City of ghosts
On November 8, the American army launched its biggest ever assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja, considered a stronghold for rebel fighters. The US said the raid had been a huge success, killing 1,200 insurgents. Most of the city's 300,000 residents, meanwhile, had fled for their lives. What really happened in the siege of Falluja? In a joint investigation for the Guardian and Channel 4 News, Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil compiled the first independent reports from the devastated city, where he found scores of unburied corpses, rabid dogs - and a dangerously embittered population
Watch an extract from the documentary (click on link)
Tuesday January 11, 2005
December 22 2004
It all started at my house in Baghdad. I packed my equipment, the camera and the tripod. Tariq, my friend, told me not to take it with us. "The fighters might search the car and think that we are spies." Tariq was frightened about our trip, even though he is from Falluja and we had permission from one group of fighters to enter under their protection. But Tariq, more than anyone, understands that the fighters are no longer just one group. He is quite a character, Tariq: 32 and an engineer with a masters degree in embryo implantation, he works now at a human rights institute called the Democratic Studies Institute for Human Rights and Democracy in Baghdad. He is also deeply into animal rights.
Foolishly, I took a pill to try to keep down the flu, which made me sleepy. It was 9am when we crossed the main southern gate out of Baghdad, taking care to stay well clear of American convoys. The southern gate is the scene of daily attacks on the Americans by the insurgents - either a car-bomb or an ambush with rocket-propelled grenades.
It took just 20 minutes from Baghdad to reach the area known as the "triangle of death", where the kidnapped British contractor Kenneth Bigley was held and finally beheaded in the town of Latifya. It is supposed to be a US military-controlled zone, but insurgents set up checkpoints here. As the road became more rural and more isolated, I got nervous that at any moment we would be stopped by carjackers and robbed of our expensive equipment. At a checkpoint a hooded face came to the window; he was carrying an old AK47 on his shoulder and looking for a donation towards the jihad. There were six fighters in total, all hooded. The driver and Tariq both made a donation; I was frightened he would search the car and find the camera, so I gave him my Iraqi doctor's ID card, hoping that would work. He apologised and asked that we excuse him.
Now, there was nothing ahead but the sky and the desert. It was 1.30pm and a bad time to use this road; we had been told that carjackers were particularly active at this time of day. Tariq pointed out four young men dressed in red, their two motorbikes parked by the side of the road. They were planting a small, improvised explosive device made out of a tin of cooking oil for the next American convoy to leave the base outside Falluja.
It was 3.30pm before we got to Habbanya, a tourist resort on a lake supplied with fresh water by the Euphrates, which was once controlled by Uday, Saddam's oldest son. It was here that Fallujans, who used to be wealthy as they supplied a lot of the top military for Saddam's army, came for holidays.
Now the place was freezing, and full of refugees. All the holiday houses were crammed with people, sometimes two families to a room. The first family we came across had been there since a month before the attack started. A man called Abu Rabe'e came up. He was 59 and used to be a builder; he said he had a message for our camera. "We're not looking for this sort of democracy, this attacking of the city and the people with planes and tanks and Humvees." He had also fled Falluja with his family. They were all living in a former mechanic's garage in Habbanya.
Most of the people we spoke to in Habbanya were poor and uneducated, and had fled Falluja in anticipation of the US attack. Some were in tents; others were sharing the old honeymoon suites where newlyweds used to come when this was a holiday resort. They squabbled among themselves to persuade me to film the conditions they were living in. There was still a fairground in Habbanya, but nothing was working. In the middle of the bumper cars an old lady had pitched a tent with bricks, where she was living with her son. I tried to talk to her but she told me to go away. There was no cooking gas in Habbanya, so the Fallujan refugees were cutting down trees to keep warm and cook food.
Then someone came up and said the resistance fighters had heard we were asking questions. We decided to put the camera away and go to a friendly village that our driver knew. It was also filled with refugees from Falluja.
One 50-year-old man, a major in the Iraqi Republican Guards under the former regime, took us in. There were four families squeezed into one apartment, all of them once wealthy. The major, like the others, was sacked after the liberation when the US disbanded the army and police. Now jobless, his house in Falluja was wrecked and he was a refugee with his five children and wife near the town where he used to spend his holidays. He was angry with the Americans, but also with the Iraqi rebels, whom he blamed, alongside the clerics in the mosques, for causing Falluja to be wrecked.
"The mujahideen and the clerics are responsible for the destruction that happened to our city; no one will forgive them for that," he said with bitterness.
"Why are you blaming them - why don't you blame the Americans and Allawi?" said Omar, the owner of the apartment.
"We told the mujahideen to leave it to us ordinary Fallujans, but those bloody bastards, the sheikhs and the clerics, are busy painting some bloody mad picture of heaven and martyrs and the victory of the mujahideen," said Ali, another refugee. "And, of course, the kids believe every word those clerics say. They're young and naive, and they forget that this is a war against the might of the machine of the American army. So they let those kids die like this and our city gets blown up with the wind."
I wanted to ask the tough old Republican guard why they had let these young muj have the run of the city, but I actually didn't have to. I remember being in Falluja just before the fighting started and seeing a crowd gathered around a sack that was leaking blood. A piece of white A4 paper was stuck on to the sack, which read: "Here is the body of the traitor. He has confessed to acting as a spotter for American planes and was paid $100 a day."
At the same time as we were standing looking at the sack, I knew I would be able to buy a CD of the man in this sack making his confession before he was beheaded in any CD shop in Falluja. These were the people who controlled Falluja now - not old majors from Saddam's army.
In the morning we went back towards Falluja and heard that there were queues of people waiting to try to get back into the city. The government had made an announcement saying that the people from some districts could start to go back home; they promised compensation. About midday we got a mile east of the city and saw that four queues had formed near the American base. They were mostly men, waiting for US military ID to allow them back home.
The men were angry: "This is a humiliation. I say no more than that. These IDs are to make us bow Fallujan heads in shame," one of them said.
I met Major Paul Hackett, a marine officer in the Falluja liaison base. He said that the US military was not trying to humiliate anyone, but that the IDs were necessary for security. "I mean, my understanding is that ultimately they can hang this ID card on a wall and keep it as a souvenir," he said.
They took prints of all my fingers, two pictures of my face in profile, and then photographed my iris. I was now eligible to go into Falluja, just like any other Fallujan.
But it was late by then, somewhere near 5pm (the curfew is at 6pm). After that anyone who moves inside the city will be shot on sight by the US military. Tomorrow, we would try again to get into the city.
At around 8am, Tariq and I drove towards Falluja. We didn't believe that we might actually get into the city.
The American soldiers at the checkpoint were nervous. The approach to the checkpoint was covered in pebbles so we had to drive very slowly. The soldiers spent 20 minutes searching my car, then they bodysearched Tariq and me. They gave me a yellow tape to put on to the windscreen of the car, showing I had been searched and was a contractor. If I didn't have this stripe of yellow, a US sniper would shoot me as an enemy car.
By 10am we were inside the city. It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn't see a single building that was functioning.
The Americans had put a white tape across the roads to stop people wandering into areas that they still weren't allowed to enter. I remembered the market from before the war, when you couldn't walk through it because of the crowds. Now all the shops were marked with a cross, meaning that they had been searched and secured by the US military. But the bodies, some of them civilians and some of them insurgents, were still rotting inside.
There were dead dogs everywhere in this area, lying in the middle of the streets. Reports of rabies in Falluja had reached Baghdad, but I needed to find a doctor.
Fallujans are suspicious of outsiders, so I found it surprising when Nihida Kadhim, a housewife, beckoned me into her home. She had just arrived back in the city to check out her house; the government had told the people three days earlier that they should start going home. She called me into her living room. On her mirror she pointed to a message that had been written in her lipstick. She couldn't read English. It said: "Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it!"
"They are insulting me, aren't they?" she asked.
I left her and walked towards the cemetery. I noticed the dead dogs again. I had been told in Baghdad by a friend of mine, Dr Marwan Elawi, that the Baghdad Hospital for Infectious Diseases admits one case of rabies every week. The problem is that infected dogs are eating the corpses and spreading the disease.
As I was walking by the cemetery, I caught the smell of death coming from one of the houses. The door was open and the first thing I saw was a white car parked in the driveway and on top of it a launcher for an RPG.
I went inside, and the sound of the rain on the roof and the darkness inside made me very afraid. The door was open, all the windows were broken and there were bullet holes running down the hall to a bathroom at the end - as if the bullets were chasing something or somebody. The bathroom led on to a bedroom and I stepped inside and saw the body of a fighter.
The leg was missing, the hand was missing and the furniture in the house had been destroyed. I couldn't breathe with the smell. I realised that Tariq wasn't with me, and I panicked and ran. As I got out of the house I saw a white teddy bear lying in the rain, and a green boobytrap bomb.
Some of the worst fighting took place here in the centre of the city, but there was no sign of the 1,200 to 1,600 fighters the Americans said they had killed. I had heard that there was a graveyard for the fighters somewhere in the city but people said that most of them had withdrawn from the city after the first week of fighting. I needed to find one of the insurgents to tell me the real story of what had happened in the city. The Americans had said that there had been a big military victory, but I couldn't understand where all the fighters were buried.
After I saw the body I felt uncomfortable about sleeping in Falluja. The place was deserted and polluted with death and all kinds of weapons. Imagine sleeping in a place where any of the surrounding houses might have one, two or three bodies. I wanted out.
We went back to my friend the old Republican guard officer. I was so tired I could hardly take my clothes off to go to sleep but I couldn't sleep with the smell of death on my clothes.
In the morning, I went back to find the cemetery and look for evidence of the fighters who had been killed. It was about 4pm before I got inside the martyrs' cemetery; people kept waylaying me, wanting to show me their destroyed houses and asking why the journalists didn't come and show what the Americans had done to Falluja. They were also angry at the interim President Allawi for sending in the mainly Shia National Guard to help the Americans.
At the entrance to the fighters' graveyard a sign read: "This cemetery is being given by the people of Falluja to the heroic martyrs of the battle against the Americans and to the martyrs of the jihadi operations against the Americans, assigned and approved by the Mujahideen Shura council in Falluja."
As I went into the graveyard, the bodies of two young men were arriving. The faces were rotting. The ambulance driver lifted the bones of one of the hands; the skin had rotted away. "God is the greatest. What kind of times are we living through that we are holding the bones and hands of our brothers?"
Then he began cursing the National Guard, calling them even worse things than the Americans: "Those bastards, those sons of dogs." It wasn't the first time I had heard this. It was the National Guard the Americans used to search the houses; they were seen by the Fallujans as brutal stooges. Most of the volunteers for the National Guard are poor Shias from the south. They are jobless and desperate enough to volunteer for a job that makes them assassination targets. "National infidels", they were also called.
I counted the graves: there were 74. The two young men made it 76. The names on the headstones were written in chalk and some had been washed away. One read: "Here lies the heroic Tunisian martyr who died", but I didn't see any other evidence of the hundreds of foreign fighters that the US had said were using Falluja as their headquarters. People told me there were some Yemenis and Saudis, some volunteers from Tunisia and Egypt, but most of the fighters were Fallujan. The US military say they have hundreds of bodies frozen in a potato chip factory 5km south of the city, but nobody has been allowed to go there in the past two months, including the Red Crescent.
Salman Hashim was crying beside the grave of his son, who had been a fighter in Falluja.
"He is 18 years old. He wanted to be a doctor or engineer after this year; it was his last year in high school." At the same grave, the boy's mother was crying and remembering her dead son, who was called Ahmed. "I blame Ayad Allawi. If I could I would cut his throat into pieces." Then, to the mound of earth covering her son's body, she said: "I told you those fighters would get you killed." The boy's father told her to be quiet in front of the camera.
On the next grave was written the name of a woman called Harbyah. She had refused to leave the city for the camps with her family. One of her relatives was standing by her grave. He said that he found her dead in her bed with at least 20 bullets in her body.
I saw other rotting bodies that showed no signs of being fighters. In one house in the market there were four bodies inside the guest room. One of the bodies had its chest and part of its stomach opened, as if the dogs had been eating it. The wrists were missing, the flesh of the arm was missing, and parts of the legs.
I tried to figure out who these four men were. It was obvious which houses the fighters were in: they were totally destroyed. But in this house there were no bullets in the walls, just four dead men lying curled up beside each other, with bullet holes in the mosquito nets that covered the windows. It seemed to me as if they had been asleep and were shot through the windows. It is the young men of the family who are usually given the job of staying behind to guard the house. This is the way in Iraq - we never leave the house empty. The four men were sleeping the way we sleep when we have guests - we roll out the best carpet in the guest room and the men lie down beside each other.
"Its Abu Faris's house. I think that the fat dead body belongs to his son, Faris," said Abu Salah, whose chip shop was also destroyed in the bombing.
It was getting dark and it was time to go, but I needed some overview shots of the city. There was a half-built tower, so I climbed it and looked around. I couldn't see a single building that hadn't been hit.
After a few minutes I got the sense that this wasn't a good place for me to be hanging around, but I had to pee urgently. I found a place on the roof of the building. While I was doing that a warning shot passed so close to my head that I ducked and didn't even wait to pull up my zip, but ran to the half-destroyed stairs to climb down the building. I felt as if the American sniper was playing with me; he had had plenty of time to kill me if he wanted to.
For the rest of the day people were pulling on me to come and see their houses. Again, they asked where all the journalists were. Why were they not coming to report on what has happened in Falluja? But I have worked with journalists for 18 months and I knew it would be too dangerous for them to come to the city, that they are seen as spies and could end up in a sack. So since I was the only one there with a camera, everyone wanted to show me what happened to their house. It took hours.
Back in Baghdad that night, I changed my clothes and decided to send them to the public laundry. I was worried about contaminating my family with Falluja. I was thinking that nobody was going to be able to live there for months. Then, I took a very long bath.
I woke up at home in Baghdad around 9am. I had had enough of Falluja, but I still felt that I didn't understand what had happened. The city was completely devastated - but where were the bodies of all the dead fighters the Americans had killed?
I wanted to ask Dr Adnan Chaichan about the wounded. I found him at the main hospital in Falluja at midday. He told me that all the doctors and medical staff were locked into the hospital at the beginning of the attack and not allowed out to treat anyone. The Iraqi National Guard, acting under US orders, had tied him and all the other doctors up inside the main hospital. The US had surrounded the hospital, while the National Guard had seized all their mobile phones and satellite phones, and left them with no way of communicating with the outside world. Chaichan seemed angrier with the National Guards than with anyone else.
He said that the phone lines inside the town were working, so wounded people in Falluja were calling the hospital and crying, and he was trying to give instructions over the phone to the local clinics and the mosques on how to treat the wounds. But nobody could get to the main hospital where all the supplies were and people were bleeding to death in the city.
It was late afternoon when I drove out of Falluja and back to Baghdad, feeling that I had just scratched the surface of what really happened there. But it is clear that by completely destroying this Sunni city, with the help of a mostly Shia National Guard, the US military has fanned the seeds of a civil war that is definitely coming. If there are elections now and the Shia win, that war is certain. The people I spoke to had no plans to vote. No one I met in those five days had a ballot paper.
A week after I arrived in London to make the film for Channel 4 News, the tape of the final interview arrived by Federal Express. It was the interview with Alzaim Abu, who had led the fighters in the Shuhada district of Falluja and fought the Americans in the early battles in the city centre. We had been been trying to track him down for nearly three weeks. Then Tariq had got a call from him the night I had left for London saying that he would talk.
There was a lot of bullshit in the interview; lots of bravado about how many Americans they had killed and about never surrendering and how Fallujans would win. He said that there were a few foreign fighters in the city, but none in his units; mostly, they were Fallujans.
But one thing stood out for me that explained the empty graveyard and the lack of bodies. He said that most of the fighters had been given orders to abandon the city by November 17, nine days after the assault began. "The withdrawal of the fighters was carried out following an order by our senior leadership. We did not pull out because we did not want to fight. We needed to regroup; it was a tactical move. The fighters decided to redeploy to Amiriya and some went to Abu Ghraib," he said.The US military destroyed Falluja, but simply spread the fighters out around the country. They also increased the chance of civil war in Iraq by using their new national guard of Shias to suppress Sunnis. Once, when a foreign journalist, an Irish guy, asked me whether I was Shia or Sunni - the way the Irish do because they have that thing about the IRA - I said I was Sushi. My father is Sunni and my mother is Shia. I never cared about these things. Now, after Falluja, it matters.
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