The victims of war, a conflict of interest and the story of Staff Sergeant Nolde

Back at Safwan, the empty clover-leaf motorway interchange had transformed itself from Western-normal to Eastern-terrible; drifting down the highway towards us came the damned. Some were Iraqi soldiers, others frightened women, many were wounded. Around us flowed a mass of huddled, shuffling figures, many crying, others throwing themselves into the motorway ditches to sleep.

Hundreds of Kuwaitis kidnapped in the last hours of the occupation but newly freed by the Basra insurgents were now on the road with terrible stories of hospitals crammed with the dead and dying. One of them was a pharmacist and former Kuwaiti MP called Ahmed Baktiar. He had been taken to Basra hospital to help the wounded men and women littered across the floors, he said.

“A young man just died in front of me. The tanks were coming and they were firing straight into the houses on each street, reducing the houses to ashes. There are lots of people dying of a strange sickness. Some think it’s because they have to drink the water lying in the streets which is contaminated. Others say it’s because the water in Basra now contains oil from the smoke over the city.”

And all the while, the tide of sick and starving and frightened people shuffled past us. Some came in hand-pushed carts, old men and babies with filthy blankets thrown over them, and I thought of the medieval carts that went from house to house when the Great Plague struck Europe, collecting the dead. Some of the people in these carts were dead. There were two television crews pointing their lenses at close range into the faces of the refugees, and I noticed how, for once, the faces did not react to the cameras. It was as if every face was also dead.

Two US embassy officials were standing beside a station wagon along with a senior American officer. “We can’t have them just all coming down here,” one of the embassy men said to Staff Sergeant Nolde of the 1st Armored Division. “They can’t cross the border. We have no facilities to handle this. They’ve got to go back.”

I noticed Fred Cuny, an American aid official, standing beside the embassy men, listening in silence. “Look, you’ve got to stop them moving down this road,” the embassy man was saying. “It’s tragic, I know that, but we simply don’t have the facilities for them.” Cuny asked if extra first-aid tents couldn’t be erected for the refugees, and the embassy man sighed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Liberation, a clean victory – and now this mess. And on television. You could see his problem. ” You’ve got to stop them, Sergeant,” the embassy man repeated. The officer joined in. “Iraqi agents could infiltrate back into Kuwait among the refugees.”

But suddenly, there on this cold, damp, hellish road, all the bright sunlight of what was best about America – all the hope and compassion and humanity that Americans like to believe they possess – suddenly shone among us. For the young, tired 1st Armored staff sergeant turned angrily on the man from the US embassy. “I’m sorry, sir. But if you’re going to give me an order to stop these people, I can’t do that. They are coming here begging, old women crying, sick children, boys begging for food. We’re already giving them most of our rations. But I have to tell you, sir, that if you give me an order to stop them, I just won’t do that.”

* Extracted from ‘The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East’ by Robert Fisk, published by 4th Estate on 3 October, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independent

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there