I met Manuel after I had listened to his story, and it was only for a brief moment, mostly taken up by posing for the picture shown above. He had peeked into the room we were visiting in a few times, every instance giving us a quick curious look and a shy smile, and then running back into the hallway where he had been playing with one of his Iraqi friends. However, albeit brief, I savored that moment. I looked at Manuel, intently, debating whether the five-year old would receive a hug or a hair-ruffle best. I never got to attempt either, as the minute he was able to get out of his parents’ grip and our sight, he did so, running back into the hallway with his friend.
Manuel is like a precious gem to his parents. A gem, that was briefly lost but found again, now held dearer than ever before. At the frail age of three Manuel was kidnapped from right outside his home in Baghdad, Iraq. He was held for ten long days, during which he was awfully treated, as the bruises and the cigarette burns on his body clearly attested when he was returned. The ransom demanded for him was of $30,000 but between combining savings and borrowed money from family and friends, Manuel’s parents barely managed to come up with half the sum. The kidnappers agreed to return their son for half the money, as long as they agreed to leave Iraq. And so they did. Two years later, most of which were spent in Lebanon, Manuel does not leave the house unless he is accompanied by at least one of his parents. He has come a long way from using everything as a weapon, acting aggressively towards others, and continuously wanting to fight other children, but he has not quite forgotten what he went through. And how could he. Listening to his story I understood why Manuel was curious as to who we were, but not curious enough to come in and meet us, until he had to.
Sadly, Manuel was not the first Iraqi child I met who had been kidnapped and luckily released. Children are easy targets during any war, and in Iraq they are snatched from outside schools, homes, and from the streets. Some are ransomed. Others are never heard of again. Allow me to tell the story of one other child, this time a girl, Fabiolla, also five years of age. I wish I had a picture of Fabiolla to share, but since I don’t you will have to take my word for it when I say that she was just beautiful. Her dark wavy hair and big brown eyes sure made for a gorgeous little face. The tiny room she shared with her parents and two young siblings was too small to provide her with a hiding place and so, although she never left her mother’s side, I got to enjoy her presence. She was clearly apprehensive about our visit, coming out last to greet us and, as her mother shared, asking if we were armed with weapons when told that we were paying them a visit. When Fabiolla was kidnapped, her family was asked to either pay a ransom or leave Iraq, and because her young parents could not afford the former, they chose to leave Iraq. The nightmare is still very real for all of them, as the family had been in Lebanon for just a few months when we paid them the visit. They all want to forget, but it is easier said than done. Fabiolla’s father lost his father to the kidnapping, who instantly died of a heart attack when he heard the tragic news. It is difficult not to look back and dwell on the hard moments, but the parents need to be strong for their three children, and so they are being, putting on a brave face, their eyes only giving them away.
The Iraqi children I met in Lebanon are a living witness of the many faces of the war in Iraq. They come first amongst its most vulnerable victims, physically and emotionally tainted by close to a decade of hatred, endless violence, and death. It is all they have ever known. But they are also bundles of immense and infectious joy, able to live for the moment and enjoying every second of it. Their innocence allows them to forget, enough to enjoy the here and now. They are a ray of light in the dark, bringing hope to families who have lost brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers to this war and others before it. They are the passion that drives their parents to survive, to make it through, to hope for a better day. Their life will attest to heroic fathers and mothers who willingly gave up everything they had to start anew, that their children may gain what they have lost forever. Children’s laughter and playful shrieking is what resounds in the staircases of dull, old buildings, in streets deserted in the scorching heat. Their voices are a soothing balm to many broken hearts and weary souls. And, I hope that the children of Iraq will be key players in the nation’s future, redeeming an exodus by returning with a vision and a passion to see their nation transformed and restored into a new land that reflects who they are as a people.
The following pictures were mostly taken in the Dekwaneh neighborhood, Beirut, one of the four neighborhoods where most of the nominal Christian Iraqi refugees have temporarily settled in.
Story by Nathalie Borg Seale | Photos by Joshua Seale