Black funeral banners belie Iraq’s declining death toll

459830271.jpgUsama Redha / Los Angeles Times
A black banner on a wall in Baghdad announces the killings of two Christian women, Gilawez Nissan Musa and  Hana Ishaq Poulis, who were slain in their home in the Dora neighborhood. Their family believes the attack was meant to drive Christians out.
They still dot the capital, reminding Iraqis that the embers of the recent civil war still burn. A recent banner honors two Christian women, killed because of their faith, their family says.
By Ned Parker and Usama Redha
April 5, 2009
Reporting from Baghdad — The black funeral banner is tacked to a dirty whitewashed wall next to bits of an old campaign poster and a ghostly sign in faded red paint that reads “TNT.”

No one pays much attention to the announcement on this industrial street, with its sewage puddles and rows of mechanics shops. The banner will be taken down today, then forgotten.

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Funeral in IraqOnly if you read the banner, and then visit the nearby church, do you learn that two Christian women, one of them mentally disabled, were stabbed more than 50 times in their home, their bodies discovered by a 9-year-old granddaughter.

Fancy white calligraphy and a shining cross decorate the black fabric. “In the name of the father, son and holy ghost, God the merciful amen. . . . Passed away due to a cowardly terrorist attack,” the banner reads. And then come words the color of blood: “The late Gilawez Nissan Musa and Hana Ishaq Poulis.”

At a time when the Iraqi government and U.S. military speak of lower death tolls, black banners drape the mosque walls and traffic circles of Baghdad, telling a different story of a world beyond statistics, where killings still ripple through society.

These disposable funeral banners, randomly read by drivers who pass on the word about the drive-by shootings, bombings and assassinations they document, remind Iraqis that nothing is as it seems, that the embers of the recent civil war still burn.

The family gathers at the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of East St. Odisho. Hana Ishaq Poulis’ two sons, Diari Adel Ishaq, 37, and Bassam, 36, stand in a narrow courtyard, with a small tin roof to block the sun. The brothers, both officers in Iraqi military intelligence, almost whisper.

Well-wishers come, women dressed in black, men in slacks and buttoned tucked-in shirts. The men embrace them and repeat: “God bless you. God bless you.”

The mourners enter the church and sit quietly in plastic chairs. Others smoke cigarettes in disbelief and keep the brothers company pacing the courtyard.

Both men are convinced that their mother and her sister were attacked because they were Christians living in the mainly Sunni district of Dora in south Baghdad. About $8,500 in jewelry and gold were stolen, but the brothers are sure the killing was motivated by something more.

“This was a terrorist attack,” Diari says. “I will never go back to Dora.”

The killings marked a final break with Dora, where their father had built their home in 1974. The family left the neighborhood in the spring of 2007 after militants slipped death threats under their door, joining an exodus of Christians from Dora.

But after five months, they returned to the neighborhood. Diari had wanted his 62-year-old mother to move in with Bassam in another district, but she refused and insisted on living in the home her husband had built. Diari remembers her saying, “I’m a woman — nothing will happen to me.”

Now Diari wishes he had never returned to Dora.

He begs for the Americans to assist him. “I want the help of the American Embassy, any embassy. I want their help to leave Iraq,” he says in a loud voice.

His brother Bassam agrees: “We are soldiers. We were serving the country, but because of this incident we will leave Iraq.”

The men around them nod somberly; all of them had left Dora. Diari fumbles with a pack of cigarettes and bites his lip. “We look like we are in our 40s or 50s because we are tired of the situation,” he says, his hair and whiskers already gray.

He has too much to do. His wife and daughter are still in shock from discovering the bodies of his mother and aunt Thursday. Diari’s wife, Jacqueline, had gone to his mother’s house to drop off their 7-month-old son for the afternoon. Their daughter, Natalia, ran inside first with a milk bottle for her brother.

“She was terrified. She said, ‘Nani is on the ground in a pool of blood.’ My wife went in the house, she was stunned, and ran outside and started to scream,” Diari says.

Blood was smeared on the bathroom floors and stairs. His wife told Natalia that her grandmother was very sick. But Natalia answered angrily she had seen her covered in blood.

Within several hours, Diari moved his family out of Dora. Now they’re staying with relatives and he needs to find a new home.

Today, the black banner will come down and people will resume their lives. Diari regrets that he ever tricked himself into thinking his family was safe.

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq-banner5-2009apr05,0,5861633.story