The 400 Souls in Amiriya Shelter

Dahr Jamil

12/26/03: (ICH)
The Amiriya Bomb Shelter in western Baghdad is a reinforced concrete building that sheltered up to 1,000 civilians throughout the first Gulf War. The walls are several feet thick, designed specifically to withstand the blast of many types of bombs. It was always regarded as a safe haven for the civilians in the area. Each time the air raid sirens of Baghdad sounded, women and children, sometimes complete families, would seek shelter within its walls. 

The Coalition waging war on Iraq had the coordinates to the shelter, along with the acknowledgement that it was simply a shelter for civilians. 

On February 13, 1991 at 4 in the morning it was hit by two American bombs, which incinerated the building, including all but ten of the 400 women and children seeking refuge inside of it. 

People in the community today tell the horrible tale of the two bombs. They believed they were designed
specifically to carry out the slaughter. The first gave off a terrible high pitched whine as it spiraled its way into the reinforced ceiling, creating an entrance for the second bomb, which entered immediately behind the first, releasing the instant incineration of all those inside. It turned their safe haven into a fiery inferno for the group comprised primarily of women and children. 

Materially, all that is left inside are a selection of remaining pictures of the victims, scattered flowers, and a darkened hall with the palpable feeling of a deep, heavy sadness. The weight of the air presses in from all around. It is a deep silence, left dark by looters who made off with the lighting fixtures, which would work only intermittently at best even if they were there, as this area of Baghdad, like so many others, remains without electricity for much of the day. 

The hole in the ceiling remains completely intact, the implosion from the bombs entrance a sick blossoming of metal bars like twisted petals from a tortured flower of death. Steel plating of the ceiling is frozen from that terrible moment, literally peeled back from the blast and hanging in air. The crater inside the first floor is blown through revealing the darkened basement below. 

Despite severe looting to the shelter after the Anglo-American Invasion, pictures of many of the victims remain, which includes several entire families who died in the slaughter. Shadows of women who died have been burned into the walls, similar to the infamous shadow of a man memorialized as it was flash-imprinted into concrete as he was vaporized by the atomic bomb of Hiroshima. 

A former caretaker of the shelter, Umm Ghadia, lost eight of her nine children in the bombing.

Still visible is blackened human skin that was melted into the walls from the incineration, smooth and pasty to the touch. 

Of the remaining survivors, one is a man who is in an insane asylum in Baghdad. Another is an old woman who lives nearby, and a third is a woman who began working as a nurse after living through the attack. Two of the survivors live within site of the shelter and are thus reminded of their nightmare each day of their life.

My dim flashlight illuminates the pictures, one at a time, of the victims as the echoes of my shuffling feet are lost in the surrounding darkness. The only light inside aside from my own is the circle of daylight let in through the bombs entrance. Less than ten meters from this hole in every direction the light is swallowed by the darkness, as all the walls are burned black.

After walking around for several moments in shock of the magnitude of this slaughter, I was caught off guard by the tears running down my cheeks.

It was from looking at the pictures of small children, a little boy in his innocence, his face captured by a camera. A photo of a baby. One photo set of an entire family. 

Most of all though, it is the feeling inside. I've never been in a building so empty, yet so full of, what is it? So full of souls, feeling, sadness, reverence. It is a holy place where words fail to describe the true feeling. One can only truly know it from entering this blackened hall of twisted metal and stand in the utter emptiness where so many souls sought refuge. 

The three of us barely talk the entire time we are inside. I stand alone inside before leaving, staring at the silhouettes of twisted metal near the hole the bombs created and entered. I can feel them, the people. Eventually, the heaviness pushes me out.

There were no military targets in the area, this even admitted by the US after the shelter was incinerated. One week after the bombing NATO admitted that it had made a mistake.

To this date, there has been no compensation for the survivors, nor for the remaining family members of those killed in the shelter. 

Copyright: Dahr Jamil:

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