IRAQ REFLECTION: What choice did they have?

3 February 2009
IRAQ REFLECTION: What choice did they have?

by Beth Pyles

“What choice did they have?” A team friend recently posed this question to me.  Story after story poured out of her:  the litany of violence and injustice under Saddam was unrelenting.  She is a Kurd and her people have suffered greatly in Iraq.  

With family and friends killed in horrific ways for no reason save their existence, many resort to violence as the answer.  Her question is the punctuation mark to their revenge and it is rhetorical.

This view is common in Iraq.  “When it comes to violence, we are a people without choice.”  

What are we to say in response?  That there is always a choice?  That violence begets violence?  That the oppressed are as likely to exact revenge rather than justice as their oppressors?

These things are all true and I said them all.      But we both knew my words were inadequate.

I am reminded of another scene with this same friend.  Earlier in the day, we visited the Textile Museum in Erbil (the capital of the Kurdish north of Iraq).  It is a place of quiet beauty I have previously visited.  But my Kurdish friend is coming for the first time.

Standing in room filled with the tapestries of woven woolen blankets, she walks to a corner facing away from us.  Her shoulders shake with quiet sobs.  I hesitate for a moment and then go to her, and we embrace.  “Your grandmother?”  I ask.  She nods.  

My friend’s grandmother was imprisoned by Saddam and died in prison.  The family had to flee for their lives into Iran after the men had run to the mountains (to be a Kurdish man under Saddam was to be under constant threat).

As we stood side by side in the Textile Museum, my friend was seeing for the first time in years the beauty and peaceful life of her grandparents, an existence shattered by the vagaries of so much violence.

She can’t weave much herself; there is no one to teach her the old ways.  But the memories live on.  We drive home and she challenges me:  “what choice did they have?”  

My friend, who has been on the receiving end of so much violence, who has lived a childhood full of loss the loss of a baby doll abandoned when they had to flee; the loss of her beloved grandmother; the loss of her father into the mountains (leaving her as a girl afraid to lose sight of him even for a moment when he finally came home), the loss of a home; the loss of her mother’s beautiful clothes . . . every thing we see in the museum reminds her of something she has lost.

But she, this beautiful friend, chooses not to kill or to hate, not to seek revenge, but to seek to forgive.  When she asks me, “What choice did they have?”  I say many things.  What I do not say is, “They had your choice.”