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Edition 17

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Reportage

The road to Fallujah

APRIL 2004 FALLUJAH: Driving through the empty streets of Fallujah, I felt the stench of death in the air. I could feel the terror of the families locked behind the closed doors. Already seven hundred dead. The graveyards were full, so the local soccer field had to be dug up to make room to bury the dead from the assault on this town.

We cautiously made our way through the deserted streets straight to the clinic where our friends had helped out a few days before – a small neighbourhood clinic that had been transformed into a makeshift hospital after the main hospital in Fallujah was bombed and closed by the US military. Weary staff adapted admirably to the influx of wounded continually delivered in the backs of cars, vans and pick-ups – extra beds were wheeled in and cans of soft drink were emptied from the "Coke" machine so it could be used to cool bags of blood.

But the clinic had no disinfectant and no anesthetic, and lacked much of the other vital equipment required for the type of surgery the horrific wounds demanded. And as a form of collective punishment all electricity to Fallujah had been cut for days. The clinic had a generator, but when the petrol ran out the doctors had to continue surgery using the glow from cigarette lighters, candles and torches.

We spoke to the doctors – they were exhausted, and looked defeated as they told us the stories of their recent cases: a ten-year-old boy with a bullet wound to the head and a grandmother with an abdominal bullet wound from US snipers, young men with severe burns, limbs blown off, and so on. Each time a new patient arrived, the doctors quickly got up, put on a new set of surgical gloves and got to work. Many had worked for twenty-four hours straight, others regularly survived on only a few hours' sleep for days at a time. They didn't complain. They are the heroes of Fallujah.

We asked how we could help. The doctors wondered whether we could accompany an ambulance packed with food and medical supplies across town to a hospital that had been cut off. It was in the US-controlled section of the town so it could not receive aid because of constant sniper fire. The doctors figured our foreign nationality could make a difference in negotiating with the soldiers the safe passage of the ambulance.

It might seem a strange and unnecessary mission to help an ambulance drive from one place to another – anywhere else in the world, it's a basic right. But this is Fallujah and this is war, and nothing is as it should be – despite guarantees laid out in the Geneva Convention. The last time an ambulance went to this part of town it was shot at by US troops. I know this because two of my friends were in that ambulance, trying to reach a pregnant woman in premature labour. They didn't reach her, but the bullet holes in the ambulance are proof they tried.

So we packed the ambulance with supplies and got in the back. With me were three other foreigners: Jo, Dave and Beth – two British, an American and an Aussie, a good representation of young people from the "Coalition of the Willing" trying to counter-balance our countries' military intervention with loving intervention. We donned bright blue surgical gowns and held our passports in our hands. A couple of medical staff were with us, and the drivers up front.

We drove slowly through the parts of Fallujah controlled by Iraqi fighters then stopped in a side street that faced a main road. We could not go any further; the main road was under watch and control of US snipers. They had a habit of shooting at anything that moved. We parked the ambulance in the side street and the four of us got out with the mission to approach the American soldiers, communicate with them and get permission for the ambulance to continue to the hospital.

The area was completely quiet. The silence was unnerving. We prepared the loudspeaker, put our hands in the air and held our passports high. Before we ventured onto the main road, we called out a message from the side street. "Hello? American soldiers! We are a group of international aid workers. We are unarmed. We are asking permission to transport an ambulance full of medical supplies to the hospital. Can you hear us?"

The reply was a chilling silence.

We repeated the message. Again silence.

We looked at each other. Perhaps the soldiers were too far away to hear us? We had to walk on to the main road and take the risk that we would be clearly visible as unarmed civilians, and approach the soldiers with our hands in the air. I took a deep breath and for a split second thought that this was probably the most dangerous thing I had ever done. As I exhaled, my heart gave me strength. I looked at the others and could tell we were all thinking the same thing: "If I don't do this, who will?"

Their courage inspired me as we all stepped out onto the road together. We walked slowly with our arms raised. My eyes scanned the tops of the buildings for snipers. We didn't know where they were, so we walked towards the hospital. We repeated the message over and over again on the loudspeaker. In the silence, it would have been heard for hundreds of metres. It echoed eerily through the neighbourhood.

I turned my head briefly and just in time. In the distance, I saw two white flashes, then heard the loud "bang, bang" of gunshots and rapidly realised they were shooting into our backs. It all happened so fast: ducking, hearing the whizz of the bullets above our heads, diving for cover against a wall.

We huddled there for a moment behind a bush, then someone cried: "Let's go!" We crawled along the ground; at one stage I was walking low with my back hunched. In the scramble, I fell. My hands broke my fall on to sharp gravel on the rough ground. I felt the sting of pain and could see the blood, but I had no time to stop and check what had happened.We ended up in someone's backyard, and then made our way back to the ambulance, jumping fences and going through gates. My hands were covered with blood, my left foot cut and my passport stained red, an indelible reminder of the episode.

We regrouped. Although shocked and shaken, we didn't want to give up. Now we knew where the soldiers were, we could walk towards them. We decided to go out again. Same drill: we called out the message, then stepped out on to the road – this time facing the direction of the gunfire. "Hello! American soldiers. We are foreign aid workers – British, Australian, American. We are not armed. We are asking permission to transport an ambulance on this road."

My injured hand was shaking as I held my passport, now damp with blood. I tried to work out what I was feeling – fear, anger, determination? I still don't know. We had only repeated the message twice and walked a few metres when our answer came. Two more bullets. I think I entered a state of shock. I had been shot at not once, but twice, by American soldiers after politely asking permission to transport aid to a hospital. I guess the answer was "No".

Jo got angry. We all did. We stepped back to the corner, but Jo continued on the loud speaker. "Do you know it is against the Geneva Convention to fire at unarmed civilians and at ambulances?" she cried. "How would you feel if your sister was trapped in a hospital under siege without food or water?"

We took the loudspeaker from her. "May your trigger finger be plagued with warts," she continued under her breath.

We bundled into the back of the ambulance, a handy place to be with deep cuts and grazes. I bowed my head as someone tended to my wounds. We headed back to the clinic. My head was spinning. I felt angry, frustrated, my hands were aching. But strangely enough my spirit was intact. I had just walked with my hands in the air like a vulnerable lamb into the face of armed soldiers, yet this non-violent action and my complete and utter faith that the "rightness" of the mission would protect me had been immensely empowering.

We didn't deliver the supplies, just a clear message to the military: "We are not afraid. We will not be intimidated by your weapons. If we have to confront your violence to help people who are suffering then we will. We will do it without using violence. We will keep trying."

 

SILENT VICTIMS, NOISY ceasefire: We got back to the clinic and unpacked the ambulance, still bewildered by what had just happened – if it were not for my grazed and bleeding hands, I might not have believed it. We spent the next few hours trying to be useful around the place before the sun went down.

That afternoon, on the footpath outside the clinic, I saw one of the saddest sights of war. It was a small boy, about ten years old. He'd just got out of a van that was used to transport the wounded and dead. The disturbing thing was not that he was wounded. On the contrary – he was driving the van. He unloaded the bodies, reported the stories to the doctors and onlookers and gave orders while casually holding a Kalishnakov in his hand as if it were a cricket bat. It wasn't a cricket bat, but I couldn't stop thinking that it should have been. With a scarf wrapped around his neck, a strong face and confident attitude, I could see he was an experienced fighter. My heart sank at the thought of this little boy, now a little Mujahadeen, playing with bullets instead of marbles. The locals said he was a good shot.

It got worse. I saw a cute little girl, with pigtails, a pink shirt and a polka-dot scarf, also about ten years old, also brandishing a Kalishnakov. It was almost as big as her, but she handled it with ease, and it was obvious she had done so many times before. I hoped that she didn't really use it – that she was just posing as a show of unity for these desperate people. I hoped she had dolls at home to play with. Children, whether wounded, killed, traumatised by bombing or prematurely recruited as soldiers, are the silent victims of war.

Although we received a few curious looks from locals, the response to our presence was warm and friendly. People asked what we were doing there and, when we explained, faces broke out into large smiles and a tender shukran (thank you) followed. I felt this was as much a part of the mission as anything else – simply showing solidarity to people in their isolation and pain. Telling them they were not alone, that somebody cared. Delivering aid is one thing, but delivering a message of peace and friendship is just as important.

As night fell on Fallujah, the eerie silence was broken only by the sporadic gunfire that echoed through the empty streets. But that changed later when action from the so-called "ceasefire" kept us awake half the night. We stayed in the house of the Imam from the mosque. As we lay on mattresses on the floor, we talked about the day and made plans for the next one before eventually falling asleep.

At first I thought it was a dream – I was sure the mortar shells were being fired from the front yard, in fact right outside my window, so loud was the deep, resonating "boom, boom, boom" I felt in my gut each time. It's an ugly sound; it makes me cringe. It went on for ages. Rocket fire exchanging: from the ground to the air from the air to the ground like boxers exchanging blows. At about 3am, the mosque joined in and broadcast a call to prayer to encourage the people. So the haunting sound of the Imam singing intertwined with the bombs and mortar fire. It made me feel the same as it did during the war last year. "It seems for these people, the war never ended," I thought.

I went outside and was relieved to note that the rockets were not being launched from the front yard, but from an area only a block away, and I hoped they had a way of hiding the location. I looked up at the black, starry sky, breathed the cool night air and, in between the bombs, whispered the prayer I prayed so often last year during the bombing of Baghdad when I didn't know what else to say ... "Lord have mercy".

The bombing continued another hour or so. God it's hard to get to sleep during a ceasefire.

 

MESSAGE FROM THE Sheik: A little bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, we had a breakfast of bread and jam before heading to the clinic. The doctors said they'd like us to help retrieve the wounded who were stuck on the streets and in their homes. All the ambulances were in use, so we had to find a vehicle before we could start.

As we waited outside the clinic, we heard sporadic gunfire and blasts. "Everybody take cover," someone would yell when gunfire erupted on the street. We'd crouch, duck or go hard against the wall for a few minutes, then relax again until the next time.

Suddenly a white van came screeching up the street, drove straight up the gutter and pulled up near the door of the clinic. It was driven by the little ten-year-old Mujahadeen I'd met the day before. He used his Kalishnakov to point to his cargo in the back. There was a young man there, lying on a blood-soaked blanket. His clothes were ripped and I could see the insides of his stomach. His right arm had been ripped off from the elbow – all that was left was a bloody, fleshy stump. He was losing so much blood it started to form large pools on the blanket.

As they rushed him into the clinic, I put my head down and cursed. There was no way the basic set-up in there would be able to save him. He needed a fully equipped hospital. But Fallujah's main hospital was under the control of the Americans and not allowing Iraqi fighters to be treated there, only American soldiers. I wanted to go inside the clinic and follow his progress, but a mix of not wanting to get in the way and not wanting to faint convinced me to wait outside.

Some people told us about another young man who had been wounded in the leg and trapped on the street. He came in dead because his throat had been cut. Witnesses said American soldiers approached him as he lay on the street and cut his throat while his family watched from the window. When I hear stories like this, I feel that there are probably equally horrific ones from the other side – American soldiers, wounded and killed. Indeed, the story of the four US mercenaries killed and burnt in Fallujah is one the most horrific – and we heard it and saw it reported extensively in the media, again and again.

That's the difference – if someone is white and Western, we hear their stories over and over in the media. Their loss of life is "worth" a story. The Pentagon and its multi-million dollar public relations department ensures that the stories of their soldiers are the ones that reach the nightly news – not that of the Iraqi fighter defending his neighbourhood who had his throat cut while lying wounded on the streets of his home town, his family watching from the window. No, you won't see that story on Fox News. That's one of the reasons we went to Fallujah. To hear the stories that weren't being told and share them, provide a bit of balance.

I notice that, in the media, fighters in Fallujah are given a label – "remnants of Saddam's Feyadeen", "Sunni militia", "terrorists" – but those I saw were just ordinary men who lived in Fallujah. Fathers, brothers, sons taking up arms against a massive military machine. An unorganised band of ordinary men from a town of three hundred and fifty thousand keeping the US military at bay for six days straight is no mean feat.

As we continue to wait for a vehicle to use, we head down to the mosque on the corner to speak to the Sheikh. We are keen to get a good summary of what has been happening in Fallujah from a local's point of view. A gentle, softly spoken man, the Sheik told us that after five days of fighting there had been between five hundred and six hundred Iraqis killed and at least twelve hundred injured. He said these were conservative figures recorded by the hospitals, but they had no idea about the numbers of dead and wounded in the US-controlled part of town.

"What was the main challenge for the town at the moment?"

"Limited humanitarian aid for the people," he said. "Especially medical aid."

I asked him to tell us about the feelings of the people.

"The nature of the people of Fallujah is that they like peace. But after this the Americans have lost their only friends in Fallujah. Now all the people in Fallujah hate the occupation and the US soldiers. All the men are fighting, not just those who are army-trained. Even those who co-operated with the Americans are fighting. We are willing to fight to the last minute even if it will take a hundred years. We are all fighting in a different way."

He told us that Iraqis from all around the country had delivered aid and messages of solidarity to Fallujah, including Shia Muslims leaders and Christian leaders. One woman from a small town outside Fallujah even handed in her gold wedding ring to be sold so the money could be used to help the people. She was a poor woman and the gesture was extremely symbolic. "This proves that Fallujah is Iraq and Iraq is Fallujah. Our struggle has brought all Iraqis together."

Before we left, I had one more question for the Sheikh: "If you could send a message to George Bush, what would it be?"

He thought for a few moments before answering. "I wish that just once you would speak the truth." He talked about examples of where he felt Bush lied, not only to the Iraqi people, but to the American people as well – about the extent of US casualties in Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people. "With the US strategy now, we know there is a military goal but also a political one, because there is an election coming up.

"We wish they'd speak the truth about what's really going on. We wish there was an honest media to give to the truth about the suffering of the people of Fallujah.

"America is speaking about the law, but she's ignoring all the laws and conventions, especially the Geneva Convention. After three days of fighting in Fallujah, we lost eighty-six children. Will they tell the truth about this? A missile hit the house of a family and killed a pregnant woman. The baby inside her womb was saved. So he is born an orphan. After the crimes they've committed, how can Fallujah accept any Americans here?"

Before we finished our talk, I told the Sheik that I wanted him and the people of Fallujah to know that many people in Australia sent their peace and friendship. He smiled and said Shukran, but then he looked a bit perplexed. "I have a question for her," he told he translator pointing to me. "Australia is a big country," he said. "Both in size and in heart."

I nodded.

"Why is Australia following America if Australia is the bigger country? I don't understand," he said.

"Neither do I," I replied, his piercing question taking my breath away.

As we headed back towards the clinic, I saw the lifeless body of the young man brought in earlier wrapped in white sheets. He was being carried out of the clinic and into the back of the van. His body was held high, with honour and prayers and blessings given to him. No doubt he'll be buried at the football field with the scores of others.

With the main hospital in Fallujah closed by the US military to the people of Fallujah, without the correct surgical instruments needed to tend to his wounds at this little clinic, the young man had bled to death.

 

CAPTURED: AFTER TALKING to the Sheik, we realised it was unlikely that we'd get the vehicle we needed to do more work. It was getting late and we noticed some cars driving about cautiously. We were advised to move while we could. We agreed – if there was nothing more we could do, we should hit the road, aware it would be a difficult and dangerous drive out of the Fallujah city limits. It was unclear which group controlled what road, so our driver, Emad, had to choose the route wisely.

It seems he didn't. We drove to the edge of town and headed towards a lonely, dusty road. It was suspiciously empty, not a car in sight. Emad guessed there were American troops hidden behind some buildings, controlling the road with sniper fire. He stopped the car and got out, raised his hands and walked towards the area where he thought the soldiers would be. He called to them: "We are media and aid workers wanting to leave Fallujah. Can we pass?"

He walked a long way down the track and we started to feel a little vulnerable. Four foreigners – an Australian, two British and an American sitting in a car on a dirt track on the outskirts of a city at war. Another car was behind us with our female Iraqi translator, Akra. The answer from the Americans came with gunshots. We ducked, not knowing whether we were being shot at (again). Then more gunshots ripped through the air, but this time from the opposite direction.

My stomach was sick. We were caught in crossfire.

There was not much we could do except keep our heads down – not that it would have made much difference. If the car had been shot at, the bullets would have penetrated the metal and ripped us to pieces whether our heads were down or not. This image flashed in my mind for a second, but I refused to let it dwell there. We agreed that we had to get out, but where was the driver? Dave, sitting in the front passenger seat, shuffled across and grabbed the wheel, still with his head down. He somehow managed to reverse the car, turn it around and slowly head back towards the town. He was driving with one hand on the wheel, his eyes just peeping over the dashboard. We three girls were in the back huddled together with our heads on each other's laps.

When we thought we were out of danger of flying bullets, we slowly raised our heads.

"Hello?" A group of heavily armed Iraqi fighters, commonly referred to here as Mujahadeen, were waiting for us.

At first I was relieved: "Thank God we got out of the crossfire." But then I noticed a man whose face I couldn't see, because of the scarf wrapped around his head, aiming a rocket-launcher at me – well, it was aimed at everyone, but it felt like it was just me. It was a long shiny metal thing that protruded from his shoulder. Then I noticed that our car was surrounded by the scarved men, all their weapons pointing at us.

Next we did what came by instinct – put our hands in the air to indicate our lack of arms and willingness to co-operate. One of them jumped into the front passenger seat and motioned that we drive further on, behind the houses, then stop. They motioned for us to get out of the car. I noticed Emad had raced back and was speaking to them in Arabic, explaining who we were and what we were doing. I also noticed that the guy with the rocket launcher still had it pointed in our direction, which was rather unnerving.

I was hopeful that Emad would get us out of trouble, but this group of fighters didn't know him and didn't know who we were, and they needed to check us out. To them, we could well have been spies. They put us into another car, and we drove through the deserted town.

At this stage I didn't feel that I had been captured – I figured they'd just check out our story and give us a cup tea and we'd be on our way. I'm not the panicky type – I've never been timid or scared. I'm a faith-based optimist and calmly got into their car, happy that the guy with the rocket launcher could no longer point it at me. There was an element of uncertainty because I didn't actually know what was going to happen next, but I didn't let it take hold. "Can't wait for that tea," I thought, ignoring the fact that the driver had a grenade resting between his legs.

When we got to the house, I didn't know what to think. They offered us water and I heard Emad say: "Take it, you don't know when you'll get any again."

"What?" I thought, still hoping for tea, but accepting the water in case Emad was right. We sat on the floor and before long they brought in some heavily armed warrior-type fighters who were obviously the leaders of this particular militia. The head guy was dressed in khaki and had a long, shiny rocket flung across his shoulder as it were a golf club. He was heavy duty. He didn't look like he wanted to launch the rocket at us – but he did order the scarved boys to take our personal belongings from our pockets. I had my passport in the leg-pocket of my cargo pants. I couldn't believe that those damned leg-pockets, that I had criticised in the past as unnecessary fashion, had finally come in useful. They couldn't see my passport and I wasn't about to hand it over to anyone, whether they had a rocket over their shoulder or not.

I was still waiting for the offer of tea when the heavy-duty warrior pulled out some long scarves and started rolling them up. Emad knelt and took off his glasses.

"Oh my God," the thought horrified me. "We're going to be blindfolded." Images filled my mind of the three Japanese captives we saw on TV, one of them a friend of mine, blindfolded, shaking and then filmed screaming with knives held to their throats.

A sense of dread filled my body. I finally accepted that we were being held captive. I accepted I had no control over the situation. I accepted that the prospects of being offered a cup of tea were slim. I looked at the others. Their faces were white and I heard them whisper what sounded like final words to each other.

But the warrior turned Emad around and used the scarf to tie his hands behind his back. No blindfolds. The other men had their hands tied too. We girls were left alone. I breathed again.

Under guard, we were driven to another house. "That cup of tea will come as soon as we get inside," I thought, my spirits rising again. We were ushered into a large room lined with cushions on the floor – a typical Iraqi living room, although it felt like a family had not sat in there for a long time. Dave had his hands untied and we sat on the floor waiting for instructions. A man sat near the door holding a gun, making it clear that we were not free to leave.

After a while, an older man came in dressed in civilian clothes – a long, brown, traditional dress. He seemed like an "elder" type, a leader in the community. He had a serious face, but it was also dignified. It seemed like it was his job to figure out who we were. They would have suspected we were spies, and he needed to find out. He sat in a chair and started to ask questions. Akra, the Iraqi woman with us, translated. I was the closest to him so he started with me: "What are you doing here? Why are you in Iraq?"

The others listened quietly and then it occurred to him to have them leave the room so he could interrogate us separately. I was comfortable with this because I knew our stories would corroborate and prove we were telling the truth. I sat up straight, ready to answer any question from this man, who was softly spoken and had a wise face. When I told him I was Australian, he raised his eyebrows. This interested him greatly, and he leaned forward to ask his next question, and the next and the next.

The following thirty minutes of interrogation took me through a range of emotions. I felt profoundly sad, ashamed to the point of anguish, angry, passionate and at one point moved to tears. At the end I was shaken and could hardly talk. Not because of fear of this man or his group, but from the shocking realisation of how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt – betrayed by my country.

 

INTERROGATION: THE MAN in the long, brown dress was fascinated by Australia's involvement in the war. But he was also deeply disappointed. "Tell me about this man, your president ... Howard?" he asked. "Why did he go to war with Iraq?"

Then, referring to the Prime Minister's recent public remarks confirming Australia's commitment to keeping troops in Iraq, he asked: "Why did he appear on the television pledging support for America?"

The comments were given extensive coverage on Iraqi TV and Arab satellite networks such as Al-Jazeera. My Iraqi friends were alarmed when they saw this, and warned that it could land me in trouble. Ra'id raced to my house one day: "Donna, what is he doing? Tell this man to keep his mouth shut! He will make all Iraqis hate Australia. You must stay inside now!"

He explained that most Iraqis aren't aware of the extent of Australia's involvement in the war; many didn't even know there were Australian soldiers here and should not be alerted to it on prime-time television by the leader of the offending nation. Ra'id's warning proved wise. Prior to this, the response I got to being Australian had always been warm and enthusiastic. But in the last few weeks I'd been astounded by the stony looks and questions like: "Why does your country follow America?"

As I tried to reason with the brown man, I felt that I had the weight of Australian foreign policy resting on my shoulders. The load was heavy. And this burden was the last thing I needed while being held captive by Iraqi fighters from Fallujah who felt the full brunt of the invasion every day. I cursed John Howard in my head. Why couldn't he come and explain to the Iraqi people why he had participated in an invasion of their country? How could I even attempt to explain a policy that I believed was reckless, small-minded, dangerous and irresponsible.

I didn't. I told him I didn't agree with John Howard, so I could not justify his decision. For the next few minutes, I put forward my views on the war with as much passion and clarity as I could muster sitting on the floor in that dark room in a Fallujah house. I explained that I came to Iraq last year as a human shield to show my opposition to war and violence, and to be with the Iraqi people in solidarity. And now I had returned to help pick up the pieces – especially the pieces of the broken children left homeless and suffering trauma as a result of the war. I explained that John Howard was a conservative politician, and that I belonged to a party which opposed him. That we were hopeful the elections this year would deliver us a new prime minister who would withdraw Australian troops from Iraq.

His face brightened. "A new prime minister?"

"We hope for this," I said.

"Insha' Allah (God willing)," he replied.

Finally, I'd made a connection that may well have saved me. But still, with pain in his eyes, the brown man's questions continued and became more specific. "How many Australian soldiers are in Iraq? Where are they based and what are they doing? What do the Australian people think about Iraq? Do they want to be at war with Iraq?" He looked intently at me: "Do they want to hurt Iraqi people?"

The question broke my heart and I had to choke back tears as I thought about all my friends at home who opposed the war. I told him that Australians didn't want to hurt Iraqi people. That the majority opposed the war and took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands last year in demonstrations. "Then why did the government go to war, if the people didn't agree? This is what happened, and you want to bring usdemocracy?"

I was back to square one, shrugging my shoulders and feeling stupid that I came from a so-called democracy. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to express to him the longings of every Australian man, woman and child who marched and took action opposing the war. I wanted him to feel their desire for peace. I desperately wanted him to believe this. I said it as best I could.

He sat back and thought for a few moments. I sat in silence in my anguish.

The silence was broken by gunshots and explosions. Outside on the streets of Fallujah, where bodies of women and children lie on the ground, outside where an ambulance cannot move without being shot at, outside where no one can walk freely without the risk of a sniper's bullet through the head.

I was held in a room with a man holding a gun blocking the door, but in that moment I realised that I was not the captive. He was. And his wife and his children and his neighbours ... I hung my head in shame. I couldn't hold the tears any longer so I let them come. Tears for Iraq and for Australia.

 

KINDNESS: AFTER THE questioning, I was led out of the cushioned room and Jo was ushered in. Beth and David were sitting on a rug on the floor down the corridor. They sat in silence and as I sat down their expressions indicated that I should not talk. We were guarded by a man wearing denim jeans, joggers, t-shirt and the trademark kaffiyeh (scarf) wrapped around his head. All we could see were his eyes. I could tell that he was young – perhaps only nineteen. He held a Kalashnikov. There was a doorway nearby with a thin curtain separating us from the next room. I could hear the others in there and figured it was probably the kitchen.

I appreciated the silence. I could think about the interrogation I'd just had with the brown man and what it all meant. There were a couple of packets of biscuits sitting on the rug for us. I started to munch on them as I sat and thought. At one stage, I wrestled with the packet. I just couldn't get it open: "there must be a way!" The boy looked at me and my efforts to open the packet in disbelief. Finally he put down his gun, gently took the packet of biscuits and opened them for me. "Shukran," I said, embarrassed, but grateful for this small kindness. The kindness didn't stop there. Beth was feeling ill and curled up in a ball. After seeing this, the boy brought a blanket to put over her. When he saw me yawn and stretch out on the floor, he brought me a pillow. After a while, we started whispering between ourselves and were not asked to stop, so finally we began to talk. Jo returned and David was called in. Then the moment I'd been waiting for ... "Chai?" the scarved boy asked, a little shy. "You bet," I answered. "I knew we'd get a cup of tea," I said to the others smugly. In Iraq, offers to drink tea come about twenty times a day, in keeping with the famous Middle Eastern hospitality. Just waving to someone on the street can evoke a "You must come to my house for tea."

So, even though were we strangers, even though we could well have been spies, even though the armies of our countries were terrorising their families, the scarved boy did not forget his culture or his manners. His mother would have been proud. During the next few minutes, I heard giggling on the other side of the curtain. I imagined the scene. Iraqi masked Mujahadeen fighters putting down their Kalishnakovs to make tea for women. No doubt hoping their friends would never hear about this!

The tea was good and I started to relax. It was an omen for me and, although I could see some angst in the faces of the others, I was confident we would all be okay. The brown man had told us before: "Don't be afraid. We are Muslims. We cannot harm you." I believed him. I thanked God for people who followed their beliefs and I also thanked him for faith – which, as always, was my comfort.

After the brown man finished with David, we were all asked to go back into the main living room. He asked some more general questions and searched our bags. This was good for us because he looked at our cameras. The most recent pictures and footage showed images of what we did in Fallujah and our work with the children back in Baghdad. With the search complete, he left; but an armed guard sat near the door. We sat on the floor and talked as the afternoon passed, trying to stay positive. I was grateful for the people I was with. They were all mature and level-headed; others could easily have panicked and responded inappropriately.

Akra, our translator, was feeling the weight of it all and suddenly burst into tears. She was frightened, not only about what might happen but about what her family would think of it. In this culture, for a woman to stay away from her house overnight is a great shame. Our capture meant she would be away two nights. We assured her that her family would understand, but she was not convinced. "What if they don't let us go?" she cried, reciting prayers in Arabic as she sobbed. I went up to her and said: "Akra, I have big faith in God. Everything will be okay."

"Yes, but you don't know my Mama!" she wailed. Even though Akra was serious, we all couldn't help but laugh out loud. Later on, we said this to each other to try to keep the atmosphere light and to cheer up Akra, who cried for hours.

We also sang some songs for her: from Abba, the Beatles and even Waltzing Matilda. I started Bohemian Rhapsody but by the second line they begged me to stop. But the singing was soothing for Akra. Jo, who has worked as a clown in Iraq, got out her balloons and made a couple of balloon animals. She gave one to Akra and one to the man with the gun. "Do you have children?" she asked him.

"Yes," he said. "They've been taken to Baghdad." She handed him a purple giraffe for them which made him smile. Then he began to talk. "They killed my brother," he said softly. "And my brother's son and my sister's son. My other brother is in jail. I am the only one left. Do you know how this feels?"

The looks on our faces told him we didn't.

"And now my best friend was killed. His throat was cut by American soldiers after they shot him in the leg. He was on the street and couldn't run away."

"Oh God," I thought. His friend was one of the bodies that had come into the clinic. As this man's anguish gushed out of him I wondered if he wanted to whack us all as revenge for the death of half his family. Or perhaps that would not be enough to relieve his pain. But, in an act of restraint I dearly wished others had shown, he didn't. He didn't punish us for something we didn't do, despite the fact he and his family had been punished for something they didn't do. As if to read our minds, he reminded us: "We are Muslims. We won't hurt you." Then he just held the giraffe and sat in silence.

They brought us a big meal, more tea and medicine for Beth. As the hours passed, the windowless room became increasingly hot and stuffy. We were relieved when they told us to get up and move to the car. We were being taken to another house. It was dark by now, and as we passed through the Fallujah streets I caught glimpses of the bright, starry sky. It was stunning.

Before we entered the house, I lingered to stare at the sky as long as I could. I smiled as I thought about one of my favorite lines from my teacher. "Don't worry about tomorrow," He had said. "Tomorrow will worry about itself. Consider the lilies of the field and the creatures of the air ..."

In other words, when you're anxious, contemplate beauty. Dwell on the wonder of nature. That night He gave me the beauty of that starry sky to contemplate and I was grateful.

Inside the new house, we girls were put into a room while David was kept separate. After an hour or so, there was a knock at the door. The man had a message: "Tomorrow you will be released and taken to Baghdad. We must arrange for someone to take you there," he said. "The roads are dangerous and you could be kidnapped."

We smiled with irony at the concern of our captors. When he closed the door, the others cheered and we all hugged each other. I had a feeling we would be released tomorrow anyway, but the confirmation was appreciated. He told us we would leave after first prayers, at dawn. They gave us an evening meal and more tea and biscuits. In our room, with the door closed, we talked a lot about the day and worried about David. Being alone out there with all the men with guns would not have been comfortable. He admitted later to wondering whether he was having his "last supper" with the men who might kill him.

It was hard to sleep that night, not just because of the heat, the rickety fan or the strange circumstances. The bombing that went on all around for hours was intense. The blasts were loud and they shook the house. My stomach was in knots half the night. Talking to the others in the morning, we agreed that we'd heard a strange type of bomb. From our experience, it sounded like a cluster bomb. They land with a loud blast, then there is a whirling noise and a series of explosions as the bomblets spread about, ready for children to pick up. Cluster bombs are responsible for blowing off the arms and legs of many hundreds of children in Iraq. Their colour and shape are attractive to kids when they see them, evil contraptions, designed to kill and maim human beings. If they were cluster bombs that we heard, it can be guaranteed that whenever the fighting in Fallujah ends, these things will be killing innocent people for years.

Well past dawn I began to wonder whether our journey to Baghdad would eventuate. Finally there was a knock at the door and we were asked to hurry up. We were put into two cars with our bags. Our driver was an imam, the other his friend. As we approached the road out of Fallujah, there were scores of cars in a queue waiting to leave, but not moving. Our hearts sank. Akra panicked. Would we be stuck another night? Our driver wove his way up to the top of the queue. The people there explained that the Americans had blocked the road and were not letting anyone pass. They had just fired shots at one car that had attempted to use the road. One lady pointed to her car full of children. "I want to take my children out before they're killed," she said. "Why won't they let us leave?"

I looked at the other cars: they were all full of families, desperate to escape the bloody violence of Fallujah. There were hundreds of them. I couldn't believe the soldiers would not let these people drive to safety. "Can you help us?" they asked.

We looked at each other and decided we had to try. We got out of the car and prepared ourselves. There was a long stretch of empty road that was the "no man's land" between cars and the soldiers. We held our hands in the air, grabbed the loudspeaker and began to walk down the deserted road toward the concrete and razor wire where the soldiers were. The blood on my passport reminded me of the last time I did this. We hoped for a better outcome this time.

 

THE ROADBLOCK: SO we began to walk down the empty, dusty road towards a collection of concrete blocks and razor wire where the soldiers were guarding the roadblock. Behind us was a queue of hundreds of cars full of ordinary people – terrified and trying to flee to safety. A few had already given up and turned around after gunshots from US soldiers warned them not to come any closer. Fallujah had become a bloody prison – no one was allowed in or out.

We couldn't see the soldiers, but we followed the same procedure as we had a few days before: hijabs off so it was clear we were Western, arms in the air, passport in hands and message on the loudspeaker: "Hello American soldiers. We are unarmed foreign civilians. We are trying to leave Fallujah – please don't shoot."

We repeated this a few times and walked slowly towards the checkpoint. I squinted into the distance as I heard our message echo back, but there was no movement ahead. We were halfway down the road when finally I saw the outline of a soldier in the distance. We repeated the message and heard his faint reply: "We won't shoot. Proceed."

Relieved, we walked the rest of the way to meet him. He was surprised to see us, and a little on edge, but greeted us cordially. About ten others hovered around with machine guns in hand, bemused by the sight of us. We explained that we had been in Fallujah to help deliver and distribute aid and that we were trying to get back to Baghdad. The soldier in charge agreed to let our two cars pass. That was great news, but it was not enough. "What about the others?" we asked – the "others" being the hundreds of families sitting in their hot, overcrowded cars hoping somehow to escape the hell that had descended. Anxious women, frightened children, crippled old men and young men who didn't want to fight. "You must let these people through," we pleaded. "They just want to travel to safety."

The solider in charge hesitated.

"They are civilians with a few belongings just wanting to escape the violence," we explained. We put the case for another five minutes or so and finally the soldier responded.

"Okay, we'll let the women and children through," he announced as though he'd made a great concession – a concession that was useless. This soldier didn't seem to have a grip on local culture.

"The women don't drive cars. And if one or two of them do they can't go alone without the company of a man from their family," I told him gently. His concession meant that none of the hundreds of cars in the queue would be able to pass.

He nodded: "Okay, we'll let the old men through."

Again, this would have allowed just a few cars to pass. I didn't understand the logic in forcing the young men to stay, and questioned him. "The men who want to leave don't want to fight you – surely you want to let them go so they are not forced to pick up a gun to defend themselves against you?"

The soldier in charge didn't respond out loud, but one of the others did, perhaps not meaning for us to hear. "We want them all in there together so we can finish them off all at once. It makes it easier."

I would have taken this as a joke had the soldier in charge not reiterated his command immediately. "No. The men cannot leave. We have orders."

We headed back to the queue. The people were waiting for us, their faces hopeful. A translator explained: "The woman and children can go, and the old men."

A clean-cut man in his forties standing near me grabbed my arm. He held his baby daughter in his arms. "Can I go?" he asked with desperation. My heart sank. I had to explain to this Iraqi man with his baby, wife and car full of kids that he could not leave the bombing, the shooting, the chaos of Fallujah on a public road that belonged to him.

A tank from a foreign country which had come with claims of "liberation" was taking this man's freedom before my eyes. I put my head down.

"No," I said. "They won't let you go." I hardly believed the words as I spoke them. "They will let your wife and children go," I said, knowing how stupid that would sound to him.

"How can they go alone?" he screamed pointing to the empty driver's seat where he would have to sit for his family to escape to safety. The fear on his wife's face crushed my heart. I couldn't take it anymore, couldn't bear to see these families turn back to God knows what.

We headed back to the soldiers to try again. We told them the cars were all driven by men with their families. Not allowing them to pass would mean refusing women and children a passage to safety. "Do you know the Geneva Convention?" we asked, not really expecting an answer. The head guy shuffled from foot to foot as he deliberated. We stood holding our breaths with our fingers crossed.

"Okay," he said. "Men can pass, but only if they are accompanying a family." Yes! That would at least ensure the women and children could get out, and many of the men. We went back and explained the new condition. For people who couldn't hear, we just pointed to their car and gave a thumb's up. They clapped, cheered and yelled out: "Thank you! God bless you!"

But it was a bitter-sweet victory – tempered by the fact that the only reason the soldiers allowed anyone through was because a bunch of foreigners were watching and reminding them of the Geneva Convention. They should have just let them through because they were Iraqi people wanting to move about in their own country. I shuddered to think what was happening at other checkpoints. And still there were the young men. There was a large group in their early twenties in the back of a pick-up. They would not leave Fallujah today. We could not give them a logical reason and did not repeat to them the threatening words of the soldiers.

So we got back into our cars and slowly led the way through no man's land towards the checkpoint. They searched our cars and we were ushered through. The car behind us, packed with a large family, got through too. They stuck close behind us. I turned my head to check what was happening. The soldiers were doing thorough searches of the cars. It would be a long day for these Fallujans, but hopefully they would eventually drive to safety. As for the young men who didn't want to fight – they would have to go back to the hell of Fallujah and face the uncertainty of being a civilian caught in a war where there were no rules.

As we drove away, I was overcome by sadness as I remembered the fear and desperation on the faces of the people. I couldn't help thinking: why should these people be so frightened that they are forced to flee their own homes? Why are they now refugees in their own country? Where would they go? How long will their lives be upside down? How long before the killing would stop and promised "freedom" would come?

There were no answers as we drove away to the sound of another bomb blast shaking Fallujah.


From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review