Letter from Mosul
Middle East International, 2 July 1999
By Felicity Arbuthnot
MOSUL, IRAQ'S LARGEST NORTHERN city, lies in the Governorate of Nineveh, immortalised in John Masefield's poem Cargoes – "Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir … ” and Kipling: "… our pomp of yesterday, at one with Nineveh and Tyre … "
The area has been inhabited continuously for 6,000 years, its castles, monasteries and churches testament to the past and to a unique Christian heritage. St Matthew and Jonah are reputedly buried here. The area has the largest Christian population in Iraq.
The staccato stutter of anti-aircraft fire herald British and American planes patrolling the "no-fly? zone. Apart from a brief lull in March and a few days in May, there have been daily bombings since the December crisis with Iraq. Targets seem bizarre, like flocks of sheep.
Dominican Father Jandat al-Kazzi at the Church of the Clock, built in 1862 and named after a clock donated by the wife of Napoleon III, is erudite, measured and incandescent with anger. From south Lebanon, the 60-year-old, grey-haired priest, 13 years in Mosul, told of his love for the Iraqi people and accused the US and Britain of hypocrisy.
“How can they call themselves Christians? They are bombing a civilisation 6,000 years old, and the United States, a country which has no history, no civilisation is bombing every day. Every day there are new widows, new widowers, new orphans. Every day sisters lose their brothers, parents lose their children. Twenty four people were killed in a nearby village just recently. They are bombing villages. Many of these are Christian villages. Iraqi people are very moral, they have lost everything due to the embargo. They have only their morality left.
“The Americans are lying. They should say they are bombing for the sake of bombing, not pretend they are bombing military bases. They aren't. Their planes fire from 15km away; Iraq's anti-aircraft guns have a range of 5km. How can they say they are threatened?"
Having observed numerous military installations all over Iraq, it is evident that most of the vehicles, transporters, tanks and anti-aircraft guns appear to date from the 1950s.
Driving along the drought-riven, dust-bowl dry, almost barren land (Iraq is suffering the worst drought in living memory), we come upon the scene of the most bizarre and haunting attacks. Just visible from the road was an area scattered with putrefying dead sheep and goats lying amid fragments of metal, shredded tyres and a twisted, holed, portable water tank. On 30 April, the flock and the family tending it were bombed.
Hassan Yunis Ayub (40) was a friend and relative of the family who lives in the same village. "It was a Friday, so a little earlier there had been about 50 people there, sharing the sabbath meal. After they left, a plane came and circled for a long time, then bombed." Ayub shook with emotion and grabbed my notebook and pen: "I must write their names." His hand shook as he recorded them, tears on his cheeks. They were Jirjis Ayub Sultan (60), his son Ahmad (36) and Ahmad's children Luqman (13), Ahmad (12), Murtada (11) and Sultan (6).
Walking amongst the decaying sheep's corpses, the dead sheepdog lying at the head of the flock turning pieces of metal with one's foot, viewing the distance debris had been hurled, the blackened crater where a 500lb bomb landed, made me shiver. "The old man lost his head, arms and legs. Only his torso was left," said Ayub. He described how the tyre of their tractor was found 600 metre away, adding quietly: "We searched for bodies but could only gather pieces."
Hassan suddenly remarked: "Sultan had just finished his first year at school. His grades were good, he was so proud. He'd taken a ball-point pen [banned under sanctions and incredibly precious] and scrap of paper [also hard to get] with him to practise writing. What do they want from us? Our pens? Four days later another flock of sheep was bombed on the other side of the mountain and twelve people killed, along with 205 sheep and some cattle.
Father Jandat's rage reflects that of everyone in this area. They conclude that the UN not only vetoes writing materials, in scrupulous violation of its own Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but is responsible for blowing to bits a family in which a six-year-old shepherd boy has proudly acquired some.
When I asked the Ministry of Defence in London about the legitimacy of targeting sheep, an official replied: “We reserve the right to take robust action if threatened."