Jo Wilding | 26.03.2003 23:14
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The Farmhouse at Dialla
It’s hard now to tell the bombings from the storm: both beat at the windows and thunder through the city, but after a missile explodes, flocks of birds fill the sky, disturbed by the shock waves. After a gust, they are replaced by a cornucopeia of rubbish, drifting in the smog of sand and dust and smoke which has turned the air a dirty orange so thick it blotted out the sun and everything went dark in the middle of the day. Even the rain was filthy: the cleansing, healing drops fill with grime on the way down and splatter you with streaks of mud.
In the end three people died yesterday in the farmhouse which was bombed at Dialla, including the young wife, Nahda, who was missing in the rubble. She, along with Zahra, the eight year old daughter and her aunt, Hana, were buried this morning. People are taken for burial in coffins but are buried in shrouds and a pick up returned to the remains of the house with the three caskets, cobbled out of small pieces of wood, riding in the back.
In fact the couple had been married just one week, not three as I wrote yesterday, and a neighbour showed us a flouncy pink invitation to the wedding festival. Omar, the bridegroom, sat silently crying on the floor in the hospital corridor, leaning on the wall, body bent, head in his hands.
Neighbours said the bomb hit at 4pm yesterday. The plane had been flying overhead for a while, they said, when it fired three rockets, one of which demolished the entire upper storey of the house. It looked as if it had only ever been a bungalow until, clambering through the hallway, we came to the stairs, leading up to nothing.
Small farmhouses sat between cultivated fields, the occasional cow, two or three compact plots, then another building. A couple of sheep held court over the empty marketplace as we entered the village, over the small Dialla Bridge across a slim branch of the Tigris. There was nothing which could explain the attack: nothing which even looked like a target that, perhaps, the pilot might have been aiming for. It made no sense. The villagers said the plane had been circling overhead. Its pilot must have seen what was there.
The animal shelters behind the house were crumpled, the family’s cow lying crushed under her roof. They wouldn’t have known that yet, still in the hospital. The windows of sixteen houses nearby were all broken, the neighbours told us, and the blast made the children’s ears bleed.
Ration sacks were piled in the kitchen and there was a bowl of green beans which looked as if they were being prepared for an evening meal. Two or three of the neighbours invited us to eat in their homes. Humbling seems too small a word for the experience of being invited to share food and hospitality, by people with so little, while crouching in the rubble of their friends’ and neighbours’ home which was obliterated, with several lives, by my country, only the previous day.
Hours earlier, in the Al Kindi hospital, we had gone to take a statement from another casualty. He was dying, his family around him, so we didn’t go into the room. As we walked away one of the men came after us with a tin of sweets to offer us. “Thankyou for coming,” he said in English. These people constantly overwhelm me with their dignity, their kindness, their gentle grace and warmth.
The Iraqis call it orange weather: some say it is on their side. It’s not even 5 o’clock and the sun won’t set till nearly seven but it’s dark outside. I half imagined the war being like this, the sky staying dark all the time, but without the orange. It stinks as well, of smoke and oil and I don’t know what else. The darkness and the grime and the fierce cold wind lend an unnecessary sense of apocalypse to the flooded craters, broken trees, gaping windows and wrecked houses where the bombs have hit.
I know I’m not supposed to understand this, so I won’t bother telling you I don’t. Today I met Essa Jassim Najim, a 28 year old first-year engineering student from a farming family near Babylon. He couldn’t speak because of shrapnel wounds to his head and neck but his father explained that three days ago they were attacked by two groups of Apache helicopters. The first group attempted to land and the farmers resisted them with guns, aided by the Civil Defence Force. The second group of helicopters attacked the house, destroying it with a missile.
Another farming community in Al Doraa also reported an attack by Apache helicopters at 4pm on Saturday. Atta Jassim died when a missile hit his house. Moen, his eight-year-old son had multiple bowel and intestinal injuries from shrapnel: part of his intestine had been removed. His six-year-old brother Ali and mother Hana were also injured by shrapnel.
Saad Shalash Aday is another farmer, from Al Mahmoodia in South Baghdad. He had a fractured leg and multiple shrapnel wounds including a ruptured spleen, perforated caecum, colon and small bowel, abdominal and leg wounds. Two of his brothers, Mohammed and Mobden, were also injured and ten year old twin boys Ahmed and Daha Assan were killed in the same house when a bomb exploded two or three metres from the building. The doctor, Dr Ahmed Abdullah, said two other men were killed in the same attack around 6pm yesterday (Tuesday): Kherifa Mohammed Jebur, a 35 year old farmer and another man whose name nobody present knew.
Eight houses and four cars were destroyed and cows, sheep and dogs were killed. The eyewitnesses described two bombs, each causing an explosion in the air, and cylindrical containers – cluster bombs, some of which exploded on the ground. Others did not explode. The two explosions were about 300 metres apart, with a few minutes between them. From first hearing the plane overhead until the second explosion, they estimated, took about 10 minutes.
“Is this democracy?” the men demanded to know, gathered by Saad’s bed. “Is this what America is bringing to Iraq?”
At 9 this morning a group of caravans was hit with cluster bombs, according to the doctors. A tiny boy lay in terrible pain in the hospital, a tube draining blood from his chest, which was pierced by shrapnel. They said he was eight, but he looked maybe five. The doctors were testing for abdominal damage as well. I’m not sure whether he knew yet, or could understand, that his mother was killed instantly and his five sisters and two brothers were not yet found. His father had gone to bring blood for him and his uncle, Dia, was with him.
Rusol Ammar, a skinny ten year old girl with startling eyes, flinched occasionally when breathing hurt her – she had multiple injuries from glass and shrapnel, as well as a fractured hand. Dr Ahmed explained that, at the velocity caused by an explosion, even a grain of sand could cause injury to a child Rusol’s size. They weren’t yet sure what was in her chest.
Her dad said something hit their street and exploded. They were in their house and tried to close the door against the fireball but the windows blew in and the glass and shrapnel flew everywhere. His other children were unhurt. Rusol smiled the most gorgeous smile when we told her how brave she is, and that it will give courage to children everywhere when we tell them how brave she is.
Her dad asked the same question we’d heard before. “Is this democracy?”
Dr Ahmed is Syrian but has lived and worked 27 years in Iraq. He wasn’t working yesterday but estimated about 30 casualties came into Al Yarmouk hospital. That’s just one hospital and yesterday was a fairly light day of bombing. It makes no sense for me to speculate about the plans and intentions of the US/UK military, because I don’t know, but several incidents of attacks on farms have been reported to us.
Farms are not a legitimate target, even if you want to land your helicopter on them. From the legal perspective, the presence of a military objective within a civilian area or population does not deprive the population of its civilian character, even if you can call landing a helicopter a military objective. You cannot bomb an area of civilian houses knowing that people in the vicinity are likely to be hurt by flying glass and shrapnel.
More than that though, more than the illegality of it, this is wrong. It’s desperately, horrifyingly, achingly wrong. I don’t mean this to be a casualty list, never mind a body count – I couldn’t even begin and I’ve no intention of describing blood and gore to you, but take this as an illustration, as a small picture of what’s happening to people here, of what war means.
The internet connection is down today. I don’t know whether it’s because of the sandstorm or the bomb damage or the attempt to control information. Phone lines are moody even within Baghdad. The Iraqi TV station was hit last night. Friends in the south of the city said there was no water or electricity when they woke up.