Eyewitness Account From Fallujah


Fallujah, Iraq, April 11 — Fallujah is a bit like southern California. On the edge of Iraq’s western desert, it is extremely arid but has been rendered into an agricultural area by extensive irrigation. The villages on the way to Fallujah are dirt-poor; Fallujah is perhaps marginally better off. Farmers constitute a significant percentage of the population. The town itself has wide streets and squat, sand-colored buildings. The way we took in, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of bomb damage.

We were in Fallujah during the “ceasefire.” We had heard all kinds of horrible things about what was going on. I think the current reports say something like 500-600 people killed in Fallujah, including estimates of 200 women and over 100 children (there are no women among the mujahideen, so all of the above are noncombatants. Many of the men who were wounded also told us they were just going about their business when they got hit). Here’s a little bit of what we saw and heard.

When the assault on Fallujah started, the power plant was bombed. Electricity is provided by generators and usually reserved for places with important functions. There are four hospitals currently running in Fallujah. This includes the one where we were, which was actually just a minor emergency clinic; another one of them is a car repair garage. Things were very frantic at the hopsital where we were, so we couldn’t get too much translation. We depended for much of our information on Makki al-Nazzal, a lifelong Fallujah resident who works for the humanitarian NGO Intersos, and had been pressed into service as the manager of the clinic, since all doctors were busy, working around the clock with minimal sleep.

A gentle, urbane man who spoke fluent English, Al-Nazzal was beside himself with fury at the Americans’ actions (when I asked him if it was all right to use his full name, he said, “It’s ok. It’s all ok now. Let the bastards do what they want.”) With the “ceasefire,” large-scale bombing was rare. The primary modes of attack were a little bit of heavy artillery and a lot of snipers.

Al-Nazzal told us about ambulances being hit by snipers, women and children being shot. Describing the horror that the siege of Fallujah had become, he said, “I have been a fool for 47 years. I used to believe in European and American civilization.”

I had heard these claims at third-hand before coming into Fallujah, but was skeptical. It’s very difficult to find the real story here. But this I saw for myself. An ambulance with two neat, precise bullet-holes in the windshield on the driver’s side, pointing down at an angle that indicated they would have hit the driver’s chest (the snipers were on rooftops, and are trained to aim for the chest). Another ambulance again with a single, neat bullet-hole in the windshield. There’s no way this was due to panicked spraying of fire. These were deliberate shots to kill people in driving the ambulances.

The ambulances go around with red, blue, or green lights flashing and sirens blaring; in the pitch-dark of a blacked-out city there is no way they can be missed or mistaken for something else). An ambulance that some of our compatriots were going around in, trading on their whiteness to get the snipers to let them through to pick up the wounded was also shot at while we were there.

During the course of the roughly four hours we were at that small clinic, we saw perhaps a dozen wounded brought in. Among them was a young woman, 18 years old, shot in the head. She was having a seizure and foaming at the mouth when they brought here in; doctors did not expect her to survive the night. Another likely terminal case was a young boy with massive internal bleeding. I also saw a man with extensive burns on his upper body and wounds in his thighs that might have been from a cluster bomb; there was no way to verify in the madhouse scene of wailing relatives, shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), and anger at the Americans.

Among the more laughable assertions of the Bush administration is that the mujaheddin are a small group of isolated “extremists” repudiated by the majority of Fallujah’s population. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, the mujaheddin don’t include women or very young children (we saw an 11-year-old boy with a Kalashnikov), old men, and are not necessarily even a majority of fighting-age men. But they are of the community and fully supported by it. Many of the wounded were brought in by the muj and they stood around openly conversing with doctors and others. One of the muj was wearing an Iraqi police flak jacket; on questioning others who knew im, we learned that he was in fact a member of the Iraqi police.

One of our translators, Rana al-Aiouby told me, “these are simple people.” It is true that they are agricultural tribesmen with very strong religious beliefs. They are not so far different from the Pashtun of Afghanistan — good friends and terrible enemies. They are insular and don’t easily trust strangers. We were safe because of the friends we had with us and because we came to help them.

The mujaheddin are of the people in the same way that the stone-throwing shabab in the Palestinian intifada were. A young man who is not one today may the next day wind his aqal around his face and pick up a Kalashnikov. I spoke to a young man, Ali, who was among the wounded we transported to Baghdad. He said he was not a muj but, when asked his opinion of them, he smiled and stuck his thumb up.

Al-Nazzal told me that the people of Fallujah refused to resist the Americans just because Saddam told them to; indeed, the fighting for Fallujah last year was not particularly fierce. He said, “If Saddam said work, we would want to take off three days. But the Americans had to cast us as Saddam supporters. When he was captured, they said the resistance would die down, but even as it has increased, they still call us that.”

Nothing could have been easier than gaining the good-will of the people of Fallujah had the Americans not been so brutal in their dealings. Now, a tipping-point has been reached. Fallujah cannot be “saved” from its mujaheddin unless it is destroyed.

Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog www.empirenotes.org and is currently writing and blogging from Iraq. His latest book is “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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