A Visit to a Bombed Village
What the U.S. War in Iraq Looks Like Up Close
BY ZACHARY FINK, The Progressive, 10/1999
In July, I traveled to Iraq with members of Voices in The Wilderness, a nonprofit anti-war group. The group has been to the country twenty-five times since 1996 to deliver food and medicine to the Iraqi people, though this was my first time. Whenever Voices in The Wilderness goes to Iraq, it is openly violating U.S. law, which prohibits unauthorized transactions in Iraq. I was part of an eight-person delegation. I carried a small digital camera but did not identify myself as a journalist to the Iraqi government.
While we were there, several towns in the southern part of the country were attacked by U.S. warplanes. According to the Pentagon, U.S. and British warplanes have struck Iraq more than 130 times since the first of the year. In each strike, many bombs are dropped.
We arrived in Najaf just a few days after a July 19 bombing raid. Najaf is a city of approximately 300,000 people and is two hours south of Baghdad. The official Iraqi news agency claimed that seventeen people were killed. The people we spoke to on the ground said fourteen people had been killed and eighteen injured.
The first bomb landed in the middle of a small village outside the city, they told us. On one side of the road were houses and stores; on the other side were garages and repair shops for automobiles. The bomb had left a crater in the road, and bulldozers were preparing to pave over it when we arrived. Eyewitnesses described the attack as a large explosion followed by several smaller ones.
The people in the village were poor. Many wore ragged clothes. When we left our air-conditioned van and walked out into the oppressive heat, villagers swarmed around us. They tugged on our sleeves and spoke frantically in Arabic. They pointed to the crater, then pointed to the sky. They tried to pull us toward some of the houses away from the road, but our group leader told us to proceed with caution. People formed tight circles around me as I took pictures with my camera. Witnesses showed us marks on a garage wall where bomb fragments had landed. Pieces of shrapnel with razor-sharp edges were strewn about the ground. Our guide from the humanitarian organization Red Crescent was eager to move on.
A second bomb had struck about fifty yards away from a grain processing plant. We were taken inside a dormitory for the factory workers.
Every window we saw in the building had been shattered from the explosion. Broken glass crunched under our feet as we made our way through bedrooms and the living room. A ceiling fan lay on the floor where it had fallen just days earlier. A tricycle was parked nearby.
Outside the house, workers showed us pieces of the bomb. A serial number--30003-318, 96214-4215, 21562-32490--was etched into one of the pieces of plastic that was torn and twisted from the impact. Shell casings for bomblets were also handed to us as evidence that this was no precision-guided munition, but possibly a cluster bomb intended to kill human beings.
Each container was empty of its explosives. The workers took some members of our delegation into the back of the factory to show them that grain was indeed processed here. Through a translator, we were told that there was no radar at that location and no military machinery.
Our group was then taken to the area hospital where many of the victims were recovering. Mohammed Nadar, a thirty-one-year-old cab driver, was wounded in the attack. He pointed to shrapnel in his back and told us that he was driving his taxi when the bomb struck. Three of his passengers were killed instantly and another was wounded, he said.
His wife and son sat next to his bed. They watched us come in and ask questions, but they said nothing. Nadar stared at us with deep black eyes. He spoke quietly in Arabic. "It's hatred," he said. "Why kill civilians? Why drop a bomb at 6:00 p.m. when children are playing?"
He lay sideways on the bed, wearing only shorts. The bottoms of his feet were burned. Behind him, a window was wide open; a light breeze offered a bit of relief from the heat and humidity. The window allowed the only light inside the room. Doctors explained that the electricity shuts off for several hours each day. Without power, many medications that need to be refrigerated go bad, and the lack of air conditioning makes the patients even more uncomfortable.
In the next room, we saw a six-year-old boy with his right arm missing. According to doctors, his arm had to be amputated because his tissue was severely burned. The boy did not move his body while we were in the room. His eyes darted past us, but he did not speak. He had a bewildered look on his face. A fly landed on his lip, and he made no attempt to shoo it away. The boy's mother sat at the end of the bed. She also said nothing, staring blankly at us as I took more pictures.
In another room, doctors used a bloody cotton ball to dab a ten-inch wound on the stomach of Abdullah Shakur, a thirty-one-year-old mechanic. Shakur's arm was in a sling, and his wounds looked fresh. Crude stitchwork prevented his insides from spilling out. Flies landed in and around the open sores. Despite the seriousness of his injuries, Shakur was speaking in an animated tone. One of the doctors translated for us. "I'm not very educated," Shakur said, "but I ask Clinton why does he kill the people of Iraq?" Shakur pointed to his son Ahmed. He said that Ahmed is too young to go and work and provide for the family. "Now that I am crippled, I'm worried about what I will do," Shakur said.
You could feel the desperation in every hospital room. Twenty-seven-year-old Ahmed Abid Zaid was lying in a stiff position in one of the other rooms we entered. He had bandages on his head. He wore gray pants and a gray shirt. His eyes followed us as we walked into the room, but his body did not move. We were told that bomb fragments were still lodged in his head and his body was paralyzed as a result. Doctors were planning on operating in the next few days, but medicines are in short supply because of the economic sanctions. Zaid was supposed to be married in three days. But because of the injuries, he could no longer speak.
Our delegation did not see any dead bodies because Muslim tradition requires burial within twenty-four hours of death. But people told us some bodies had been torn to shreds by shrapnel.
The United States did not acknowledge any civilian casualties in its raid on Najaf. According to a military spokesman, U.S. planes dropped bombs in response to an Iraqi missile threat while they were patrolling the southern "No Fly Zone." When asked about the bombing on July 20, Defense Secretary William Cohen said: "We have no evidence any civilians were killed by this particular operation."
Such denials have become routine. And the military is reluctant to share information about what kinds of weapons are used in the raids. According to the Pentagon, any time U.S. pilots drop bombs, it is in response to an Iraqi challenge. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has offered a reward to any soldier who can shoot down a U.S. or British plane, but so far none have been hit. After seeing some of the cannons that the Iraqi military uses, this does not surprise me. I saw what appeared to be a military camp about three miles up the road from the area in Najaf where the U.S. bombs landed. But the weaponry looked as though it were left over from the set of a bad World War I movie. I'm no expert, but these guns were not about to shoot down an F-16.
Iraqis say the bombing raids come almost daily. Sometimes villages are hit; other times the bombs fall in more remote areas. The Pentagon acknowledges there have been more bombs dropped on Iraq since January than during Operation Desert Fox last December, when U.S. jets began pounding Iraqi targets the day before the House of Representatives was set to impeach President Clinton.
U.S. military officials say the raids will continue as long as Iraqi radar continues to lock onto jets patrolling the "No Fly Zones." But the United Nations never authorized these "No Fly Zones." After the Gulf War, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 688, which ordered Saddam Hussein to stop repressing Iraq's civilian population. The allies set up the northern "No Fly Zone" ostensibly to enforce that resolution and to protect the Kurdish population. A year later, the Bush Administration set up the southern "No Fly Zone" ostensibly to protect Shi'ite Muslims.
But Iraqis we spoke with said they were much more afraid of U.S. bombers than they were of their own government. Ikbal Fartous, a thirty-eight-year-old English teacher, lives in Jamariya, a neighborhood in Basra that was hit by U.S. cruise missiles in January. Her three-year-old son was killed in the attack. Her other son, Mustafa, was severely injured. Fartous peeled the shirt off of Mustafa's back to reveal scars and indentations covering almost every inch of his body. She explained that some of the shrapnel is still lodged underneath his skin.
"Mustafa comes to me when he hears the planes. He buries his head," Fartous said. "Every day they come, in the middle of the night . . . even yesterday evening."
Zachary Fink is a reporter at New Jersey Network News, a PBS station. Before that, he was the morning news anchor at WBAI-FM Pacifica Radio in New York City.
This page, and all contents, are Copyright (c) 1999 by The Progressive, Madison, WI.