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  • Writer's pictureSimko Ahmed

The framed sky of Zara

The framed sky of Zara By Simko Ahmed 2002

Zara was born in Abughreb, a large prison in the dust, deep in the rural desert of the Baghdad area. Abughreb looks like a butcher's shop of human beings. In the land around the prison there are many mass and individual graves for those prisoners who have either died under torture or been slaughtered by the brutal men of Saddam Hussein. Some nights, wild dogs and wolves come here to eat the bodies of the dead prisoners; the graves are not well covered and the wind easily removes the desert sand, which covers them.

Zara is only 6 springs old but she has never seen the wide green fields, full of poppies and narcissus flowers. She has never seen birds chirping around her, she was born six years ago inside the screams of her father, beheaded in front of her mother. Her mother has never forgotten that bloody, red day when four men with terrifying, black military boots and knives in their hands slaughtered him. It took them half an hour to chop his head off. They cut from the back of his neck, slowly, so that he would feel the maximum amount of pain. She never forgot the red ring around her husband’s neck while he screamed in pain like a chicken under a butcher's knife. She was never told the reason behind that horrifying scenario! Her husband was just a simple shepherd whose whole life was just a small Shimshal (Kurdish musical instrument) in his hand and he was always singing and playing for his sheep in the mountains of Qaradagh.

Zara has never seen mountains and she has never seen the open sky because she lives in the women's section of the prison and the only bright light and sun they can see is a blonde stream of sunshine that comes from a rectangular hole in the roof of the public hall. This rectangular hole in the roof is striped with iron bars and on the top there is a mass of spiky barbed wires. Many innocent people are born and die in silence in this dark world of Abughreb. Now, Zara thinks that the sky is rectangular in shape with a strip of iron bars.

“ Dada Salma, teach me to read”. Zara is the only energetic person in the whole dorm. “ You want to learn to read? I still remember what we studied at school in Qaradagh” Salma replied, a woman in her 40's but who looks much older. She has been repeatedly gang raped like all the other women and boys in Abughreb. She has fallen pregnant without knowing the father of her child. “Zara Zara wara dare (Zara Zara come out)” she started to teach her. Zara was very excited to hear her name spoken in the lesson and urged Salma to repeat it for her several times.

In the women's dorm there are over 500 prisoners and daily torture and rape is part of everyday life here. When one of the prisoners gives birth to a child, after 6 months they take them away, but nobody knows where to. But recently, there has been a rumor in the prison that the Iraqi government takes these children to a special place far away from civilization and other human beings, to a rural area deep in the desert where they are brought up in very wild and bizarre circumstances that does not allow them to feel human kindness in their hearts. They are taught violence from early childhood, they have sex among themselves and sometimes even kill each other. The Iraqi government needs this special force for their future use. Does Salma know where her newborn will be taken?

Suddenly, the noise from a loud whistle startles everybody. “To the public hall” a big, manly voice shouts in Arabic. It is part of the daily routine to gather there - the soldiers and butchers with their Ottoman style moustaches and sticks in their hands, depressed and tired women lined up, each one standing on her number which is written on the floor. Here people are numbers rather than souls.

Zara with her deep, dark Kurdish eyes standing between her mother and Salma, with scared eyes watches a big hairy man talking with his moustache moving like a black bird over his lips but she understands nothing of what he is saying. She is in her own dream world and very much in love with the sky and the birds that were by chance flying over that little framed rectangular sky.

Suddenly, a wave of happiness passes through her little heart as she sees a white pigeon flying close to the barbed wires of the rectangular sky. Her baby mouth opens with a big smile and she looks like an angel watching paradise. The sound of the wings of the white pigeon overcomes the loud noise of the ugly big man. She can't control her happiness; she starts to laugh and squeal with pleasure, without taking her eyes from the white bird.

A big stick beats her on the head and stops her dream, and she comes back to the bitter world of Abughreb. She knows that she cannot cry here because if she does, the ugly man with the big black moustache and shoes will beat her. The routine, daily head count and boring speeches had finished and the main aim for the meeting was now to choose new victims to be raped. “ Auntie Salma, I saw the golden eagle that you told me about, she was flying over the sky when we were standing in the line” Zara tells Salma in an enthusiastic and excited voice. “No, that's not the golden eagle which looks for her family, but the white pigeon who loves children and bring letters to everyone”. The pigeon starts to grow more special in Zara’s heart. “Where does she sleep?”. “In the green forest on the top of a big tree, where she can see the sun rise and set, where people can sleep comfortably, she can fly to any place she wants! She never hurts anybody but loves everybody”. “Auntie Salma,” that is how the child addresses her, “What is green? Is it like the colour of your dress?” Zara asks. “No, that's not green but yellow, it's the sun’s colour”. “Green is the colour of grass and spring”. Salma found it hard to teach her about things that she had never seen in real life.

In their free time the women talk in the short time that they can all gather in the public hall, only two hours a day. These women had been captured during the *Anfal campaign against Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. In the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988, the Iraqi government launched a large military campaign against Kurdistan and they killed all the males in the villages and took the women and children to desert prisons in southern and central Iraq, to an unknown future.

Salma became involved in the women’s gossip. The discussion was always around the same subjects - Amnesty will come soon and they will go back home, who had been raped recently and who had given birth. Always the same subjects because everybody was looking for a little bit of hope to get out of this hell.

Zara had caught the attention of all the prisoners with her extreme happiness and the white pigeon flew again over the pale and sad rectangular sky. This time all the women in the hall started shouting in happiness for both the pigeon and the girl. This loud noise created a big problem in Abughreb because the soldiers were afraid of a riot and instability in the prison. So, the women were driven to their dorms; two young girls were beaten to death that evening.

Wings of dark night covered the sad land of Abughreb , it covered hundreds of innocent dreams of the prisoners, dreams about living in a home in peace, dreams of reuniting families, dreams of farmers' tea breaks, kissing lover's lips again. Dreams of running through Kurdistan’s green fields, smelling narcissus… Zara's dream in that dark and silent night was to have the wings of the white pigeon and fly over the green fields. She couldn’t sleep till late and that dark night many white pigeons came around her pillow, the entire feeling of the dorm was different for her. She could feel grass under her feet and see the colour green. White pigeons' wings were beating in her black hair, in all the dorms in Abughreb, bringing letters packed with narcissus flowers. The sound of their wings moved from room to room, they were flying like a white ring all over the silent women. They finally left Abughreb through the rectangular framed hole, nobody could stop them.

The next day came and the sun brought her blonde hair again to Abughreb, to Zara the smallest lady in the prison. The women lined up in the public hall, no breakfast was served that day as a punishment for yesterday’s noise.

The big, ugly man with the black moustache and boots walked beside the line of frightened women. Nothing could be heard apart from the rhythm of his military boots. As he reached Zara, he stopped and looked at her uncombed dark, curly hair, staring at her with no sound, thinking of the pleasure of raping a fresh virgin child. If she had not been so small, she would have experienced that torture that day, as many guards had the same dream about the young girls in the women's dorm and were just waiting for a few more years to put their horny wolves hands on their bodies. Zara looked at his moustache for the first time up close with scared eyes through her curly hair. Finding it scarier than she had expected.

“So you were bad girls yesterday, for the first time I could hear your voices from my office, all because that small bird passed across your sky?” the head of the prison said in a rude, harsh voice full of anger. The Iraqi government often killed any officers who were not capable of carrying out their duties and that's why he was so worried about the situation. He started to give his cheap lecture and talked about the same thing for a long time with words and voice full of hatred and threats.

Zara was the last one listening and understanding what he was saying. All she knows is that he is terrifying. One hour has passed with all the women standing in line and the big ugly man walking around and threatening.

The two dark eyes of Zara caught a pigeon standing on the iron bar over the framed roof. She felt it, the white bird talking to her with its pink beak, that was the view of life? This time the white pigeon was not flying in the rectangular sky but moving her pretty head down into the public hall, staring at the people. Zara couldn’t stand the silence and the boring voice of the ugly big man anymore and suddenly she exploded as if she was alone with the white pigeon in the green fields. She shouted as loud as she could and started clapping for the bird. As she broke the first layer of the depressed and fearful silence, the whole line of women responded to her innocent sound and shouted and clapped with halhala., the traditional sound of middle Eastern women used to express happiness. No more fear, there was nothing to live for in Abughreb, so why be afraid?

This unexpected reaction of the women drove the ugly man mad along with all the other soldiers in the hall. Their voices were covered by the waves of voices of the prisoners singing for the white pigeon. The big man aimed his gun at the chest of the bird, anger, fear, hate and cruelty tore the white chest apart and with the sound of the first bullet, the whole hall under the framed sky became still, and it looked like he had killed all the prisoners at once. In this terrible silence the white feathers with red warm blood drifted down to the ground, covering the numbers written on the floor. The criminal eyes of the big, ugly man filled with joy while the reflection in his eyes showed the framed sky and barbed wires with the dead white pigeon now red with blood.

Zara’s eyes like all the other eyes in the crowd stared at this tragic and frightening scenario. But the deadly silence didn’t last long as the whole space behind the framed sky became filled with tens, hundreds and thousands of colorful pigeons, which looked like all the pigeons of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq gathered together. You couldn’t see the skies any more, just pigeons, white, gray, red, blue, black and all the colours of paradise. The big, ugly man with all the other soldiers madly shot at the pigeons in the framed sky but this was useless because their numbers were infinite.


* "Anfal" was a very large-scale military offensive launched by the Iraqi regime against Kurdish villages and towns that were outside their control. This act of military violence was conducted after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, a war in which the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons. During the offensive, more than 180,000 Kurdish villagers were arrested and there has been no news of them since; much evidence and numerous eye-witness accounts testify to their having been buried alive in the deserts of Iraq. As a result of the offensive, around 5000 Kurdish villages and towns were destroyed. As I write, the fate of those victims of Anfal is unknown, while the villages have been erased from the map.

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