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A little over two months ago, I wrote about a fire that destroyed a Syrian Refugee Settlement in Qab Elias, Lebanon.  As I interviewed more people and heard accusations of foul play involving the government/terror groups and the failure of NGOs to properly train residents in fire safety, I did not feel safe nor comfortable publishing critical points of view while still in the country.  This is the long overdue story from the perspectives of those who were there.


Perspective 1: Women in the Settlement Yearn for Home

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Shaikha al-Abid sits in front of two friends from Raqqa Syria who migrated to Qab Elias, Lebanon five years ago and now endure what they describe as even worse hardships.  The dozen other women gathered around for the interview did not wish to be photographed.

Shaikha al-Abid sat with a large group of women by the emergency tents and candidly spoke of the impact the fire has had on the community now dependent on aid.  As the elder of the group, she provided the narration while others leaned in to add a level of solidarity and occasionally offered additional explanations or elaboration.

Most of the group started their exodus from the ISIS declared capital of Raqqa, Syria five years ago.  Around 50 families who all knew each other spent the next year leaving at different times that suited them to escape the rapid escalation of danger.

How the entire community ended up where they did in Lebanon was mostly due to chance.  Hopping on a bus with a plan that didn’t extend beyond “get out of Syria,” the first group to cross the border was brought by their driver to a piece of land he told them had a shawish who was “nice and good.”  After the first group arrived, everyone else flocked to the same place, finding a familiar comfort in the surroundings of loved ones.

The close knit families got even closer as their kids grew up and married each other while in the settlements. Just as soon as Shaikha spoke of it feeling like there was a wedding every day, she broke into the pain of losing that little piece of beauty in her life.  The fire, she says, brought unexplainable suffering.

The normalcy of life the community fought so hard to recoup after fleeing their homeland was lost once again in the explosions of gas canisters and billowing smoke clouds.   Once they heard the first tank rapture, there was a huge commotion of people rounding up propane tanks, children and heading to the area of refuge: the nearby road, as flames engulfed everything.

NGOs have stepped in to fill the items of immediate need: food, water, shelter, bedding, but for most other items they are on their own.  Shaikha half-jokingly asked me if I knew anyone that could provide her with a refrigerator.  For now, it wouldn’t even be able to run as the settlement does not have permanent electricity and the large generator burst at the seams helping to fuel the spread of the fire with an explosive spray of burning diesel fuel.

The number one concern the entire group voiced was that they are not receiving any direct financial benefits such as the much coveted cash cards that UNHCR distributes to some camps for people who meet “certain qualifications.”  There is no money for people to pay for essentials like medicine and hospital visits.  They still have to pay the landlord of the burnt down settlement who allows them a small patch of untillable land on his farm. He also makes out on the deal, as my translator told me by hiring/pressuring female residents into a full day of work on the farm for the equivalent of $10, half of which gets skimmed off the top by the Shawish.  (Note: This middle-man pocket stuffing was corroborated by two other sources who testified they saw this reserve of cash go up in flames in the Shawish’s housing unit as they rushed around to try to save people).

In a close second on a serious list of concerns was the destruction of everyone’s Syrian IDs.  This identification is vital for navigating the hurdles of displacement, however, the IDs can only be issued in Syria and the borders are closed so people cannot return back home to get new IDs or even to visit family.  This is a two way closure as new family members are also officially prohibited from coming to Lebanon from Syria.

Shaikha and the women all around her unanimously agreed that they want to return to Raqqa.  I thought my interpreter had gotten something wrong here, certainly not believing such a large group of people could want to return to the ISIS stronghold that while American led coalition forces had declared liberated this very week was still in a dangerous state.  In clarification, Shaikha assured me they all felt Lebanon was too dangerous and they aren’t treated well here.


Perspective 2: Leader of the Settlement Tries to Save a Life

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Moustafa Mahmoud stands with bandaged legs in front of the burnt wheat field adjacent to the destroyed settlement as he recalls the horrifying scene the day of the fire.

Moustafa Mahmoud is the second in command in the camp, a veritable number two to the Shawish.  He rushed out of his tent in late morning after hearing screams of “Fire! Fire!” and saw flames enveloping the tent next to his where the fire was first reported as having been started.  He immediately snapped into the training he said he received from Save the Children and ran to the closest fire extinguisher which the UNHCR mandates must be maintained in a ratio of 1 extinguisher for every 4 dwellings (according to an official presentation given to volunteers by an organization representative).

The fire extinguisher he remembers were delivered only eight months prior, did not work.  After pulling the pin and aiming at the fire, a single small puff of a white cloud came out when the handle was squeezed, but nothing thereafter.  Moustafa says he was the only person who received the training on how to use the extinguisher so he knew it was his duty to put out the fire. Running between 28 homes, he tried a total of 7 extinguishers before he knew they must have all been dead.  Meanwhile, the fire raged on.

Moustafa started to head toward a water tank in the settlement, but knew that would be worthless as the chaos was too much to make a coordinated extinguishing effort and the fire was now too strong to throw buckets of water on.  The propane tank explosions caused a panic of fleeing and Moustafa noticed a baby left behind in a tent.  Separated by flames, he saw the fire spread to the infant as he tried to fight his way through to rescue him.  Moustafa pushed through as far as he could before the flames burned up his own legs while he watched a life get swallowed up in fire.

Moustafa knew there was nothing left he could do to save this area of the camp, but he set his sights to moving quickly to the area on the opposite side where the fire had not yet spread so he could help rescue the elderly.  In moving, he noticed a car on fire he was scared would explode like the propane tanks all around him.  He punched out the back window of the small white sedan and pushed it away from the most intense heat before he ran towards the burning wheat field to successfully aid the elders of the settlement in their egress.

As he recounted the experience, he paused to say he didn’t care about any material possessions lost by the fire, but the vision of the child burning was stuck in his mind.  He has opted to not seek psychological support, citing lack of time, saying he is second in charge in the settlement and has to liaise with all the NGO’s because he has the records of families in the settlement. The huge stigma of mental health is also playing a part with the pervasive opinion that he does not in fact need any professional help in coping with this trauma.  What Moustafa does want, is to return back to Raqqa so he can continue his studies in agricultural engineering.

No one on site with Save the Children would discuss the fire extinguishers with me and residents told me all extinguishers were quickly taken off site before they could be examined.


Perspective 3: The Bystander Takes Action

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Ahmad Alsari stands in front of his mother’s snack stand where he recounted the action he took when he saw smoke rising from the refugee settlement nearby.

While the settlement was fleeing, many from the surrounding community sprang to action.  The phone lines were immediately lit up with people calling the fire service for help even though multiple sources say it took first responders over an hour to respond (the fire burned for about two hours according to the same sources).

Ahmad Alsari, whose mother owns a snack store around the corner that he works at, was the first to see the black smoke before it became billowing clouds.  He ran to the settlement to pull kids out of their tents and stayed on site for the next four hours helping dig through ash.  The whole time he said he was crying and screaming “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is great” and is often called and repeated in times of distress modeling after the prophet Muhammad who spoke the words after a funeral.

Ahmad observed a circle of structures burning which had trapped from his estimation 200 people in a literal ring of fire.  The man who owns the gas station next to Ahmad’s mothers shop drove his car through a point to create an opening so people could escape.  The exploding propane cylinders are what he said kept more people from running in to help.  As he continued in post fire salvage work, Ahmad found the sole casualty, the baby, lying lifeless on the ground of what used to be a structure, with hands badly burnt.


Fact Finding Perspectives: Accusations of Foul Play

The Shawish, whose brother lost his child in the fire, was skeptical of the preliminary stated causes of this being a cooking fire or generator malfunction.  He was positive that no one was cooking in his brother’s tent located next to his own tent at the time the fire started and this is the place they were told was the origin of the fire.  There was no electricity active at the time and the generator was turned off.  All he knows is that his wife saw their mattress was on fire and when she pulled it outside, she saw fire dripping down from the roof.  Some used this image as evidence for casting blame on a deliberate man-made fire, leaning towards Hezbollah taking action on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments.

Many people I spoke with pointed fingers at other possible sources.  The most damning accusations were hurled at the government as initiating this fire.  Residents explained that in the long years of this crisis, donor fatigue had hit the country hard lately and much less aid money was coming into Lebanon from foreign supporters.  Because all NGO money and private donations have to filter through the government for declared processes of registration, the popular belief is that they skim some off the top and that a tragedy like this was a way to prime a donation surge once again to line the pockets of money hungry officials.

In light of this, when residents were asked what their immediate needs were that the international community could help provide, many were quick to advocate direct aid that circumvents government channels as they believed they would never see the benefit of that.  No official government organization was contacted to comment on these accusations.

With the overwhelming number of sources from which I heard accusations of foul play, it is worth noting that no exact cause of the fire has yet been pinpointed.

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Basil is your normal, everyday 16 year old boy.  He likes to scroll through his Facebook newsfeed, hang out and laugh with friends, and kick around the soccer ball.  His raging hormones manifest themselves in crude hand gestures and he often requires a little extra encouragement to do certain chores of the camp like washing a pot as he is visibly distracted by all the action around him.  He is respectful, honest and the type of motivated, hardworking kid I would want to have in my classroom or my own circle of friends.

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Basil, who volunteers daily with Humanitarian Support Agency, sits atop the Greek ruins of Kara Tepe Refugee Camp.

Basil is from the village of Shingal, one of several Yazidi settlements in the desert climate Sinjar District surrounding a mountainous landscape in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq.  In the unfortunate draw of the geo-political lottery, that happens to be smack dab in the middle of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, the established capitals of ISIS in each respective country.  To establish a seemless supply line would require the control of Sinjar.  Everyone in Sinjar knew this, and everyone knew ISIS would eventually come.  Luckily, the people had their own protective force, called the Peshmerga, who with basic military supplies, uniforms, weapons, and soldiers were tasked with the protection of the at-risk region.

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The expansion of the caliphate whose lines are constantly changing as different rebel factions and military forces conquer or are conquered [trackingislam.com]

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as they have become widely known, actually prefer to go by their official name, the Islamic State.  In 2014, they declared a caliphate, a political-religious region run by a Muslim leader and successor of Muhammad.  Essentially, they established control of a real physical area on a map.  Signaling that they would be violently expanding their power and perverse views of a peaceful religion, they dropped the geographically specific part of the acronym.  However, monsters shouldn’t be empowered with being addressed as requested.  Most people around the world afflicted by their reign of terror, refer to them simply Daash, which is a derogatory term sounding similar to their name in Arabic.

In keeping true with their unconscionably horrific vision, Daash have been marching forward with a genocidal effort, specifically targeting Yazidi people whom they believe to be devil worshippers.  Yazidis are not Muslim and practice some customs, including pagan ones that are misunderstood and leveraged as hate by Daash.  The practices are similar to how you might have a Christmas tree.  Daash made no attempt to hide that they were coming to Sinjar to destroy the Yazidis, of which, different reports estimate around one million are a part of this ethnic and religious minority group.

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Yazidi New Year’s Celebration [vox.com]

Basil didn’t give too much worry to this as a then 14 year old boy.  A low, substandard wall of protection had been built, Shingal was halfway up a mountain, and the Peshmerga were there to protect them.  They had fortification, elevation, and soldiers on their side.

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Shingal, also referred to as Singschar sits at the Southern base of Sinjar Mountain, about 8km from the ridgeline. In early August, Daash started their siege of the Yazidi occupied Sinjar district, surrounding a group that had retreated to the mountain top as they massacred captured members of the minority group along the way. [Ezidi Press]

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Shingal has had numerous operations to liberate it, notably in August 2014, December 2014, and February 2016. [reddit.com]

On August 3, 2014, everyone was just about falling asleep on their rooftops, a common practice in an area with extreme heat and no electricity.  From this vantage point, just around 1am, people from Shingal could see lights moving in the distance, a clear indication that something was going to happen that night.  As residents watched on, within a half hour, they could see the lights split into three distinct groups and slowly start coming toward the village at different angles of approach.  Just around 2am, the first shots rang out, mixed with a slew of incomprehensible shouting.  The neighbors were yelling, but only the sounds of confusion and fear were audible.

Before Basil could stand up, an explosion, likely from mortar fire, turned the top part of his neighbor’s home into rubble.  His female neighbor was killed instantly, and her husband badly injured.

Basil got down off the rood and ran into his home with his four brothers, three sisters, and mother for safety.  Bullets were flying in the village in a one way assault.  According to Basil and echoed by another Yazidi man from two villages south of Shingal, no Peshmerga shots were fired.  In fact, the military force the villagers were relying on protecting them was nowhere to be seen that night.  The village thought they were finished as they had all heard about the brutal strength of Daash while knowing that the forces of evil had a lot of support from the rest of the Arab region that surrounded them.

Basil’s father went to get the injured neighbor’s Kalashnikov and with gun in hand, hurried down the mountain with other villagers in a heroic sprint to meet the enemy where they had advanced.  As volleys of bullets were exchanged, the children looked on through the darkness to see the hot metal streaking through the sky.

Video from the Daash perspective of the attack on Shingal, August 3, 2014.

Between 3am and 4am, a silence fell on the village.  Unsure of if any fighters were still outside and convinced their father had been killed, the family moved to the car they were luckily enough to have.  Mom had told the older brother their only hope was to take the one road out of the village and go up the mountain.  In this small car, they squeezed three families, a total of seventeen people. After a few short minutes of driving on this road, they got to the military checkpoint and found a barricade that had been locked and abandoned by the Peshmerga.

They followed the road back past their homes and took a different route to link with the up-mountain pass.  As they were slowly puttering in their overloaded vehicle, a cell phone rang.  It was their father who was clearly shaken, but still alive.  He asked the car to turn around to come get him.  When they pulled up to where he was, they weren’t sure who they were looking at.  In the desert, Basil says it’s impossible to tell who you are fighting because the face is so dirty.  They gave dad water, quickly exclaimed their surprise and joy that he was still alive and loaded him into the car now filled with eighteen people, next to their cousin’s wife who had been shot in the arm and was in severely deteriorating condition.

The car was headed over the mountain pass towards Kurdistan, a three hour drive on the other side.  Headlights that had been following close behind them pulled up at the first allowable spot and shared news that the Peshmerga were not at their posts securing the road and it had been taken over by Daash.  This was the point everyone became convinced that the Peshmerga were paid to simply not show up to their posts that night.  Basil, his family, and several villages were completely surrounded.  Without hope and without an actual plan, they drove back to his village of Shingal as Daash forces continued up the mountain coming closer and closer to making contact again.

The family stowed their car away someplace they thought it would be safe.  They gathered some food and water and started up the mountain to a point of safety as the sun was rising and the temperature was growing unbearable for physical activity.  Shouts from Daash hit them as they reached another group of militants who set up a line to stop people from an escape route up the mountain.

Finding an alternate way to avoid the blockade of bullets, Basil got to the top of the mountain around 8am carrying his sister on his shoulders and rested just long enough to catch his breath.  He hadn’t any water as the little bit they were able to bring was being saved for the two youngest children.

What had actually happened to Basil’s father was that he had gotten thrown through the air by an RPG that landed right next to him, just like you see in the movies, Basil explained, trying to put the horror in a context I could understand.  When they got to the top of the mountain, dad nearly collapsed and was in awful condition.  Basil told him to stay put, and this 14 year old boy ran back down the mountain with a group of friends, not knowing what they would encounter.

He didn’t even have a weapon, but he luckily found a Kalashnikov on top of a Peshmerga uniform at an established yet unmanned post on the way down.  With three clips of ammunition and an estimated 10,000 others now fighting, Basil and his friend took a position across from a blockade of cars.  Daash militants were standing on top of the vehicles firing at them while three to four other fighters were firing from the shielded position behind them.

Daash were clearly outnumbered, but they had fire superiority.  With an AK-47 packing decent power but abominable accuracy, the targets were too far away to hit.  The Yazidi force that had gathered to repel the invasion had to contend with numerous types of high powered assault rifles that had an un-ending supply of ammunition as well as RPGs and various other heavy artillery.

Basil described the scene as being like a dream, an event he wasn’t actually there for.  When he squeezed off the last bullet from his third and final clip, he ran back up the mountain to where his family was.  On the way up, throat closing from thirst, he said he wished he was dead so he didn’t have to see all of that.  People on either side of him were killed.  Hurrying upwards as lines fell back, many people were too exhausted and had to stop for a rest.  They too would be killed shortly.

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A man from Shingal holds up pictures of his family, all of whom were executed by Daash after the attack on Sinjar, August 3, 2014 [Shared by Basil]

Peshmerga forces began showing up in the morning wearing plain clothes, allegedly so Daash wouldn’t kill them.  They were targeted anyway as RPGs were repeatedly fired at them.  After making significant ground up the mountain, at around 930am, Daash fell back to the line of the villages and raided them, taking all animals, money, gold, and valuables.  They had secured control of the road leading to another village of 3,000.  Forces moved down from Shingal and to that other village.

Basil and his family returned home to shower, grab clothes, and immediately left for Turkey.  They started walking to Kurdistan from Sinjar with no food, the three hour car ride they were originally trying to make what seemed like a lifetime ago.  They reached their destination the next afternoon as many people, including countless young children dropped to the ground and literally died of thirst all around them.  As news of the attacks spread, roads clogged with traffic as those close by tried to flee to safety.

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Thousands walk across unbearably hot desert lands without food, water, or possessions,  escaping the genocidal attacks on Sinjar [Reuters]

While Basil’s English was not good enough, nor my Arabic good enough to get a direct quote, one thing he said very clearly on his own was “In the mountain, there is nothing.”  There was nothing for sleeping and no blankets as they suffered from exposure in freezing nighttime desert temperatures while getting inadequate rest on the rocky ground.  They made it to Turkey where they spent almost two years in a now demolished refugee camp before coming to Kara Tepe and making it one step closer to the goal of settling in Europe.

Basil’s older brother was quick to make it into Germany before Europe closed its borders.  While they now play the waiting game all too familiar to refugees, they try to keep their hope up.  Today, they heard through the grapevine that UNHCR told another Iraqi about an EU deal just passed.  The agreement says that anyone from Iraq who is in Greece and seeking asylum in Europe must either shelter in Greece for 5 years before they can apply or return to Turkey.  Official announcements of this policy could not be verified, so even though I therefore don’t think it’s real, how Basil reacted to hearing such hope-crushing news was very real.  Escaping from a place where he has been targeted with the mark of death for the belief system of his people, he just wants to get back to the life any teenage boy wants to enjoy.  Still his fate is better than the Yazidis who have not made it out of Iraq.

Following the road from Shingal to the captured village of 3,000, Daash did what they have done to all Yazidis they seek to destroy.  In a course of actions the UN has clearly called a genocide, a label even they don’t use lightly, Daash brutally and immediately slaughtered all of the men and small babies.  Sometimes if Yazidi men agree to convert to Islam, they will be spared.  Often times, they can pledge their allegiance and will still be murdered anyway.  All of the women were abducted* and forced into a number of channels, all of which are beyond unbearable. For the full UN Genocide Commission report on the Yazidi crisis, click here.

Sex slavery is the most probable fate Yazidi women face.  Daash have set up online slave auctions as well as slave farms where women are bought like sheep, an analogy one purchaser used to abuse and degrade a rare escapee after he had purchased her.  Other women are given as sexual gifts to fighters, or traded/sold off to different militants repeatedly, often times in the double digits.  Almost all are raped repeatedly, even at the age of 9 year olds.  Many have killed themselves to escape the suffering.

This pattern of activity Daash clearly announces and celebrates is what compels mere children to sacrifice their innocence to fight, so that they may keep their lives in exchange.  The unimaginable plan to wipe an entire people from the planet is what has Basil and his family slowly moving through red tape to get to safety on the other side of the world.

America has taken a hardline stance refusing to put boots on the ground and has scaled back drone activity even after Obama’s promise to “degrade and destroy ISIL.”  The push into Sinjar starting on August 3, 2014 was enough to warrant a United States response in the form of an airstrike just a short week later and almost a full year later.  An international coalition airdropped food, water, and medical supplies to the cut-off region, and through the use of force established evacuation routes for many, but not all of the trapped people.  Shingal has seen been taken back from Daash control and now has a robust Peshmerga presence protecting it.

For now, Basil does what many refugees have confronted as the long enduring reality of their situation: he waits.

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*While this video appears to be a staged production, it’s unclear as to whether Daash is behind it and the overall legitimacy of it is questionable.  However, as it was shown to me by a crying Yazidi man in camp and represents a less violent version of some actual actions, I thought it important enough to link to.

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I almost punched a 16 year old boy in the face.  It was my natural instinct as he bit down hard into the flesh of my shoulder while my head was turned away from him.  I stopped my clenched fist mid-air as it was flying toward his cheekbone with malice. My mind luckily kicked in to calm my autonomic response and remind me where I was. We had been talking about America’s role in the Middle East which was perhaps an unwise topic to dive into with two Iraqi teenagers on my second day working in a refugee camp.

In a place with such diversity and limited language overlap, one of the first questions people ask is “Where are you from?” I don’t lie when people ask this and even if I did, with a backwards hat, sunglasses, and neon Nikes, most people already know.  I am apparently a walking American bro stereotype that only led one person astray so far when guessing my country of origin (they said France).

I apologized several times for my country’s transgressions in Iraq after being called out for the phantom search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  “You lied to the world and destroyed our country because of it,” the older boy said.  “And then you make ISIS,” a point to which I also apologized knowing full well how America destabilized the region and in trying to destroy al-Qaeda, in fact helped promote the growth of a splinter cell who carries out atrocities that were too extreme even for al-Qaeda.

I get it, we messed up big time and the more I read on the topic, the more I understand just how short-sighted our approach was in Iraq.  But that’s how hindsight works, except it doesn’t work as a reflection on destroying a country and creating devastation that has caused a 16 and 18 year old boy to flee that you are now sitting face to face with as they unleash their trauma on you.  “I don’t like America, but I like you because I am not closed minded” the older one boasted.  “America, no good,” the younger one echoed using the little English he knew to embrace a feeling he knew well.

“You know it’s fucked up how America funds ISIS” the older one stated in a transition to larger issues.  He proudly if not haphazardly explained the theory that America bankrolls the black-flagged terrorist activities targeting the Western world while destroying the Middle East and beyond so we can justify the hatred and destruction of Islam. We reached an impasse in our only ten minute conversation as I started to express the “What do you know, you’re only 18?” attitude to counter his “What do you know, you haven’t lived in Iraq?” attitude.   We were both too stubbornly sure of our opinions formed by bias media to continue on that topic as tempers were starting to burn red-hot.

At this point it’s important to note that the feelings Iraqis have towards Americans is noticeably and understandably, a mixed bag.  Syrians, while often wishing we would step in and assist the toppling of the Assad regime with full force, tend to like America very much.

Wanting to hear more, even if it was a slew of words I didn’t like or even believe, I simply asked to hear more.  In talking about Saddam Hussein, the older boy said “He was both good and bad, but more good than bad” recounting what he must have heard from his parents and pop-culture.  This wishy-washy celebration of death spewing tyrants is exactly how most of my students in China express their feelings towards Mao Zedong.  I needed to dig deeper.  “What exactly was good about him?” I said trying to hide the slightly arrogant American tone that oozed off of the word good like puss out of a wound.

He liked that Saddam was a man of action, even if inflammatory and deranged. “When he made the plan to fire 39 rockets at Israel and destroy them, he asked other countries to fire the 40th.” In trying to orchestrate a complete wipeout of the Jewish nation, the older boy expressed how he was “disappointed” that no other countries stepped up and followed through on “such a great plan” to destroy Israel.

“But then America comes in and killed him.” I had turned my head because I didn’t know how to respond to the eighteen year old’s characterization of a war criminal who placed such little value on humanity, it didn’t make his priority list at all.  I felt a sharp pain as bicuspids sunk into my deltoid just as quickly triggering my body to jerk away and my arm to swing around in one fluid motion.  An invisible force stopped my fist mid-flight.  I wanted to hit this scrawny little kid square in the chest as he broke his slobber clenched jaw from my body, but as a child, he has already experienced enough violence for 5 million lifetimes.

The next post is the story of that kid who bit me on my second day, but now affectionately calls me Captain America and is one of my best friends in camp.

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