Iraq Occupation Focus logo US troops face Iraqi demonstrators in Baghdad, July 2003
Iraq Occupation Focus : Campaigning to end the occupation of Iraq
2004 competition
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Iraq Occupation Focus
PO Box 44680
N16 7XX

2004 competition: First prize winner

Everything I know about war,

I see in Shairah’s face as she arrives
and kisses me one two three four five times,
this cheek, then that. Salaam Aleikum. How are you?
I’m fine. Wrenched to this winter, widowed after two
decades of invasion, she gets here early
for the food – white bread, tomatoes, chilli,
cheese, digestives, supermarket hummus,
or home-made halva, pistachios and spices,
a plate of Burmese noodles. Everything
I know is in the faces of these women
even when they smile, in their generosity,
in places language cannot reach. I see
fragments of their houses under fire
from bombers that are launched in Gloucestershire
above conservatories where people sip Darjeeling
out of willow-patterned china. Everything
I know about war, I know from the silence
after Marie cries J’ai pas la force,
J’ai pas le courage, when the lawyer’s letter
says she has no grounds to stay and must prepare
for deportation. Everything I know, I know
from sitting here with bags of baby-clothes,
from the Rwandan teenager who’s too shy
to speak, from the corner where Shareem prays
white-lipped in Ramadan for the Home Office
to relent, for a letter or a half-promise.
Everything I know, I know from the survivors,
Our lives are over, it’s the children now who matter.
No, there’s no official war in Yemen, just three guns
for every person, there’s no war in Afghanistan,
no war in Algeria, no war in Congo,
but on the battleground of female bodies. No,
there’s no war in Iraq, no war in Iran
where Azar has fled the politician-
husband who disabled her, but since gender
is not race, religion, nationality, member-
ship of a particular social group, or a political
she does not fit the bill.
Together we push war towards the edges,
for two hours drink tea in twenty languages,
distract the kids. But nothing rinses off
the memories – Suleika’s daughters locked
inside the engine-box because the man
she paid to bring them here insisted that
they had to be silent or die. Every-
thing I know remains when almost every-
one has left and Jedira who’s eight
with butterflies face-painted on her cheeks, says
Can I stay, can I stay please and sweep the floor?

River Wolton

For safety and confidentiality, all names have been changed