Eyewitness In Fallujah
By Jo Wilding
The Sunday Herald - UK
Trucks, oil tankers and tanks are burning on the highway east to Fallujah. A stream of boys and men goes to and from a lorry that's not burnt, stripping it bare. We turn on to the back roads through Abu Ghraib, 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 still inside Fallujah.
The bus is following a car with the nephew of a local sheikh and a guide who has contacts with the mujahidin and has cleared this with them. I'm on the bus because a journalist I know turned up at my door at about 11 at night telling me things were desperate in Fallujah. He said aid vehicles and the media were being turned away. There was some medical aid that needed to go in and there was a better chance of it getting there with 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.
When we arrive, we pile the stuff in the corridor of a clinic, a private doctor's surgery treating people for free since air strikes destroyed the town's main hospital. Another has been improvised in a garage. There's no anaesthetic. The blood bags are in a drinks fridge and the doctors warm them up under the hot tap in a toilet.
Screaming women come in, praying, slapping their chests and faces. Maki, a consultant and acting director of the clinic, takes me to the bed where a child of about 10 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 Fallujah.
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. The children are not going to live.
I am ushered into a room where an old woman has just had an abdominal bullet wound stitched , a white flag still clutched in her hand. She tells 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 nobody can go to collect them without being shot.
We get into the back of the pick-up to go past the snipers to do what we can for sick and injured people. 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 mujahidin territory 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 and points.
We edge along to the hole in the wall where we can see a car, spent mortar shells around it. 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? 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 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. A 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 and try to outrun the flies.
He's barefoot, no more than 20, in imitation Nike trousers and a football shirt. The orderlies from the clinic pull the young fighter off the pick-up and take him straight up the ramp into the makeshift morgue.
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, another on a stretcher, legs jerking violently so I have to hold them down as we wheel him out.
The next morning the doctors at the clinic look haggard. None has slept more than a couple of hours a night for a week. One has had only eight hours' 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," he says. "I must worry about the injured."
We go out again in the pick-up. There are some sick people close to the marines' line who need evacuating. Nobody 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 mujahidin will fire at us, that peace is upon us. Saad is 11, his face covered with a keffiyeh, but for his bright brown eyes, his AK47 almost as tall as he is.
We shout to the soldiers, holding up a flag with a red crescent sprayed on it. Two come over. We tell them we need to get some sick people from the houses. 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 soldier says.
"What does that mean, clearing the houses?" I ask.
"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."
In the street there's a man, face down, in a white dishdasha, a small red stain on his back. As we roll him on to the stretcher, my colleague 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. When we arrive, his sons come out, crying, shouting. "He was unarmed," they scream. "He just went out the gate and they shot him." None of them has dared come out since. Nobody had dared come to get his body, horrified, terrified, forced to violate the traditions of treating the body immediately.
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. A young marine tells us that men of fighting age can't leave. What's fighting age? Anything under 45. No lower limit.
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. 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 bus is going to leave, taking the injured people back to Baghdad, a man with burns, a woman who was shot in the jaw and shoulder by a sniper, several others.
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 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. Gunmen run on to the bus and see there are injured and old people, Iraqis, and then relax and 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.
And then we're in Baghdad, delivering them to the hospitals. The satellite news says the cease-fire is holding and George Bush insists his actions in Iraq are right.
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