Inside Fallujah: Days of Bullets, Bombs and Bodies
By Jo Wilding
April 26, 2004
Jo Wilding is a British activist and entertainer who traveled to Baghdad in March 2003 to stand as a "human shield" against the allied air bombardment. Jo recently returned to Iraq where she found herself picking up the bodies of the dead and injured in the middle of the Fallujah Massacre. Jo provides a harrowing report on what was really happening inside the city during the so-called US "cease-fire."
|Jo Wilding speaks to media outside court after the British government seized a shipment of dates that peace activists attempted to bring into the UK to raise funds for the Iraqi people. |
FALLUJAH (April 11, 2004) -- Trucks, oil tankers, tanks are burning on the highway east to Falluja. A stream of boys and men goes to and from a lorry that's not burnt, stripping it bare. We turn onto the back roads through Abu Ghraib, Nuha and Ahrar singing in Arabic, past the vehicles full of people and a few possessions, heading the other way, past the improvised refreshment posts along the way where boys throw food through the windows into the bus for us and for the people inside still inside Falluja.
The bus is following a car with the nephew of a local sheikh and a guide who has contacts with the Mujahedin and has cleared this with them. The reason I'm on the bus is that a journalist I knew turned up at my door at about 11 at night telling me things were desperate in Falluja, he'd been bringing out children with their limbs blown off, the US soldiers were going around telling people to leave by dusk or be killed, but then when people fled with whatever they could carry, they were being stopped at the US military checkpoint on the edge of town and not let out, trapped, watching the sun go down.
He said aid vehicles and the media were being turned away. He said there was some medical aid that needed to go in and there was a better chance of it getting there with foreigners, westerners, to get through the american checkpoints. The rest of the way was secured with the armed groups who control the roads we'd travel on. We'd take in the medical supplies, see what else we could do to help and then use the bus to bring out people who needed to leave.
'If I Don't Do It, Who Will?'
I'll spare you the whole decision-making process, all the questions we all asked ourselves and each other, and you can spare me the accusations of madness, but what it came down to was this: if I don't do it, who will? Either way, we arrive in one piece.
We pile the stuff in the corridor and the boxes are torn open straightaway, the blankets most welcomed. It's not a hospital at all but a clinic, a private doctor's surgery treating people free, since air strikes destroyed the town's main hospital. Another has been improvised in a car garage. There's no anaesthetic. The blood bags are in a fridge and the doctors warm them up under the hot tap in an unhygienic toilet.
Screaming women come in, praying, slapping their chests and faces. "Ummi, my mother!" one cries. I hold her until Maki, a consultant and acting director of the clinic, brings me to the bed where a child of about ten is lying with a bullet wound to the head. A smaller child is being treated for a similar injury in the next bed. A US sniper hit them and their grandmother as they left their home to flee Falluja.
The lights go out, the fan stops, and in the sudden quiet someone holds up the flame of a cigarette lighter for the doctor to carry on operating by. The electricity to the town has been cut off for days and when the generator runs out of petrol, they just have to manage till it comes back on. Dave quickly donates his torch. The children are not going to live.
'I Was Hit by a US Sniper'
|Volunteers rush injured woman into make-shift hospital in Fallujah. The woman was reportedly shot in the neck by US snipers. Credit: The New Standard/ ElectronicIraq.net |
"Come," says Maki and ushers me alone into a room where an old woman has just had an abdominal bullet wound stitched up. Another in her leg is being dressed, the bed under her foot soaked with blood, a white flag still clutched in her hand and the same story: "I was leaving my home to go to Baghdad when I was hit by a US sniper." Some of the town is held by US Marines, other parts by the local fighters. Their homes are in the US controlled area and they are adamant that the snipers were US Marines.
Snipers are causing not just carnage but also the paralysis of the ambulance and evacuation services. The biggest hospital after the main one was bombed is in US territory and cut off from the clinic by snipers. The ambulance has been repaired four times after bullet damage. Bodies are lying in the streets because no one can go to collect them without being shot.
Some said we were mad to come to Iraq. Quite a few said we were completely insane to come to Fallujah and now there are people telling me that getting in the back of the pick-up to go past the snipers and get sick and injured people is the craziest thing they've ever seen. I know, though, that if we don't, no one will.
A Ride into No-man's Land
He's holding a white flag with a red crescent on; I don't know his name. The men we pass wave us on when the driver explains where we're going. The silence is ferocious in the no-man's land between the pick up at the edge of the Mujahedin territory, which has just gone from our sight around the last corner and the Marines' line beyond the next wall. No birds, no music, no indication that anyone is still living, until a gate opens opposite and a woman comes out, points.
We edge along to the hole in the wall where we can see the car, spent mortar shells around it. The feet are visible, crossed, in the gutter. I think he's dead already. The snipers are visible too, two of them on the corner of the building. As yet, I think they can't see us so we need to let them know we're there.
"Hello," I bellow at the top of my voice. "Can you hear me?" They must. They're about 30 metres from us, maybe less, and it's so still you could hear the flies buzzing at 50 paces. I repeat myself a few times, still without reply, so decide to explain myself a bit more.
"We are a medical team. We want to remove this wounded man. Is it OK for us to come out and get him? Can you give us a signal that it's OK?"
I'm sure they can hear me, but they're still not responding. Maybe they didn't understand it all, so I say the same again. Dave yells too in his US accent. I yell again. Finally I think I hear a shout back. Not sure, I call again.
"Can we come out and get him?"
Slowly, our hands up, we go out. The black cloud that rises to greet us carries with it a hot, sour smell. Solidified, his legs are heavy. I leave them to Rana and Dave, our guide lifting under his hips. The Kalashnikov is attached by sticky blood to his hair and hand and we don't want it with us so I put my foot on it as I pick up his shoulders and his blood falls out through the hole in his back. We heave him into the pick-up as best we can and try to outrun the flies.
I suppose he was wearing flip flops because he's barefoot now, no more than 20 years old, in imitation Nike pants and a blue-and-black striped football shirt with a big 28 on the back. As the orderlies from the clinic pull the young fighter off the pick-up, yellow fluid pours from his mouth and they flip him over, face up, the way into the clinic clearing in front of them, straight up the ramp into the makeshift morgue.
A Bullet Crashes through Our Ambulance
We wash the blood off our hands and get in the ambulance. There are people trapped in the other hospital who need to go to Baghdad. Siren screaming, lights flashing, we huddle on the floor of the ambulance, passports and ID cards held out the windows. We pack it with people, one with his chest taped together and a drip, one on a stretcher, legs jerking violently so I have to hold them down as we wheel him out, lifting him over steps.
The hospital is better able to treat them than the clinic but hasn't got enough of anything to sort them out properly and the only way to get them to Baghdad on our bus, which means they have to go to the clinic. We're crammed on the floor of the ambulance in case it's shot at. Nisareen, a woman doctor about my age, can't stop a few tears once we're out.
The doctor rushes out to meet me: "Can you go to fetch a lady, she is pregnant and she is delivering the baby soon?"
Azzam is driving, Ahmed in the middle directing him and me by the window, the visible foreigner, the passport. Something scatters across my hand, simultaneous with the crashing of a bullet through the ambulance, some plastic part dislodged, flying through the window.
We stop, turn off the siren, keep the blue light flashing, wait, eyes on the silhouettes of men in US Marine uniforms on the corners of the buildings. Several shots come. We duck, get as low as possible and I can see tiny red lights whipping past the window, past my head. Some, it's hard to tell, are hitting the ambulance
I start singing. What else do you do when someone's shooting at you? A tyre bursts with an enormous noise and a jerk of the vehicle.
I'm outraged. We're trying to get to a woman who's giving birth without any medical attention, without electricity, in a city under siege, in a clearly marked ambulance, and you're shooting at us. How dare you?
How dare you?
Azzam grabs the gear stick and gets the ambulance into reverse, another tyre bursting as we go over the ridge in the centre of the road , the shots still coming as we flee around the corner. I carry on singing. The wheels are scraping, burst rubber burning on the road.
The men run for a stretcher as we arrive and I shake my head. They spot the new bullet holes and run to see if we're OK. Is there any other way to get to her, I want to know. La, maaku tarieq. There is no other way. They say we did the right thing. They say they've fixed the ambulance four times already and they'll fix it again but the radiator's gone and the wheels are buckled and she's still at home in the dark giving birth alone. I let her down.
He Hated Saddam: Now He Hates Americans More
We can't go out again. For one thing there's no ambulance and besides it's dark now and that means our foreign faces can't protect the people who go out with us or the people we pick up. Maki is the acting director of the place. He says he hated Saddam but now he hates the Americans more.
We take off the blue gowns as the sky starts exploding somewhere beyond the building opposite. Minutes later, a car roars up to the clinic. I can hear him screaming before I can see that there's no skin left on his body. He's burnt from head to foot. For sure, there's nothing they can do. He'll die of dehydration within a few days.
Another man is pulled from the car onto a stretcher. Cluster bombs, they say, although it's not clear whether they mean one or both of them. We set off walking to Mr Yasser's house, waiting at each corner for someone to check the street before we cross. A ball of fire falls from a plane, splits into smaller balls of bright white lights. I think they're cluster bombs, because cluster bombs are in the front of my mind, but they vanish, just magnesium flares, incredibly bright but short-lived, giving a flash picture of the town from above.
Yasser asks us all to introduce ourselves. I tell him I'm training to be a lawyer. One of the other men asks whether I know about international law. They want to know about the law on war crimes, what a war crime is. I tell them I know some of the Geneva Conventions, that I'll bring some information next time I come and we can get someone to explain it in Arabic.
We bring up the matter of Nayoko. This group of fighters has nothing to do with the ones who are holding the Japanese hostages, but while they're thanking us for what we did this evening, we talk about the things Nayoko did for the street kids, how much they loved her.
They can't promise anything but that they'll try and find out where she is and try to persuade the group to let her and the others go. I don't suppose it will make any difference. They're busy fighting a war in Falluja. They're unconnected with the other group. But it can't hurt to try.
The planes are above us all night so, that as I doze, I forget I'm not on a long-distance flight, the constant bass note of an unmanned reconnaissance drone overlaid with the frantic thrash of jets and the dull beat of helicopters and interrupted by the explosions.
In the morning I make balloon dogs, giraffes and elephants for the little one, Abdullah Aboudi, who's clearly distressed by the noise of the aircraft and explosions. I blow bubbles which he follows with his eyes. Finally, finally, I score a smile. The twins, 13 years old, laugh too -- one of them an ambulance driver, both said to be handy with a Kalashnikov.
(Continued. See "Inside Fallujah: Part 2")
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