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/