The Guardian April 21, 2004


Falluja in April

Jo Wilding

Trucks, oil tankers and tanks are burning on the highway east to 
Falluja. A stream of boys and men goes to and from a lorry that's 
not burnt, stripping it bare. We turn onto the back roads singing 
in Arabic, 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 
Falluja.

The reason I'm on the bus going to Falluja is that a journalist I 
knew turned up at my door at about 11 at night telling me things 
were desperate there. He'd been bringing out children with their 
limbs blown off. The US soldiers were going around telling people 
to leave by dusk or be killed, but then when people fled with 
whatever they could carry, they were being stopped at the US 
military checkpoint on the edge of town and not let out, trapped, 
watching the sun go down.

We pile the stuff in the corridor and the boxes are torn open 
straightaway, the blankets most welcome. It's not a hospital at 
all but a clinic, a private doctor's surgery treating people free 
since air strikes destroyed the town's main hospital. Another has 
been improvised in a car garage. There's no anaesthetic. The 
blood bags are in a drinks fridge and the doctors warm them up 
under the hot tap in an unhygienic toilet.

Screaming women come in, praying, slapping their chests and 
faces. Ummi, my mother, brings me to a bed where a child of about 
ten 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 
Falluja.

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.

An old woman has just had an abdominal bullet wound stitched up. 
Another in her leg is being dressed, the bed under her foot 
soaked with blood, a white flag still clutched in her hand and 
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 left 
since 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 no 
one can go to collect them without being shot.

Some said we were mad to come to Iraq; quite a few said we were 
completely insane to come to Falluja and now there are people 
telling me that getting in the back of the pick-up to go past the 
snipers and get sick and injured people is the craziest thing 
they've ever seen. I know, though, that if we don't, no one will.

He's holding a white flag with a red crescent on; I don't know 
his name. 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 pick-up at the edge of the Mujahedin territory, which 
has just gone from our sight around the last corner 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, points.

The 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?" They 
must. They're about 30 metres from us, maybe less, and it's so 
still you could hear the flies buzzing at 50 paces. I repeat 
myself a few times, still without reply, so decide to explain 
myself a bit more.

"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'm sure they can hear me but they're still not responding. Maybe 
they didn't understand it all, so I say the same again. Another 
man, Dave yells too in his US accent. I yell again. Finally I 
think I hear a shout back. Not sure, I call again.

"Hello."

"Yeah."

"Can we come out and get him?"

"Yeah."

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. His 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 as best we can 
and try to outrun the flies.

No more than 20 years old, in imitation Nike pants and a blue and 
black striped football shirt with a big 28 on the back. As the 
orderlies from the clinic pull the young fighter off the pick-up, 
yellow fluid pours from his mouth and they flip him over, face 
up.

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, one on a stretcher, legs jerking violently so I have to 
hold them down as we wheel him out, lifting him over steps.

The doctor rushes out to meet me: "Can you go to fetch a lady, 
she is pregnant and she is delivering the baby too soon?"

Azzam is driving. Something scatters across my hand, simultaneous 
with the crashing of a bullet through the ambulance, some plastic 
part dislodged, flying through the window.

We stop, turn off the siren, keep the blue light flashing, wait, 
eyes on the silhouettes of men in US marine uniforms on the 
corners of the buildings. Several shots come. We duck, get as low 
as possible and I can see tiny red lights whipping past the 
window, past my head. Some, it's hard to tell, are hitting the 
ambulance I start singing. What else do you do when someone's 
shooting at you? A tyre bursts with an enormous noise and a jerk 
of the vehicle.

I'm outraged. We're trying to get to a woman who's giving birth 
without any medical attention, without electricity, in a city 
under siege, in a clearly marked ambulance, and you're shooting 
at us. How dare you?

* * *
Abridged: for full text and other material visit Jo Wilding's website http://www.wildfirejo.org.uk/

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