It’s not difficult to create orphans in Iraq. If you’re an insurgent, you can blow yourself up in a crowded market. If you’re an American air force pilot, you can bomb the wrong house in the wrong village. Or if you’re a Western mercenary, you can fire 40 bullets into the widowed mother of 14-year-old Alice Awanis and her sisters Karoon and Nora, the first just 20, the second a year older. But when the three girls landed at Amman airport from Baghdad last week they believed that they were free of the horrors of Baghdad and might travel to Northern Ireland to escape the terrible memory of their mother’s violent death.
Alas, the milk of human kindness does not necessarily extend to orphans from Iraq – the country we invaded for supposedly humanitarian reasons, not to mention weapons of mass destruction. For as their British uncle waited for them at Queen Alia airport, Jordanian security men – refusing him even a five-minute conversation with the girls – hustled the sisters back on to the plane for Iraq.
“How could they do this?” their uncle, Paul Manouk, asks. “Their mum has been killed. Their father had already died. I was waiting for them. The British embassy in Jordan said they might issue visas for the three – but that they had to reach Amman first.” Mr Manouk lives in Northern Ireland and is a British citizen. Explaining this to the Jordanian muhabarrat at the airport was useless.
Western mercenaries killed their 48-year-old Iraqi Armenian mother, Marou Awanis, and her best friend – firing 40 bullets into her body as she drove her taxi near their four-vehicle convoy in Baghdad – but tragedy has haunted the family for almost a century; the three sisters’ great-grandmother was forced to leave her two daughters to die on their own by the roadside during the 1915 Armenian genocide. Mrs Awanis’ friend, Jeneva Jalal, was killed instantly alongside her in the passenger seat.
The Australian “security” company whose employees killed Mrs Awanis and her friend – “executed” might be a better word for it, because that is the price of driving too close to armed Westerners in Baghdad these days – expressed its “regrets”. The chief operating officer of Unity Resources Group claims that she drove her car at speed towards the company’s employees and that they feared she was a suicide bomber.
“Only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle,” Michael Priddin said. “We deeply regret the loss of these lives.” He refused to identify the killers or their nationality. Westerners in Baghdad – especially those who kill the innocent – are once they are known, rich in regrets. But they are less keen to ensure that the bereaved they leave behind are cared for.
Karoon was sick and had papers allowing her to enter Jordan; the family assumed that her siblings would be permitted to enter the country with her. Mr Manouk, an electrical engineer in Co Down, said that he went to the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees in Amman and that they told him that the sisters had to come in.
“I also sought visas for them at the British embassy but the visa section said that the three had to be in Amman before they could do anything to help them. Karoon was told by the Jordanians she could come into Amman but that her other sisters could not. She would not leave her sisters. So all three went back to Baghdad the same day.
“I just could not believe this. At the airport I pleaded with the Jordanian security people to let me spend five minutes with my nieces – just five minutes only – but they refused.”
Mrs Awanis had two sisters in Iraq, Helen and Anna, who are looking after the girls until Mr Manouk – or anyone else – finds a way of rescuing them.
“I have a Jordanian friend who had at first arranged to enrol the two eldest girls in the university in Jordan, but it was of no use,” Mr Manouk says. “I had an awful evening at the airport. In my distress, I am writing to King Abdullah for his help. We are trying to get a settlement for my nieces with the Australian company whose people shot their mother. But they are not liable under Iraqi law. I want a proper settlement by law – through lawyers – not just a cash handout, which is the way Americans do things in Iraq.”
Like so many Armenian families, the Manouks are overshadowed by a history of mass murder. During the Armenian genocide of 1915, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks, Paul Manouk’s grandfather – the three Iraqi orphans’ great-grandfather – was taken from his family by Turkish policemen in a line of other men and never seen again. His father, then just six years old, survived along with his mother. “But my father’s sister, we believe, was taken by a Kurdish man as his wife,” Mr Manouk said.
“My grandfather’s two other sisters had a terrible fate. Their legs had swollen on the long march south from their home in Besni, near Marash, and they could not keep walking, so my grandmother took the decision to leave them on the roadside and keep the son so that our ‘line’ would survive. The two little girls were never seen again.”
The family had almost reached the border of the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – on the long march of ethnic cleansing when, like tens of thousands other Armenians, they lost their loved ones through exhaustion and starvation. A million-and-a-half Armenians died in the genocide.
After the British occupation of Iraq in 1917, British troops escorted the remains of the Manouk family to Basra where one of the aunts looking after the three Awanis sisters still lives.
Their father, Azad Awanis, died after a heart operation in 2004. Mrs Awanis was driving her Oldsmobile taxi through the dangerous streets of Baghdad to earn money for her family after her husband’s death, little realising that her new job – and a bunch of trigger-happy mercenaries – would orphan her children.
Paul Manouk met his British wife in Edinburgh in 1974, when he was studying for a PhD in medicine. A normally imperturbable man, he describes himself as still being in a state of shock at the killing of his younger sister.
“I wonder what her face was like when she died. She wasn’t in a bad area. Marou was coming back from church when she was shot, along with her friend. Another woman, in the back of the car, was wounded.” A 15-year-old boy survived. According to Mr Manouk, his sister was “riddled with bullets from the chest upwards”.