On 13 February 1991, the United States Air Force deliberately targeted the Al Amiriyah bomb shelter in Baghdad, killing 408 civilians, mostly women and children. It was a brazen act of terror that has left permanent scars on Iraqi society. The Iraqi Transnational Collective issued a statement commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of this catastrophic act of brutality and has initiated a global campaign to raise awareness about this attack. Dima Yassine of Status spoke to Nazli Tarzi and Zeena al Jawad about the tragedy and their efforts to keep its memory alive. Both are active members of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, a grassroots nonsectarian collective of diverse transnational Iraqis whose mission is to build community power for political, social, and economic justice.
Transcript of Interview:
Dima Yassine (DY): It was Feb 13, 1991. just about a month after the start of the U.S lead attacks on Baghdad. The U.S Air Forces carried an arial attack on a bomb shelter in a quite middle class neighbourhood in Baghdad called Al Amiriyah. Families went to that shelter mostly because it was one of few safe places in the city that had electricity and running water, after the U.S lead coalition bombed and paralyzed most of the city’s infrastructure. I lived in Baghdad at the time, my family’s house was a 10-minute drive away from Al Amiriyah. Twenty-five years later, I still remember that morning. The loud noise, the house windows shaking vigorously and the smell that followed and filled the air for few days after the bombing. That awful smell of burnt human flesh of over four hundred people mostly children who died in Al Amiriyah shelter that day.
On the 25th Anniversary of bombing the Iraqi Transnational Collective is carrying a campaign to commemorate the Al Amiriyah tragic attack.
For the collective, I have Nazli Tarzi a London based journalist, researcher and translator. Her work is dedicated with special focus to Iraq; its politics, lost civilizations and mosaic population. She holds a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works in the field of film production. And I also have Zeena al Jawad, a community organizer based in Southern California with degrees in Psychology and Women’s & Gender Studies. She is a member of Association of Filipinas and Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Re-feudalization, and Marginalization, Palestinian Youth Movement, and Iraqi Transnational Collective.
DY: So can you tell us more about this campaign.
Zeena al Jawad (ZJ): So we wanted to focus on Al Amiriyah bombing specifically this year because it has been 25 years, a quarter of a century. And this incident is rarely talked about especially nowadays because Iraq has gone through so much within the past 25 plus years. So we wanted to commemorate Al Amiriyah just as a signifier also to what damage has been done to Iraq since then and also the resilience of the Iraqi people and how they continue to inspire and create and to keep living. So we wanted to basically use this opportunity as the 25 years to focus on specifically Al Amiriyah and also make note on how it’s relevant today in 2016.
Nazli Tarzi (NT): I just wanted to add that this is an event that mark a cultural and political trauma but for many Iraqi we do feel that it has been forgotten or it has been pushed to the back burner, of course with multiple wars like Iraq has been trapped in a never ending cycle of war and violence over the last three quarters of a decade. So we want to keep the memory alive. Of course we can’t bring justice back to those that were killed unjustly, but we just trying to bring this event out and present it to the public in the online arena. We want people to know that these people who were killed are not just, you know, a mass of faceless people. They were people who had families, they had names and many of them were really, honestly too young to have died in such awful, awful circumstances. In the same way the ordeal, you know, sort of lingered in the moment that it took place with of course a memorial has been established and a grave yard has been established, I can very much say that the trauma lives on today, the event was a past event, many of us who know about it are generations who aren’t necessarily born at the time it did take place. I in fact was in Iraq at the same time but I was only 3 months old, so I was far too young to remember. And the event is called al Fajer al Hazeen in Iraqi dialect which means the dark dawn. And we want to bring light to this darkness. This commemoration is taking place to sort of, I guess, to take back our history in some way, in some sense. This is what has happened and in fact nothing since had changed much. The circumstances in which the bombing took place sort of resonate to what’s happening today inside the country, sadly.
DY: Is this an exclusively online or social media campaign, or does this include other events?
ZJ: Well, it is a online campaign for the most part. We do have members in the Iraqi Transnational Collective who are staging actions in front of U.S embassies, as far as we know, one of them is happening in Amsterdam. One of our members there is collaborating with organizations in Amsterdam, and bringing light to this tragic incident and making the public know that we remember this day and we still demand justice, not only for what has happened in that day but for things that happened since then. So for the most part, it is online but we do have people in the collective that are going things in their communities.
DY: Have you connected with any of those who lost family members in Al Amiriyah shelter bombing?
NT: I’ve been doing my very best. I do work as a journalist and I’ve been doing my very best to get in touch with people from the local community from the area that is known as Al Amiriyah. and unfortunately, i think the trauma runs so deep and is still so active in the minds of people in that neighbourhood that I understood when many people did not want to speak about what had taken place. So in some sense it’s too painful to bring out those memories and to discuss them but it there is also an element of fear involved of course. I also think that this campaign works on another, perhaps more deeper level. The famous social scientist Max Weber, he’s very famous for his definition of what state is, an he calls a nation as a community of memories, and memories are constitutive of national identity so for us as Iraqis, this event is in itself along side all the other tragedies that have accord, is constitutive of our Iraqi identity, and this is also why we formed the collective. So our commemoration of this event is also a reflection of how the collective work, you know, it’s a collective made of people from all around the world, all of whom have connections to Iraq, who are Iraqi. a lot of us are from, you know the Iraqi diasporas where we are scattered. So I guess it works on another level. In my case I encountered a lot of reluctance and a lot of fear, understandably of course, that prevented people from sharing memories of that past.
DY: How does this campaign situate itself within the history of the Iraqi Transnational Collective?
ZJ: As a collective this is our first time we are commemorating Al Amiriyah. We are actually a really new collective, so this is the first committee within the collective that has worked together, and basically, our committee is going to be the first thing that is going to be launched out from the collective. So that’s when we are basically going to go very much public with our online following and with other people outside of social media.
NT: The collective was recently born. So we haven’t really existed for so long and it hasn’t been so long that we have been established as an organization. Of course the idea came about with the publication of a book called Against All Odds authored by Ali Issa who is an American Iraqi and he went to Iraq and he interviewed lots of people and discovered there is a thriving labour movement and he interviewed activists and so forth. So it was his idea to, sort of unified people and once we got the ball rolling we got more people joined and we just, sort of expanded in that way. So this is actually one of the first things that we do, and hopefully we will be doing more like this, it’s just so happens that the 25th anniversary of that event coincides with the formation of this amazing collective.
DY: What kind of response are you expecting, preparing, or hoping for?
NT: Two levels. So the reason we are launching this campaign or hosting this campaign is to educate. I think, as I mentioned before, I do believe along side lots of other Iraqis, that it is an event that has been forgotten, we are just trying to bring it back into history, call it rewriting of history if you will, this is exactly what we are trying to do. And there are other, you know, bigger scale atrocities and tragedies that have taken place. You know, the United States does have a long history of attacking civilian centres with its arial technology. But this is one of many many events. So the first element in the campaign is the need and the urgency to educate people about it. And the other one is to get discussions going again, like what does this mean to Iraqis? why is this important? So first thing, we are trying to reach a broader audience, say a global audience, and then we are trying to, of course, appeal to Iraqis, for us to discuss, you know, is this important to our identity? and what does it mean? and how does it relate to our existence in the current moment of time against the back drop of what’s happening in our country.
DY: What other projects or campaigns is the collective working on?
ZJ: So we have several committees right now focused on advocacy and also focused on creating content and producing things coming out of our collective. So one of our committees is opposing the HR 158 Visa Waiver Law that was recently passed in the United States congress, and for people who don’t know this Visa Waiver Law basically states that if you are a person who is not a U.S citizen and you have travelled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan in the past 5 years, there are going to be extra previsions and security measures taken before you can come to United States for a visit. Also for example, people who live in Europe, a lot of people who live in Europe can come to the United States without a visa for a certain amount of time, that has now been a lot more strict. So what used to be the agreement was that a U.S citizen can go to Europe without a visa and European citizens can come to the U.S without a visa, that exchange actually has been strained. And we find that actually, very racist and a very targeting bill, especially in regards to the other U.S bill that is on the table which is restricting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming to the United States. And then another committee that we have coming is the Iraqi Oral History Project which is something that is very very important to a lot of us because to the fact that a lot of Iraqis stories and narratives are not documented and the history of our country, the history of our people is often times seen through a western gaze or a very orientalist gaze. So this kind of taking back our narratives and our history and our culture, the plethora of identities that are in Iraq and putting their real life experiences out there, for our own knowledge and the knowledge of other people who only see Iraqi people, Iraqi history or Iraq it self in a one dimensional way.
NT: So the Oral History Project is currently being supported by the California State University in Long Beach where one of our members teaches. So the Idea is not only to collect audio, visuals and archival material from the border Iraqi community at America, because, you know, we work at a local level, but the idea is also to provide training to people who are already interested in interfering in a qualitative research and things of that nature. And we are trying to sort of mirror what’s happening in California in London. So we are trying to form a sort of a twin branch of the Oral History Project that we operate in both London and California. And we also hope to host this material that we end up collating online so that it’s accessible and available to a wider audience, and to echo what Zeena said, for education purposes, to say that the caricature of the Iraqi that you have in your mind doesn’t really exist, and this is the wide, wide variety, the never ending variety of Iraqis that do exist and here are their life stories.
ZJ: There’s also another committee that is called Iraq to diaspora committee which connects folks, specifically Iraqis in Iraq, to the diaspora community outside of Iraq. And that is something that Ali Issa is taking on. He’s the same person who wrote the book Against All Odds which Nazli mentioned that, kind of brought us all together. So he has lots of connections with people in Iraq through the novel that he wrote, so just working with them and see what they need from us, how can we create more of a genuine and authentic relationship with Iraqis living in Iraq, and how we can help one another and just to recognize that we are part of the fabric of Iraq if though we live outside of the country, we still want to dedicate our time and energy to the people inside of the country but we haven’t started that committee yet but it’s definitely in the works. and we also have an art and artists committee, we have few artists in our collective which is really exciting and cool. So like I was saying, you know, making sure that we all keep creating and keep producing, because visuals are very strong, very important and very powerful so we are using that medium to spread the word not only about our collective but also about things that our collective is working on or things that are happening in Iraq or even thing that are happening globally because one of our principals is to recognize the connection between Iraqi people and other people in the world who are oppressed or who are silenced or who are going through similar things that Iraqi people are going through and that’s on a global scale and we find solidarity in that.
NT: The diaspora to Iraq committee is also, I guess it’s setting itself up for an enormous challenge because of the moment and the landscape is, you could say, junglesque. A lot of us don’t really know, I guess people who have an online presence and various organizations that have an online presence are known and their names are out there, but there are lots of other organizations that we are trying to sort of, reach out to and collaborate with them and provide any assistance within our means to them but we are still mapping out that landscape seeing what’s happening and who`s who and to see people working across a variety of different topics and areas, you know, gender equality, nationalism and various other themes to make sure that we cover a wide scope and we don’t limit our scope in terms of who we work with and help.
DY : Going back to the Al Amiriyah commemoration campaign, do you have a hashtag for people to follow that campaign online?
ZJ: Yah we do. two of them are in English and I think we have one in Arabic. Two of them are english are: #RememberingAlAmiriyah #AlAmiriyah25 to mark twenty five years since the tragic incident. The Hashtag in Arabic ….
NT: It’s just Malja’a AlAmiriyah #ملجأـالعامرية
DY: And does it have and underscore?
NT: Yes it does have an underscore between Malja’a ملجأ which means shelter and Al Amiriyah العامريه the place, there’s an underscore. We are trying to make some noise, we really just want to put ourselves out there to say that we are Iraqis and we have not forgotten and we refuse to forget and it’s not possible to forget. So let’s discuss this, and how this relates to the present time as well.
DY: Well, thank you very much for the work you are doing and for being here to talk about it with us. That was Nazli Tarzi and Zeena Al Jawad from the Iraqi Transnational Collective and they are running a campaign now to commemorate Al Amiriyah bombing in 1991. Thank you!
ZJ: Thank you.
NT:Thank you very much Dima.
Music Credits: Hadatha fel Amiriyah (Happened in Amiriyah) by Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma.