A long way from 9/11
Where were you on 9/11 when you heard the news that two airliners had ploughed in to the World Trade Centre? I vividly remember where I was on 9/11. I had just finished lunch and was walking back to the busy newsroom where I was working as a broadcast journalist. I walked in to the office reception and glanced at the plasma TV screen tuned in to a rolling news channel. The TV was beaming images of thick smoke billowing from the first tower.
I asked the receptionist what was going on. She told me a plane had crashed in to one of the twin towers. I remember staring at the TV screen and feeling very disturbed and confused. How could a plane fly in to the World Trade Centre? I had been outside the World Trade Centre complex in January the same year during my first visit to the USA and New York. I remember running to catch my bus back to central Manhattan just over the road from the towers. It was a freezing cold winter day and from the bus I cranked my neck to try and get a better view of imposing twin towers, searing in to the sky.
I walked in to the newsroom just as the second airplane crashed in to the second tower. One of the news editors was in a total flap – he looked over and caught my eye and shrieked, “Muslim fanatics! Arabs have attacked the twin towers!” With that he turned around and got back to typing ferociously and glaring at his computer screen. To this day I don’t believe the comment he made were directed at me because I’m a Muslim. I just happened to walk in to the newsroom at that precise time. I took a deep breath and walked over to my desk. I remember thinking, “Gosh! it didn’t take long for the backlash to start.”
A decade on from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my life has changed in more ways than I could have ever imagined. My personal experiences of the past 10 years have been painful and testing but pale in to total insignificance compared to the lives of people scared by extreme violence. People forced to exist day to day without security, freedom and hope. The launch of the so called ‘War on Terror’ has deeply impacted on my life like hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis and “others” those whose lives mean little and their deaths even less, so much so that when they are killed they are classed as ‘collateral damage.’ The victims of hate crime and Islamophobia, the Muslim women too scared to leave their homes for fear of being attacked and having their hijabs pulled off their heads. Within a day of the attacks my father was abused and called a Taliban bastard as he was on his way to pray at the mosque in my home city of Oxford. My brothers were stopped and aggressively searched by police profiling young Muslim men in the UK.
At times I’ve felt overwhelmed by the events of the past decade and at times I’ve struggled very hard not to become damaged by memories, emotions and fear and instead focused on holding on to the characteristics that make me who I am.
I’m a British Muslim born to Pakistani parents and married to an Iraqi. At the start of the 9/11-decade I was working as journalist in a newsroom in London. By the end of the 9/11-decade I’ve travelled all over the world as an aid worker specialising on Pakistan and the Middle East. From refugee camps in Palestine, Gaza and Lebanon to a rubbish dump in Northern Iraq housing widowed Iraqi women and orphaned children escaping the sectarian hell of Baghdad to the streets of Damascus, Yemen, Egypt North West Pakistan and Iran – the past 10 years have been humbling, terrifying, exhausting and a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, courage and resilience of people. Every day people, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children who have been forced to grow up too fast, many forced to experience loss and devastation before they can walk or talk.
I remember meeting a young woman in Northern Iraq, a teacher who was forced to flee her home in Diyala with her husband and children. She was living in a converted garage with her husband, brother and sister in law and the family’s children. They fled for their lives after being threatened by militia. The young woman told me she was no longer able to work as a teacher and earn her own money. “Since the occupation of Iraq we women have become like pieces of furniture. We are covered up and kept inside the house collecting dust.”
Another woman I met in Northern Iraq reduced to living on top of a rubbish dump in the Qawala refugee camp was walking around barefoot in the mud with her six children and brother in laws four orphaned children when I met her. Her brother in law was a taxi driver from Mosul and had been killed by militia. They dumped his head outside the family home and his body a few kilometres away at another location. When his wife found her husbands severed head outside the house she died of a heart attack. She was 27 years old. The woman and her husband gathered her brother in laws four-orphaned children and fled with their six children to Sulaimaniya in Northern Iraq. I found them living on top of a rubbish dump, the children didn’t have shoes and their clothes were coated in thick mud. They existed on handouts, traumatised and huddled together to stay warm.
There are at least 3 million widows in Iraq and an estimated 5 million orphans. The truth is nobody knows the real figure as nobody is registering widows and orphans and so there is no official data. A UN report in 2009 stated that during the height of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006, 90 to 100 women were widowed each day. Among Iraqi women aged 15-80, 1 in 11 are estimated to be widow, and this is just a guess. My own mother in law was widowed in Baghdad and is one of the 3million-estimated widows.
Militia in Baghdad killed my father in law in 2008. His body was left on the street near the family home. A passer by picked up the mobile phone ringing next to his body. The passer by told the young woman calling the phone that he had answered the phone because the man the phone belonged to was dead and his body was in the street. He suggested someone should arrange to collect the body. The young woman calling the mobile phone was my 16-year-old sister in law. This is how she found out her beloved father was dead. His death has devastated and shattered the family leaving deep wounds that are still raw.
I was fortunate enough to meet my beloved father in law in Baghdad a few months before he was killed. We had a strong bond, he was charming, funny, warm and had the sharpest dress sense I’ve ever seen. When he would leave the house he always looked like he was going to an official meeting with his smart blazer, hat, crisp shirt, trousers and shiny shoes. I used to call him ‘captain’; he used to always chuckle at that. Life goes on, it always does but it feels like someone has adjusted the colour on the TV set from brilliant and vibrant colour to black and white.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I say a prayer for all the victims of the past decade, for every life cut short, for every life striving to live with dignity, justice, for every life yearning for true freedom and peace. For all the victims of war and human failings throughout history. May the fallen rest in peace.
Shaista Aziz is a UK based freelance journalist, writer and stand up comedian. She has traveled and worked across the Middle East and Pakistan.You can follow her on Twitter @shaistaAziz