What I saw in Fallujah
Dahr Jamail set out to report the truth about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its terrible impact on daily life. Determined to remain independent of the army, he embedded himself instead with the Iraqi people.
On the day martial law was declared, U.S. tanks began rolling into the outskirts of Fallujah, while war planes continued to pound the city with as many as 50,000 residents still inside. Iyad Allawi, the U.S.-installed interim prime minister, laid out the six steps for implementing his “security law.” These entailed a 6:00 P.M. curfew in Fallujah, the blocking of all highways except for emergencies and for government vehicles, the closure of all city and government services, a ban on all weapons in Fallujah, the closure of Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan (except to allow passage to food trucks and vehicles carrying other necessary goods), and the closure of Baghdad International Airport for 48 hours.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., most corporate media outlets were busy spreading the misinformation that Fallujah had fallen under the control of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was no available evidence that Zarqawi had ever set foot inside the city. It was amply evident that the resistance in the city was composed primarily of people from Fallujah itself. However, that did not deter the establishment media, which portrayed the assault on the city as a hostage intervention situation.
As they had done during the April siege, the military raided and occupied Fallujah general hospital, cutting it off from the rest of the city. On November 8, 2004 the New York Times reported, “The assault against Fallujah began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Fallujah General Hospital and seized it within an hour.” Of course, this information was immediately followed by the usual parroting of U.S. military propaganda, “At 10:00 P.M., Iraqi troops clambered off seven-ton trucks, sprinting with American Special Forces soldiers around the side of the main building of the hospital, considered a refuge for insurgents and a centre of propaganda against allied forces, entering the complex to bewildered looks from patients and employees.”
Harb al-Mukhtar, my interpreter and driver, arrived at my hotel the next morning in a somber mood. “How can we live like this, we are trapped in our own country. You know Dahr, everyone is praying for God to take revenge on the Americans. Everyone!” He said even in their private prayers people were praying for God to take vengeance on the Americans for what they were doing in Fallujah. “Everyone I’ve talked to the last couple of nights, 80 or 90 people, have admitted that they are doing this,” he said as I collected my camera and notepad to prepare to leave. Out on the streets of Baghdad, the anxiety was palpable. The threat of being kidnapped or car bombed, or simply robbed, relentlessly played on our minds as Harb and I went about conducting interviews that had been prearranged. We tried to minimize our time on the streets by returning to my hotel immediately on completing interviews. The security situation, already horrible, was deteriorating further with each passing day.
That night, when Salam Talib arrived at my hotel to work on a radio dispatch with me, he had a wild look in his eyes and sweat beads on his forehead. “My friend has just been killed, and he was one of my best friends,” he said staring out my window. Salam went on to tell me that a relative of another of his friends had been missing for six days. “This morning, his body was brought to his family by someone who found it on the road. The body had been shot twice in the chest and twice in the head. There were visible signs of torture, and the four bullet shells that were used to kill him had been placed in his trouser pockets. This news has driven me crazy, Dahr. The number of people killed here is growing so fast every day,” he said, his hands raised in that familiar gesture of despair. “When I was a child, it was common to have some family member who was killed in the war with Iran. But now, it feels as though everyone is dying every day.”
Not yet one full week into the latest assault on Fallujah, the flames of resistance had engulfed much of Baghdad and other areas in Iraq. In Baghdad alone, neighborhoods like Amiriyah, Abu Ghraib, Adhamiya and al-Dora had fallen mostly under the control of the resistance. In these areas, and much of the rest of Baghdad, U.S. patrols were few and far between, since they were being attacked so often. People we interviewed showed no surprise at fighting having rapidly spread across other cities. It was expected, because the general belief was that the resistance had fled Fallujah prior to the siege. Most of the fighters had melted away to other areas to choose effective methods to strike the enemy. Fighting had thus spread across much of Baghdad, Baquba, Latafiya, Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul, Khaldiya and Kirkuk just days into Operation Phantom Fury.
Media repression during the second siege of Fallujah was intense. The “100 Orders” penned by former U.S. administrator Bremer included Order 65, passed on March 20, 2004, which established an Iraqi communications and media commission. This commission had powers to control the media because it had complete control over licensing and regulating telecommunications, broadcasting, information services, and media establishments. On June 28, when the U.S. handed over power to a “sovereign” Iraqi interim government, Bremer simply passed on his authority to Iyad Allawi, who had long-standing ties with the British intelligence service MI6 and the CIA. The media commission sent out an order just after the assault on Fallujah commenced ordering news organizations to “stick to the government line on the U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action.” The warning was circulated on Allawi’s letterhead. The letter also asked the media in Iraq to “set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear.”
On the ground, aside from the notorious bombing and then banning of al-Jazeera, other instances of media repression were numerous. A journalist for the al-Arabiya network, who attempted to get inside Fallujah, was detained by the military, as was a French freelance photographer named Corentin Fleury, who was staying at my hotel. Fleury, a soft-spoken, wiry man, was detained by the U.S. military along with his interpreter, 28-year-old Bahktiyar Abdulla Hadad, when they were leaving Fallujah just before the siege of the city began. They had worked in the city for nine days leading up to the siege, and were held for five days in a military detention facility outside the city.
“They were very nervous and they asked us what we had seen, and looked through all my photos, asking me questions about them,” he said as we talked in my room one night. He told me he had photographed homes destroyed by U.S. warplanes. Despite appeals by the French government to the U.S. military to free his translator and return Fleury’s confiscated camera equipment and his photos, there had been no luck in attaining either. (When I had last seen Fleury in February 2005, Hadad was still being held by the U.S. military.)
The military was maintaining a strict cordon around most of Fallujah. As I could not enter the city, I set out to interview doctors and patients who had fled and were presently working in various hospitals around Baghdad. While visiting Yarmouk Hospital looking for more information about Fallujah, I came across several children from areas south of Baghdad. One of these was a 12-year-old girl, Fatima Harouz, from Latifiya. She lay dazed in a crowded hospital room, limply waving her bruised arm at the flies. Her shins, shattered by bullets from U.S. soldiers when they fired through the front door of her house, were both covered by casts. Small plastic drainage bags filled with red fluid sat upon her abdomen, where she took shrapnel from another bullet. Her mother told us, “They attacked our home, and there weren’t even any resistance fighters in our area.”
Fatima’s uncle was shot and killed, his wife had been wounded, and their home was ransacked by soldiers. “Before they left, they killed all our chickens.” A doctor who was with us looked at me and asked, “This is the freedom. In their Disneyland are there kids just like this?”
Another young woman, Rana Obeidy, had been walking home in Baghdad with her brother two nights earlier. She assumed the soldiers had shot her and her brother because he was carrying a bottle of soda. She had a chest wound where a bullet had grazed her, but had struck her little brother and killed him. In another room, a small boy from Fallujah lay on his stomach. Shrapnel from a grenade thrown into his home by a U.S. soldier had entered his body through his back and was implanted near his kidney. An operation had successfully removed the shrapnel, but his father had been killed by what his mother described as “the haphazard shooting of the Americans.” The boy, Amin, lay in his bed vacillating between crying with pain and playing with his toy car.
Later, I found myself at a small but busy supply centre in Baghdad set up to distribute goods to refugees from Fallujah. Standing in an old, one-storey building that used to be a vegetable market, I watched as people walked around wearily to obtain basic foodstuffs, blankets or information about housing. “They kicked all the journalists out of Fallujah so they could do whatever they want,” said Kassem Mohammed Ahmed, who had escaped from Fallujah three days before. “The first thing they did was bomb the hospitals because that is where the wounded have to go. Now we see that wounded people are in the street and the soldiers are rolling their tanks over them. This happened so many times. What you see on the TV is nothing. That is just one camera. What you cannot see is much more.”
There were also stories of soldiers not discriminating between civilians and resistance fighters. Another man, Abdul Razaq Ismail, had arrived from Fallujah one week earlier and had been helping with the distribution of supplies to other refugees, having received similar help himself. Loading a box with blankets to send to a refugee camp, he said, “There are dead bodies on the ground and nobody can bury them. The Americans are dropping some of the bodies into the Euphrates River near Fallujah. They are pulling some bodies with tanks and leaving them at the soccer stadium.” Another man sat nearby nodding his head. He couldn’t stop crying. After a while, he said he wanted to talk to us. “They bombed my neighborhood and we used car jacks to raise the blocks of concrete to get dead children out from under them.”
Another refugee, Abu Sabah, an older man in a torn shirt and dusty pants, told of how he escaped with his family, just the day before, while soldiers shot bullets over their heads, killing his cousin. “They used these weird bombs that first put up smoke in a cloud, and then small pieces fell from the air with long tails of smoke behind them. These exploded on the ground with large fires that burned for half an hour. They used these near the train tracks. When anyone touched those fires, their body burned for hours.”
This was the first time I had heard a refugee describing the use of white phosphorous incendiary weapons by the U.S. military, fired from artillery into Fallujah. Though it is not technically a banned weapon, it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to use white phosphorous in an area where civilians may be hit. I heard similar descriptions in the coming days and weeks, both from refugees and doctors who had fled the city.
Several doctors I interviewed had told me they had been instructed by the interim government not to speak to any journalists about the patients they were receiving from Fallujah. A few of them told me they had even been instructed by the Shia-controlled Ministry of Health not to accept patients from Fallujah.
That night I interviewed a spokesman for the Iraq Red Crescent, who told me none of their relief teams had been allowed into Fallujah, and the military said it would be at least two more weeks before any refugees would be allowed back into their city. Collecting information from doctors in the city, he had estimated that at least 800 civilians had been killed so far in the siege.
The second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity made in the United States of America. Like the Spanish city of Guernica during the 1930s, and Grozny in the 1990s, Fallujah is our monument of excess and overkill. It was soon to become, even for many in the U.S. military, a textbook case of the wrong way to handle a resistance movement. Another case of winning the battle and losing the war.
I would like to say that I decided to go to Iraq for philosophical reasons, because I believe that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of any healthy democracy. But I went to Iraq for personal reasons. I was tormented by the fact that the government of my country illegally invaded and then occupied a country that it had bombed in 1991. Because the government of my country had asphyxiated Iraq with more than a decade’s worth of “genocidal” sanctions (in the words of former United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday). The government of my country then told lies, which were obediently repeated by an unquestioning media in order to justify the invasion and occupation. I felt that I had blood on my hands because the government had been left unchecked.
My going to Iraq was an act of desperation that has since transformed itself into a bond to that country and so many of her people. There were stories there that begged to be heard and told again. We are defined by story. Our history, our memory, our perceptions of the future, are all built and held within stories. As a U.S. citizen complicit in the devastation of Iraq, I was already bound up in the story of that country. I decided to go to learn what that story really was.
While the vast majority of the reporting of Iraq was provided by journalists availing themselves of the Pentagon-sponsored “embed” program, I chose to look for stories of real life and “embed” myself with the Iraqi people. The U.S. military side of the occupation is overly represented by most mainstream outlets. I consciously decided to focus on the Iraqi side of the story. The story of the many oppressed peoples of the world is rarely recorded by the few who oppress. We are taught that the truth is objective fact as written down by the conquerors.
The above is extracted from Beyond the Green Zone: Despatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, £13.99), which is available from November 8, 2007
New Statesman, November 1, 2007