An End and a Beginning

 

Thursday  July 17, 2003

Essam Al-Ghalib

As the shooting was winding down, my friend Muhammad and I crawled on our bellies to an abandoned garage to collect our thoughts and think about what our options were. As it stood at that moment, we had been robbed of the Mitsubishi truck, all our cash, my laptop, the digital video camera, and various personal belongings. It was the dead of night, we were in a war zone — and we had nothing but the clothes on our backs, a satellite phone and a Nikon digital still camera.

As we sat in the small garage, we heard someone yelling, “Ya sahafa, ya sahafa.” One of the bandits was calling us. Crouching in the garage lit only by the moonlight, we discussed whether we should stay where we were or come out and try to reason with the lone bandit. As he approached, we recognized him as being the one who had initially wanted to let us go.

Muhammad and I figured that if he became hostile, it would be both of us against just him. Thankfully, he was apologetic and offered to take us to his house to figure out what to do.

As we sat in his home, we heard a very loud knock at the door and some commotion outside. Apparently, the people who were guarding the neighborhood — the same ones that shot at the bandits — had seen us being led to this bandit’s home, and had come to investigate.

The bandit asked us not to tell the neighborhood guard that he was one of the men that robbed us, but instead told us to tell them that he was the one who rescued us. At that point, I was just about willing to do anything, so long as my friend and I were allowed to live until dawn.

As we sat in his home, he allowed the neighborhood watch group into the house. There were nine men in their forties and fifties, all armed with AK-47s. They were very suspicious of our presence in their small town. They held us there, not allowing us to leave until all their questions were answered.

They kept asking over and again, and in different ways, where we were from, what we were doing there and where we were heading. During the course of the interrogation, they began to relax somewhat. They asked our host if he knew who robbed us. He said that he did. They told him to attempt to retrieve our belongings from them. He left, and returned 20 minutes later — with the Mitsubishi. It was completely empty. All our food supplies and equipment had been removed from it. At 5:30 a.m., I told the bandit that the Americans were expecting us to check in with them at the next checkpoint. I explained that if we didn’t arrive there by morning, they would sweep through this small town searching for us. Of course, this was not true. No one knew where we were.

The bandit thought this over and allowed us to leave. As we climbed in the truck, I told my friend to fasten his seat belt, as I had no plans of stopping for any more Iraqi bandits. I had every intention of running over anyone carrying a machine gun that tried to stop us before we reached the next American checkpoint.

It was still dark and I was driving 130 km per hour heading for Baghdad, where we planned to meet up with the television crews we left at the hotel in An Najaf. Suddenly, I saw an unmanned and unlit roadblock consisting of barbed wire and wooden posts blocking both lanes just 15 meters ahead of us.

I slammed on the brakes and skidded through the barbed wire, wrapping it around the front of the truck, and sent the wooden posts flying. I unwrapped the barbed wire from the grill of the Mitsubishi and backed up, happy that my tires were not damaged. I backed up and crossed the median strip, and started driving against what would have been the normal flow of traffic. Suddenly, we heard high caliber shots being fired. In the distance, we could see the muzzle flash coming from the top of one of three American tanks blocking our path. They were firing warning shots at us.

I stopped the truck immediately and started reversing away as quickly as possible, thanking God that the Americans exercized some restraint on this occasion. After all, they were blinded by my rapidly approaching headlights and did not know who we were. During that period, they were very concerned about the spate of suicide bombings against US military personnel in Iraq. At that point, it was still dark, Baghdad was still at least 40 km away, and we were exhausted and had our fill of adventures for the evening. We decided to turn around and head back to An Najaf to try to get some fuel and some rest. But since daylight was starting to break, we decided to continue on to Baghdad.

As we arrived in Baghdad, we drove toward the Sheraton Hotel, across the street from the Palestine Hotel. Just outside the hotel, was an American military checkpoint. Ten minutes after we passed through it, a suicide car bomber blew it apart, killing a marine and injuring several others. The explosion was so powerful that it shook the whole building and unsettled the dust that had been collecting in the atrium of the hotel. It was the loudest explosion I had heard during the whole time I was in Iraq.

When we met up with the France TV2 crew at the Palestine Hotel, we told them of our ordeal with the bandits just a few hours earlier. They paid for our hotel and gave us some money for food.

After showering and getting some rest, I called my managing editor in Jeddah and told him we had been robbed, beaten, shot at, and held against our will and interrogated for several hours. I explained that all I had was a satellite phone and a digital camera with a low battery. He told me to jot down the highlights of each day and phone them in to Arab News so that he or one of the page editors could type up the story. This seemed to be the only possible way of continuing to report from Baghdad.

We spent the next two days in Baghdad visiting hospitals and talking to several of the injured. There were hundreds of injured civilian men, women and children. One seven-year-old girl had her right leg shattered in three places, a result of ordinance exploding near her.

The young girl had a leg brace screwed into her leg bone in three different places. The doctor explained in Arabic that the hospital did not have the painkillers needed to keep her from feeling the pain. He showed me where her fractured bones had protruded through her legs.

Her leg had turned black. The doctor explained that this was the onset of gangrene. In front of the girl, in Arabic, he explained that her leg would be cut off in the days to come. The girl started crying and reached for her mother when she heard this.

In an adjoining room was a 14-year-old boy who was barely conscious. His left leg and left arm had been blown off as American soldiers fired at several cars near Baghdad Airport. A relative of the boy told me that the cars and bodies of nearly 50 civilians were still lying in the road, four days later. I wanted to go see this for myself. Twenty minutes later, I was there.

According to witnesses that had been there the night of the incident, three American tanks arrived and blocked the road leading to the airport. As they arrived, there were several civilian cars on the road, which the marines ordered to stop. According to witnesses, the first car closest to the tanks attempted to speed away. One tank opened fire on the fleeing car, sending the other two tanks into a shooting frenzy, literally blowing to pieces the other 16 civilian cars and their occupants, totaling 50 people. There were body parts and limbless torsos strewn everywhere. The smell of the decomposing bodies was overwhelming.

There were a dozen Iraqi civilians there caring for the dead as the Americans drove by removing the burned-out vehicles in order to clear the highway. Every time an American military vehicle drove past, or an Apache helicopter flew overhead, the Iraqis removing the bodies would instantly stop what they were doing and raise both white flags and their hands above their heads. There was no doubting that they were terrified.

The 20 days my friend Muhammad and I spent in Iraq allowed us to see the war first hand. While we were in Iraq, there was no news reaching us as we had no internet access or satellite television. The misinformation and propaganda appearing in the international press did not reach us. What we were seeing and experiencing was the real thing.

No one sitting in the comfort of their living room can understand the horrors and ugliness of war. What became clear to me was that this war, or perhaps any war, is senseless. It kills the very people it is fighting to protect. Future generations were being maimed and killed. Aren’t these the same generations whose lives it is that this war was being fought to improve?

The media spent a great deal of time reporting on the strategies of the war, Saddam Hussein and the fabled weapons of mass destruction. Comparatively, very few stories were done about what it was like for the people involved in this from all sides of the conflict. They had no choice but to be there, be they the citizens of Iraq, or those carrying out the orders given to them by their superiors, on all sides of the political fence. These are the people most affected.

The US government has claimed that this war has been won, giving the impression that it is over. This war will never be over for the people who were there. Even when life in Baghdad has returned to a yet undefined sense of normalcy, the mother holding her injured and dying son will continue to ask the world: “For what was my child sacrificed?”

- Arab News Features 17 July 2003

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