January 11, 2007

Iraqi Children "Play" Civil War

I'm not a big fan of the Wall Street Journal, especially with regards to Iraq-related stories. But one article in today's paper caught my attention, and it "touched me" in a very sad kind of way. It's the story of a 5-year old boy living in a Shiite dominated town, finding pleasure in tagging along with the Mahdi Army, retelling stories of Shiite militias defending his neighborhood, and proudly calling his Sunni neighbors "terrorists." Who taught him this? Why should his favorite toy be a fake AK-47? Why should he want to beat up any kid he thinks isn't Shiite?

Maybe I should repeat this. A five year old...shouldn't he be learning the alphabet in his kindergarten class? The debate is over. This is how you know it's civil war. When the 5-year old Shiites and Sunnis are ganging up against each other and calling each other "terrorists." I'm sure the Sunni kids are playing similar "games."

In Baghdad Slum, Sectarian Strife Is Also Child's Play
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A year ago, a young gunman walked into Ali Hussein's living room and drew a weapon. The intruder's head was wrapped in a scarf, leaving a narrow slit for his eyes. His clothes were all black, the favorite attire of a powerful Shiite Muslim militia. He introduced himself as a commander, shouted the incantation "God is greater" and warned Sunni Muslims not to fight back. With that, he raised his plastic pistol.

The gunman's name is Hassoni, and he was only 4 years old at the time. The scene unfolded in his father's house in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, a sprawling Shiite Muslim district stretching toward the eastern edge of the Iraqi capital. "I was happy to see him this way because it means he has courage," Mr. Hussein, 26, said of his son. Since then, Hassoni's favorite game has grown more elaborate, migrating from the living room onto the neighboring streets, drawing in other children and increasingly emulating the violent world of the adults.

As Iraq careers toward full-scale civil war between its Shiite majority and Sunni minority, the culture of celebrating sectarian strife has taken root even among the very young in Sadr City. Home to more than two million people, the Baghdad district is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia blamed for abducting and killing Sunnis. But to Sadr City residents, the Mahdi Army is a revered self-defense force, the only group they see as capable of preventing wholesale slaughter of Shiites at the hands of Sunni extremists. Shiite politicians blame atrocities against Sunnis on rogue forces that falsely claim to represent the real Mahdi Army.

The celebration of sectarian violence is widespread here. Some militia leaders have acquired almost mythical status, including Abu Dera, an elusive gangster alleged to be behind some of the worst sectarian killings of Sunnis. In the lore of the streets, Abu Dera and other fighters are Zorro-like figures who strike into the heart of Sunni neighborhoods, dispense swift revenge and return home unharmed.

Hassoni, who is now 5, spends hours listening to such tales in his family's grocery store, where customers routinely trade stories -- real and imagined -- of Shiite militias fighting Sunni insurgents. Abu Dera became his hero, and his father has helped encourage the adulation by playing songs on his stereo extolling the valor of Shiite gunmen. "Abu Dera is trying to kill the bad guys," said Mr. Hussein, who works as a security guard at the Ministry of Education and sometimes helps patrol his neighborhood.

A friendly boy with striking brown eyes and neatly combed hair falling over his forehead, Hassoni says he wants to grow up to be powerful enough to have a big car and armed guards surrounding him.

When he plays with friends, the boys divide themselves into two groups -- one Shiite and the other Sunni -- and shoot at each other with pellet guns, lurking behind cars and in roadside ditches. "Kids always refuse to be Sunnis, but because they need to play, some of them have to pretend to be Sunnis," said Mr. Hussein, who often watches his son's hours-long battles. Using trash, the children erect their own barricades. Hassoni likes to pretend to be Abu Dera and calls himself the leader of the gang. Other members include a boy nicknamed Bush Senior for his foreign-looking red hair. Hassoni often returns home with torn clothes and pellet bruises.

A few blocks away, Qassim Abdul-Ridha, a father of four, said his 6-year-old son, Karar, and his gang fight street battles against other children, often sending a girl to scout out the rivals' hiding places. Chanting "Muqtada" in homage to Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army, the boys try to capture their opponents' toy guns as trophies.

The real Mahdi Army is always nearby to provide inspiration. Sometimes, Hassoni hangs around grown-up gunmen manning the real roadblocks and runs errands for them, such as bringing them food and drink. He also gathers war stories and then breathlessly relays them to his parents. The latest tale Hassoni heard on the street involved a group of Shiite gunmen who mounted a rescue mission of Shiite hostages held by Sunni extremists. The gunmen ended up kidnapping the kidnappers and brought them to Sadr City. "He's very excited, always smiling, when he tells us these stories," his father said.

One day, Hassoni brought home a steel pipe he found in a garbage dump and declared it to be a rocket launcher, which he was going to use to fire mortars at Sunni neighborhoods, much as real militiamen do. Asked recently what he thinks of Sunnis, he answered with one word: "terrorists." Together with other children, Hassoni fills empty bottles with sand, and sticks a twig in them to resemble a fuse. The bottles serve as make-believe bombs for use against imaginary Sunnis or American patrols.

Hassoni's arsenal of toy guns has grown from one plastic pistol to include two AK-47 models and a sniper rifle with a scope, now his favorite weapon. Mr. Hussein gave him the rifle as a gift at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan when Iraqi families exchange presents. Hassoni was so excited, his father says, that he paid no attention to a toy train and a toy piano given to him by his mother and aunt. The black life-size rifle looks completely real.

The line between the game and real life has grown increasingly blurry. In late November, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs inside Sadr City, killing 240 Shiite civilians, the bloodiest attack since the U.S. invasion in 2003. The blasts occurred just over a mile from Mr. Hussein's house, and Hassoni saw the black plumes of smoke. Later that evening, Hassoni and other children patrolled their street looking for strangers. Hassoni started saying things like, "Sunnis hate us and don't want us to be anywhere near them," his father said.

A few days later, Hassoni and his gang spotted a boy they didn't know. They stopped him and demanded to know what he was doing on their street. "I heard the Mahdi Army saying that if you see strangers, ask them where they come from and what they are doing here," he said. "And that kid was not from our area." When the boy tried to run away, Hassoni and his friends caught him and beat him up.

Later, it turned out that the boy and his parents, all Shiites, were visiting relatives on Hassoni's street. "We had a lot of problems with our neighbors because of this fight," Mr. Hussein recalled. He said he sat his son down for a talk, telling him it is wrong to attack other boys. Hassoni promised to behave but said he will continue looking for strangers on his street.

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At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The USA has unseated France as being the Top Arab Killer. France killed about 1 million Algerians during colonial era.

USA killed about 1.5 million Iraqis, 0.75 mil starved or killed by curable diseases during sanctions and 0.75 mil result of US invasion of Iraq.

And just as in Algeria, Arab death squads paid for, trained, and supported by the Americans were the colonialist favorite tool.

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Esra'a said...

It's worth noting that the U.S were also heavily involved in the Iran-Iraq war, where Rumsfeld was quoted in 1984 saying that the U.S has full support for Saddam. They also funded the Mujahideen of Afghanistan around the same time.

While they don't deny it, they completely ignore it, and when confronted about this, they either change the subject or justify these absurd actions.

I think the U.S, and the Bush administration in particular, is extremely confused.

In any case, going back to the topic of hand, this isn't something new as photographers from the region took many pictures before of Iraqi children acting out the civil war. I think it's natural. When I was a kid, friends and I acted out the Gulf War, despite our very young age. When it surrounds you, it becomes you. They don't need to imagine when their reality is bad enough to be unimaginable by many, and we definitely can't blame them when the word 'terrorist' is being overused in their torn society. It is a typical reaction from a child incapable of understanding the magnitude of this all.

Is it wrong? Yes, but so is war. This is only one of its many consequences. Ask most Arab children what they think of Israel and the answers will also astound you, they are unbelievably cruel.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger OmAr said...

They say that the ugliness of any war is measured by the effects it leaves on those who didn't fight it. I wonder if choosing whether to be a Sunni or Shiite in the civil war game is the democracy that Bush was talking about!

At 2:41 PM, Blogger moi said...

anon--Our hope is that the Arabs will learn from these weaknesses and that the powerful will also understand the consequences of their actions.

Esra'a--Of course it would be natural for children to become involved in the topic that completely surrounds them, in this case war. But it is still very unfortunate to see that parents are falling in this trap and fueling their children with ideas that will only bode ill for the future.

Omar--They say that the ugliness of any war is measured by the effects it leaves on those who didn't fight it. Indeed...

At 8:35 AM, Blogger mohammad said...

very interesting moi, i always enjoy what you write, smart and logical.

by the way, i would like to suggest something if you don't mind,i know that your aim is writing articles only, but maybe you should start adding visuals to your posts (any simple photo related to the subject). yes, the content is everything, but visuals always help to release the eyes, and categorize the posts. it's just a design point of view, and again a suggestion to a blog that i like :-)

At 12:47 PM, Blogger moi said...

mohammad--Thank you for your kind words, and your great advice. I really do appreciate it when I get such feedback from my visitors. I occasionally include some pictures when I feel that the message I am trying to get across cannot be complete without a photo. But I do understand where you are coming from as I often like to see pictures in posts as well. As you can tell from my blog, my artistic abilities are limited :) but I am working on something new which I hope will please you all. Thanks again!


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