to British colonial rule after World War I. On Iraqi independence, the Assyrians, many of them employed in the military under British command, rebelled against the new government, refused to accept its citizenship, and demanded to be given autonomy within Iraq.
The bloody crash of the insurgency led by the Iraqi army in 1933 led many Christians to leave Iraq. Wars, political disturbances and hardships since then have continued to drive Christians either to migrate or to become displaced inside Iraq.
While it remains imperative for the world to be concerned about the status of the Iraqi Christians, their plight should be understood within the context of the political instability the country has been going through since the US-led invasion a decade ago.
Like the rest of the Iraqis, the country’s Christians have fallen victim to the systematic destruction of the Iraqi state and society, which has unleashed an ethno-sectarian struggle over power and wealth and rekindled historical and religious rivalries.
In his elaborate speech to the Baghdad conference, Sako was right when he underlined the deteriorating security situation in the country and “the spread of a culture of majority and minority” as being key causes behind the Christians’ migration.

“Effective forces on the ground have surfaced to use this reality to promote divisions on a sectarian basis, and it seems that the regional and international powers are pushing hard to keep the situation miserable in the region,” he said.

Dancing on Iraq’s divide

Turkey has been walking a tightrope on Iraq, from which it might now be set to fall, writesSalah Nasrawi
When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Iraq last week, he took time out to join millions of Shias paying homage at the Shia holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala on Ashura, the most sacred day of the Shia calendar which marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohamed’s grandson Imam Hussein by the Umayyad caliph Yazid in 680 CE.
Back home in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also attended two Ashura day ceremonies, emphasising in his speeches that Imam Hussein’s “sacrifice is a source of unification and brotherhood” among Muslims “rather than of separation”.
However, Davutoglu and Erdogan’s symbolic gestures towards Iraq’s Shias, which come as Ankara is trying to break the ice with the Shia-led government in Baghdad after a three-year lull, seemed to be more an exercise in political dancing or tightrope walking than a solid diplomatic initiative.
For Turkish diplomacy to be able to mend fences with Baghdad, it needs to be doing more than just avoiding disagreement by saying what Davutoglu and Erdogan think their Shia interlocutors want to hear. This gets them into trouble when the Shias realise that Ankara is courting them while having its eyes firmly fixed on the country’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Ankara’s relations with Baghdad deteriorated following a series of crises after the Shia-led government accused Turkey of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and fuelling its ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Tensions rose after Davutoglu and Erdogan sponsored the mostly Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc in Iraq’s elections in 2010, hoping it would replace the Shia alliance that had controlled the Iraqi government since the collapse of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Shias at that time had accused Ankara of trying to bring the Sunnis back to power.
Relations took another dive after Ankara started building strategic relations with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, including by allowing the Kurds to export oil through Turkey. The state-backed Turkish Energy Company (TEC) was established to operate in Kurdistan, eyeing joint exploration on more than a dozen oil and gas fields in the semi-autonomous region.
Iraq’s central government also protested against Turkey’s decision to give refuge to fugitive Iraqi Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death in absentia on charges of terrorism.
An unauthorised visit by Davutoglu to the disputed city of Kirkuk in August 2012 also triggered a backlash when Baghdad accused Turkey of defying its sovereignty and backing Kurdish claims to the oil-rich province.  
In addition, the war in Syria, which borders both Iraq and Turkey, has been a source of contention as Ankara has supported the Syrian rebels in their drive to oust the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while the Shia-led government in Baghdad has argued that the rising violence in Iraq has been caused by the civil war in Syria that has strengthened the Sunni insurgency and the Al-Qaeda-aligned groups there.
These disputes have embroiled Baghdad and Ankara in a tug-of-war and accusations by the Iraqi Shias of neo-Ottomanism, or attempts by Turkey to promote a greater role for Ankara in the Middle East, including in Iraq which was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
But in recent weeks, Turkey has seemed to have been reconsidering part of its regional strategy, especially its approach to Syria, presumably arising from the stalemate in Syria’s civil war and the deadlock in its peace efforts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey now seems to feel threatened by the rise of Islamist extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Syria, and the resurgence of a Kurdish autonomous entity led by PKK allies on its southern borders.
While for understandable reasons Ankara needs to advance its political and economic ties with the Kurds in Iraq in order to balance those with its sceptical, or even negative, perceptions of the PKK, it has moved fast to build on the Baghdad government’s concern about Al-Qaeda to improve the two countries’ strained relations.
During his visit to Baghdad, Davutoglu pledged to end the diplomatic tensions plaguing the two neighbours. He told his Iraqi hosts at a press conference that “the historical friendship between Turkey and Iraq is as inseparable as ever”.
On Friday, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz proposed that Ankara be the broker in trying to find a solution to an oil dispute between the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan Region. He suggested that Ankara serve as an independent intermediary by having Iraqi oil revenues deposited into an escrow account at a Turkish state bank.
However, it does not take much to realise that the real objectives behind the Turkish moves have not been so much to cement ties with the Shia-led government as to lure the Iraqi Kurds towards Erdogan’s agenda.
On Saturday, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, visited south-eastern Turkey in a historic trip meant to shore up support for the flagging Kurdish peace agreement and bolster Turkey’s influence across its troubled southern borders.
The peace process has stalled since a truce in March, with the PKK saying a package of democratic reforms declared by the Erdogan government last month to reinforce the rights of the Kurdish minority had fallen short of its expectations.
In an unusual scene, the government allowed thousands of Kurds to greet Barzani in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s Kurdish region, in a rally that was attended by Erdogan, who billed the visit as “a historic process”.
Observers have been asking how significant all of this is to Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces crucial elections next year. According to Turkish commentators, Erdogan’s invitation to Barzani serves several political purposes.
First, Erdogan hopes to weaken Kurdish leader Abdallah Ocalan by reminding him that Barzani, who has no love for the imprisoned PKK leader, is a key actor in Kurdish politics. He hopes that by stirring up inter-Kurdish competition he will be able to push Ocalan and his supporters into taking a more conciliatory position on the peace process.
Second, Erdogan is keen to press the peace process in the run-up to the municipal elections next March, with the ruling AKP looking to tempt the Turkish Kurds away from the PKK supporters who govern some Kurdish cities, including Diyarbakir.
Third, Erdogan hopes that Barzani will denounce the transitional administration that the Kurds in Syria declared last week, despite Turkey’s objections, for fear that the enclave will fall under the control of pro-PKK local parties.
“In a way Erdogan is trying to hit several birds with one Barzani stone in this move,” wrote Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin in the Hurriyat newspaper on Sunday.
If this was Erdogan intention, then at first glance he has certainly succeeded in driving a wedge between Iraq’s Kurds and their brethren in Syria and Turkey.
However, it is unlikely that Erdogan and Davutoglu’s Ashura gestures will achieve anything meaningful to the Iraqi Shias or alleviate their concerns about what they perceive as Ankara’s game-playing in Iraq’s internal affairs.  
Erdogan government’s proposal to try to broker a solution to the oil dispute between the Kurdistan regional government and the government in Baghdad has fallen on deaf ears in the latter.
The Iraqi government, which deems the exploration and production of oil by the Kurdish administration as illegal, has repeatedly said it is opposed to any direct or unauthorised exports through Turkey.
Iraq’s Shia-controlled government also expects Turkey to show signs that it does not support Sunni extremists working to topple the government. It also expects Ankara to hand over Al-Hashemi, in line with an Interpol arrest warrant.
 Quite how the Shias reacted to Ankara’s attempt at rapprochement has been evident in their religious leaders’ response to Davutoglu’s pilgrimage to the two holy cities.
One of the Shias’ most important demands from Turkey came from an unexpected source. The Turkish media reported that Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani protested to Davutoglu when he received him about Turkey’s construction of major dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that are reducing water flows into Iraq.
According to these reports, Al-Sistani dismissed Davutoglu’s explanation about Turkey’s water policies vis-à-vis neighbouring countries and suggested that the water problem should be resolved by UN arbitration.
A prominent Shia preacher in Karbala was even less diplomatic.
“The Ottomans were the Yazids who used to kill the Shias,” he told his congregation outside Hussein’s shrine as Davutoglu was paying homage to the tomb of the slain Shia imam, alluding to stories of the slaughter and persecution of the Shias by the Sunni Ottomans.
                                        عندما كنت جندية
                                          فاليري زيناتي
                                         صلاح النصراوي

ج2 ف11 (الفصل الاخير)

19سبتمبر، السنة التالية، منتصف النهار.
دعونا نرى من التي ستجعل الأخرى تضحك أكثر.أنا و”إيانيت” جنباً إلى جنب في ذات القاعدة التي بدأت بها حياتنا العسكرية قبل سنتين.
نحن الآن في العشرين من عمرنا، وها نحن نستعد لكي ننطلق بالإتجاه الآخر.
أمس أقاموا لي احتفالا صغيراً ولكن كان مختصراً بسبب الحرب في العراق.
“أيتها البنات، ربما سنلتقي مرة أخرى بأقرب مما هو متوقع”، قالت “دفورا”.”اذا ما ساءت الأمور أكثر، فإننا سنكون بحاجة إلى تعزيزات، فلذلك سيتم إستدعائكن كإحتياط”.أنا لا أريد أن أتحدث عن ذلك اليوم.كنا أنا و”إيانيت” قد قررنا أن نحتفل بالمناسبة طوال أربع وعشرين ساعة في تل أبيب.سنذهب أولاً للسباحة، وبإمكانها أن تلتقي ب”غالي”.
نسلم بزاتنا العسكرية، الانوراك، أكياس الجوت، والأحذية التي لم نلبسها منذ أيام الدروس الأولية.يسمح لنا بالإحتفاظ بقرص التعريف وبأوراقنا الثبوتية كتذكار.
يمنحوننا شيكاً بمائتي شيكل لكل واحدة، هدية مع الحرية.
ننظر إلى المستجدين من أعلى إلى أسفل بتعال وهن ينهين مهماتهن الوضيعة تلك.
أولئك اللواتي ضحكن علينا قبل عامين لم يعدن هنا، غير أن ذلك ليس مهماً، فنحن انتقمنا لأنفسنا.
بينما نغادر القاعدة، نطلق زفرة عميقة، غير مصدقات.نجتاز حافلة مليئة بالبنات في الثامنة عشرة من أعمارهن بملابس ملونة وبتعبيرات قلقة.ها نحن نجتاز دائرة كاملة.
في الشاطئ نخلع ملابسنا بأسرع ما يمكن.أقول لـ”ايانيت” إننا نمتلك الآن كل العالم بين أيدينا، لسنا فقط في إجازة.
“هل تعلمين”، أقول لها، “لقد كانت هاتان السنتان لي بمثابة عالم لا نهاية له”.
تجري نحو البحر” وهي تصرخ: “اذن فقد وضعنا الآن ذلك العالم اللانهائي وراءنا.”
                                         عندما كنت جندية
                                          فاليري زيناتي
                                         صلاح النصراوي

ج2 ف10

                             مهمة سرية جداً ولم شمل في الجو
قادني عريف في الفيلق الجوي إلى الخيمة.
“ستنامين هنا”، قال لي.”سوف تبلغين ببعض التفاصيل يوم غد.”
هناك ستة أسرة داخل الخيمة، ثلاثة منها تبدو مشغولة.يشير العريف إلى أماكن الحمام والمقصف، ويتمنى لي ليلة سعيدة.
لم أعد أستغرب من الرقة في بعض المحادثات في الجيش.الظريف أيضاً أن أنام في قاعدة مختلفة.لا أعرف أحداً فيها ولست مكلفة بأية واجبات هنا.أبدو كسائحة.
في المقصف لا أكترث بالحديث إلى أي أحد.مالذي يمكنني أن أخبرهم عن مهمتي هنا؟في نفس الوقت أثني على براعة الطاهي، يبدو أنه يريد أن تكون معاناة الجنود الذين يطعمهم أقل من تلك التي يريدها الطاهي في قاعدتنا.
كنت على وشك الإنتهاء من كيكة الفاكهة، أفكر بالغد، حين توقفت فجأة عن التنفس.أحد ما يضع كلتا يديه على عيني.يبدو أن هناك من يمزح في قواعد الفيلق الجوي أيضاً.كرد فعل شكلي أقاوم، ثم أنهار بينما أسمع صوتاً مألوفاً يهمس.”هل فرت “أي-كيو 625” من الخدمة وطلبت اللجوء عندنا؟”
“إيانيت” صديقتي من الدورة الأولى، أكثر الصديقات جنوناً اللواتي قابلتهن.
“لكن مالذي تفعلينه هنا؟” أسئلها بإستغراب.
تبرطم قليلاً.
“علي أن اسألك هذا السؤال، ألست في قاعدتي؟”
“أسمك ليس مكتوباً عليها”، أرد عليها.”مالم يدعوك الآن ام.كي 1086.”
تتنهد وترنوا إلى السماء.
“حسناً، لاتعبثي معي، إعطيني جواباً والا سأضعك في واجب المراحيض منذ الآن.لا بد أن تعرفي أن لدى بعض السلطة هنا.”
أقف بإستعداد واؤدي لها التحية.
“تحت أمرك، أيتها الرقيبة.”
تضع يديها الإثنتين حول عنقي وتتظاهر بأنها تخنقني.أومئ نحو إشارة الخدمة السرية التي على كتفي وأهمس،”ليس بوسعي أن أنبس ببنت شفة.سري للغاية.
“بالطبع”، تقول بإستفهام بينما تطقطق أصابعها،”أنت هنا من أجل الغد، يا عزيزتي نحن في نفس القارب، أو دعيني أقول في نفس الطائرة.”
تعبيرات مرتبكة مني.
“هل نسيت أني أرسلت إلى وحدات الرادار.رادار!هل نسيت العلاقة مع الطائرات، أم تريدنني أن أرسم لك صورة؟”
أخذها من ذراعيها وأهزها.
“حسناً، دعينا نحتظن احدانا الأخرى وأن نحتفل بلم شملنا، أم تريدين أن نقضي الليل نتشاجر مثل جنديتين في حافلة في طريقيهما إلى الدورة الأولى.”
تأخذني إلى غرفتها، تطبطب على ظهري، تأتي ببعض البسكويت وعصير البرتقال من الدولاب، أشعر وكأنه حفل شاي.
تضطجع على سريرها.
“أنت أولا”، أقول لها، إحتراماً لسيدة الدار.
“لا، أنت اولاً.ماذا عن قلبك المفطور؟”
“نعم، تقابلنا بالكاد مرة واحدة، ثم هجرني بكل صراحة في المرة الثانية.
“أنت مجنونة، لا يجب أن تعودي للصديق السابق بأي حال من الأحوال، ابداً ابداً، ابداً.اذا لم تنجحي في المرة الأولى فمالذي يجعلك تظنين أنك ستنجحين في المرة الثانية؟”
أظن أن كلامها منطقي جداً.وفي الحقيقة لم يكن الحديث عن “جين-ديفيد” مؤلماً.
تسألني أسئلة أخرى، أسئلة من نوع إستجوابات الأصدقاء.
“كيف هي مهمة التنصت.”
“أنه أمر روتيني، لكن هناك الكثير من المفاجئات أيضاً، مثل اليوم.”
وصديقاتك في بئر سبع؟”
“نرى بعضنا أقل من السابق، بطبيعة الحال.أظن بأن كل واحدة منا لاتزال معجبة بالأخرى، أو ربما نحن مغرمون بما كان يجمعنا في الماضي.كل واحدة منا الثلاث تسير في طريق مختلف تماماً.لم نعد نحلم بنفس الأحلام.”
“والأخريات في وحدتك؟”
“متغطرسات، وطنيات، رافضات للخدمة العسكرية، ولكن لسن بسيئات، على أي حال.الضابطة المسؤولة، بنت رائعة.”
أخبرها عن “غالي” أيضاً وكذلك عن تل أبيب والقدس.ومن ثم يأتي دوري لكي أمطرها بالأسئلة.
تتظاهر باللامبالاة حين تقول، “حسناً، منذ المرة الأخيرة التي رأينا بعضنا فيها… متى كان ذلك؟، تذكرت، ذلك كان أمام حروف النار، أنشدنا القسم.عموماً، تورطت منذ أيام ما قبل تلك..”
“بمعنى الجنس.كنت في ثلاث قواعد مختلفة:في دورة مشغلي الرادارات، تعيني في الجنوب، ومن ثم نقلي إلى الشمال.أعتقد أني تركت لدى شخص ما في كل قاعدة ذكرى طيبة…”تقول ذلك ببعض الرضا.
“لكنك لم، تقيمي علاقة، لم تقعي في الحب؟”أسئلها بتعجب.
“لا، كنت مرتاحة حينها، ذلك كل شيئ.سأقع في الحب حين أكون ناضجة وواثقة من أن ليس هناك المزيد الذي يمكني أن أتعلمه عن الصبيان.”
“والآن؟” أسئلها بعد أن لطمتني ببرودها.
“لا أحد.لقد انتقلت إلى هنا منذ فترة قصيرة، ولكن يطول الوقت..”، تقول بينما تغمز بعينها. وتضيف.”تعرفين كنت أفكر بك دائماً.”
“وأنا أيضاً.وبما أنني وجدتك في طريقي ثانية فأني أقسم بأن لن أدعك تفرين مني مرة أخرى حتى نهاية عمرك، أو عمري.” ثم أضيف بشيء من الجدية، “مالذي تعرفينه عن يوم غد؟”
“ليس الكثير، ربما ليس أكثر مما تعرفينه أنت.ستكون هناك حركة بالإتجاه الشرقي.شيء حول الأردن، سوريا والعراق.تعرفين أن هناك الكثير يدور بشأن العراق.”
“نعم، التوجيهات التي لدينا أن نكون أكثر حذراً، خاصة اثناء الإنصات إلى الطيارين الذين يتكلمون العربية-العراقيون، على عكس الأردنيين، لا يستخدمون الانكليزية.”
“غداً، سيكون هناك في الطائرة جنود من خدمات التجسس الجوي الثلاث، المنصتون، مشغلو الرادار والمصورون.سيكون هناك العديد من الضباط المهمين الذين لن يهتموا حتى بالنظر إليك.لديهم تلك الطريقة بالتركيز الشديد، شيء مثير للإعجاب.”
لبرهة نستغرق بالأحلام جنباً لجنب.فجأة تنهض فزعة.
“إنها العاشرة، دعينا نرتب سريرك، علي النهوض باكراً.أنت هنا في إجازة، اذ ليس لديك الكثير لتعمليه غير أن تحضري إيجازاً عند العاشرة وآخر في الظهيرة.لكن أنا لدي الكثير من المهمات.”
اؤدي لها التحية مرة أخرى.ننفجر بالضحك، كلانا سعيدتان بأننا إلتقينا مجدداً.
في العاشرة كان هناك حوالي ثلاثون منا مجتمعين في قاعة دراسية كبيرة.يرسم عقيد شيئاً أشبه بالحوت على السبورة، إنها الطائرة التي سنستقلها.يري كل واحد منا المكان المخصص له، كما يؤشر إلى المحطات التي سنرسل إليها المعلومات.كما يعطينا حوالي عشرين اسماً مشفراً لم نسمع بها من قبل، علينا أن نطلق الإنذار حالما نسمع بأي منها( ومن المفترض أن نهرب أيضاً).
أشعر بإنتشاء.سأكون حقاً في قلب عملية، و”إيانيت” إلى جانبي.لا يمكنني أن أجلس لكي أقرأ أو أكتب.أتجول في القاعدة، أغني وأعد الساعات.الإقلاع سيكون عند الساعة العاشرة مساءً.
في الرابعة يكون موعدنا مع الإيجاز الثاني والذي كان محبطاً للأمال.يقول لنا العقيد أن العملية تأجلت، التنبؤات الجوية سيئة.لكن السماء فوقنا زرقاء.أعزي نفسي بأني سأقضي يوماً أخر مع “إيانيت”
في اليوم التالي وعند الساعة الرابعة يؤكدون أن العملية ستبدأ كما كان مقرراً.لدينا متسع من الوقت لكي نهيئ أنفسنا.تأخذني “إيانيت” إلى غرفتها وتفرغ دولاب ملابسها على السرير.
“هل ستأخذين حماماً الآن؟” أسألها، مستغربة أن كان الوقت مناسباً لذلك.
“هل سبق وأن ركبت طائرة إستطلاع؟”لا، اذن لا يمكنك مقارنتها برحلة بطائرة بوينغ من باريس إلى تل أبيب.ليس هناك مقاعد مريحة، لا مضيفات يأتونك بالحلوى، ليس هناك سجاد فوق الأرضية، والطائرة تكاد تكون خالية.
“اذن، إنها شديدة البرودة هناك، ستتجمدين حتى أن أسنانك لن تتوقف عن الاصطكاك.في كل عملية ذهبت إليها كنت أضع طبقة إضافية من الملابس، ومع ذلك كنت أموت من البرد.”
“كم طبقة ستلبسين؟”
لا يمكنني الا أن أنظر بإعجاب إلى تلك الخبرة الواسعة التي تتمتع بها.
ثم أرتعب.
لكني لم أجلب شيئاً لي عدا الانوراك!لم يخبرني أحد بذلك.”
تشير إلى كومة من القمصان والبلوزات.
“ماذا عن كل هذا؟، هل تعتقدين أنها من أجل الطاهي؟”
بينما نمضي بإتجاه الطائرة نبدوا مثل بيض عيد الفصح باللون الخاكي.ارتديت سروالا داخليا وثلاثة أزواج من الجواريب، قميصا بنصف كم وإثنين بكم كامل، بلوزتين، بزتي العسكرية والانوراك.
“أبدو كبطل مسلسل “جاسوس طائر فوق السحاب”، أهمس لـ”إيانيت”، محتجة.
“نعم، ولكن مثل بطل فلم “الجاسوس القادم من البرد”، أنت على أفضل ما يرام”، ترد بحبور.
تمدني بقطعتين من الشكولاتة.
“ستحتاجينها عندما تشعرين بالجوع.عادة ما يعدون لنا شيئاً لنأكله، لكنه شحيح.من الواضح أن مغامرتنا بحياتنا لا تعني أن من حقنا الحصول على طعام أفضل.”
“أنت تتصرفين كأم أو كجدة، إيانيت هايموفيتش.”
في الطائرة يسلموننا، رزمة كبيرة، سترة نجاة، ومظلة.بعد الظهر علمونا كيفية عمل المظلة.رفعت يدي لكي أقول أني لم أقفز بالمظلة من قبل.
أحدهم يرد بمزاح.”لايهم، فأن سقطتي في أرض العدو فمن الأفضل الا تفتح مظلتك.”
الجميع ينفجر بالضحك لكني أرتجف من الرعب.
وانا أرتجف الآن مجدداً في الطائرة التي حلقت لتوها، من الخوف، من الإثارة ومن البرد.لكني أهتز.
هناك ثلاثون وجهاً صارماً يركزون في واجباتهم.أضع سماعاتي وأدون الملاحظات، نفس الملاحظات التي أدونها في القاعدة، لكنها على هذا الإرتفاع تبدو شيئاً مختلفاً.هل نحن ببساطة نحاول أن  نحمي أنفسنا من عملاء يحاولون إختراقنا؟هل هذه هي مهمة تجسس محمولة جواً؟.لدي شعور بأن هناك طائرات تنطلق في نفس الوقت مثلنا.
نبقى في الجو لساعتين دون أية حادثة.عندما نهبط يقول العقيد المسؤول عن العملية”لقد قمتم بعمل جيد.شكراً لكم جميعاً.”
في اليوم التالي هناك مقالات عن آلاف الأشياء ولكن ليس عن تلك العملية.أعود إلى قاعدتي بتلك النظرة الغامضة في عيني.

Saving Iraq’s absent heritage

An exhibition of Jewish artefacts has underlined the problem of Iraq’s cultural heritage being transferred to the US, writes Salah Nasrawi

A treasure-trove of Iraqi artefacts moved by the American army to the United States after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 is at risk of not being sent back to Iraq because of mounting pressure on the Obama administration to hand it over to Jews of Iraqi origin.
Iraq has repeatedly demanded the return of the pieces, part of hundreds of thousands of illegally obtained cultural artefacts that were moved to the United States during its occupation of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.
The US army also captured millions of documents, including the archives of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party, the state’s intelligence archives and records of meetings with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, which it transferred to the United States as part of what is called Iraq’s absent heritage.
Items from the Iraqi Jewish collection were put on display last week at the National Archives in Washington in an exhibition that runs through 5 January. Called “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” the exhibition has triggered a campaign by American Jews to pressure the Obama administration not to return the artefacts to Iraq.
On its website the US National Archives say that almost all the recovered documents relate to Jewish communal organisations in Baghdad, including the Iraqi chief rabbi’s office and Jewish hospitals and schools.
However, among the pieces on display are a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment including parts of the Book of Genesis, a Zohar (book of mysticism) from 1815 and other religious and community materials.
A lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic from 1972-73, one of the last examples of Hebrew items produced in Baghdad, is also part of the exhibition.
According to a story widely used by the American and Israeli media, the items were found in a flooded Baghdad basement in May 2003, just days after invading US forces captured Baghdad and ousted Saddam.
This story goes on to say that a group of US soldiers happened upon the Jewish documents while searching the headquarters of the mukhabarat, Saddam’s intelligence services, for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly identical reports say that the documents, including books and records five centuries old detailing the life of Baghdad’s Jewish community, were found submerged under four feet of water in a building’s basement.
However, a new version of the archive story, published last month by Harold Rhode, an American specialist on the Middle East who worked as an analyst at the Pentagon and was in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion, gives a different account.
According to this version, it was Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled opponent of Saddam who arrived in Baghdad with the US invading forces, who called Rhode to tip him off about the trove to be found in the intelligence building.
Rhode was working at the time as a policy analyst with the US Defense Department and was assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that took over the administration of Iraq after Saddam’s ousting.
Writing in Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news outlet on 27 October, Rhode said the documents were found in the Israel and Palestinian section of the mukhabarat, which had been submerged in water after the building’s water system had been destroyed by an American bomb.
American preservation specialists from the National Archives in Washington were summoned to Baghdad to salvage the items. A few weeks later the documents were flown to Washington.
As the discovery was made amidst the turmoil that spread across Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, there have been no Iraqi eyewitnesses or officials who have been able to provide details of how the collection was found or who authorised its transfer to the United States.
The US preservation project for the documents says on its website that this was done with the agreement of Iraqi officials.
Since then, the materials, which include 2,700 books and tens of thousands of communal records in Hebrew, Arabic and English, dating from the 1540s to the 1970s, have been given the name the “Iraqi Jewish Archive.”
The documents have never been seen in public and nor have they been registered officially in Iraq. It is also not clear if the sensitive materials have been used for research or documentation, or if they have been removed to a third country while in the US National Archives’ custody.
The US media has reported that some materials have been deposited with the Centre for Jewish History in New York, which is in partnership with other Jewish organisations.
The present exhibition in Washington has now led to Jewish activists in the United States, as well as some members of the US Congress, to demand that the artefacts never be returned to Iraq and that they be given to Iraqi Jews in the United States.
The lobbyists have been claiming that the documents were stolen from members of the Iraqi Jewish community before they emigrated to Israel or went into exile from Iraq.
They claim that the artefacts are part of the Iraqi Jews’ heritage and say that Iraq does not have the right to recover the sacred objects of a now-exiled population.
Among their other claims is that there is no constituency of Jews remaining in Iraq to ensure that the books are well-maintained, especially since the country is still riven by violent conflict.
An online petition has been organised to collect signatures urging the US government to keep the Iraqi Jewish archives. Some activists have written newspaper opinion pieces urging that the items be shared with the exiled Jewish community or that torn pieces of Torah scrolls be buried, as is customary for Jewish holy texts that are no longer useable.
However, under international law the artefacts and all other cultural and official materials removed from Iraq during the US occupation belong to Iraq and should be returned to the country.
International conventions relating to armed conflict clearly state that warring parties should take measures to prevent the theft, pillage or looting of cultural property.
The Society of American Archivists has also said that the seizure and removal of the documents from Iraq was “an act of pillage” prohibited under the laws of war.
The Obama administration has rejected requests to keep the pieces in America and has said that the collection will be returned to Iraq upon the completion of their preservation and the exhibition.
The US State Department also says that under an agreement that the US National Archives signed with the CPA in Iraq, the documents are to be returned to Iraq “following their restoration”.
State Department officials have expressed their confidence that the Iraqi government will make the materials accessible in an educational exhibition.
The Iraqis hope that the US officials will stand by their words, and Baghdad has said that it has reached an agreement with Washington to return the documents next year. On 31 October, Iraqi Deputy Culture Minister Taher Hmoud said the so-called Jewish archive should be returned before mid 2014.
Saad Eskander, director-general of the House of Books and Records, which is a department of Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, has said that an exhibition of the materials will take place in Iraq either next year or in 2015.
Once they have been returned to Iraq, Eskander said, the materials will be housed in the country’s National Library, with the goal of helping future generations understand the contributions that Iraqi Jews have made to the country.
The history of the Jews in Iraq dates back to the eighth century BCE, when an Assyrian army conquered the Kingdom of Judah, a client state of the powerful Assyrian Empire, and deported a portion of the population to Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq.
According to the Hebrew Bible, there were two more deportations of Jews to Babylon during the reign of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar, whose armies conquered Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, sending more exiles to Babylon.
This period, known in Jewish history as the “Babylonian captivity”, was the period when the Jews wrote key Hebrew texts, including the two main sources of Mishnaic and Talmudic learning.
After the fall of Babylon to the Persian King Cyrus in 538 BCE, the exiled Jews began to return to the land of Judah, but many stayed on instead, putting down roots in what was to become one of the largest, most active and longest-lasting Jewish communities in the world.
Most of Iraq’s Jews left the country after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Their property was frozen, or put under government sequestration. Now some Iraqis are even thinking of using the return of the Jewish treasure-trove to Iraq as a way of mending past history, even if symbolically.
Writing in the Iraqi Kurdish outlet Rudaw, Iraqi researcher Falih Hassan Fezaa said that the archives should be seen as a symbol of coexistence and mutual understanding by the new generations.
“Their presence in Baghdad would be a great opportunity to trigger frank and public debate about the necessity of restoring multicultural life in a Middle East that is heading towards a more brutal and exclusionary environment,” he wrote.
“With the archives in Baghdad, we can all seize a historic moment to restore the once tolerant multiculturalism of this region.”