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Wednesday, April 23

Ikbal Fartous and her son Mustafa Dinar, 8, stand in the doorway of thier home in Ontario, Calif., April 21. With help, Mustafa has come to the United States from his home in Basra, Iraq, for medical care after he was injured four years ago by an errant U.S. bomb went off course in Iraq's southern no-fly zone. With mixed feelings, Fartous left her husband and two other children to accompany Mustafa. (Photos by Richard Hanashiro/USA TODAY)

Iraqi mother and son seek healing in United States

By Greg Barrett | GNS

ONTARIO, Calif. - The truth is sometimes lost in the translation. Especially when an Iraqi boy visiting the United States for the first time is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, and answers with the candor of a child.

``I want to be a pilot,'' 8-year-old Mustafa Dinar said in Arabic, ``so I can fly a plane and drop bombs on Americans.''

Ikbal Fartous was stunned by her son's frankness, so when she translated for the news media in this strip-mall suburb east of Los Angeles, she censored his words. She said only that Mustafa wanted a bike. And he did. Mustafa had mentioned the bike after saying he wanted to bomb Americans.

Emotions and words run loose when the United States invades your home even as it welcomes you, said Fartous, struggling to make sense of her budding love-hate relationship. Emotions and words have run loose since the day four years ago when an errant U.S missile killed one son, 6-year-old Haider, and injured Mustafa, severing two fingers from one hand and burying more than 30 pieces of shrapnel in his back.

On Sunday, Mustafa looked out of a car window as he and his mother were chauffeured like celebrities to a party at the Malibu beach house of actor and peace activist Sean Penn. Trembling, he pointed to a jet overhead and insisted that he and his mother take cover.

``No, Mustafa, the planes here do not bomb,'' she told him. ``They only bomb in Iraq.''

Just because Washington granted Mustafa and his mother a 60-day visa to seek medical help for Mustafa's injuries, don't think all is forgotten. And just because word spread quickly here that Mustafa wanted a bike - and he soon was tooling around on a shiny red gift - don't think all is forgiven.

``He does not really want to bomb the American people,'' Fartous explained later, trying to soften Mustafa's response. ``American people are good. It's your government that hurt us.''

Pilgrimage west

The trip for mother and son from Iraq's southernmost city of Basra to California took a month. That doesn't count the six-hour drive from Basra to Baghdad, the 12-hour drive from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, and the 27-hour flight with layovers from Amman to New York to Los Angeles, where they arrived on April 8.

That was the easy part.

The behind-the-scenes task of getting Fartous and Mustafa to the United States was so complex that it is still being sorted out by activists, lawmakers and celebrities. If not for the efforts of Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, who lobbied the U.S. consulate in Amman, and a last-minute promise kept by Penn, Fartous and Mustafa might have gotten no further than Jordan.

``If we had not been able to get them out of Jordan, we would have had to tell a woman and a son whose country at that moment was being bombed, `Sorry, but you're going to have to figure the rest of it out yourself,''' said Cole Miller, a Los Angeles writer and activist who coordinated and paid for much of the trip.

It was a fax from Penn, Miller said, that ultimately broke a stalemate at the U.S. embassy in Jordan. Penn visited Iraq last winter and met Fartous and Mustafa.

In a journal that Fartous keeps with her, Penn wrote, ``If there is anything I can do to help with (Mustafa's) medical treatment, let me know.''

So when the U.S. embassy said it would not allow Fartous and Mustafa to travel to the United States without a U.S. citizen's promise to cover their living and medical expenses, Penn signed the State Department's Affidavit of Financial Responsibility.

At 7 p.m. March 24 - the night before the last interview to determine whether Fartous and Mustafa would receive a U.S. visa - a fax from Penn arrived in Amman. It said the actor would cover any extraneous expenses.

At his family beach house on Sunday, Penn, his two children, and Penn's mother, Eileen, hosted Fartous and Mustafa. It was a lavish Easter affair with a buffet, a heated pool and Mustafa's first ocean swim.

Penn declined to comment and asked to be left out of the story.

But Fartous cannot help talking about him. To her, Penn is the antithesis of the U.S. government.

``Very kind man,'' she said. ``Very faithful in his promise to us.''

Mustafa as groundbreaker

American peace activists hope Mustafa is the first of many Iraqis who will make the trip to the United States for medical care.

``He is the tip of the iceberg,'' Seattle activist Bert Sacks told people gathered Tuesday night in nearby Claremont to welcome Fartous and Mustafa.

At the two-hour reception, there were anti-war speeches and folk music and adamant pledges by the activists to return to Iraq to bring back other Iraqis injured by American bombs. In the Los Angeles area, two orthopedic surgeons, a general physician, a psychologist, a neurologist and an optometrist are evaluating and helping Mustafa for free.

He needs eyeglasses, post-traumatic stress counseling and surgery to remove the largest chunks of shrapnel. A knuckle-sized piece of metal in his lower back is the most urgent concern, Fartous said, because it scrapes against bone whenever he walks.

Mustafa has learned to manage with his badly damaged left hand, but he is self-conscious. Fartous said Mustafa will be fitted with a lifelike glove that he can wear when meeting people.

No surgery has been scheduled yet, but Fartous expects the work on her son's injuries - including psychological counseling - to take longer than six months. She hopes the United States will extend the visa.

Meanwhile, Miller is developing a database of Iraqi victims that he plans to link to the Web sites of volunteer groups, churches and mosques and humanitarian organizations of all stripes and nationalities in the United States.

``We are doing battle with this great American pandemic - amnesia,'' he said. ``We will soon forget that there are victims.''

In a videotape shown at the party, Fartous is sitting on the floor of her simple home in Basra as she tells of the day Mustafa was injured and Haider killed. Fartous, who in Arab tradition goes by the name Um Haider - mother of Haider, her first-born son - cries at every retelling.

It was a winter morning and Fartous had just shooed her two youngest sons outside to play. An explosion rocked the house and sent the dishes crashing. Buried outside her window were Haider and Mustafa, one dead and the other barely conscious.

``He had blood all over his face, even in his eyeballs,'' she said of Mustafa.

The Pentagon would later say a cruise missile fired at a military target had veered off course in Iraq's southern no-fly zone. Seven Iraqi civilians were killed that day, Jan. 25, 1999. Dozens were injured.

American ignorance

Fartous thought Americans knew about the no-fly-zone bombings and the United Nations economic sanctions that long ago depleted Iraq's middle class.

``All of my ideas are changing,'' she said this week. ``I have found all things are different from my ideas.''

An Ontario, Calif., woman struck up a conversation with her recently, asking Fartous what brought her and her son to the United States.

The woman was dumbfounded by Fartous' story. She said she had not known about the American bombing of Iraq before this most recent war. The woman also had never heard about the 13-year-old sanctions that deflated the Iraqi dinar.

Fartous, a school teacher, and her husband, Salah Dinar, a government clerk, sold all of their furniture five years ago. In Basra, they sleep on 2-inch thick foam mats. Outside their door, raw sewage floods the streets.``The situation in Basra was very, very bad before this,'' she said of the war. ``Now the situation in Basra is completely very bad. No food. No water. No electricity. No anything. ... I am so worried, I do not sleep.''

From the home of Egyptian immigrants who have given her a master bedroom, Fartous has watched Al-Jazeera news and seen plumes of smoke rising from Basra. She has watched the war's evolution, from fighting to celebrating to looting.

Thinking of her husband and the two teenage children she left behind, she began to cry. She heard that her slum neighborhood is undamaged, but she worries that her family is hungry and thirsty.

``I know what it is like. I lived through the 1991 war,'' she said of the first gulf war. ``We had to take the water from the river and it had much bacteria.''

Traveling here, she thought, it would be different. She thought the California life and the doctors would somehow make everything OK. But none of that seems to ultimately matter. She sat in a clean city park on Monday while Mustafa rode his bike and birds chirped and the laughter of children could be heard nearby, and she cried.

She took out a tissue and wiped her eyes. She cannot reconcile her good fortune with the realities of war.

``I am very tired,'' she said softly. ``Iraqis are very tired.''

On the Web:

Site for activist Cole Miller