06 February 2008

Ayah's Park

“Next summer, the trees will grow up more, and we will have a shady place.” Photo by Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S

This is one of the most touching stories I've read in a while.

FALLUJAH, Iraq — It was Ayah’s first day of school. Her father put the 7-year-old on the bus for her first day in the Iraqi school system, thinking it safer than having her walk the Fallujah streets.

The men of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines had been on the ground for just a few weeks as of Oct. 26, the day Ayah’s school bus passed a Company L convoy.

A Humvee gunner repeatedly motioned for the bus driver to stop, according to company commander Capt. Steve Eastin. The driver did not stop, and the gunner fired a warning shot into the ground in front of Ayah’s bus.

The bullet ricocheted off the street and into the bus before striking Ayah in the chest. Marines offered aid at the scene, but locals refused and rushed her to a nearby hospital, where she died.

Not long ago an incident like this would have caused the city to erupt into violence.

But things have changed in Fallujah.

That night, bearing the customary items [of a sheep, a bag of flour, a bag of sugar and some cooking oil], Eastin and his Marines went and offered their condolences to Ayah’s family.

“I said ‘I’m sorry for your great loss’” to each family elder, he said.

“They said, ‘It was God’s will.’”

As the months passed after Ayah’s death, Lima Company adopted Ayah’s family, in a way.

“The Marines did many great things for me, and they did not stop checking up on my family,” Ayah’s father, Jamal Abu Khalid, said recently through an interpreter. Eastin gave Khalid a generator to operate for the neighborhood.

“And they built a playground for my daughter,” Khalid said inside his house, just across the street from the set of swings and slides erected in Ayah’s name.
“Everyone loved her,” Khalid said. “The whole neighborhood loved her, and I do not forget my daughter. Every time I see a bunch of kids playing outside I think of her. I cannot forget.”

The site of Ayah’s park “looked like a horrible place before,” said Athir Abdul al Hamid Zidan, a Fallujah cab driver who stood near the park recently.

The park will continue to benefit the neighborhood friends and family that Ayah left behind, the cabbie said. “Next summer, the trees will grow up more, and we will have a shady place.”

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