Inside Fallujah: Part 2 'The Dead We Cannot Help'
By Jo Wilding
April 26, 2004
In this second part of her report from inside Fallujah, British activist Jo Wilding hauls away the bodies of murdered civilians, comforts traumatized children, and despairs that it impossible to take the pre-teen mujahedeen armed with AK-47s "somewhere where they can be children."
|Iraqi children give "thumbs down" to US occupation forces in Fallujah. Credit: SOS KINDEREN IRAK / Website: www.irak.be|
The doctors look haggard in the morning. None has slept more than a couple of hours a night for a week. One as had only eight hours of sleep in the last seven days, missing the funerals of his brother and aunt because he was needed at the hospital.
"The dead we cannot help," Jassim said. "I must worry about the injured."
We go again, Dave, Rana and me, this time in a pick-up. There are some sick people close to the Marines' line who need evacuating. No one dares come out of their house because the marines are on top of the buildings shooting at anything that moves.
Saad fetches us a white flag and tells us not to worry. He's checked and secured the road, no Mujahedin will fire at us, that peace is upon us, this eleven-year-old child, his face covered with a keffiyeh, but for is bright brown eyes, his AK47 almost as tall as he is.
We shout again to the soldiers, hold up the flag with a red crescent sprayed onto it. Two come down from the building, cover this side and Rana mutters, "Allahu akbar. Please nobody take a shot at them."
We jump down and tell them we need to get some sick people from the houses and they want Rana to go and bring out the family from the house whose roof they're on. Thirteen women and children are still inside, in one room, without food and water for the last 24 hours.
"We're going to be going through soon clearing the houses," the senior one says.
"What does that mean, clearing the houses?"
"Going into every one searching for weapons." He's checking his watch, can't tell me what will start when, of course, but there's going to be air strikes in support. "If you're going to do this, you gotta do it soon."
First we go down the street we were sent to. There's a man, face down, in a white dishdasha, a small round red stain on his back. We run to him. Again the flies have got there first. Dave is at his shoulders, I'm by his knees and as we reach to roll him onto the stretcher, Dave's hand goes through his chest, through the cavity left by the bullet that entered so neatly through his back and blew his heart out.
There's no weapon in his hand. Only when we arrive, his sons come out, crying, shouting. "He was unarmed," they scream. "He was unarmed! He just went out the gate and they shot him." None of them have dared come out since. No one had dared come to get his body, horrified, terrified, forced to violate the traditions of treating the body immediately. They couldn't have known we were coming, so it's inconceivable that anyone came out and retrieved a weapon but left the body.
He was unarmed, 55-years-old, shot in the back.
We cover his face, carry him to the pick-up. There's nothing to cover his body with. The sick woman is helped out of the house, the little girls around her hugging cloth bags to their bodies, whispering, "Baba. Baba." Daddy.
Shaking, they let us go first, hands up, around the corner, then we usher them to the cab of the pick up, shielding their heads so they can't see him, the cuddly fat man stiff in the back.
Men of Fighting Age
|From Peace Activist Yumi Kikuchi in Japan: "I am sending this to you to share my sorrow. 500-plus Iraqi people are killed in Falluja and many were children and babies as seen in the photos below. If you do not want to face what the US does in foreign countries straight, you can never change it. "How many times must a man turn his head pretending he just doesn't see...." Additional photos (warning: these images are disturbing) are posted at: http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/8CB7C17E-F69E-48A2-8034-DEA425192815.htm|
The people seem to pour out of the houses now in the hope we can escort them safely out of the line of fire, kids, women, men, anxiously asking us whether they can all go, or only the women and children. We go to ask. The young Marine tells us that men of fighting age can't leave. What's fighting age, I want to know. He contemplates. Anything under 45. No lower limit.
It appalls me that all those men would be trapped in a city that is about to be destroyed. Not all of them are fighters; not all are armed. It's going to happen out of the view of the world, out of sight of the media, because most of the media in Fallujah is embedded with the Marines or turned away at the outskirts. Before we can pass the message on, two explosions scatter the crowd in the side street back into their houses.
Rana's with the Marines evacuating the family from the house they're occupying. The pick-up isn't back yet. The families are hiding behind their walls. We wait, because there's nothing else we can do. We wait in no man's land. The Marines, at least, are watching us through binoculars; maybe the local fighters are too.
I've got a disappearing hanky in my pocket so while I'm sitting like a lemon, nowhere to go, gunfire and explosions aplenty all around, I make the hanky disappear, reappear, disappear. It's always best, I think, to seem completely unthreatening and completely unconcerned, so no one worries about you enough to shoot. We can't wait too long though. Rana's been gone ages. We have to go and get her to hurry. There's a young man in the group. She's talked them into letting him leave too.
A man wants to use his police car to carry some of the people, a couple of elderly ones who can't walk far, the smallest children. It's missing a door. Who knows if he was really a police car or the car was reappropriated and just ended up there? It didn't matter if it got more people out faster. They creep from their houses, huddle by the wall, follow us out, their hands up, too, and walk up the street clutching babies, bags, each other.
The pick-up gets back and we shovel as many onto it as we can, as an ambulance arrives from somewhere. A young man waves from the doorway of what's left of a house, his upper body bare, a blood soaked bandage around his arm, probably a fighter but it makes no difference once someone is wounded and unarmed.
Getting the dead isn't essential. Like the doctor said, the dead don't need help, but if it's easy enough then we will. Since we're already OK with the soldiers and the ambulance is here, we run down to fetch them in. It's important in Islam to bury the body straightaway.
The ambulance follows us down. The soldiers start shouting in English at us for it to stop, pointing guns. It's moving fast. We're all yelling, signalling for it to stop but it seems to take forever for the driver to hear and see us. It stops. It stops, before they open fire. We haul them onto the stretchers and run, shove them in the back. Rana squeezes in the front with the wounded man and Dave and I crouch in the back beside the bodies. He says he had allergies as a kid and hasn't got much sense of smell. I wish, retrospectively, for childhood allergies, and stick my head out the window.
A Busload of Wounded Heads for Baghdad
The bus is going to leave, taking the injured people back to Baghdad, the man with the burns, one of the women who was shot in the jaw and shoulder by a sniper, several others. Rana says she's staying to help. Dave and I don't hesitate: we're staying too.
"If I don't do it, who will?" has become an accidental motto and I'm acutely aware after the last foray how many people, how many women and children, are still in their houses either because they've got nowhere to go, because they're scared to go out of the door or because they've chosen to stay.
To begin with it's agreed, then Azzam says we have to go. He hasn't got contacts with every armed group, only with some. There are different issues to square with each one. We need to get these people back to Baghdad as quickly as we can. If we're kidnapped or killed it will cause even more problems, so it's better that we just get on the bus and leave and come back with him as soon as possible.
It hurts to climb onto the bus when the doctor has just asked us to go and evacuate some more people. I hate the fact that a qualified medic can't travel in the ambulance but I can, just because I look like the sniper's sister or one of his mates, but that's the way it is today and the way it was yesterday and I feel like a traitor for leaving, but I can't see where I've got a choice. It's a war now and as alien as it is to me to do what I'm told, for once I've got to.
Jassim is scared. He harangues Mohammed constantly, tries to pull him out of the driver's seat while we're moving. The woman with the gunshot wound is on the back seat, the man with the burns in front of her, being fanned with cardboard from the empty boxes, his intravenous drips swinging from the rail along the ceiling of the bus. It's hot. It must be unbearable for him.
Can't I Take Him Somewhere He Can Be a Child?
Saad comes onto the bus to wish us well for the journey. He shakes Dave's hand and then mine. I hold his in both of mine and tell him "Dir balak," take care, as if I could say anything more stupid to a pre-teen Mujahedin with an AK47 in his other hand, and our eyes meet and stay fixed, his full of fire and fear.
Can't I take him away? Can't I take him somewhere he can be a child? Can't I make him a balloon giraffe and give him some drawing pens and tell him not to forget to brush his teeth? Can't I find the person who put the rifle in the hands of that little boy? Can't I tell someone about what that does to a child? Do I have to leave him here where there are heavily armed men all around him and lots of them are not on his side, however many sides there are in all of this? And, of course, I do. I do have to leave him, like child soldiers everywhere.
The way back is tense, the bus almost getting stuck in a dip in the sand, people escaping in anything, even piled on the trailer of a tractor, lines of cars and pick-ups and buses ferrying people to the dubious sanctuary of Baghdad, lines of men in vehicles queuing to get back into the city having got their families to safety, either to fight or to help evacuate more people. The driver, Jassim, the father, ignores Azzam and takes a different road so that suddenly we're not following the lead car and we're on a road that's controlled by a different armed group than the ones which know us.
A crowd of men waves guns to stop the bus. Somehow they apparently believe that there are American soldiers on the bus, as if they wouldn't be in tanks or helicopters, and there are men getting out of their cars with shouts of "Sahafa Amreeki," American journalists. The passengers shout out of the windows, "Ana min Falluja," I am from Falluja. Gunmen run onto the bus and see that it's true, there are sick and injured and old people, Iraqis, and then relax, wave us on.
We stop in Abu Ghraib and swap seats, foreigners in the front, Iraqis less visible, headscarves off so we look more western. The American soldiers are so happy to see westerners they don't mind too much about the Iraqis with us, search the men and the bus, leave the women unsearched because there are no women soldiers to search us. Mohammed keeps asking me if things are going to be OK.
"Al-melaach wiyana," I tell him. The angels are with us. He laughs.
And Bush Says 'What We're Doing in Iraq Is Right'
And then we're in Baghdad, delivering them to the hospitals, Nuha in tears as they take the burnt man off groaning and whimpering. She puts her arms around me and asks me to be her friend. I make her feel less isolated, she says, less alone.
And the satellite news says the cease-fire is holding and George Bush says to the troops on Easter Sunday that, "I know what we're doing in Iraq is right."
Shooting unarmed men in the back outside their family home is right?
Shooting grandmothers with white flags is right?
Shooting at women and children who are fleeing their homes is right?
Firing at ambulances is right?
Well George, I know too now. I know what it looks like when you brutalize people so much that they've nothing left to lose.
I know what it looks like when an operation is being done without anaesthetic because the hospitals are destroyed or under sniper fire and the city's under siege and aid isn't getting in properly.
I know what it sounds like too. I know what it looks like when tracer bullets are passing your head, even though you're in an ambulance.
I know what it looks like when a man's chest is no longer inside him and what it smells like and I know what it looks like when his wife and children pour out of his house.
It's a crime and it's a disgrace to us all.
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