A Path of Forgiveness After Unimaginable Loss in Iraq


An engineer’s wife, daughter and other family members were killed in a misguided airstrike by a US-led coalition. But Basim Rajjo will sow the seeds of understanding instead of hatred.

ERBIL, Iraq – Basim Razzo’s apartment in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil is pristine, with none of the clutter found in most family homes. The immaculate kitchen cupboards hold cans of Maxwell House coffee, a brand he and his wife Mayada Taka lived in in the United States in the 1980s.

In the living room next to a wide-screen TV, a pink plush unicorn and other stuffed toys are stacked neatly on a blue chair, awaiting the next visit of their 3-year-old granddaughter, called Mr. Rajjo. That’s their life now.

The little girl is also named Mayada, after the late wife of her grandmother, Mr. Rajjo. Maida Taka and the couple’s 21-year-old daughter, Tuka, were killed in 2015 in an airstrike on their home in the Iraqi city of Mosul, a US-led coalition fighting the terrorist group ISIS.

Mr. Rajjo, sleeping only a few feet from his wife, survived, although he was badly injured. His brother and his nephew were killed in the second attack on the adjoining house. Mr. Rajjo’s second child, his son Yahya, now the father of young Mayada, fled to Erbil early in the capture.

Mr. Rajjo’s case was documented in a 2017 New York Times Magazine investigation that found that hundreds of civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes were never acknowledged by the United States, for anti-ISIS missions from Qatar. Monitored targeting.

Washington has never publicly apologized for mistakenly identifying Mr. Rajjo’s home as an ISIS car bomb factory. But last year the Dutch government, a member of the coalition, admitted that one of its pilots carried out the strike and awarded with Mr. Rajjo’s compensation is believed to be around $1 million.

It is understandable that Mr. Rajjo was bitter about the attack in which his wife and daughter were killed and he was badly injured. But instead he works with the group to preach empathy and forgiveness. world in conversation To connect Iraqi University students in Erbil, Mosul and Najaf with students in the United States through online dialogue.

While he is unwilling to meet the Dutch pilot – who is himself haunted by his role in the tragedy – Mr Rizzo did send him a message.

“I said ‘Listen, tell him he was following orders. He’s a soldier. He had a job. If he knew there were families here I’m sure he wouldn’t have bombed, but he didn’t know’ So tell him that I forgive him.'”

In Iraq and in many countries, a more common response is a pledge of retaliation.

“Some people say that to forgive is an act of cowardice,” he said in a recent interview in Erbil. But as a Muslim he believes that a person’s fate is determined even before his birth.

“I have no other explanation than that this is an act of God,” he said of his reason for being alive. “Maybe it was my destiny to do so. Because after that I started preaching ideas, started talking about empathy and started talking about forgiveness.

Some of them debuted at Mr. Rajjo’s TEDx in 2013. But after being in a friendship with an American professor chit chat About the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.”

In it, Professor Sam Richards, a sociologist at Penn State University, asked Americans to imagine how they would feel if the United States were attacked and occupied by Chinese forces.

Mr. Rajjo, 61, said, “I didn’t know what the word sympathy meant, so I looked it up.” He emailed Mr Richards, who eventually asked him to speak by video link to 700 of his students each semester. Sociology class. The students asked him questions about being Iraqi and Islam, and he felt that he was establishing a real connection with them.

But he cut it after the bombing.

A year later, “Sam said ‘Basim I want you back in my class,'” said Mr. Rajjo. I said ‘Sam, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Please just do it.'”

In fact, he went to State College, Pa. to speak personally to the students after raising money for the trip. traveled to. While he was in the United States, he called on military officials and Senator Patrick Leahy to ask the military to accept accountability for the bombings. To date it has not done so, although it has offered Mr. Rajjo a $15,000 bereavement payment – ​​too little to pay for the damage to his cars in the attack.

He declined the offer, saying he was promised a letter from a military lawyer confirming that none of his family members were linked to ISIS. He has never received it. But that hasn’t stopped his access to bridging the gap between Americans and Iraqis.

He began his work with World in Conversation in 2018, connecting Mosul students to their American counterparts, a year after the city was freed from ISIS control for three years.

Regarding the weekly dialogues, he said, “You know that the students living in Mosul lost three years of their academic life.” “They saw a lot of bad things. They were so bitter that all they could talk about was what ISIS did to them.

“So I said ‘Listen, for the first semester I let you get away with it but in the next semester I want you to broaden your horizons. Stop talking about ISIS.'” By the next semester he actually said ISIS had stopped talking about it, he says.

Mr. Rajjo grew up in a prominent upper-middle-class family in Mosul. He was encouraged by his pharmacist father to study engineering, which he did at the University of Michigan. She and Mayada Taka, a cousin, were married and she joined him there.

Both were in their early 20s, and life was good, he said. When she earned her undergraduate engineering degree, Ms. Taka worked as an Avon representative. After graduation he wanted to live in the United States, but it was 1988, the Iran–Iraq War was raging and his father wanted him home.

“He said, ‘You’re my eldest. I want you to be with me,'” said Mr. Rajjo. “Tradition says I can’t say no to my father. And that was the biggest mistake.”

When ISIS occupied northern Iraq in 2014, Mr. Rajjo was an account manager for the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. Fearing that ISIS would seize their homes and businesses if they left, the family other than Yahya decided to stay and found themselves trapped.

On the night of the bombing, Ms. Tuka fell asleep early and Mr. Rajjo kept watching videos of the car on his computer. Seeing the light leaking out of his daughter’s room, he asked her to turn off her cell phone, and then he fell asleep.

The attack happened a few hours later.

“The sound of the explosion was indescribable,” he said. Two explosions took place, he said, “one at my house and the other at my late brother’s house. And then the black pitcher. The power went out and when I looked up and the smoke cleared, I saw the sky.

The roof and the entire second floor had collapsed, killing his wife and daughter immediately. Next door only his sister-in-law, who had been blown out of a window, survived.

Mr. Rajjo says that this ordeal made him a different person.

“Everything changed for me,” he said. “I never had patience. I have patience now. A lot of things I do that I’ve never done before,” from trying new foods to embracing new experiences.

Despite his emphasis on empathy and forgiveness, he has not forgiven the US military for sanctioning an attack on his home.

“They should have done more surveillance,” he said. “They should have had ground intelligence. But they didn’t.”

With agreement from the Dutch government, he is able to buy apartments for his son and his nephew and a car for himself, while supporting his mother. All of this, along with his work of connecting people, has been very satisfying, he says.

“I look at things from different perspectives now,” he said. “If you have lived a blissful life or have brought joy to someone’s life, you have lived a good life.”

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