In the beginning, it was only the three of them: Kadhim, Mohammed, and the corpse.
Two of the three were sweaty, out of breath, and had hearts that were beating faster than they thought possible. Overhead, the Iraqi sun beat down through the palm trees, making wavy patterns on the sand-gritted path where the boys had been playing just moments before. That is, until their soccer ball was stopped by an elbow.
It was odd, how an elbow became almost unrecognizable when it was all by itself.
Then they noticed a dismembered hand… then a foot… then a bloody mess of intestines… and there, next to the bush, sending a breathless chill down their spines, was the severed head.
It was the first dead body the two brothers had ever seen, but Kadhim, staring in morbid curiosity, knew that it was not the work of an animal. The body had been hacked to pieces the way Mama chopped mutton, and although covered with flies, the blood around it was still fresh. Whoever this was, it had not been long since his murderer had walked the very path on which they now stood.
Ten-year-old Kadhim and his twelve-year-old brother stared at their discovery in shock; the hair rising in unbidden chills on the backs of their necks. Something felt wrong, a fear in the pit of Kadhim’s stomach that grew quickly into nausea. He was beginning to taste the bile in his throat when Mohammed grabbed his hand.
“Let’s go. Now!”
Steeling his nerves, the boy defiantly snatched his ball from the corpse and ran after his brother. The dismembered body remained behind, an unwelcome stranger in a children’s park, a premonition of the horror to come.
* * *
When Kadhim awoke, it was raining. Rain rarely came to the desert city of Hilla, but when it did, it was as though God, who had forgotten to water the city all year, had suddenly remembered and decided to douse it with a quick, heavy, very cold bucket of water. With every drop, the layer of sand that dusted the city was turning to mud, and Kadhim thought pityingly of the people waiting in two long lines at the gas station (one for men, another for women, as was proper) to buy gas and kerosene.
Sixteen-year-old Ali was still snoring next door, but Mohammed’s bed was already empty and in other parts of the house, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles would soon be getting up. Kadhim wasn’t used to the presence of so many relatives, whose homes, apparently, were no longer safe. He flicked the light switch out of habit, but there hadn’t been any electricity for months. So he made his way down the hall, hopping from rug to rug in an attempt to avoid the cold marble floor.
In the kitchen, Mama had lit the gas stove with a match and was making tea, eggs, and warm bread while two-year old Salih played on the floor next to her. She smiled as Kadhim sat at the table.
“Good morning, habibi, my sweetheart. How would you like your eggs?”
“Sunny-side up—without the yellow.”
She laughed. “Without the yellow, huh?”
As she cooked, Baba entered the kitchen, kissed the top of Kadhim’s head, and ruffled little Salih’s hair. “I’m going out to meet with the other teachers to see if there’s any news.”
“Again? Why don’t you just listen to the radio?” Even as Kadhim spoke, he could hear news broadcasts in the living room. Their beautiful mahogany radio enjoyed a prime spot in a room which was normally lit by a stunning chandelier but now had only kerosene lamps and candles.
Mama pulled Salih up on her hip in one practiced swoop. “Sometimes you learn more by talking to people directly.”
With that, Baba was out the door. Kadhim never thought to say goodbye. His father would be back in a few hours, surely.
Kadhim waited for the rain to stop before grabbing Mohammed. The tub on the roof caught rainwater, but with the number of people in their house, it was never enough. The hunt for water had become a necessity for all of Hilla, but for Kadhim and Mohammed, it was their daily dose of adventure. They gathered the empty jugs and were out the door and riding their bicycles before their oldest brother, Ali, had even woken up.
“Are we going to that cracked water pipe again?” Kadhim asked as they pedaled down the street.
“No. It’s empty, remember? Let’s just bring water from the Euphrates until they break open another tank. It’s cleaner than rain water anyways.” Mohammed grinned and sped up. “But first let’s race to that pole.”
“You started before me!” Kadhim shouted, but he laughed and pedaled as fast as he could nonetheless.
They flew past date palms and pomegranate trees, long out of season, but even in the winter, oranges could be found in many backyards, so Mohammed and Kadhim helped themselves. They stopped to stare in awe at the ruined house of a neighbor who had dared to fire at an American helicopter. They passed their school, where they used to go Saturday through Thursday to learn about Arabic, math, and Baba Saddam’s many feats for the good of the Iraqi nation.
But the school had sat dark and empty for many months now. Ever since the Americans had come to Iraq.
* * *
Kadhim’s ten years had afforded him, he felt, a wealth of useful knowledge. The Americans had come from… wherever Americans came from, to get Iraq out of Kuwait and to fight Saddam. Baba said they were bombing Iraqi infrastructure. Kadhim wasn’t sure what that meant, but electricity and water had been gone since that January, 1991, and the schools had closed as well. And so he’d learned that war meant using kerosene lamps, taking a vacation from his studies, and running inside whenever he heard a loud BOOM.
But that evening, when Baba didn’t come home, war started to mean something else.
Baba didn’t come home the next day either, or the day after that, and with each passing day, the fear grew, until it became an electric current that ran through every member of the crowded household. Each day, Kadhim—like his brothers—questioned Mama even more.
“Where’s Baba? Is he coming home?”
“He’ll be home soon, habibi, don’t worry.” Her eyes were red and puffy. Something was definitely wrong.
“But when?” Kadhim knew the truth. It pounded in every beat of his heart.
* * *
Mama shoved a few bills in her boys’ hands and pushed them out the door with bribes of sweets from the corner store. She put two-year-old Salih down for a nap, and with all four of her boys finally out of sight, the feeling of panic she’d been holding at bay overtook her. Her breath came in wheezy gasps, her throat constricted, and she slid to the floor, her head in her hands, her body wracked with sobs. She looked up to find her aging mother gazing down at her in pity.
“It’s been a week since he disappeared,” Mama said beseechingly through her tears. “One of the neighbors thinks that he went to fight with the regime’s popular army. But that can’t be. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire a week ago. The war is over. Iraq has pulled out of Kuwait, and the American troops are withdrawing. What could the army possibly need him for?”
Something else was going on, a current of unrest was spreading throughout Iraq, and it frightened and unsettled her.
Her mother’s eyes were sympathetic. “Dear, you have to face the possibility that he may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few weeks ago the Americans bombed a gas station, killing dozens of innocent bystanders. Perhaps it was something like that.”
“Maybe not. Maybe he’s out there somewhere and can’t contact me. The phone lines have been down since the Americans bombed the…”
Her panicked voice trailed off as her mother put a gentle hand on her shoulder and shook her head.
“If he were alive, he’d come home. I’m sorry my darling, but he’s gone. And now you need to be strong for your children.”
Then the aging woman knelt on the floor and embraced her weeping daughter.
An hour passed as Mama collected herself. It seemed she had no sooner dried her tears than her sons burst into the house, shouting with excitement. And as Ali’s breathless words sank in, Mama felt her head spin.
“The intifada! It’s happening!”
The world would not let her catch her breath.
* * *
In an instant, the family gathered around the radio. Kadhim joined them, listening intently, sensing the momentousness of the occasion but unsure as to what it meant. Uncle Ehab was pacing in a circle, eyes wide.
“The Shiites in the South are rebelling against the regime! The Kurds in the North have joined, too.”
“How? Where?” Fear played with the shadows on Mama’s face, and Kadhim looked from her to Uncle Ehab, trying to determine whether this news was good or bad.
“It’s The Voice of Free Iraq,” Uncle Ehab answered. “It’s been broadcasting from Saudi Arabia, encouraging Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Even the American president has been encouraging a coup! It’s only been a few days since the rebels took Basra and already the rebellion is spreading like wildfire! The regime is weakened by war, and with the Americans on our side, we could finally—”
He stopped abruptly, silenced by a sharp look from Mama. Then he continued slowly. “The rebels have seized Basra, Najaf, Amarah… This uprising will come to Hilla soon.”
“Enough.” Mama turned to her boys. “Ali, Mohammed, Kadhim: listen to me. You be careful of those rebels. They’re bad men and troublemakers.”
Kadhim, wide-eyed, nodded solemnly. So we’re on the side of Baba Saddam. He is Iraq’s savior, isn’t he?
* * *
Within days, the rebels reached Hilla. Despite being kept inside by Mama, Kadhim could see that all the shops had closed and the streets were filled with people, though he couldn’t tell whether their shouts were of anger or joy.
Over the following days, he overheard Mama, Uncle Ehab and the other adults sharing news whenever they came back in the house from a trip outside. The rebels had raided the school and burned the Ba’athi headquarters. They were visiting all the houses of known party officials, killing and driving out Ba’athis like rabbits. For the most part, Kadhim paid little attention to the commotion. He was far more interesting in playing jacks with Mohammed. He and his brother did discover the mutilated body in the park, but other than that, there seemed to be far less fighting than Kadhim had expected. When he put this question to Uncle Ehab, his answer seemed oddly pensive.
“They have killed some Ba’athis. And some of the government officials have switched sides and joined the rebels. But it seems that mostly, there’s just no one left in Hilla for the rebels to fight. The Ba’athis have vanished.”
Just like Baba.