School was out.
For me, a fifth grader, it was heaven on earth. No homework for at least a month, no more mean math teacher, no more science papers. The few unexpected days off school were a much-needed vacation.
What was unneeded was the reason for the break- school was out because we were being bombed.
It was 1998, and then-President Bill Clinton had ordered fighter jets to attack several targets in the heart of Baghdad. Six years later I would come to the University of Michigan at Dearborn to study political science, but at the time, the geopolitical climate I’m studying here meant very little to me. I was more worried about looting and shrapnel.
In Baghdad, I lived down the street from at least four potential targets. We considered boarding all the windows of the house, but for the most part they were too big to make the effort worthwhile. The most important thing we could do was save my grandmother’s boutique. She owned a small women’s clothing store about five minutes from where we lived. The last time we were involved in a war, people from other towns raided every store and took everything they could get their hands on.
That day, my mother, grandmother and I waited for the bombing to stop for a few hours, then hurried over and stuffed all the clothes into bags. We moved fast, and within an hour the store was empty. When I walked outside, I saw everyone else doing the same thing.
At the time, I accepted it, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I remember wondering, why be so scared? People are generally nice, so why would they want to take something that doesn’t belong to them? I didn’t ask my mother, though. It wasn’t the time.
If I was naive then, I’m far from it now. I’m older and wiser, but, more important, at the University, I’m removed from the war. Here, fears about looting are far removed from the collective consciousness. And while the streets in Dearborn aren’t exactly paved with gold, it’s closer to a land of milk and honey than Baghdad. Still, I sometimes feel out of place. While a lot of people are concerned about the war in Iraq, I’m probably one of the few for whom poor U.S.-Iraqi relations means it’s time to board up windows.
Going home that night was boring. I wanted to ride my bike with my friends. I asked my mom if I could ride my bike over to my friend’s house and she said no. I didn’t know why everything was so quiet. There weren’t even any cars on the road, but my mom insisted I didn’t go outside. I couldn’t watch television – nothing was on. I guessed they had bombed the broadcasting towers. We sat in the silence.
I can sleep through anything, and that night I didn’t have a problem getting to sleep. But the sirens that went off nonstop and the occasional explosion kept my little sister awake. My grandmother slept beside her, and whenever my sister woke up, my grandma turned the radio on really loud so my sister could forget about the noise outside. Eventually, my grandmother figured out a place for us to stay in a nearby city that wasn’t bombed as often as Baghdad. We packed up enough clothes to keep us away from home for a couple days and went to stay with the daughter of our neighbor. We spent about a week sleeping in her living room. She was extremely nice to us, and we felt more or less at home on the tiled floor, but I remember the darkness. The power outage seemed permanent, and it was inky black and quiet.
Now, nine years later, I can’t help but think back to those days. Of course, my life couldn’t be more different. Nightlife at the University is the antithesis of nights in wartime Iraq. But I think about my father’s family, who are still there, every time I see statistics about the skyrocketing casualties in Iraq. And, of course, I think about how it might have been different had my family stayed longer – the number of refugees and immigrants allowed into the United States dropped dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001, despite the accelerating violence.
I was recently at Cedar Point, standing in line for the Sky Hawk. I glanced at the girl standing next to me, laughing and having fun just as I was. I kept thinking, You know, we’re at war right now. Shouldn’t I be home boarding up my windows? Shouldn’t I box up everything I own in case I have to leave my house? More or less, though, I’ve come to the realization that I no longer need to worry about these things, because I’m safe. If only all of us could say the same.
– Shahad Aitya is a sophomore at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.