There’s the wreckage of a car bomb that killed seven Americans on the corner of a neighbouring street. Close by stands the shuttered shop of a phone supplier who put pictures of Saddam on a donkey on his mobiles. He was shot three days ago, along with two other men who had committed the same sin. In the al-Jamia neighbourhood, a US Humvee was purring up the road so we gingerly backed off and took a side street. In this part of Baghdad, you avoid both the insurgents and the Americans – if you are lucky.
Yassin al-Sammerai was not. On 14 July, the second grade schoolboy had gone to spend the night with two college friends and – this being a city without electricity in the hottest month of the year – they decided to spend the night sleeping in the front garden. Let his broken 65 year-old father Selim take up the story, for he’s the one who still cannot believe his son is dead – or what the Americans told him afterwards.
“It was three-thirty in the morning and they were all asleep, Yassin and his friends Fahed and Walid Khaled. There was an American patrol outside and then suddenly, a Bradley armoured vehicle burst through the gate and wall and drove over Yassin. You know how heavy these things are. He died instantly. But the Americans didn’t know what they’d done. He was lying crushed under the vehicle for 17 minutes. Um Khaled, his friends’ mother, kept shouting in Arabic: “There is a boy under this vehicle.”
According to Selim al-Sammerai, the Americans’ first reaction was to put handcuffs on the two other boys. But a Lebanese Arabic interpreter working for the Americans arrived to explain that it was all a mistake. “We don’t have anything against you,’’she said. The Americans produced a laminated paper in English and Arabic entitled “Iraqi Claims Pocket Card” which tells them how to claim compensation.
The unit whose Bradley drove over Yassin is listed as “256 BCT A/156 AR, Mortars”. Under “Type of Incident”, an American had written: “Raid destroyed gate and doors.” No one told the family there had been a raid. And nowhere – but nowhere – on the form does it suggest that the “raid’’ destroyed the life of the football-loving Yassin al-Sammerai.
Inside Yassin’s father’s home yesterday, Selim shakes with anger and then weeps softly, wiping his eyes. “He is surely in heaven,” one of his surviving seven sons replies. And the old man looks at me and says: “He liked swimming too. ”
A former technical manager at the Baghdad University college of arts, Selim is now just a shadow.He is half bent over on his seat, his face sallow and his cheeks drawn in. This is a Sunni household in a Sunni area. This is “insurgent country” for the Americans, which is why they crash into these narrow streets at night. Several days ago, a collaborator gave away the location of a group of Sunni guerrillas and US troops surrounded the house. A two-hour gun-battle followed until an Apache helicopter came barrelling out of the darkness and dropped a bomb on the building, killing all inside.
There is much muttering around the room about the Americans and the West and I pick up on this quickly and say how grateful I am that they have let a Westerner come to their home after what has happened. Selim turns and shakes me by the hand. “You are welcome here,” he says. “Please tell people what happened to us.” Outside, my driver is watching the road; it’s the usual story. Any car with three men inside or a man with a mobile phone means “get out”. The sun bakes down. It is a Friday. “These guys take Fridays off,” the driver offers by way of confidence.
“The Americans came back with an officer two days later,” Selim al-Sammerai continues. “They offered us compensation. I refused. I lost my son, I told the officer. ’I don’t want the money – I don’t think the money will bring back my son.’ That’s what I told the American.” There is a long silence in the room. But Selim, who is still crying, insists on speaking again.
“I told the American officer: ’You have killed the innocent and such things will lead the people to destroy you and the people will make a revolution against you. You said you had come to liberate us from the previous regime. But you are destroying our walls and doors.’”
I suddenly realise that Selim al-Sammerai has straightened up on his seat and his voice is rising in strength. “Do you know what the American said to me? He said, ’This is fate.’ I looked at him and I said, ’I am very faithful in the fate of God – but not in the fate of which you speak.’”
Then one of Yassin’s brothers says that he took a photograph of the dead boy as he lay on the ground, a picture taken on his mobile phone, and he printed a picture of it and when the Americans returned on the second day they asked to see it. “They asked me why I had taken the picture and I said it was so people here could see what the Americans had done to my brother. They asked if they could borrow it and bring it back. I gave it to them but they didn’t bring it back. But I still kept the image on my mobile and I was able to print another.” And suddenly it is in my hands, an obscene and terrible snapshot of Yassin’s head crushed flat as if an elephant had stood upon it, blood pouring from what had been the back of his brains. “So now, you see,” the brother explains, “the people can still see what the Americans have done.”
In the heat, we slunk out of al-Jamia yesterday, the place of insurgents and Americans and grief and revenge. “When the car bomb blew up over there,” my driver says, “the US Humvees went on burning for three hours and the bodies were still there. The Americans took three hours to reach them. All the people gathered round and watched.” And I look at the carbonised car that still lies on the road and realise it has now become a little icon of resistance. How, I ask myself again, can the Americans ever win?