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Thursday, April 19, 2007


Former Iraqi soldier turns to rebuilding

Staff writer

Iraqi humanitarian worker and activist Kasim Turki would like to escape thoughts of war, but the chunk of metal buried inside his body won't let him.

News photo
Humanitarian worker Nahoko Takato and her Iraqi colleague, Kasim Turki, stop off in Tokyo during their recent tour of Japan to raise money. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTO

On a recent fundraising tour of Japan as a guest of the nonprofit organization Peace On, the slightly built, 30-year-old Kasim described how at the start of the March 2003 U.S. invasion of his country, an airstrike targeted the military unit north of Baghdad in which he, a recent engineering-school graduate, was serving mandatory duty.

A bomb tore apart several comrades and sent a sliver of shrapnel through the head of the man behind him, a close friend and Shiite named Bahaa, killing him. The projectile lodged in Kasim's back. There it remains, too close to his heart for doctors to remove.

"That's how I lost one of my friends. I carried two other friends away piece by piece," said Kasim, a Sunni from Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

The metal in his torso makes it difficult to sleep and he suffers nightly flashbacks.

Kasim has since lost an older brother, four cousins and more friends. Caught between the occupiers and insurgents, Kasim said he has been taken into custody twice by the U.S. military, who, he said, mistreated him. He was also briefly kidnapped by what he believed to be an al-Qaida cell because as an English speaker he had interpreted for foreign journalists.

Kasim said he used to harbor thoughts of revenge against the United States for, as he saw it, unleashing chaos in his country.

"I am angry about what happened to me and my family," Kasim said in a soft yet grim voice. "And I am angry because U.S. troops seem as if they will not say sorry and will not stop this. And I am worried that what has happened could happen in the future, too, if they stay in Iraq."

Kasim, however, met Nahoko Takato, an aid worker for children who in 2004 was taken hostage along with two other Japanese by Iraqi gunmen west of Baghdad. She was released about a week later.

Takato, 37, who accompanied Kasim during his Japan visit from March 23 to Wednesday, recalled how she met the Iraqi in Jordan after returning to the Middle East for humanitarian work months after her kidnapping ordeal.

Rather than resort to violence, Takato advised Kasim to direct his emotion into Rebuild Youth Group, the relief organization he had formed to help his displaced fellow countrymen in Ramadi and Fallujah -- both sites of intense violence. Anbar Province, where both cities are located, had as of October suffered the second-worst fatalities since the war began after Baghdad, according to a BBC report.

"I could never support any kind of violence," Takato said. "I tried to make him change his negative feelings to positivity."

Kasim softened.

"She had a peaceful way," he said. "With time, I found that our people did not need more fighters, or avengers. I found that people would be more grateful if I rebuilt a school or house and gave a family new hope than if I became a fighter."

Takato has since launched her own humanitarian initiative, called Fallujah Reconstruction Project, and teamed up with Kasim, raising funds across Japan to support his work in Iraq.

Kasim brought together a group of 12 engineers and teachers to do construction work and provide emergency services for refugee families displaced by the April and November 2004 U.S. assaults on Fallujah. Two members of the group, however, have since been killed in violence and two others have fled the hostilities.

More than 10 million yen in contributions, primarily from Japanese donors to Takato's group, has helped Kasim's group and local workers build and furnish two schools and an emergency medical clinic. Local Iraqis have provided supplies and labor.

To date, Kasim's organization has helped some 2,000 Fallujah refugees, supplying blankets, heaters, food and medicine for children. Many of the 200 or so local workers on his projects have found jobs though his organization.

Next, Kasim wants to build and staff a clinic for Ramadi able to serve 3,000 civilians. Takato has collected about 9 million yen for the project, but the money has yet to be disbursed.

The funds are always short, though, and Kasim said raising donations among Iraqis has become all but impossible as hostilities have festered.

"People have lost their houses, cars and incomes. Getting donations in Ramadi and Fallujah is extremely difficult now," he said.

He has requested help from the Red Cross and the United Nations, but because his group lacks official status, no support has been forthcoming.

The U.S. military, said Kasim, can play no further role in the rebuilding of Iraq.

"I only know what people in my city need. They need the U.S. tanks and troops to get out from my city and stop their military operations," he said. "We're tired and exhausted from them using our city as a battle ground between the United States and its enemies."

Kasim rejected any notion that a U.S. withdrawal would invite untold violence between resentful Shiites and Sunnis.

"That's already happening now, despite 150,000 U.S. troops. There are mass kidnappings," Kasim said. "So, they're not useful, these troops. They're harmful."

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