Iraq: the human toll
As news reporters tracked troops on the road to Baghdad, much of the suffering and loss of ordinary Iraqi civilians was left untold. Until now. Here, in a compelling dispatch, award-winning foreign correspondent Ed Vulliamy goes in search of their stories
Read part two of 'Iraq: the human toll' here
Sunday July 6, 2003
It was Rahad's turn to hide. The nine-year-old girl found a good place to conceal herself from her playmates, the game of hide and seek having lasted some two hours along a quiet residential street in the town of Fallujah, on the banks of the Euphrates. But while Rahad crouched behind the wall of a neighbour's house, someone else - not playing the game - had spotted her, and her friends; someone above. The pilot of an American A-10 'tank-buster' aircraft, hovering in a figure of eight. He was flying an airborne weapon equipped with some of the most advanced and accurate equipment for 'precision target recognition' in the Pentagon's arsenal. And at 5.30pm on 29 March, he launched his weapon at the street scene below.
The 'daisy-cutter' bounced and exploded a few feet above ground, blasting red-hot shrapnel into the walls not of a tank but of houses. Rahad Septi and 10 other children lost their lives; another 12 were injured. Three adults were also killed.
Juma Septi, father to Rahad, holds a photograph of his daughter in the palm of his hand as he recalls the afternoon he lost his 'little flower'. A carpenter, Septi had been a lifelong opponent of Saddam Hussein - an activist in the Islamic Accord Party, for which he had been imprisoned, then exiled to Jordan in 1995. Last October, Septi had returned under an armistice to start a new life in his home town, reunited with his family. 'I don't really know what to think now,' he says. 'We have lost Saddam Hussein, but I have lost my daughter. They came to kill him, but killed her and the other children instead. What am I supposed to make of that?'
Jamal Abbas joins the conversation. 'I was driving my taxi and heard the noise like thunder, when someone told me, "Jamal, they've bombed your street!" When I got back here, the smoke was so thick it was like night - children lying wounded and women screaming.' Abbas learnt that his niece - 11-year-old Arij Haki, visiting from Baghdad - had been killed immediately. 'She was playing a guessing game with her cousins,' says the child's father Abdullah Mohammed, 'when the top half of her head was blown off.'
'But there was no sign of my daughter,' says Jamal Abbas, 'so I went outside to search in that madness; it was half an hour before I found her, right there, on the ground.' Miad Jamal Abbas, aged 11, her body bloody and ripped, was taken to the same hospital ward as Rahad Septi. The two fathers accordingly sat in vigil together. 'They died together, just as they had played together, in the same room,' says Abbas. 'We were close before, now we are bound together.'
'It's not easy now to think about what they were like when they were alive,' says Septi, making to retreat into the shadows of his home. 'I have to think that this was my fate and the will of God. Otherwise, I would go mad. Rahad had a tongue in her head, for sure. She talked too much. She was very little, really, but understood things quickly.'
At the cemetery on the edge of the town, where Fallujah dissipates into desert, 11 small mounds of earth have been dug, awaiting proper headstones. The children have been buried together rather than in family plots. Saad Ibrahim whose father, Hussein, was killed in the corner shop he kept, has a few caustic questions for the tank-buster's pilot: 'I want to ask him: what exactly did you see that day that you had to kill my father and those kids? Do you have good eyesight? Is your computer working well? If not... well, that's your business. But there was no military activity in this area. There was no shooting. This is not a military camp. These are houses with children playing in the street.'
The total figure of civilian deaths in the Iraqi conflict may never be known, but an investigation of random incidents reveals that whatever the total, the proportion of civilian to military deaths among Iraqis is overwhelming. A graphic illustration of this can be found in the corner of the Abu Graib cemetery on the edge of Baghdad. Here, during the days after the fall of Saddam's regime, families came to disinter the grievous legacy of that tyranny, in the form of their relatives' skeletons. But other huddles of people came, too - to bury, not recover, their dead. Most did so in family plots, but some were too poor to own such patches of land and instead placed their cadavers beneath mounds of earth in a paupers' plot outside the cemetery. The grave digger, Akef Aziz, explains that those from the military, or Fedayeen Saddam units, were also covered with an Iraqi flag. Out of a total of 916 graves in this plot, 17 are those of fighters. 'They were coming in at least 30 or 40 a day,' recalls Aziz. 'They were good times for us, because we are paid by the body.'
In war, collateral damage - as the parlance describes civilian casualties - has no human face, nor does it have a name. But here, on the following pages, are some of their stories. This is the bitter - but hidden - reckoning of war's aftermath.
The southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, where the American ground offensive began in earnest during the last days of March, will before long be the best known in all Iraq. This will not be because Nasiriyah was once the cradle of the Sumer dynasty and thus of civilisation; not because here, 6,000 years ago, the first syllabic alphabet was devised and first mathematical schema developed (around the figure 60, still the modern world's measurement of time). And not because the first legal code - including laws governing the conduct of war - was written and enforced. Nor will this renown be because the town of Nasiriyah is now rife with disease arising from putrid water and stinking rubbish through which children pick, looking for things to sell.
No, Nasiriyah's fame will be enshrined in Hollywood lore because it was here that US special forces rescued Jessica Lynch of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, who went astray and was captured by the Iraqis. And most famous of all will be the first floor of Nasiriyah General Hospital, where Private Lynch was being treated when snatched in what the story emblazoned across cinema screens will narrate as a raid of daring heroism (although doctors and ancillary staff recall the episode differently: as the Americans blasted and kicked their way in, they were welcomed and shown to Private Lynch's ward, with no resistance offered). Every major American television network has since dutifully traipsed through this corridor, anxious to relive the fantasy version of the drama.
None of them, however, bothered to visit ward 114, a few doors down from Jessica's. In there, separated by a curtain, lie Daham Kassim, aged 46, and his 37-year-old wife Gufran Ibed Kassim. Daham has his arms bound, and a stump where his right leg used to be. Gufran cannot move her arms, wounded by gunshots, and probably never will. But the pain is not in their bodies, it is in their faces.
It is impossible to 'interview' Kassim. He dismisses questions, driving his narrative, like a man possessed, towards its conclusion. He speaks in English, an educated man and, until a few months ago, director of the Southeastern electricity board. His torment began on the evening of 24 March, when - after heavy US bombing in his Mutanaza neighbourhood - Kassim told his family to prepare to depart in the morning. They would leave Nasiriyah for the safety of his parents' farm 70 miles away. 'We packed anything valuable, and the children were allowed to take a few toys each.'
Departure was delayed by a sandstorm, and the family - the four children in the back - set off shortly after noon in Kassim's new car. A few minutes later they reached the American checkpoint at the northern gate to the city. (Significantly, the suicide bomb which killed four US soldiers at a road block and was credited with inflaming American behaviour at check points, occurred a full four days later on 29 March at Najaf. This was the incident described by the Washington Post as, 'The first such attack of the war.') 'I could see two tanks,' recalls Kassim. 'They were sand-coloured, with markings on them. I was afraid and stopped my car 60m away. Less than a minute passed. They did not open anything, I saw no one. It was silent.' [The American tanks kept their hatches down. The Marines inside would have been looking through their green-tinted rectangular window, at a civilian car carrying a couple and four children.] 'I was frozen with fear,' continues Kassim. 'I could see their guns moving down. Then there was a terrible noise, and my car was buried in shooting.'
Kassim's voice begins to crack. 'I saw my eldest daughter, Mawra, die. She was nine; I saw it with my eyes: she took the first shot, opened her eyes, and closed them again.' Gufran, his second daughter, was also killed immediately. 'But my son Mohammed, he was six and in the first year of primary school, he was still breathing. And my Zainab, she is five, was also still alive, although she had been shot in the head.'
Two Americans approached the car. 'They were called Chris and Joe. They took out my two dead children, then tried to give my son oxygen, but it was no use. He died there, at that moment. I asked for a helicopter to take us to hospital. They refused, but Joe gave us some morphine in exchange for my gold watch. They tied my bad leg to the other, then took us to their base.'
There, the Americans had established a field hospital, where they bandaged up the surviving child, father and mother. For two nights, the remains of the family slept in a bed. It appears that the story is reaching an end. 'Wait!' insists Kassim, his tears preparing themselves for what is to come, as if his trials could get any worse. 'Don't ask me questions. I will tell you what happened.'
On the third night, that of 27 March, 'there were some Americans wounded that night, in the fighting. Maybe they needed the beds. So they told us we had to go outside. I heard the order - "put them out" - and they carried us like dogs, out into the cold, without shelter, or a blanket. It was the days of the sandstorms and freezing at night. And I heard Zainab crying: "Papa, Papa, I am cold, I am cold." Then she went silent. Completely silent.'
Kassim breaks off in anguish. His wife continues the story of the night. 'What could we do? She kept saying she was cold. My arms were broken, I could not lift or hold her. If they had given us even a blanket, we might have put it over her. We had to sit there, and listen to her die.'
'We'd had trouble having children,' Kassim re-enters the conversation. 'We'd been trying for six years without success and given up hope. But then God blessed us, and everything went right. Four little flowers - and now four little flowers cut down. What for? For oil and a strategic place for America? Do they know God, these people? Why did they put my Zainab out into the cold? I tell you Mister, she died of cold, she died of cold.'
There is urgent business, however. Kassim has still not concluded - indeed he is reaching his purpose. The three Kassim children put to death at the checkpoint had been buried at the site of their shooting, but later taken to the holy city of Najaf for entombment, as is the mandatory custom for Shia Islam. Zainab, however, had been interred inside the US base, 'and the question now,' pleads Kassim, revived by the urgency of the matter, 'is that we must get her to Najaf, where there is a space for her there with her brother and sisters. Please, Mister, I cannot move; you must go and ask how we can take my Zainab to Najaf.'
The US encampment and airstrip is under speedy construction, built to last, on a site chosen alongside the world's most ancient human creation, the Sumer ziggurat at Ur. 'There is no one buried at this site,' assures US Marine Sergeant Jarrell, offering nevertheless to put us through to the authority able to deal with Kassim's request, which turns out to be the Civil Affairs department. The voice of Civil Affairs accordingly comes down his radio: 'Tell them this is a waste of Civil Affairs' time.' We try again the next day, when a kindly woman, Private Hurst from the Medical Corps, is more responsive.
'Oh yes,' she says, rather nervously, 'we have three children buried here. Yes, I think I know who you're talking about.'
An examination of Kassim's car shows this to have been a clinical and frontal piece of musketry. A fusillade of heavy-calibre chain-gun tank fire attacked the vehicle, with some rounds twisting into the metalwork, but most fired straight through the windows at its occupants. A neighbour, Taleb Yasser, who retrieved the car, recalls how Kassim would make his way home of an evening, 'often bringing chocolate for his children and others playing in the street'. He points out the bomb damage that encouraged his friend to leave. 'We told him that it might be dangerous,' says Yasser, 'that the tanks were sitting there, but he would have none of it, and insisted on taking his family to safety.'
Beyond a dilapidated fairground beyond Kassim's now empty house are further homes hit by the bombing, including the one Kadem Hashem had lived in since returning to his native Iraq. Hashem was a consultant in computer and communications technology, born in Kuwait and well travelled across the Arab world. But in 1996, he elected to join his parents and two brothers back in Nasiriyah, bringing his wife, Salima, and six children. They lived in what Hashem remembers as 'a nice house, with a TV, and comfortable'. He was, however, 'distrusted by the government of Saddam for being away for so long. It seems,' he says, 'that I was called back to accept my fate.'
That fate was a cruel one. Hashem surveys the wreckage of his 'nice house', its walls imploded, its roof collapsed. In the diwaniya, to which men would retire of an evening to smoke a hooker pipe, singed cushions are still arranged on the ground, with burned pages of a Koran scattered in the debris. Of the 14 members of Hashem's family that shared or were visiting the house on 23 March, only he and his youngest daughter survive.
The missile which destroyed Hashem's family struck at 1.15 pm. 'I was outside and heard something like the wind, a plane, and then something thrown at the house. I went flat on the floor, and felt the heat on my body. When I looked up, the house was falling in, on fire. My eldest daughter Bashar was buried beneath it. My father and mother, Ali Kadem and Reni, died but I did manage to wrap my wife in a blanket and get her to the hospital, where she died that night.'
He finds a photograph in the cinders. 'This was my middle daughter, Hamadi. I found her burnt to death by that doorway, she had shrunk to about a metre tall.' And another picture, this one from within his robe: 'This was my sister when she was little. She died over there, by the gate. My father was killed where you are standing now, in the diwaniya; I loved him too much, I think. For three days afterwards, I sat by the gate of my home. I didn't sleep or go anywhere, I didn't know who or where I was.'
It is now twilight, a purple hue in the sky, and we decide to continue in the morning and also to visit the one surviving daughter, Bedour.
'Bedour is 18 years old, but doesn't look it,' we are warned in advance, as the cockerel's crow heralds another day in Hashem's laden life. 'In fact, she does not look like herself at all. She cannot walk or talk, or sleep. She has something wrong in her head - she keeps talking nonsense or crying out: "Why did you all go away and leave me?"'
What remains of a beautiful girl called Bedour Hashem lies on a piece of floor at a relative's house, having been discharged by the American military hospital, with no room for her at the local one. She is shrivelled and petrified like a dead cat. Her skin is like scorched parchment folded over her bones. Unable to move, she appears as if in some troubled coma, but opens her eyes, with difficulty, to issue an indecipherable cry like a wounded animal. Hashem understands it: 'We should leave her.'
'She and I have something in common,' he continues, outside the house, bright flowers climbing its walls, 'which is that we have lost everyone else. Every time I look at her, I will always think of my wife. But now I have to be a father, mother, brother, sister and grandparent to her, all in one person, and I don't know if I can manage that.'
Hashem has dug his own mass grave in the holy city: 'I collected them all and put them in a single grave at Najaf; my money was burnt, too, and I couldn't afford to bury them separately. Now the holy men in town are at me for this, blaming me for doing something not in accordance with the religion.'
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