David Cameron, British bombs killed my family before. Please don't let it happen again

After every phone call home, the question would be: "Who died?" And then there were the answers: Ahmed, the shopkeeper whose shop they visited for fifteen years; Nuriya, my mum’s classmate who always helped her with her chemistry homework; Wathik and Leila, the neighbours' children

Allan Hennessy@allannotalan
Tuesday 01 December 2015 15:17
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A young boy stands amid debris following a reported air strike in Syria
A young boy stands amid debris following a reported air strike in Syria

On 9th April 2003, weeks into the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s statue fell to its knees in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Before the statue came tumbling down, U.S Marine Corporal Edward Chin climbed a ladder, draping Saddam’s face in an American flag. I was seven at the time, too young to understand the symbolic significance behind the fall: the West beats the Rest.

On the 3rd May, my great-uncle - a farmer by trade and father of two - was found dead on his arable land, killed by British airstrikes. His 13 year old granddaughter found his body, covered in blood and barley. She did not eat for weeks. She wore black for months. She suffered depression and anxiety for years, and she committed suicide on her seventeenth birthday.

Every Monday after the invasion my mother would collect our benefits from the Jobcentre so that she could stop by at the Post Office to pick up an international calling card. After cooking dinner for her children – usually stuffed vine leaves or okra curry – she would excuse herself. “I’m going to pray.”

One evening I asked her why she would always pray before calling Baghdad. “I’m praying that I get through to my mum. I’m praying that she is not dead. I’m praying that her house is still standing. I’m praying that they have water and electricity. I’m praying that the hospitals are still open. I’m praying for your dad’s family in the village. I’m praying for this nightmare to end. I’m praying because that is all I can do.”

After every phone call she would listen to Koranic verses and cry. My dad would ask the same question: “Who has died?”

Mother always had an answer for him: Ahmed, the shopkeeper whose shop they visited for fifteen years; Nasir, the local Imam who married them off; Musab, the carpenter; Nuriya, my mum’s classmate who always helped her with her chemistry homework; Abla, the old widow whose husband was killed during the Gulf War in 1991; Wathik and Leila, the neighbours' children.

And when she didn’t have an answer for him it wasn’t because no one had died: it was because Baghdad was being bombed, all the electricity was off, and phone lines were disabled. No one could tell you that they were safe with the safety function on Facebook. No WhatsApp, Twitter or email either.

After some time, dad changed his post-phone call question: “How many?”

“Three,” my mother sniffled one evening.

At break time on Tuesday mornings, all the Iraqi children would congregate in the playground with their news. One particular morning will forever be etched into my mind. As we went around in a circle with our news, we noticed one girl, Farah, missing from the circle, which of course meant that she was not at school.

We were all furious – she was meant to be playing Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream for our Year 6 show that afternoon. After break we were told that the show was cancelled: Farah’s father had been killed in Basra.

I remember protesting as a naïve 10 year-old: “Miss, you said the show must always go on!”

But I now know that the show does not always go on. I now know that Farah’s life was turned upside down. I know that for seven years there was a sense of foreboding in the house I grew up in. I know that even Shakespeare would struggle to recreate the tragedy and bloodshed the Middle East has gone through in the last fifteen years.

And I would also bet my bottom dollar that my mother could not handle another loved one being killed in a bloody war. If Britain goes to war, British bombs will kill someone she knows and loves.

As is common in the Arab world, my family is scattered all over the Middle East – Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Civilians and terrorists are neighbours. Jihadis and imams live side by side among all the debris. Bombs do not discriminate between good and evil.

But bombing will kill more civilians than terrorists. Cameron and Hollande are unforgivably misguided to talk about civilian death as “collateral damage”. 500,000 innocent lives taken in the Iraq war is not collateral damage. The history books serve a fatal reminder to the Prime Minister.

Of course Britain has to react to the threat posed by Isis. But this is no time for irrationality. David Cameron should know that urban guerrillas cannot be defeated with bombs. He should know that Isis fighters only drive in convoys or march in orderly single file in their propaganda videos. Off camera, they avoid large groups, choosing to mix with the local population, mostly in ghettos that house families. Off camera, they live in a world of chaos.

Take Mosul as an example. It is an Isis stronghold in Iraq. It is also home to 1.5 million people, at most 15,000 Isis terrorists. If you wanted to get rid of Isis in Mosul, you would have to bomb the entire city to shreds. You would have to kill my cousins, their wives and children. You would have to kill Sara, a family friend trapped by Daesh, forced to cover up and stay indoors.

In 1998, the late Tony Benn gave a remarkable speech to the Commons in which, drawing on his personal experience of living through the Blitz, he argued against waging war in Iraq. As war in Syria looks increasingly likely, his speech is ever more relevant. Bombs will only strengthen Isis: "Aren't Arabs terrified? Aren't Iraqis terrified? Don't Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Do bombs not strengthen their determination?"

The sepia tones of winter have been blood-soaked in enough tragedy. My mother has cried enough. I have mourned enough. And Britain has started too many wars that it has left unfinished. Lest we forget, Isis was only born six months after the invasion of Iraq.

Britain has murdered my family before. Please do not do it again.

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