Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Great River...of Death

"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).)


traveller said...

I really appreciate your posting this. I have been traveling to the Middle East, including Iraq, for 25 years and lived there with my family for 6 years. Two of my sons were born there.

For all my family, the people of the Middle East, Arabs, Persians and Jews, are wonderful people for whom we feel the burden of their pain and suffering. It is even more heartbreaking because of the seemingly never ending cycle of violence and conflict.

When in Baghdad last year I was amazed to see the people there trying to live a normal life amidst all the difficulties.

It, too, is my prayer that God's shalom will come to this area of God's creation and among those there who bear His image.

Alycelee said...

Emily, I wish I had read this post first this morning.
I want to thank you for bringing me back to how callous we often become unless and until it involves us or our family.
God has been having me reflect on true Agape and calling me to it. Loving each other is difficult enough, loving others who are different or those we have been taught are our enemies is impossible.
But then there's God calling us to the impossible.
Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we can ask if the fear of God once predominated in the Tigris River area, and now the dark one himself dances in the hate-filled hearts of those who've never heard of God. War is always terrible, but when it amounts to one-sided violence against innocents asking to simply be left alone, it is beyond our comprehension.

I keep hearing that Islamic fascists are a minority among the Muslim world, but if they are having the most visible effects in that society, I wonder if there is any human answer to this anguish.

Steve Austin

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I share your disgust for violence against innocents and your concern regarding so-called Islamic fascists.

I should clarify, though, that the violence around Suweira is primarily the result of what is normally called "sectarian violence." This term is broad, but essentially it means that one tribal group has harmed another and the other takes vengeance by killing again. Almost always these are not religious conflicts, but ethnic, tribal rivalries and blood-debts.

We tend to assume that Iraqis are a monolithic group, but the reality is that there is no such thing as an Iraqi, per se. There are lots of small tribal groups who live in Iraq, but the country of Iraq is really a contrived nation delineated by European powers in the early 1900s. In fact, they made a point to divide ethnic and tribal groups to limit their national power. Hence the Kurdish people are divided between several countries, including Turkey, Iraq, and several -stans. The same is true of Uzbeks, Kazakhs, etc.

This complicates the situation in Iraq more than we realize. The perceived US "occupation" is, in many ways, exascerbating the rising ethnic unrest. Anyway, I just wanted to clarify those things.

Grace and peace,


traveller said...


I think your question is a good one but would rephrase it this way: Is there ever a human answer to the anguish around the world, including in the United States? However, as a follower of Jesus who believes that God is at work redeeming his creation I also believe I must be about my Father's business of cooperating with him in that redemption process. Of course, that means sharing the wonderful news of Jesus but it also means much more than just this. It means caring enough for their lives to want to help them physically, emotionally and to do what can be done humanly, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, to relieve the anguish. One reason is that they are God's image bearers and so are worthy of our love and care. But also because in doing so we demonstrate to them what the Kingdom of God will one day look like when it comes into its fulness.

May God transform our hearts to have his love, grace and mercy for these people who so desperately need him.

Tricia said...

I read the BBC article yesterday and also found it troubling and sad. The detached tone of Iraqi fisherman reminded me of the way HIV/Aids victims are discussed in Africa, how the coffin builders are the only one doing brisk business in some areas. In both cases, the response of American Christians to the tragic deaths of Iraqis and Africans has been sadly underwhelming. We see a few quick pictures on the news, but fail to consider the impact of war and AIDS on the people there who live with it. We should rethink our narrow view of the "sanctity of life" to include the unborn and the born everywhere.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Your reference to a more robust vision of the "sanctity of life" is a good word for us. Thank you.

Grace and peace,


Lu said...

I read this last night but was too tired to comment. I'm not sure I'm much more "awake" tonight, but I wanted to write this before it all gets too stale.

I was overseas serving in the NAME (Northern Africa Middle East) region when the Iraqi war started. I served on a team that served the whole region and lived on Cyprus. I have many experiences that relate to the war, but they can pretty much be summed up in the strong sense I got when I first heard on BBC radio that America was probably going to war (it was still a "rumor" at that point). All I could think was that this wasn't going to be a good thing at all for the work of the Kingdom, either in our region or in Iraq.

For all of us on my team (and I daresay our whole region), the war was a horrible thing. On a practical level, it made all our jobs that much harder. Americans would now be looked at as invaders, even Kingdom workers. The "soil" was hard enough as it was, but adding in the factor of associating with a "devil" just made it all the more difficult. We also had to tone down our words in our emails and get rid of the spiritual warfare analogies. Too many inflammatory words that could send red flags up on all the various email scanners/filters in all our countries. We'd be pegged quicker than anything and perhaps get kicked out. We were told to not mention being Americans and to do whatever we could to not admit it when asked.

But on a far more personal and profound level, the whole thing just broke our hearts. For me it also made me sick. People who didn't know Jesus died/would die/were dying; their last chance to know Him spent by raging war. That's just not something I can celebrate no matter how horrible the fallen dictator.

I spoke over the phone with a friend in the States during the "victory" march into Baghdad and the whole conversation turned my stomach so badly I neearly threw up while on the phone. The whole time she was watching the "celebration" on the news and "woohooing" and celebrating and just all excited that over it all. I could not imagine anyone celebrating the deaths of these precious souls, no matter what evil they committed. How can you do that? How do you, as a follower of Jesus, celebrate and cheer when lost people are killed? How do you do that?? Don't you realize where they are now? That all their "second" chances to turn to God are gone forever? I don't understand. I just don't get it.

War is not ever something to celebrate, no matter how evil the enemy or how noble or necessary the cause. My dad fought in WWII and in Vietnam and I know he felt the same. Sometimes its a necessary thing, but it is never something to be desired or celebrated.

Granted, my whole view of all this is colored by my experiences overseas and by my overwhelming passion to see the unreached pgs out there finally hear about Jesus and have established and growing churches in their midst. I don't look at any war from an overwhelming geo-political view anymore. I look at it through the lens of the people who don't know Jesus. Perhaps in the very long run this war will bear out to have been a wise and good thing. I can't say. All I know is that the last four years have brought a tremendous amount of grief to my heart and soul. Too many lost souls lost forever.

Sorry if this is rambling or doesn't make complete sense. I've been in serious study mode and I'm pretty pooped. But as I said, I wanted to post this before it became stale.... Thanks for sticking with me through it. :)

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I am very grateful for your perspective. Thank you for taking the time to share.

I wasn't anywhere near Iraq when the war started, but I recall feeling similar things to what you described. Dread and sadness because of the people on the receiving end of those bombs.

Ultimately, we are Kingdom citizens. Any other Kingdom, whatever their claims or virtues, should not override our loyalty to King Jesus. I agree with you, Lu, that every political situation, every war, must be evaluated by us in terms of its effect on the Kingdom. For this, I mourn with you.

Grace and peace,