"Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed...A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters...The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." - Genesis 2:8, 10, 14-15
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise from two principal sources in the Armenian mountains of Turkey. The Tigris is estimated to be 1146 miles in length, excluding its many windings. It receives, along its middle and lower course at least five important tributaries: the river of Zakko or eastern Khabour, the Great Zab (Zab Ala), the Lesser Zab (Zab Asfal), the Adhem, and the Diyaleh or ancient Gyndes. All these rivers flow from the high range of the Zagros.
We find sparse mention of the Tigris in Scripture, although it was an exceedingly important water source. It appears under the name of Hiddekel among the rivers of Eden (Gen 2:14). In the Babylonian captivity, the Tigris becomes well-known to the prophet Daniel, by whom the river is called "the Great River." Under the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, it is from the banks of the Tigris that Daniel receives a vision of a glorious angel and is told of the angelic conflict raging in the midst of his prayers (Dan 10). (See also the apocryphal references: Tobit 6:1; Judith 1:6; Ecclesiasticus 24:25).
Presently, the Tigris river flows through the center of Iraq's capital, Baghdad. You may remember grainy, green-tinted footage of the first "shock and awe" bombing in Baghdad, which featured numerous scenes of a nameless river, with silhouettes of majestic buildings crumbling and palm trees quivering in the darkness. That nameless river is the Tigris. Indeed, what was once a great and mighty sign of God's provision in Eden and revelation in Daniel, is now the scene of tremendous violence and bloodshed in war-torn Iraq.
I don't imagine that we--American Christians--think much of the way in which the war in Iraq has affected the land and people of Iraq. I cannot speak for all, of course, but I know that I rarely give it a glancing thought in the span of a 24 hour day.
Perhaps it is because they look so different from us. Black hair and dark, olive skin recalls the images of 9/11 attackers and other painful memories of terrorist bombers. Now we can add the empty faces of the attempted London and Glasgow bombers to our fearful mental picture of "those people." (Dare I say it seems easier for me to see pictures of dead black-haired, olive-skinned people than those with blonde hair and blue eyes? What an indictment of my racism.)
Perhaps it is because their religion has become inexplicably repugnant to us. Odd rituals like repetitive bowing, extended fasting, dietary laws, and scarving, are off-putting to "enlightened" Western observers. If we are honest, we will admit that their culture and religion is gratuitously backward to us, something to be pitied and certainly not worth protecting or defending.
Despite appearances, I am not trying to instigate a collective guilt trip with this line of thought. I am exploring why I observe the daily goings-ons in Iraq with detached apathy, instead of fervent compassion and grief. When I discovered the connection between the Great River, the Tigris, and modern Baghdad, I felt I had stumbled across a way to situate the current conflict in our collective faith history. The river that was a life-giving headstream in the Garden of Eden has (again) become a witness and, indeed, a victim of human violence.
It is a normal day on the grey-blue waters of the Tigris for two fishermen near Suweira. The catch they have made is nothing new to them, but to outsiders, the grim incident would be enough to ensure abandonment of fishing in the river entirely.
The first fisherman shouts to his partner after he finds a body in the river. They conclude that his body is so decomposed, with his belly cut open, that he can't be lifted out. As the men bring the stinking corpse closer to their boat, they realize his head has been severed as well. They rev the engine and strain to drag the swelled body of a headless man into their diminutive boat.
If you asked them, the fishermen would describe how their huge nets, intended to catch floating plants and garbage, retrieve dead bodies instead as they drift downstream from Baghdad. Their headless catch this morning is one of three today. Indeed, on an average day, as many as thirty bodies are found by fishermen near the small town of Suweira, which is 62 miles south of Baghdad. In the past two years, at least five hundred mutilated bodies dumped into the Tigris River have been washed up. Fishermen have become make-shift coroners, examing the bodies for identification, mutilation, and cause of death, then sending them on to the nearby hospital. The fishermen have a routine: retrieve the bodies from the river banks in the early morning, prepare the shrouds--a plastic bag--and then meet the messender from Suweira, who will take the bodies to the hospital.
The Kut hospital serves a busy city of about 300,000 people. There forensic scientists question the police officers who deliver in the latest bodies. Gender. Cause of death. Signs of torture. Identifying marks. All important information for the administrators of a very busy morgue. The bodies are mostly male, ranging from 20 to 45 year-olds. There have been some women also, ranging from 20 to 35. According to the forensic scientist, most of them have been shot or tortured, or both. All of them are in an advanced state of decomposition because it takes at least three days to float downstream from their dump site.
When a relative disappears, families in Baghdad now know that this is where he might be found. Usually, the phones opposite the forensic department are lined with desperate relatives calling home to check on descriptions of clothing and distinguishing features, hoping something will trigger the memory to aid in identifying their loved ones. To have to utter the physical description to fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, is almost unbearable: Handcuffed and blindfolded. Shot three times in the head. Signs of torture.
Sadly, many of the bodies found by Suweiran fishermen remain unidentified. Because of the size of the morgue and the unrelenting heat, the corpses must be buried quickly. Officials and volunteers take care of decent burial arrangements as best they can with limited resources and financial help. They dust the bodies with sand and leave their clothes so that they might be recognized at a later time. Pictures are taken and numbers assigned for easy exhumation. Short prayers are uttered in Arabic.
Why am I describing this horrific state of affairs? Despite my typical callousness to the pain and suffering of the Iraqi people, I am unnerved by the fact that the Hebrew Bible's "Great River" has become a river of death in present-day Baghdad. Indeed, people of faith like me go to sleep at night unaware that as the sun rises over the beautiful Tigris River, thirty of God's image-bearers will wash up on the banks, their bodies bearing the signs of a violent end. For many Iraqis, what was a source of life has become a turbid, dismal grave.
I do not share this story for political ends. I am not making a statement about American war policy. As I see it, this goes beyond the kingdoms of this world, with their posturing, wrangling, and unending quests for power. In the end, it is not the will of God that his earth would bear witness to such brutality. It is not the will of God that we overlook human pain and devastation. So, as I seek to walk in the reign of God, I am compelled to pause and reflect.
I am saddened beyond words, with a gnawing pain in my gut for the loss felt by my fellow human beings. I offer this story so that we may open our eyes, see the pain of others, and weep with them. I offer this story as a catalyst for us to beseech the Prince of Peace for justice and eternal shalom.
(The reader is referred to the following news stories for the initial reports from Suweira, Iraq, which formed the basis for my descriptions: Iraqi river carries grotesque cargo (BBC News); Imams issue fatwas banning fishing in the Tigris (Uruknet).)