Thursday, January 17, 2008

Giving His Eyes for His Country

Mazin al-Nashi on Serving the U.S. in Iraq — and the Aftermath


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For Mazin al-Nashi, Arab-American immigrant and San Diego resident, September 11, 2001 really did “change everything.” “We managed for 10 years in San Diego,” al-Nashi’s wife Layla told Activist San Diego at a January 14 meeting, “and then President Bush called for cultural people to serve America against the terrorists.” Since al-Nashi spoke three languages, he signed up with the U.S. military as an interpreter and was eventually contracted to the San Diego-based Titan Corporation. He served in Iraq and was assaulted, first by insurgents who were targeting anyone who was helping the Americans — and then, after he was injured, by his employers at Titan, who couldn’t wash their hands of him fast enough once he’d become a liability instead of an asset. Today Mazin al-Nashi is blind, and he and his wife work with Activist San Diego to try to bring the U.S.-Iraq war to an end.

“I worked as a civilian with the U.S. Army,” Mazin al-Nashi told Activist San Diego. “I was accepted by Titan Corporation before the war started.” When he to Iraq, Mazin reported to Sharif al-Abadi, a high-ranking staff member to Shi’a religious leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani — an influential figure the U.S. was trying to cultivate. Al-Abadi told Mazin that Sistani’s organization had a charity to raise money to bury Iraqi war victims. “I said, ‘How many bodies?’.” Mazin recalled. “He said they collected more than 3,000 per day from the streets of Baghdad and also from the hospitals, people who were injured in war.” Mazin recalled al-Abadi telling him that they didn’t have either enough ice to preserve the bodies or enough gasoline to cremate them, “so they asked us to ask the Americans.” At the time, the U.S. was still governing Iraq directly through the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer. “I contacted the office of Ambassador Bremer,” Mazin recalled, “and the answer was no.”

Mazin said that under steady U.S. attack and inept stewardship, virtually everything citizens of a modern country routinely expect — water, sewage treatment and electricity — had almost totally ceased to exist. Visiting the Baghdad sewage treatment plant as an interpreter, Mazin was told by the engineer in charge that the plant had been “heavily bombed” by the U.S. Air Force, and in a country with the world’s second largest known oil reserves, they couldn’t get diesel fuel to run the equipment even if they could put it in working order. Mazin was told the U.S. had also bombed Iraq’s water facilities: “All the pipes were broken, and Iraqis get only one hour of water every other day.”

According to Mazin, the U.S. had also targeted Iraq’s electricity system, a vital necessity for daily life in a country where the temperature frequently reaches 130°. “There is no power for people in the cities, and no power for farmers to get water to irrigate their plants,” Mazin explained. Asking around to find out just what was happening to the electricity Iraq was still generating, Mazin found, “All the power is going to the oil pumping stations. The oil is being pumped 24 hours a day” — while the residents of Baghdad consider themselves lucky to have electricity for one hour a day.

All this is killing Iraqis every day, Mazin stressed. “Iraqi children have diarrhea and other diseases they get from the polluted water,” he said. “Most of Iraq’s hospitals have been looted or bombed. Iraq’s children are the first who suffered.”

Mazin said that during his time in Iraq the deadly effects of the war and the U.S. occupation stared him in the face every day. “Every day I worked in Iraq there were dead people in the streets,” he said. “Some were being eaten by their dogs.” Mazin also said he “met people who couldn’t leave their homes” for fear of being victimized either by sectarian militias or kidnappers.”

For Mazin’s wife Layla, virtually all of whose relatives either still live in Iraq or have fled to Syria or Jordan, the kidnapping threat hit home. “After 30 years of persecution under Saddam Hussein, my family stood with the Americans and voted in the elections,” she recalled. “My brother’s seven-year-old son was kidnapped in May 2005 by insurgents who knew who had exposed themselves to the Americans. They wanted $250,000 — and I don’t think any Iraqi family today has that kind of money. … There was waling throughout the walls. The neighbors started bringing money and throwing it on the sofa. That was on Tuesday. By Friday my aunt had died under the stress, and on Saturday the community gathered together.”

Eventually the kidnappers settled for the amount of money Layla’s relatives and their neighbors had been able to raise — but that wasn’t the end of it. They found to their shock that the kidnapping had been an “inside job” and at least one of the neighbors who had supposedly rallied around them to “help” had been in on it. “The kidnappers ransacked their home and left flyers that said, ‘Become Muslims or leave the country,’” Layla recalled. Layla’s relatives fled Iraq and left their home behind “for whoever took it,” she said.

Even exile, bitter as it is, has ceased to be an option for most Iraqis as the neighboring Arab countries — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan — have tightened their immigration policies. “Before the war, Syria welcomed Iraqis,” Layla said. “Now they’re not welcome. Syria just put in a new regulation that every Iraqi has to cross the border back into Iraq, stay 15 days and then request a three-month visa. My sister has a one-year visa because she has a child attending school. Without a home and a place to call your own, you don’t have respect.”

Layla also pointed to one of the least discussed evils resulting from the U.S. war on Iraq: the virtual enslavement of Iraq’s women. Whatever was wrong with Saddam Hussein’s regime, at least it guaranteed women equality with men. Layla herself went to school in Iraq in the 1970’s and studied geological engineering. That isn’t an option for Iraqi women anymore, she explained. Today, under the new Iraqi constitution which the Bush administration ballyhooed as a triumph of “democracy,” women are once again second-class citizens who can’t get married without the permission of their families or leave the country — or even go out of their homes — without the permission of their husbands.

“We feel sorry for the 4,000 U.S. servicepeople who were killed and the 80,000 who were wounded, many of them blinded,” Mazin said. “There are more blind people from this war than from Viet Nam or any other. I cannot see anymore. I have lost my eyes, most of my teeth, my hearing on one side, and [the use of] one hand and one leg.” Mazin recalled that he was a target on both sides, attacked by insurgents because he was helping the Americans and also shot by an American soldier because he was standing in Baghdad International Airport. “The Iraqi people hate us and don’t want us there,” Mazin said. “We want every family to have peace and jobs. The war is affecting every one of us.”

A Disposable Man

Mazin al-Nashi’s problems only began when he was attacked and blinded. While he’d been hale, hearty and able to work, Titan Corporation had billed the U.S. government $240,000 per year for his services — and only paid him $60,000. Once he was injured — once he moved from the asset to the liability side of Titan’s ledger — he became, as he put it, “enemy number one” to them.

“They pulled me out of the intensive care unit four times, both in Iraq and in Germany,” Mazin said. “They wouldn’t give me laser surgery” (which might have saved his sight). “Titan fought to get me out of ICU in Baghdad, sent me to a tent in 130° heat for four days and left me there to die. They don’t care about you because they’re billionaires and you’re nothing. At home, they scheduled a nurse to ‘help’ me and she wrote false reports about me. They only spent $4,000 on my care, and $3,000 of that was on MRI’s. They put me in a wheelchair and sent me back to my wife — and yet I was still on their payroll. The government was still paying them money for me.” Mazin grimly added that the only money Titan sent his family was $9.04 — his last paycheck.

“It’s been a nightmare for me, and not just to be blind,” Mazin said. “For the first year, I went from doctor to doctor, and every day there was a knock on my door from a collection agency. One was for a bill for $1.47. We have to pay back every single penny the Army spent on us in military hospitals.” Meanwhile, his health insurance premium went up from $4 to $1,000 because he now had a “pre-existing condition.”

As a last resort, Mazin and his family sued Titan — and that, too, turned out to be yet another arena in which their bottomless financial resources were used to victimize him again. “As soon as you sue them, eighteen lawyers will be in court every minute about your status and situation,” he said. “Hundreds of lawyers will fight you, and three dozen doctors will say you are still O.K., you can put up high-voltage lines and fly planes — even though you are blind. They use everything they can against you.”

And it isn’t just her husband and other people who served the U.S. through private contractors who are getting screwed, Layla added. “Eighty thousand active-duty people are also being denied claims and benefits,” she said. “A lot of them will end up homeless. The government says, ‘We will take care of our heroes.’ Don’t believe it. I have written to everyone in the government, including President Bush and our Congressmember, Duncan Hunter. Duncan Hunter’s chief of staff said to my face, ‘We’re not going to help your husband because he was a volunteer. We have a good business relationship with Titan.’”