Al-Amariyah - A Graveyard of unwilling martyrs
I walked out of the building with a feeling of revulsion and disgust towards these creatures we call human beings and for the ease with which we allow ourselves to be less than human. But my overwhelming feeling was… a need to rush into a shower and perform ghusl – before I ate or drank or even touched anything! I needed to be cleansed. I suppose it was not as much a physical cleansing that I required as compared to a psychological and moral one.
I had just exited from what had been a civilian bomb shelter in the suburb of Amariyah in Baghdad. ‘Had been’ until two American bombers left it a shattered memory for thousands of people and a monument to the inhumanity of war.
The bomb shelter at Amariyah was one of 44 that had been built by the Iraqi government after an Iraqi nuclear plant was bombed by Israel in 1981. These buildings were supposed to protect those who took shelter within it, particularly from chemical and nuclear weapons or fallout. However, with their five-ton doors and walls that were constructed of metres of reinforced concrete, these shelters could withstand anything a war could throw at them. Well, that was the plan. Perhaps Amariyah is a good lesson that “you might plot and you might plan, but Allah too plans; and Allah is the best of planners”.
During the tragic Gulf War of 1991, the Americans decided to test exactly what it was that these bomb shelters could withstand. As part of their planning strategy for the war, the so-called Allied forces brought in as advisors people from various international companies that had worked in Iraq. Two of these companies were a Swedish and a Finnish ones that had constructed the Baghdad shelters. They supplied the Americans with the plans for the shelters which assisted in developing a strategy to bomb and destroy them successfuly.
The US military spent 16 days developing a special ‘spiro-bomb’ for the job. According to Time, preparations for the attack had begun months before.
On the 13 February 1991, at 4:00am, two Allied bombers flew over Baghdad on a special mission. Their target: Amariyah. The first bomber passed over the shelter – filled with residents from the neighbourhood who had sought its safety – and dropped its spiro-bomb on the weakest point. The ‘weakest point’ was three to four metres of reinforced concrete. The bomb rapidly drilled through the reinforced concrete before exploding in the main hall where people were sleeping. Six minutes later the second plane dropped a conventional bomb through the opening created by the first. Both bombs were laser-guided.
The U.S. military claimed there was a military communication center under the shelter, but when a reporter asked to see the evidence, the military refused to provide it. The reason they refused to provide the evidence is because it simply does not exist.
The two explosions slammed the five-ton doors shut and no one could escape. A few people were lucky to have been blasted out the door before it shut. By the end of the day, 408 Amariyah residents people had been killed; only 14 survived the attack. Most of the victims were killed by the first blast. The explosions were so powerful and hot that we saw foot and hand prints seared onto the walls and ceilings. With no electricity in Baghdad, the civil defence people had to use manual tools to open the doors. They worked for a long time trying to get in – with the screams of the people inside ringing in their ears. Within the shelter many had died immediately the explosions happened. Many others were burned to death. The explosions had also destroyed two huge water tanks in the basement. Those who slept in the basement – doctors and others who provided services for the residents – were boiled in the two metres of water that invaded their refuges. Bits of their skin and hair still cling to the walls below the water line as a testimony to the horror that took place here. The boiling water also flooded the top floor through the pipes.
Upstairs there was little hope for most of those who survived long enough for the civil defence unit to find its way into the building. When relief personnel did get in, they found bodies everywhere, some charred beyond recognition. We saw the image of a woman and her baby smoked onto the wall where they had been thrown by the explosion before being burnt to death.
Today the walls of the main section of the shelter are adorned by photographs and pictures of and tributes to the victims of that ill-fated night. Flowers punctuate the floor where relatives found bodies of their loved ones. While some Amariyah families had lost loved families, some families were completely wiped out by the tragedy. The houses of the latter are today unoccupied and boarded up.
After the Amariyah incident residents in many Baghdad suburbs preferred to take their chances in their homes during bomb raids. Shelters, as far as they were concerned, were more dangerous!
Saying to myself that this was the kind of thing that usually happens during a war was no consolation. Thinking that the Iraqi army also perpetrated atrocities in Kuwait made my state of mind even worse. That I could witness this – even in retrospect and just through a monument – still left me feeling unclean. And seeing the name ‘Tennet’ – the Finnish company that helped construct the shelters – on the massive door as I exited made me feel an even greater sense of disgust and anger. I still needed that ghusl!
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