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Iraq

No chance to make it home

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2003


HAKAMAH, Jordan -- In military parlance, it's "collateral damage."

In diplomatic language, "a regrettable accident."

But to one Jordanian family, it was nothing less than a war crime: Their eldest son blown apart by an allied missile because he was on the wrong road at the wrong time.

"I hope the Americans and British will end this war," said Eman Batayneh. In the mosque up the hill, the body of her son, Sufian, lay in a rough wooden coffin awaiting burial after Thursday evening prayers.
[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Hundreds filled the streets chanting support for Saddam Hussein and cursing the United States.

Since the invasion of Iraq began March 20, much attention has focused on the deaths of allied troops and Iraqi civilians. But at least 10 foreigners have died, too, people whose only connection to the war was that they were trying to escape it.

On the first day, a Jordanian driver on his way home to Amman was killed by a U.S. missile targeting an Iraqi telecommunications center.

On Sunday, an American missile, this one aimed at a bridge, hit a busload of Syrians in western Iraq.

And on Saturday, 21-year-old Sufian Batayneh and three of his friends got into a taxi cab for the last time.

The oldest of seven children, Sufian came from a middle-class family in northern Jordan, an area of pine-covered mountains and valleys turned green from spring rains. He wanted to be a doctor but his grades weren't good enough to get into medical school in Jordan. So, like thousands of young Jordanians, he went to college in Iraq.

At Mosul University, named for the oil-rich city north of Baghdad, Sufian studied geography hoping to become a teacher. Near the end of his junior year, he was first in his class. He sent home many photos; one shows him posing with his roommate and best friend, Abdullah Ababneh, as they stood by the TV in their little apartment.

When the bombing started, their parents called and told them to come home.

Tarek Abdulkarim, a Jordanian student, remembers that Sufian and Abdullah had a hard time finding a cab to make the 700-mile journey. "Don't worry," they told him, "We'll be five hours behind you."

On Saturday afternoon, they and two friends set out. Their taxi was at a gas station near Mosul when, witnesses said, something slammed into the ground nearby.

Only the passports survived intact. Witnesses took them to the Jordanian Embassy, which contacted one of Sufian's friends in Mosul. He called Abdulkarim, the student who had made it home to Jordan. On Sunday, he went to Sufian's house and delivered the news.
Mourners crowd the steps of Sufian Batayneh's home in Hakamah, Jordan during his funeral procession.

"He is a martyr," his mother said, "He was killed by the war criminal Bush."

By custom, Muslims bury their dead as soon as possible. But because the allied strikes were continuing throughout Iraq, it took four days and high-level talks among Jordan, Syria and Iraq to get the bodies home.

First, they were driven to a Syrian city near the Iraqi border. Then with permission of the Syrian government, they were put on a Royal Jordanian Air Force jet dispatched by King Abdullah. On Wednesday night, several of the king's top ministers met the plane and offered condolences to the families.

That was not enough for Sufian's uncle.

"How can they be silent for five days, six days?" he angrily demanded of the Jordanian government.

When its own citizens were killed, Syria denounced the strike and lodged formal protests with the British and American ambassadors. Yet Jordan, a close ally of the United States, has not taken similar action. A state-controlled newspaper even suggested that the students might have died in an ordinary car accident.

"If it happened by accident, everybody on the road would have seen it," Sufian's uncle said. He viewed the body Thursday morning and, sickened by the sight, concluded only a missile could have caused such injuries.

"This is a war crime," he said. "The four families, we have decided to make a claim against the U.S. and British for war crimes."

Throughout the day, dozens of friends and relatives gathered at the Batayneh home. The men stood outside with Sufian's father, a retired army driver; the women sat inside, saying nothing. Sufian's mother, in white headscarf and black robe, was gracious and composed.

Suddenly the women rose, poured into the street and found their voices.

"Bush is a dog!" they shouted.

"God is with you, Saddam Hussein!"

"God is everything!"

"The martyr is loved by God!"

For 15 minutes they walked and chanted. Then they returned to the house and another human wave, this time entirely of men, surged up the hill toward the mosque. Many carried posters of Sufian. Some had portraits of Hussein. Still others waved little Palestinian flags.

At 3:15 came the call to prayer. Hundreds of men crowded the mosque; dozens knelt on rugs outside. Then, several shouldered Sufian's coffin, covered with a Jordanian flag, and started down the hill to the cemetery.

"Bush is a dog!" they yelled.

"Saddam! Iraq! We give our blood for you!"

The women watched from rooftops and doorways. Many were crying. But as the procession passed Sufian's house, his mother looked serene.

She held an olive branch in one hand.

With the other, she gently waved goodbye.

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