One of my favourite Monday Books titles – possibly because it was our first, possibly because it was written by a friend – is Road Trip to Hell, by the Daily Mirror defence correspondent Chris Hughes. It didn’t sell brilliantly, perhaps because people don’t much like journalists, or the Iraq war, but is a very interesting account of the immediate post-war period in Iraq, and how tabloid journalism works, with its shoestring budgets, gnat-like attention span and dictatorial editorial whim.
Chris talks quite openly about the fear, bordering on terror, he felt as he made his way around this broken country, dodging Al Qaeda, criminal gangs and ordinary Iraqis who just wanted to take out their anger on someone.
He saw and experienced terrible things, and escaped a carjacking only by luck and the skin of his teeth (and thus almost certainly also escaped the fate of Ken Bigley and others).
As yet another battle for Fallujah begins, here is a lengthy, two-chapter extract from Chris’s book, dealing with his own visit to the city (Nibras is Chris’s Iraqi driver, Adil his translator, and Julian Andrews was with Chris as a photographer):
The Journey To Fallujah
It was the end of April, and Baghdad sounded pretty much the same as it had every other morning for the past few weeks. Early mornings were always the same – the blaring of car horns as Baghdadis joined the mile-long queues for petrol or attempted, in a few cases, to go to work. The usual demonstrators were gathering outside the hotel: locals demanding fuel, electricity, for the Americans to go home, for the Americans to stay, for more work, for more freedom, for less freedom, for money, for Saddam to hang – even, occasionally, for Saddam to be returned to power. It was democracy at its most embryonic, chaotic stage: I honestly think most of them just turned up every morning not really knowing what they wanted.
The atmosphere was generally unthreatening early on in the day, despite the growing racket. The rebels, kidnapping gangs and other gunmen who filled the Baghdad night air with the shattering sound of fire fights were usually still asleep, tired from their night’s work.
We hadn’t got too much planned. Three or four days before, Piers [Morgan] had suddenly remembered ‘Comical Ali’ and our job – in the absence of finding Saddam or his nerve gas – was to try and track him down.
Comical Ali was the cheeky little chappie from Iraq’s Ministry of Information who had bravely insisted Iraq was winning the war, even as American armour parked up a few hundred metres away and Coalition troops took control of the city. ‘They will burn in their tanks,’ he had told TV news crews, as the Stars and Stripes was hoisted across the street. ‘We are killing them everywhere. They are dying in their thousands.’
His wild claims, complete with eccentric rhetorical flourishes and delivered in an heroic lisp in defiance of the obvious truth, had made an unlikely star of this odd little man, whose real name was Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. Amidst all the talk of crazed dictators, chemical weapons and ‘shock and awe’, he had cut a strangely charming figure; with Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Ali was one of the more acceptable faces of the regime and most journalists had a soft spot for him, as did some Iraqis. There had been something almost noble in his continuing to do his job when it no longer really existed.
He’d gone to ground once even he had realised the game was up and people had imagined he would turn up somewhere. But he hadn’t and for some reason he’d popped back into Piers’ head.
‘Can we get a chat with this bloke?’ our head of news Andy Lines had asked me earlier in the week. ‘And… er… when you get him, get a picture of yourself talking to him.’
It made a refreshing change from mass graves and torture implements, so Julian and I had been only too pleased to get the brief. We could both see straight away that an exclusive interview with this bespectacled loon would make a good read – for all his comedy value, Ali had been Saddam’s spokesman in his final days and his insights and inside knowledge of the Iraqi administration would be explosive. I did wonder whether the idea of being photographed chatting to the mouthpiece of perhaps the world’s most tyrannical regime was the right way forward, but we could cross that bridge when we came to it. It sounded like a good laugh.
How wrong we were. The trouble lay in locating the guy. One morning he had given his usual barmy briefing, the next he had vanished along with the rest of Saddam’s Ba’ath party hierarchy. Those who hadn’t been killed or arrested were in hiding, fearful of the unofficial Iraqi death squads that were hunting them down and taking revenge for years of oppression. The rumour was that he was still alive, holed up somewhere in Baghdad. He wasn’t exactly advertising his whereabouts, so the only way to find him was to spend all day trawling through huge swathes of the suburbs asking if anyone had seen him. What had started out as a pleasant and diverting change had become a nightmare task, and hugely frustrating. Each day, we wasted hours chasing up leads that led to nothing. Occasionally, things went beyond frustration: the previous day we’d been chased away from one house by three armed men in leather jackets. Nibras had really stepped on it as they set out after us in a blue car, and had managed to lose them after a few streets. It had been a highly unnerving experience.
The next morning, sat on the balcony, Julian and I agreed that we weren’t going to find him after all. The problem was the Piers’ one-track mind wasn’t going to accept anything else: all he was interested in (apart from Saddam and the WMD) was Comical Bloody Ali.
As I rustled up a breakfast of bananas, Nibras’ flat breads (which he brought as gifts every few days) and Primula cheese paste squeezed from a tube, Julian turned on his laptop and began flicking through the news wires. ‘Have a look at this, mate,’ he said, and turned to screen to me. It was a Reuters story: two nights earlier, US troops had killed a number of students in a place called Fallujah and had been forced to move to a more secure base.
Fallujah: I doubt all that many people had heard of it before then. I certainly knew very little about it. To the outside world, it was a place of little importance and even less interest – just an anonymous Sunni Muslim city of some 350,000 people, sitting on the great Euphrates river 40-odd miles to the west of Baghdad. Even the war hadn’t brought notoriety: it had escaped the attention of the media – and any serious damage – during the invasion, because most of the Iraqi Army units stationed in the area had, sensibly, fled when they saw the Americans coming.
Inside Iraq, though, it was very well known.
There were three reasons for this.
Firstly, its hinterland was the site of one of Saddam’s many follies, a Ba’athist holiday resort designed by Uday which he called ‘Dreamland’. They had spent millions on creating a huge, artificial bathing lake in the middle of the desert outside the city, pumping water from the river and filling it with fish. Pomegranate orchards and date palms were laid in thick groves and a number of tasteless villas were built. Saddam, his sons and their favoured guests would adjourn here for occasional weekends spent drinking fine French wines and cavorting with whores. In a country where people were going hungry daily, and even dying for want of medicines and hospital care, it provided eloquent testimony to the vulgarity of the moustachioed clown at the top of the tree.
Secondly, and in stark contrast, it was also one of Sunni Islam’s most famous and holy places, known as ‘The City Of Mosques’ for the 200 such places of worship found in and around the city.
Thirdly, it was known for its people. Iraqis, generally, are a hard, brave, warrior race – don’t be fooled by their defeats at the hands of the Americans in the two Gulf Wars, which were much more about the vast superiority of US tactics and hardware, and the lunatic bravado of Saddam, than anything else.
Among Iraqis themselves, the Fallujans were regarded as the warrior’s warrior – the most dangerous, vengeful and blood-soaked of them all. No-one ever crossed a Fallujan.
The Reuters story told how a crowd of several hundred locals had defied a curfew which had been imposed on them by the American troops occupying the city, gathering outside a local secondary school being used as a base by the 82nd Airborne. They wanted Coalition forces to leave the city and they wanted the school reopened.
Some demonstrators are said to have shot into the air; soldiers stationed on the roof of the building opened fire in response.
They killed 13 civilians.
It was a bad move.
Julian leaned over. ‘Chris,’ he said. ‘I reckon we should take a trip down there. I can’t see them taking that lying down, can you?’
It was 7am local time. The Mirror news and picture desks wouldn’t clock on for another four or five hours. Fallujah was only 40 miles away along a good, quick road: we could forget hunting for Al-Sahaf for the morning and just head over there to take a look around – and chat to witnesses, survivors and families – without even having to run it by the desk. If we got nothing out of it, we’d just get back to the capital around lunchtime and carry on our fruitless search. And if there was something worth filing, we could explain our presence in Fallujah by telling the desks [the Daily Mirror news and picture desks, to whom Chris and Julian reported] we’d been following up a tip that ‘Comical Ali’ was in the area.
Fifty per cent of the skill of dealing with news desks lies in not burdening them with the truth. Some might call it lying; I see it as more of a grey area.
We didn’t have long to wait before an out-of-breath Nibras burst into our room. He was almost bent double under the weight of more flat breads. Shortly afterwards, Adil arrived and we told them our job for the day: to drive to Fallujah and track down people who had seen what happened the previous night.
Adil beamed at the thought of not having to trawl through the suburbs looking for Comical Ali again. ‘No Sahaf today? Very good.’
Neither of them enjoyed chasing the ex-regime man. With Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay still at large, there was always that fear that the old dictator might rise again; understandably, few wanted to put their heads too far above the parapet.
The four of us took the terrifying lift to the ground floor of the Palestine. It groaned and creaked like it was about to break free of its chains and plummet to the ground. Occasionally, it would stop and various TV news crews would pile in. We’d listen out for possible story ideas and tips, but we never heard a single one. They were bored stiff, with their ex-military minders stopping them from going to the more violent and dangerous areas; all you got was gossip on who was having it off with whom in the TV world. Sadly none of them were famous.
At the bottom, we made our way through the military cordon and the crowds to Nibras’s BMW. This morning he was particularly pleased with himself, grinning proprietorially as we reached the car. He had visited his friends in the local body shop and had them plaster the word ‘PRESS’ down the side of the vehicle in bold black letters. The same word was painted on the roof. There’d been more stories, lately, of civilian cars being shot up by the Yanks and he was obviously taking no chances.
Julian and I looked at each other, and then at Adil. No-one wanted to be shredded by some twitchy-fingered gunner on one of the American assault helicopters that constantly whirled through the sky. But, on the other hand, there were only two ways to operate in Iraq. One was in armoured Land Rovers, tooled-up to the hilt and surrounded by bodyguards. The other was as low-key and incognito as possible. Now, our wheels thoroughly pimped, we were neither tooled-up nor low-key. How was this going to look parked up outside one of Fallujah’s 200 mosques or cruising the streets looking for the angry parents of the teenaged victims?
It wasn’t a great start.
It took us an hour to get out of Baghdad and onto the western road towards Ramadi and Fallujah. Adil and Nibras kept a weather eye out for Americans and militia, ready to turn off if they saw a checkpoint. The militia was a rag-bag of former soldiers, policemen and concerned citizens who had taken it upon themselves – in the absence of any proper law and order – to try to restore some control to the streets. Dressed in an assortment of worn uniforms and with no real command structure, they patrolled their neighbourhoods looking for looters and other undesirables and set up roadblocks to search cars and trucks. But they were notoriously corrupt and you stood a very good chance of being stripped and robbed, and maybe even killed, if you came into contact with them.
Despite the danger, Julian and I were easily bored and, as we drove, we passed the time in a juvenile Blackhawk Down game. This involved wrapping your hands over your mouth and making the crackling noise of a radio, rasping out: ‘We have a situation! We have a Blackhawk Down! We have a Blackhawk Down!’ Neither Adil nor Nibras had seen the film we were mimicking – about a disastrous US operation in Somalia – but they loved joining in with us. They liked the idea of being cheeky to the people who had invaded their country and were now running the show. To be fair to them, a few of the Yanks had started getting involved, too. The week before, we had approached an American checkpoint in full Blackhawk Down mode and a Marine Sergeant had overheard us. Instead of giving us a hard time, he’d joined in, copying us in a Texan twang and roping his men in too. Both Nibras and Adil were almost weeping with laughter and, from then on, whenever we went through that particular checkpoint the soldiers would launch into their own ‘Blackhawk Down… we have a situation!’ routine.
The atmosphere in the car became much more tense as soon as we got onto the highway. The marauding gangs of thieves and insurgents were growing ever bolder in this no-man’s land and my thoughts turned to my Jordanian driver, Mohammed, who’d died out here just two or three weeks earlier. There was no doubt his killers would love to get their hands on a couple of Western journalists. The night before, we had been at a party in The Palestine with other reporters and the conversation had turned to our plan to drive down to Fallujah. A South African ex-Special Forces man had sidled up to us.
‘If you want, boss,’ he’d said, ‘me and my guys will come down with you. We’ll get rid of the problem for the right price.’
‘What would you do?’ I said.
‘Well, if anyone comes near us we’ll just kill them,’ he said, looking at me as though I was slightly simple.
It was a sobering moment and we withdrew from that particular social event shortly afterwards. I felt, somehow, that I had stumbled into somewhere I didn’t belong, that I’d crossed some sort of boundary. It didn’t do to dwell too much on conversations like that and Julian and I tried to keep our heads down to avoid attracting unwanted attention; cars without Westerners inside were less likely to be attacked. Though, as I say, having the word ‘PRESS’ plastered all over the car in jazzy three-foot letters didn’t help.
As we drove, Adil and Nibras both went quiet in the front. Every now and then Nibras, would whistle ominously, shake his head and say ‘Faaaaaallujaaaah’. We asked Adil what was wrong.
‘Nibras knows the city well,’ he said. ‘I told him about what happened there and he says only bad things can come of it. He says the people there will want retribution for what happened to their sons.’
Because of the potential for trouble, we had taken our cumbersome blue ‘Press’ body armour and helmets with us. These dirt-encrusted flak jackets made us both feel self-conscious and overdressed, especially when you were talking to Iraqis wearing nothing but the traditional thaub robes. I rubbed my hand nervously over the Kevlar. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘If you think this is too dangerous, we can always turn back. It’s only a bloody story. I don’t want to get us all killed over it.’
Adil put his head on one side, thinking. Then he and Nibras spoke for a few moments. Finally, Adil said: ‘No, I think it is OK. I think we can go there, just to see. But we must be able to leave quickly if necessary.’
Eventually, the city came into view in the distance and five or ten minutes later we reached its outer boundary, and a sign that said ‘Fallujah’ in English by the side of the motorway. Adil started playing with his worry beads. A common sight all over the Middle East, these are very like Roman Catholic Rosary beads; men pass the beads between their fingers and count through Koranic prayers in their heads. Adil did it when he was worried – hence their name – though he never admitted he was frightened, even when it was obvious he was (at which times I was in mortal terror).
(Adil was a very tough man; he had served in Saddam’s Republican Guard during the Iran-Iraq war, and had been shot during the fighting. He had dispelled for me one of the major myths of both Gulf Wars. These troops were always described as being “the fiercely-loyal Republican Guard” but in fact many of them were Shia from Saddam City – exactly the people who hated Saddam most. They were most definitely not loyal to him. They fought against the Iranians because they were forced to do so, for fear of being shot in the head by one of the regime’s thugs, who were never far away.)
Nibras drove on and put an Iraqi folk music tape on, a woman’s voice filling the car. The two men looked at each other, and burst out laughing. Nibras, his hands off the steering wheel and driving with his knees, cupped his palms against his chest, sending Adil into squealing fits of giggles. When they’d calmed down, he turned round. ‘This singer, she is beautiful, with very big chests,’ he said, grinning. ‘She is a favourite of Nibras’s.’
Nibras, next to him, nodded solemnly. ‘She very big,’ he said, cupping his hands again, and dissolving back into laughter.
Julian and I couldn’t help joining in; for a moment, we could have been on the outskirts of Falmouth, not Fallujah.
But the mood soon sobered again and I watched Adil: his head was constantly in motion, twitching from side to side, looking for trouble.
‘Do you think we should have told the office where we were going?’ I asked Julian. ‘Hardly anyone knows we’re out here.’
‘Would it make any difference?’ said Julian. ‘What could they do if it all goes pear-shaped anyway? Call the cops?’ He grinned. ‘Relax, mate, it’s going to be fine.’
He was probably right. We’d do a few interviews, get some shots of the injured and the bereaved relatives, and be back in Baghdad by lunchtime, looking for Comical Ali again.
We drove over a bridge that spanned the Euphrates, the lazy, dirty-looking twin of the Tigris, which takes its time meandering 1,700 miles down through Turkey, Syria and Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf.
And then we were in Fallujah.
As we pulled into Fallujah, an American Apache helicopter thudded over us from behind and screamed off to the right, towards a plume of oily black smoke rising up from the other side of the city. Another chopper, a Blackhawk this time, zoomed over, heading towards us just a couple of hundred feet up. Gunners leaned out of each side, their faces hidden by Darth Vader-like full-face helmets, their .50 calibre weapons pointed downwards at our car. I silently hoped they’d seen the ‘PRESS’ sign on our roof; these guys looked very serious. Maybe Nibras was onto something, after all.
Along the main drag, he pulled over. Dogs lay in the dust, already made lazy by the mid-morning heat, ignoring the noise of the helicopters overhead. Old men squatted by the side of the road, sipping tea in silence and looking over at us, swatting flies away and shielding their eyes against the sun. One or two nodded in our direction. Most looked suspicious, guarded.
Adil got out of the car and swaggered towards a group of men sitting on a street corner, to ask the way to the school where the shooting had taken place two nights before.
We watched uneasily from the relative safety of the car. The mere fact that we were not Americans had been a big plus, so far, with more and more Iraqis becoming vehemently anti-US by the day. But I’d read up about Fallujah, and the British had plenty of history of our own in the city. In 1920, when our armies had ranged across the Middle East, we’d had trouble subduing the place, even then known as the most unruly corner of the old Mesopotamia. We’d sent a senior colonial officer, a Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Leachman, to take control of the town and Leachman had been killed in a fight with a local leader. His death had led to a savage war that had cost the lives of 10,000 Iraqis and more than 1,000 British and Indian troops. We had fought them again near here in the Anglo-Iraqi war of 1941 and, even more recently, and even worse, a British jet had accidentally bombed Fallujah’s main market during the first Gulf War. As many as 150 civilians had died and many more had been injured. Given that these people were still thirsty for vengeance after the excesses of Richard the Lionheart’s Crusades more than 600 years ago, it seemed unlikely they would have forgotten this more recent bloodletting.
I kept my head down, my default position in the back of that BMW, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.
Twenty yards away, I could see Adil, still in animated conversation.
He was nodding and smiling as the locals crowded round him, holding their heads in their hands or making rifle-shooting gestures, as if acting out the tragedy. Iraqis are an expressive, emotional people: if you approach a crowd of them, they surround you, all shouting and talking at the same time. Eventually, one man dominates, the others give ground and a proper conversation can develop. This group was following that pattern and I watched as a middle-aged man emerged from a shop doorway and approached the throng. The gathering crowd fell silent and the man nodded to Adil in respect. They spoke for a few moments and then the man pointed Adil in the direction of the school. He walked back to the car, grinning, and clambered in, and we drove off down a few streets until we entered a pleasant-looking, tree-lined boulevard with another crowd milling at the far end. This was middle-class Fallujah, the heart of what would become, later, the Sunni-led insurgency.
As we drew up to the crowd, we saw it was mostly made up of young men, hundreds of them, waving their fists and chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to America’. They looked angry, agitated, and a robed man – the Imam – was standing on a wall in front of them, arms outstretched with the palms downwards, trying to calm them down.
We got out of the car and a man ushered us straight away, without introductions, into the school. The US forces had left it soon after the shooting, heading for the city’s former Ba’ath Party HQ compound, which they felt would be more secure and more defendable. Inside was an elderly man, whom we approached. He did not speak to me or Julian, or acknowledge us, and addressed Adil as if we weren’t even there. They talked in quiet, serious tones for a few minutes, wandering around the room as they did so. Occasionally, they would stop to pick up a battered book or kick a magazine across the floor.
Julian and I left them alone, wandering into another classroom. What I saw on the blackboard staggered me. Some idiot soldier had chalked ‘I love pork’ on the blackboard, alongside other anti-Muslim slogans. ‘Have a look at that,’ said Julian, in disgust. ‘What kind of morons are these people?’
He was right. I struggled to comprehend the mindset of the American who had scrawled those calculated insults on the board. I imagined him, giggling, probably calling over a few mates to see what he’d written. What did he think he was going to achieve? They were supposedly here as liberators.
In another classroom, we found a US flag drawn on the blackboard; a small boy stood staring up at the image.
We made our way back to Adil and the Imam. They were just saying their goodbyes so we made our own exaggerated gestures of respect and followed Adil back outside.
Outside, Adil told us what had been said. ‘The Americans have been using the school as a base for themselves for a few weeks,’ he said. ‘It is not good – the students and the teachers are wanting to get back to school. There is a curfew, so no-one is allowed to be on the streets after dark, but a group of the students broke the curfew and gathered here. The Imam says that they were demanding that the Americans leave the school and suddenly the soldiers opened fire on them. He says no-one fired at the Americans. You saw me walking around the room inside with him? He was showing me that there were no bullet-holes in the school walls, so there were no incoming bullets.’
I hadn’t seen any damage to the inside of the building, that was true. The Americans had claimed they were returning fire aimed at them from the roofs and top floor windows of the houses opposite. I looked at those houses: there were no pock marks or broken windows there either, which seemed to mitigate against that explanation. Instead, all the fire had been concentrated downwards – you could see blood stains in the dust of the narrow streets and bullet holes at four, five and six feet high in the walls.
‘What were those books he was picking up?’ I asked.
‘Those were copies of the Holy Koran with boot prints upon the pages where the American soldiers had trodden on them,’ said Adil, his face dark with anger. ‘And the magazines were pornography that the soldiers left littered around the building.’
I’d looked at one of those magazines: it was some sort of biker publication, with topless women in hot pants sitting astride motorcycles in the centre pages. It wasn’t exactly what I would call pornography, but it was still offensive to Muslim sensibilities and the Americans must have known that. If they hadn’t, they ought to have done. It all spoke of a casual disdain, an arrogant belief in their innate superiority. Hearts and minds? Not exactly.
Above us, the helicopters were still screaming away. The Apache had joined the Blackhawk and both were circling, their blades smashing through the air with that familiar ‘whop-whop-whop’ noise as they banked in tight turns over the streets below.
On the ground, audible over the roaring of their turbines, the crowd was whipping itself into a frenzy, with people waving fists at the choppers and chanting anti-American slogans. They were becoming more and more fevered by the minute and their numbers, already 1,000-strong by my estimate, were swelling.
Suddenly, a live bullet was pressed into my hand. I looked down, and a little boy of around eight was looking up at me. He was unsmiling and held my gaze unflinchingly. Then he nodded and walked off into the crowd.
Three or four people started herding us towards a tiny courtyard attached to one of the houses opposite the school. Once we were inside the yard, someone closed the wrought-iron gate behind us and a thin man with hollow cheeks handed me a glass of tea, nodding politely. He wore a tight smile, but had tears in his eyes and we followed him through the dusty, yellow-earth yard into his house. We entered a white-walled kitchen, with a large sink against one wall and a terracotta-tiled floor, dotted with Koranic mosaic patterns. Speaking through Adil, the man told us that American soldiers had shot his son dead during the events of two nights previously. The teenager had been inside his house and, as the troops had hosed down the crowd, several rounds – whether stray or aimed – had come through the family’s windows. At least one of them had hit the boy, taking the top of his head off and killing him on the spot. Shortly afterwards, he went on, US troops had kicked in the door and had stolen money and some chickens, before leaving and racing back to the safety of the school.
Adil shot me a sceptical look as he translated, indicating he was unsure about the man’s story.
‘Is he telling the truth or not?’ I said.
‘Oh, I am sure that the man’s son is dead,’ replied Adil. ‘This I was told by others earlier on. They buried him yesterday. I am also sure that he was shot by Americans. I am not sure that I believe that they also stole chickens and money. They have plenty of food of their own and Iraqi money is worth nothing to them, so that part does not make sense.’
It was critically important that we went as far as possible to confirm the man’s story. I didn’t want to fill the Mirror with this if it turned out to be lies.
‘How about asking him to swear on the Koran?’ I said. Even as I spoke, I winced, reflecting on my arrogance. If a group of Middle Eastern soldiers had shot dead a youth in Liverpool, how would the father take it if a foreign journalist doubted his word? But no-one was insulted, and a Koran was fetched. We watched as the man swore that the Americans had shot dead his son the previous night. But he would not swear to the thefts.
Adil shrugged his shoulders. ‘It is as I told you, Chris,’ he said.
It is, to us, a curious mindset that would lead a man to embellish the murder of his son in this way. But, seeing death all around them, Iraqis had a matter-of-fact attitude to life. In a country where food is scarce, the allegation that the soldiers responsible had also stolen the family’s chickens made it all much, much worse. A local caught in this way would certainly be dealt with harshly; at the very least, he would be stripped naked, the word ‘thief’ would be scrawled on his body and he would be driven through the streets, baying crowds beating him as he went to complete the humiliation. At worst, he might be summarily executed.
Whatever, there could be no doubt that the most serious allegations were true. The man disappeared further inside the building, shaking his head as he went, and Adil, looking sheepish, led us after him. We came to the family’s sitting room, which was also tiled, and the man pointed at a black, gooey mess, about the size of a dinner plate, lying on the floor. It looked curious, like a pool of tar mixed in with matted hair and what looked the smashed remains of a broken china dish.
The man was now crying softly, rocking backward and forward on his heels, his eyes closed.
Adil touched him lightly on the elbow and asked him what it was.
The man opened his eyes and said something, almost inaudible, to Adil, who recoiled in horror and backed away towards the wall.
Then he looked at me and said, ‘That is what is left of our friend’s son’s head.’
I turned my head away though, strangely, I didn’t feel anything. Then I said the most crass and insensitive thing imaginable. I asked Adil why the man had not cleaned it up. The translator spoke to the man in whispers. Through his sobs the man replied in Arabic. With that, Adil bade the man farewell and walked us out of the house. As we got back out into the street, I asked him what the man had said.
‘He said, “Why don’t you clean it up, Englishman?”’ Adil told me, before looking away and waving at Nibras, who was leaning against his car, the engine running, and looking increasingly nervous at the angry mob.
We had our story. We had confirmed the Reuters piece and added human interest to it with our interview with the distraught father; together with a ‘From Fallujah’ by-line and an atmospheric photograph, we’d probably get a page lead out of it. We could have headed back to Baghdad. But we decided to stick with the demonstration to see what would happen. The crowd started pulling away from the quiet street, with the Imam at its head; he was happy to talk to us, as were many of the demonstrators, all male and mostly students. They were intent on marching to the hospital where the surviving casualties were being cared for to make their feelings known.
We walked with them for about ten minutes. It was baking hot and my mouth filled with dust whipped up by the rotors of the helicopters above; they were clearly shadowing the crowd, and the noise from their engines was deafening as they followed us in a slow hover. As we surged along the narrow streets, shopkeepers began boarding up their stores and mothers dragged their toddlers back inside their houses. But despite the febrile atmosphere, I didn’t feel particularly threatened; I didn’t see a single gun, and the mood, while angry, even aggressive, seemed under control.
Then we rounded a corner, and the marchers seemed to hesitate for a moment. We could either turn left, towards Fallujah’s General Hospital, or turn right. That way led back to the main drag through the town, and the former local Ba’ath Party HQ, now commandeered by the Americans and full of US Marines. Turning right meant we would be heading for their guns.
There are lots of theories about human nature and the behaviour of crowds, about how at times of stress or anger a group of people can behave as one. Something like that happened now: somehow, all thoughts of marching to the hospital vanished in an instant, and everyone turned right.
The air suddenly became tense. The students were no longer answering my questions and Adil began to look nervous. Shouting to make himself heard above the noise, he told me to pull Julian, who was engrossed in taking his pictures, out of the crowd. The students were becoming more vocal the closer we got to the US troops. Two hundred yards ahead of us, I could see Humvees and armoured Jeeps reversing quickly into their new compound and the Marines who had been patrolling nearby, or who had been on sentry duty outside, were all doubling back through the gates, NCOs and officers yelling at them. On the roof of the building, 30 feet up, I could see dozens of men taking up firing positions behind sandbags and more running to join them. At the sight of this, the students became even more aggressive; now they were screaming at the tops of their voices and waving placards reading ‘Americans go home’ as though they were spears, stabbing at the air in front of them.
All the time, we got closer and closer and the feeling of foreboding grew and grew.
Nibras had been slowly following the march, and we peeled away and jumped into his BMW, driving past the Americans who were now locked inside their HQ. Several tanks, their turrets visible behind the thick outer walls, were swivelling their guns towards the advancing students. I could understand the Americans’ fear: the mob looked and sounded terrifying.
Nibras parked up in an abandoned petrol station a few hundred yards further down the road and we got out, putting on our blue body armour and helmets and ignoring a gaggle of young kids. They were swarming all around us, shouting ‘Hello mister!’ and pointing excitedly towards the drama unfolding down the road. A few older boys in their teens looked less happy to see us, but Adil calmed them down and they seemed to relax, enjoying a joke at the sight of our ludicrous body armour and eyeing the sunglasses around our necks.
We walked tentatively back towards the crowd, keeping a weather eye on the Marines on the roof and hoping they could see the ‘PRESS’ stickers on our flak jackets; they all seemed to be pointing their assault rifles at us. (Later, when I was embedded with the British Army in the south of Iraq, I watched our own troops do the same thing. They explained that they were using their gun sights to check people out. Had I known this at the time, I might have been less scared. Since I didn’t, I was expecting some trigger-happy grunt to blow me away any second.)
Julian started snapping away, as several Imams tried to hold back the students. Many of them were now goading the Americans by hurling sandals at them; some began to slip past their elders and started throwing themselves at the wall. They weren’t armed, and had no chance of getting over it, but I could see the American officers inside growing ever more nervous and barking orders at the Marines. They were constantly scanning the crowd, looking for AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades through the sights of their M16s.
The tension was enormous and things were almost out of control; I got the strong sense that whatever was going to happen here today would no longer be about the conscious decisions of anyone, American or Iraqi. It was like pub violence, the mood hurtling towards an inevitable clash; all that was needed was a spark.
And then it came.
To our right, we saw a convoy of about six vehicles coming towards us at speed from the direction of the northern outskirts of Fallujah; they were obviously heading back toward the US HQ but had been beaten to it by the marchers. Julian and I jumped out of the way, towards the walls of the compound and just beneath the line of fire of the soldiers inside. One Humvee roared past us, Julian clicking away with his camera. Then a Jeep drove by and the student line broke. Everybody ran towards the speeding vehicles, hurling their sandals at the armoured sides. A soldier on the back of a Jeep ducked to avoid a flip-flop and, as he did so, he pushed the stock of his swivel-mounted .50 calibre machine gun upwards and opened fire on the screaming crowd.
Immediately, dozens of M16s opened up from the roof and, for 20 seconds, there was a deafening clack-clack-clack of bullets smashing into concrete and bodies and ricocheting into other people. I got as low as I could, crouched in a heap beneath the wall, hands covering my head, swearing to myself and watching the mayhem unfold. Then the sound of shooting stopped, giving way to the noise of angry shouts, moaning and screaming.
The smell of cordite filled the dusty air; bodies lay everywhere and the groans of the injured rang around. Ten yards away, a man in a white robe lay flat on his face, not moving. Slowly, I got to my feet. Julian had disappeared into the melee and I could see him over on the other side of the road, crouched over another dead or injured man, taking photographs of him. Within a minute, a line of battered cars had appeared from nowhere, lining up like mini-cabs touting for trade outside a nightclub at chucking-out time, and young men were pulling their wounded friends towards these vehicles, screaming and waving for help. It was as though this was normal, as though there was a system that worked every time a crowd got mowed down – you just got the local drivers to form a line and they took it in turns to dash to the hospital with the wounded and the dead. In the middle of the chaos, a man even stood and directed the traffic.
As one car moved off towards the hospital, another moved forward to take its place.
On top of the former Ba’ath Party building the Marines looked down at the scene of devastation. Julian emerged from within the crowd and waved me over. Behind him, a young man lay dead, the top half of his head missing and a pool of blood spreading around him. Julian had been very brave. While I had been cowering, he had stood in the crowd as the bullets flew. He’d captured the soldier ducking to open fire and had followed the whole thing to this: a teenager, dying in the dust. He had taken close-up pictures of him, egged on by the boy’s friends who were eager to spread the story of what the Americans had done.
I started to become aware that we were in a kind of no-man’s land: an easy target if the Iraqis needed to take it out on someone Western. The Marines looked pretty unapproachable if we needed to get away and the crowd, unsurprisingly, was turning very nasty.
We started walking slowly back to the car, feeling guilty and voyeuristic. I was convinced we would be attacked but it was as though nobody in the crowd could see us: we were totally ignored. Up in front, an Egyptian TV crew, the only other journalists I’d seen, was less lucky. We watched as they were pulled out of their van and badly beaten. There was nothing we could do to help, though, and as we walked away a small group of Iraqis began to chase after us. We considered running but as we dithered they reached us. One of them handed me some batteries from a TV camera that had been smashed up, together with the end of a microphone. They felt bad because someone else had stolen them from the crew, whose van had been looted. They insisted I take the battered remnants, and became aggressive when I at first refused. They were desperate to return the looted property, even if it was to someone from a different country, and company, to the original owner.
We reached Nibras’ car and quickly collected our thoughts. We could leave now or follow the bodies to the hospital. We chose the latter: it was as though we were on auto-pilot, back in England reporting on a disaster, where the standard procedure would be to confirm the numbers of casualties and then to try to find relatives of the victims for follow-up interviews. As we made the three-mile journey, Nibras weaving his way through the throng of people, Julian scrolled through his pictures on the camera display. They were unbelievably dramatic.
We used our Thuraya satellite phones to call our desks back at the Mirror. The news desk were very excited – I’d called in time for them to list our story as a spread for the next day during that morning’s editor’s conference. They didn’t even bother to ask whether we had found Comical Ali.
Nibras eased the car into the hospital grounds and we parked up about 30 yards from the entrance to the main building. As we stepped out of the car, a large crowd spilled out of the hospital, carrying coffins and brandishing banners. Several of the men had AK47s slung over their shoulders and a woman, dressed all in black, turned and saw us. Her eyes dark with fury, she began to scream that we were ‘Jews’ who should go back to where we came from. Others in the crowd started shouting that we were spies and jostling towards us with contorted faces.
‘Chris, Julian,’ said Adil. ‘We need to get back into the car immediately. Now!’
We didn’t waste any time, piling in as quickly as we could, the furious Iraqis surging towards us, their faces contorted in rage. Nibras stood on the throttle and sped towards the gate as a group of men began to push it shut. Skidding and sliding on the grass in front of the hospital, we only just made it through the gap, with mourners hurling stones at us as we made our getaway.
Looking back through the rear window, I could see men waving their fists and guns at us and my stomach lurched with nerves and fear. I realised how lucky we had been. If those men had managed to close that gate, Nibras would have had to have run them over to escape, and he would never have done that. We would have been dragged from the car, beaten and probably killed. Two minutes earlier, I’d been on the phone to someone sitting in an ergonomically designed chair in an air-conditioned office in London.
All the way back to Baghdad, the car was silent except for Nibras whistling through his teeth, shaking his head slowly and saying ‘Fallujahhhh.’ It was as if he was saying ‘I told you so.’
Two young men had been killed and eighteen others injured, some dreadfully, in those 20 seconds of fire. I had seen it happen, and I was amazed the death toll was so low. I didn’t know what to feel; weirdly, I felt nothing except relief, relief that I was alive and unhurt, and would soon be going home.
The Mirror carried our piece as a double-page spread.
I was pleased with my day’s work, as Julian was with his. And I think we had every right to be so. It sounds callous, but that’s the way of journalism. Our job was to record events like these and to be doing so in the face of death… well, I didn’t like it, but I felt almost proud of myself.
The ex-Special Forces team looking after ITN and Channel 4 came up to our room to see Julian’s pictures then we got back.
‘You are lucky, lucky boys,’ said one of them, shaking his head. ‘Those rounds could have gone anywhere. And you were bloody lucky not to have been properly sorted out at the hospital, too. You really shouldn’t be going to places like that, with two Iraqis and no armed back-up. It’ll all end in tears.’
Later, the US forces in Fallujah spoke to the media. There was no admission of fault, and no real apology. They claimed that troops had opened fire after being shot at first by someone using an AK47 from within the crowd. I’d heard that one before.
I think that’s a highly unlikely explanation, to put it mildly. In all our time with the demonstrators that day, I didn’t see a single weapon, and I was looking out for them. I didn’t hear any shots, either. I did see the soldier on the Jeep open fire with his .50 cal after a flip-flop was thrown at him. It’s possible he meant to duck, and not open fire. Perhaps he thought it was a grenade or maybe a petrol bomb; I appreciate the stress and pressure the troops must have been under, partly because I felt some of it myself. But a flip-flop?
The incident I had witnessed – and Julian and I were the only Western journalists to do so – was the second of Fallujah’s two ‘Bloody Sundays’, and a dreadful turning point in the occupation of Iraq. The initial damage had been done two days earlier, with the first shooting. But the subsequent protests had been non-violent. In opening fire the second time, the Americans had fanned the flames of the insurgency in the region, intensifying and solidifying Fallujan hatred of the invaders. The following day, May 1, 2003, Reuters revisited the city. Their reporters interviewed local people and one, a retired soldier called Ibrahim Hamad, summed up the mood. ‘Everyone here was happy at first that the Americans threw out Saddam,’ he said. ‘But these killings will make all our children go off with bin Laden.’
From then on, Fallujah, with its history of blood feuds and revenge, became the centre of the rebellion in the Sunni heartlands. Less than a year later, the bridge we had crossed to enter the city was to become sickeningly infamous following the murders of four US security contractors from the company Blackwater. They were pulled from their car, beaten and shot to death, their dismembered bodies dragged through the streets and burned before the butchered, smouldering remains were slung from that bridge. It has become one of the most horrific images of the entire conflict.
Several US operations, with names like Operation Vigilant Resolve, Operation Plymouth Rock and Operation Phantom Fury have followed. Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of the city’s mosques destroyed.
The Americans say they’re rooting out extremists and insurgents. I’m sure many of the dead might be described in those terms. But I’m equally sure that many will have been women, children and innocent men.
And they have long, long memories in Fallujah.
(c) Julian Andrews