Much of the suffering and loss of ordinary Iraqi civilians was left untold. Until now. Here, in a compelling dispatch, award-winning foreign correspondent Ed Vulliamy goes in search of their stories.
By Ed Vulliamy
'They were not war patients in here, they were in hospital for normal reasons you would come to hospital for,' says Dr Azurgan. 'But then, of course, those who survived the bombing became war patients.'
The Americans might have seen reason for dispatching the bomb that crashed through the ward ceiling, in breezy defiance of the Geneva Conventions. As part of the Baa'th party's tactic to use such places as hospitals for human shields, the governor of Nasiriyah, Adel Mehdi, and head of security Kamil Bahtat had arrived that afternoon, brandishing satellite phones which give out global positioning signals easily picked up by American radar. The doctors, no fools, 'were screaming at the Ba'athists to leave,' says Dr Azurgan. 'One of my colleagues even threatened to shoot them if they did not.'
They remained - and survived. But, whatever the temptation to the Americans, two red crescents, still visible, clearly marked the roof of the building, as did a flag bearing the same symbol. In theory protected by the laws of war, some 70 patients were wounded and four killed - before the scene of mayhem that followed. 'As the ambulances moved in to take the injured to the other hospital, they fired at them, too, from helicopters,' recalls Dr Azurgan. 'They were shooting at anyone who was driving or walking on the street.'
It is hard to cite a figure for the civilian dead in Nasiriyah - 'about 800, maybe more', calculates the keeper of records at the main hospital, Abdel Karim, who logged 412 war-death certificates from his own wards alone, of which only 25 were military casualties - that is, those wearing a black or military uniform, or else a black ribbon somewhere on civilian clothes, as was the practice of the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitaries. The papers also show 3,013 war wounded, including Mr and Mrs Kassim, the deaths of whose children may or may not lie elsewhere, in some American record.
Through Nasiriyah's northern gate, where the Kassim family was ambushed, the American Marines surged north. There are rumours in Washington about a race between the marines and the army, taking a route further west, to reach Baghdad. If true, it was a race for high, sanguine stakes. Almost immediately outside the gate lie the first burnt-out skeletons of cars and civilian buses blasted off the road as they passed - or were passed - by advancing American armour, each bus capable of holding up to 50 passengers.
The road north is lined by kilns making adobe bricks with which the small farming hamlets are built. Despite the ravaging of this landscape, schoolchildren walk to their studies in clean, pressed white shirts, carrying their books. In the town of Ash-Shatra, a poor ribbon development along the highway, they walk past a concentration of these spidery frames that were once buses. Many were removed, stashed behind houses; some are now being taken away by heavy vehicles. But one is still parked, awkwardly, on the roadside.
Whether through recklessness or naivety, these buses continued running in spite of the American advance, and this bus was the unfortunate 8pm service at Ash-Shatra, on its way from Baghdad to Nasiriyah. In the tangerine light of dusk, children come to play at being drivers in the incinerated hulk. The cousin of one of these urchins, Sajed Mohammed, 13, was among those preparing to alight when the bus made its regular stop, some 100m from a tank blocking the road.
'The lights were on inside the bus,' remembers Sajed, 'and there was some shouting, American shouting. There was silence for a while, then a noise which made me think I would go deaf. The bus jumped like an animal being killed. Next day, the Americans came and buried the bodies of all the people, and the morning after that they came back and burned the bus.'
Rahad Klader, 30, who saw the incident from his window, recounts that after the tank had fired and the bus exploded, the Americans came up to the vehicle and emptied their machine-guns into whoever had survived. Ammunition strewn around the wreck is, indeed, American - not Iraqi, which would have given the tank some reason to suspect military activity aboard the bus.
'The Fedayeen were hiding between houses further down the road,' says Klader, 'and there had been fighting. But they were nowhere near the bus, and they were not on the bus. Oh yes, the lights were on all right. Fluorescent lights, bright and blue-ish. We could see from our houses that they were the usual people aboard when the bus stops here every evening.
The Shiites are Iraq's religious majority, persecuted during Saddam's tyranny, and prey to one of the most brutal episodes in modern history - the dictator's suppression of the Shiite rebellion on the slipstream of the first gulf war. It was an uprising urged, but unaided and (in the Shia's mind) betrayed by the US. The Shiite militias advanced to within some 50km of Baghdad, waiting for an American intervention that never came. Saddam's retort was a savage one.
The last time I was in Iraq, in 1991, I travelled south from Baghdad in the wake of the Republican Guard, as it laid waste to the Shia population and its glorious cities, its finery reduced to rubble. The journey generated a clear notion, but no proof, of what we were travelling over - mass graves recently excavated, bringing back to the surface thousands of slaughtered men, women and children, their earth-stained skulls still blindfolded.
'You see, sir,' said Karim Jasim, an excavator brushing dirt off a skeleton at the al-Musayyib mass grave near Kerbala, 'there are two Iraqs; one above the ground, and another beneath it.'
Twelve years after these massacres, the Americans finally rolled along the route taken by Saddam Hussein's shock troops, to liberate these cities, their people and religion, after decades of fear and oppression. But not all of those who waited lived to relish that liberation. And few of those who gather around the wondrous shrine in Najaf - of gold and mosaic, in which the first Shiite caliph, Ali Ibn Ali Talib, Mohammed's nephew, is buried - regard the US army as one of deliverance. Indeed, the Americans are for the most part resented, and duly absent from the city itself, confined to bases on its outskirts. This is in some degree due to the anti-Americanism innate to political Islam, but is also explained by the way in which Najaf - located on the most lyrical and evocative palm-strewn banks of the Euphrates - was 'liberated'.
There was reason for the cluster-bomb run that scorched along the main street at the edge of the Haikarama neighbourhood in the early hours of 27 March, as residents acknowledge there was an Iraqi army radar position and military truck hidden in scrappy woodland over the road from their houses. But a cluster bomb explodes in all directions, not only one.
'It was about 1.30 in the morning when the bombs started falling,' recalls Fahem Jabar al-Huwayli, sitting in what is left of his front room, the masonry still smelling of the fire that raged through it, the walls pitted with shrapnel. 'Most people were asleep, but stupid enough to go out and see what was happening.'
By the time a small fleet of ambulances screeched on to the scene, says al-Huwayli's neighbour Abdul Hussein Ubayed, 'There were wounded people all over the street, and my son here, Ali Abdel, was injured also.' The boy, prostrate, duly lifts his shirt to reveal a scar running from his scrotum, across his torso to his throat.
It was after the medical teams began trying to load their vehicles with the injured that bombers returned for a second raid. 'By then, I'd say 35 or so people had been killed, and the military target destroyed,' says Ubayed. 'It was during the second raid that they hit the ambulance. We saw it catch fire and five people were killed.' What remains of the vehicle is now parked at the local Red Crescent base - a gnarled frame of scorched metal without a trace of paint left, lacerated by shrapnel, and harboured next to another ambulance on which the torched medical emblem, the red crescent - a supposed protection - is still visible.
Bombing ambulances is a war crime, but the word of residents would be evidentially insufficient, in the unlikely event that the alleged perpetrators of this crime in Najaf were one day called to account. (America's war in Iraq was quickly followed by a request, granted by the United Nations, that the US military enjoy a unique exemption from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court.) The word of the driver himself would, however, carry some cogency.
After the initial bombing raid, Osham Thalar Messin and his paramedic answered an alarm call at 1.10am. They boarded ambulance number 2260 and raced to the scene of the attack, along with two others. 'When we arrived, wounded people were lying in the road,' recalls Messin, 'others were in the houses. We put five people into the ambulance from the road, and went into a house to get more. That was when the second raid came in. There were explosions along the street, and one of the bombs went off next to my ambulance.'
Messin's account is credible mainly for the umbrage with which he hastily and haughtily dismisses the figure of five people supposedly killed in his vehicle. 'It was two,' he emphasises, 'not five, but two. Whoever told you that is overlooking the fact that I managed to rescue three of those I had loaded, but not the other two. They'd been hit by what looked like burning iron, or something sharp and heavy. It was a woman of about 25 and a child of, I would say, eight, who died. I think they were both from the same family, travelling on a minibus - no one knew who they were. They were buried by the roadside and later claimed by their families.'
A further eight ambulances were then dispatched. 'It was a terrifying sight,' recalls Messin. 'I've been an ambulance driver for three years and before that I was in the army, and even I was afraid. In all, we took 65 wounded people by ambulance to the hospital. I couldn't count the dead - we left most of them there to make space for the living in our vehicles. I'd say about 50.'
'It's hard to judge how many were killed in Najaf,' says Dr Hussein Kaptan at the main hospital. Our documents here alone record at least 500, with 700 or more wounded. I've got a family here which was all killed except for one boy and his father. I have to keep the child here, apart from his wounds, because he is suicidal.'
The 16-year-old Malik Musa was a cowherd, tending to his charge in a stretch of rural land astride the Euphrates between Najaf and Hilla - along which the bombers connected the two towns with an umbilical cord of death. Malik looks rather like a dead spider, his bandaged arms warped into odd positions. He lies on his side. 'He worked hard,' says his father Musa Hamsa, 'and sometimes behaved badly - and if I was ever angry with him, I certainly don't care now.' There were always two prospective versions of the fall of Baghdad: one fearful, the other fantastical. The first accorded with America's fear that Saddam would defend the capital and that it may be necessary to either lay siege or take the city street by street. The second was the vision of an entry into Baghdad met with exuberant gratitude and crowds cheering a force of liberation. In the event, America's passage into Baghdad was a cannonade that resulted in probably the heaviest bloodletting of the war: the so-called 'Thunder Run'.
The Thunder Run, as it was branded by some American media, consisted of two armoured punches into the capital, on 5 and 7 April, respectively. They departed from the southeastern checkpoint to the city and forked - one wing heading for the airport, the other towards Saddam's palace. They were, essentially, demonstrations of force rather than attempts to take the city, and a finger stuck up against what was being said on Iraqi television by 'Comical Ali' - Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf - that US forces were nowhere near Baghdad.
'It was very confusing,' recalls Ali Mahadi, a welder. 'I was having breakfast in the front of my house, and when I heard the first shooting I presumed it was the Iraqis, because we'd been told there were no Americans near Baghdad.
I went upstairs to see what was happening, and saw the first armoured car coming over the bridge there. Bilal Abdul Muhed was driving his taxi, and another man. They got out, put their hands up, and were shot to pieces. A lot of people rushed out to try and help Bilal - fools, they were killed, too, by the shooting, right and left, as the Americans came through.' Bits of Bilal's car are still strewn along the roadside, but he was merely one of the first among hundreds to die that day.
Sahad Majul Majit had set up his cigarette stall at the Khadessia junction at 6 o'clock on the morning of 5 April, as he had done for 16 years. 'They came from nowhere,' he says, 'suddenly, at about 7 o'clock, shooting everywhere. I didn't think the Americans were in Baghdad after what I had heard on television - and there were some Fedayeen between the houses. But I didn't expect the Americans to come into Baghdad like that, and when I saw what was happening, I grabbed some of my cigarettes and ran into that supermarket over there.
'They were firing at anything that moved for three days. I myself helped get 30 bodies into the supermarket - what a smell they made. Across from Majul's now re-opened stall are two bus shelters, on either side of the road, now riddled with heavy-calibre fire. Majul saw what happened: 'There was a military car, and the soldiers ran into that far shelter. The Americans shot that one up. But then a bus came down the road, and the people ran off it to hide in the other bus shelter - and they fired at that one, too. I could hear people screaming as they died, even with the noise of the guns.'
Majul is glad to be back in business, but says, 'It's hard to know what to think. First of all we had Saddam, now we've got Saddam without a face. And by the way, could you write that I don't smoke? If I did, I wouldn't have any cigarettes to sell.'
Arabia Jamal and his son Jamal Rabir began to worry about Arabia's brother, sister-in-law and three children when the car journey to their house that should have taken 15 minutes stretched to a two-hour wait, in the tumult outside their electrical shop. It was young Jamal, aged 20 and a biotechnology student, who began the search. It lasted a week, during which, along with the Imam of his mosque, Jamal became immersed in the recovery and burial of 'more people than I can remember, maybe 30, maybe 50'. All week we buried them, some by the roadside, some we took to the hospital and helped to bury them there.
I didn't sleep for three nights, and had the stink of burned flesh on my clothes. I did it for three reasons: because I was looking for my cousins and their parents, because it is our religion that the dead must be buried by an Imam and because I studied anatomy, so I am not squeamish. Finally,' rasps Jamal, 'I found my uncle and aunt and cousins. And not from their faces, they were so burnt. My aunt had a ring - her father had worked in Russia, and it had Russian writing on it.'
The hospital to which Jamal took some of those he did not bury by the road was the Yarmouk infirmary. There, on the wall in reception, are lists of the dead and missing that provide the basis for at least some anecdotal calculation. There are 37 sheets listing the dead between the period 5 and 8 April - each bearing a minimum 20 names, a total of at least 740. Those still missing from the same period are listed on 48 sheets, with an average of 25 names apiece - some 1,200. The hospital director, Hamed Farij, has been restored to authority by the Americans - like most of his peers - despite having held the office under Saddam Hussein, as part of an infamously corrupt health system. He has signed the disclaimer handed out by the Americans denouncing his former party and now praises the American entry into Baghdad as being 'very beautiful', adding that most of the names on this list are those of the Fedayeen or Iraqi soldiers.
But Dr Nama Hasan Mohammed overhears this conversation and, the director departed, tells a different story. 'Mr Hamed Farij was a Ba'athist and left before the war, he has only just returned. I was here day and night all the time. I can tell you that we passed anyone in uniform or with a black ribbon to the al-Rashid Military Hospital. These dead are all civilians, although there are some soldiers among the missing posted. Those are the ones whose names we know. How many are there without names? We don't know.' Dr Hasan takes us out through the hospital grounds, to show us the fresh earth where many of the dead - unclaimed - remain buried in eight pits. There are roughly 25 to each pit. 'Many are children. One was a baby, shot at the bus stop. He was eight weeks old.'
America and Britain have proclaimed their war in Iraq
over and won, but wars, unlike football matches, do not end when the
whistle blows. Iraq remains a land without peace; a war of attrition
continues between the occupier and a fragmented resistance. And each
night, when the sun sinks into Baghdad's skyline, the burning and
shooting begins again - be it among the populace or between that
populace and the Americans. The chatter of guns and arcs of tracer fire
pierce the eventide; billowing smoke rises into the dusk. The city may
live under the martial order of military occupation, but it is also
afflicted by a lawlessness which that very order has unleashed. And it
is not only in fighting that civilians die. The anarchic absence of
peace, that the Iraqi war has wrought, also kills.
© Copyright 2003 The Observer
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