10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.
We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).
At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.
At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.
We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.
I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.
Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.