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02-06-08, 03:35 PM
Fallujah park created in girl’s memory

By Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, February 6, 2008

FALLUJAH, Iraq — It was Ayah’s first day of school. Her father put the 7-year-old on the bus for her first day in the Iraqi school system, thinking it safer than having her walk the Fallujah streets.

The men of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines had been on the ground for just a few weeks as of Oct. 26, the day Ayah’s school bus passed a Company L convoy.

A Humvee gunner repeatedly motioned for the bus driver to stop, according to company commander Capt. Steve Eastin. The driver did not stop, and the gunner fired a warning shot into the ground in front of Ayah’s bus.

The bullet ricocheted off the street and into the bus before striking Ayah in the chest. Marines offered aid at the scene, but locals refused and rushed her to a nearby hospital, where she died.

Maybe it was improved security or a change of attitude in this city. Perhaps it was the quick action of Marines to make reparations, or some other factor. Regardless, the population of Fallujah — a one-time center of insurgent activity, Sunni militancy and anti-U.S. sentiment — did not erupt when one of their children was killed by a Marine bullet last fall.

An investigation found that the Marine had followed escalation-of-force guidelines and that individual is now back at work, Eastin said, declining to name the Marine and opting to speak for the company regarding Ayah.

“He’s going to have to live with that every day,” Eastin said of the Marine.

Immediately after Ayah’s death, Marines were bracing for the worst.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Cpl. Thomas Weinerzierl, of Milwaukee, a squad leader with the company’s 3rd Platoon.

Eastin was in a town-hall meeting on the morning of Oct. 26 when he got the news of Ayah’s death.

“An innocent civilian hadn’t been killed here in a long time,” he said, adding that his mind raced through the potential consequences of the accident. “How are they going to accept us? We had just killed his 7-year-old daughter, his pride and joy. You can see the problems we were facing.”

The Marines on the ground were looking to build on the security progress their predecessors had started to make in the city over the summer, and Eastin said he soon realized he had to make right by the family.

Time was of the essence. By 2 p.m. the day of Ayah’s death, she was buried. By 6 p.m., a gathering of mourners would be held at the family’s home.

Eastin said he turned to his interpreter to find out what the Iraqi customs were for the accidental death of a child.

“He said, ‘You give a sheep, a bag of flour, a bag of sugar and some cooking oil,’” Eastin said.

As the items were gathered, Eastin enlisted local leaders for help. He went to the Iraqi police chief near where Ayah’s family lived and also met with the area’s mukhtar, essentially a “city sheik” that serves as a given community’s leader in the city.

Eastin also requested $2,500 in compensatory money for the family, which was promptly approved by the battalion commander.

That night, bearing the customary items, Eastin and his Marines went and offered their condolences to Ayah’s family.

“I said ‘I’m sorry for your great loss’” to each family elder, he said. “They said, ‘It was God’s will.’”

As the months passed after Ayah’s death, Lima Company adopted Ayah’s family, in a way.

“The Marines did many great things for me, and they did not stop checking up on my family,” Ayah’s father, Jamal Abu Khalid, said recently through an interpreter. Eastin gave Khalid a generator to operate for the neighborhood.

“And they built a playground for my daughter,” Khalid said inside his house, just across the street from the set of swings and slides erected in Ayah’s name.

Despite the loss of his daughter, Khalid insists he doesn’t harbor ill will toward the Marines.

“Every human being has their own destiny,” he said, adding that if it wasn’t the Marines, fate would have taken Ayah another way that morning. “I know that. For the death there is many reasons.”

Ayah’s park sits on a spot where locals say militants used to stash kidnapping victims and arms caches.

Marines said it was a spot where people were beheaded. Now it’s a place for kids like Ayah to play.

“Everyone loved her,” Khalid said. “The whole neighborhood loved her, and I do not forget my daughter. Every time I see a bunch of kids playing outside I think of her. I cannot forget.”

The site of Ayah’s park “looked like a horrible place before,” said Athir Abdul al Hamid Zidan, a Fallujah cab driver who stood near the park recently.

The park will continue to benefit the neighborhood friends and family that Ayah left behind, the cabbie said. “Next summer, the trees will grow up more, and we will have a shady place.”