I visited George Bush’s collateral damage today. Her name is Tdoha. This pretty five year old will not walk again. Her spine was crushed by a stray missile that smashed into a residential area last night. Next to her bed at the Al Yarmouk Hospital lay 8 year old Aamer. In time the severe injuries to his face and abdomen will heal, but the removal of his spleen will mean a life long dependency on medication. Ahmed,4, lost his mother, father, 2 brothers and a sister. I wondered whether he will be comforted by Tony Blair’s very serious pronouncement that war casualties will be kept to a minimum. That thought was interrupted by an earth-shattering explosion that rocked the hospital and sent everyone scurring about – a reflexive prayer on every lip.
Every one of the 20 member South African human shields were fully aware before leaving their families and loved ones that their stay in war-torn Baghdad was not going to be a an easy one. Our mission was a clear one: we came to join the hundreds of other human shields from over 30 other countries, and position ourselves at certain sites such as power plants, oil refineries, food silos and water purification plants. We hoped that our presence as human shields would discourage attacks on these civilian structures. For many it is also a personal protest against this unjustified war.
Eighty year old Rita Smith from Mississsippi is also a human shield in Baghdad. ‘It took me seven days to get here, but I just had to come. I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing while Bush was gonna destroy Baghdad. Four of my children are attorneys and they tried to talk me out of coming, telling me that when I returned I will be put in jail, but not even that was gonna stop me from coming!’ You see Rita everywhere with her little basket filled with cut-up strips of plastic bags which she used to crochet a little hat which she offered to present to me. ‘I’ve just been interviewed by NBC she said, very excitedly. ‘They are trying to twist things to make me say that the shields are a bunch of looneys. Well I told them all the clever ones are here in Baghdad – we have doctors, lawyers, teachers – I think the stupid ones are back home in the US. That Bush fella’ I just can’t stand him!’
You think about death all the time in Baghdad. Nothing in the world can prepare you for the reality of bombs raining down on you and guided missiles slamming into buildings. It’s the sound that gets you first – a thunderous roar followed by a sickening, bone-wrenching, deafening thud. Again and again and again! Some of us are stationed at the Al-Daura Oil Refinery. We are housed in pre-fabricated structures. Most nights we were startled out of our beds and dashed off to the relative safety of the make-shift bomb-shelter. No one felt any shame in saying ‘I feel very scared’! I couldn’t help laughing one night when missiles were blasting all around our site. I walked into the room of one of our team – a large macho type fellow – and found him sleeping with his shoes on. There was also a feeble attempt at mirth with ‘did the earth move for you too’ – type jokes to raise the spirits and put colour back into the fear drained faces.
Long trenches have been dug all over Baghdad and some of them have been filled with oil and set alight. Huge plumes of thick black smoke envelope the Baghdad sky. This is done to confuse the American pilots we were told. But the blackness above reflects the grim eeriness on the ground. The streets of Baghdad were, just a week ago, filled with the usual bumper to bumper traffic and raucous hooting. There are no more traffic jams. ‘Its like flying a plane. It used to take us 45 minutes to go across town, now it takes 15,’ said Ahmed Sadek the driver. At night cars with lights switched off make a desperate dash to an urgent engagement.
Friday 28th was our departure date. Was it safe to leave Baghdad? All kinds of rumours were swirling around the city. I asked a news agency chap to tell me whats happening out there. He replied ‘I don’t know’. If Reuters didn’t know – nobody knew. So with a great deal of apprehension we set off in a bus on the 550 km trip to Amman, Jordon. About 180km out of the city, we suddenly encountered dozens of vehicles speeding past in the opposite direction. They flashed their lights and waved frantically for us to turn back. We stopped the van and asked what was happening. The panic stricken driver said that American troops and equipment had parachuted several kilometers ahead and they were firing at civilian traffic on the road. Our bus driver became totally agitated and said that he was going no further and immediately turned the bus around and headed back to Baghdad.
Tough decision time. I thought: if we return to Baghdad and the city is placed under siege- water and electricity will be knocked out, food will be scarce and the bombing from tanks surrounding the city will be incessant. It could last for weeks or even month and in this totally chaotic situation of every man for himself there could be serious problems of keeping group members from breaking down. Alternatively, we could proceed to Jordon, meet up with the American troops along the way and explain who we are and where we are heading and hope that they would respond positively. Or, they may just decide to bomb us as we approached. This was put to the group. The consensus: we proceed to Jordon. The bus driver was pursuaded to turn around. We were the only people travelling in that direction. The tension mounted with every kilometer. And then we saw them in the distance – 4 tanks and men crouched on the ground ready to fire. We approached very, very slowly. A soldier !gestured to us to stop and waved at the driver to disembark. With raised hands the chronically nervous driver approached the soldiers and screamed that he was ready to turn back to Baghdad. I indicated that I speak English and wanted to say something. The soldier cautiously approached the bus and I told him that we were South African and were on our way to Jordon. We discovered that these were Australian troops. One of us told the soldier about Australia’s win in the Cricket World Cup. That broke the ice. He explained that he had instructed the driver to take another road to Jordon that ran parallel to the highway which we were on. The driver was still terrified and insisted that he was returning to Baghdad. The soldier finally got permission for us to proceed on the highway and we were then escorted by one of his tanks. He warned that once we were out of the 5km zone that they were securing, we were on our own and could possibly face danger from other forces in the! area. That immediately dampened our spirits. We passed a bombed out ambulance. They bombed an ambulance?! An overhead bridge hung precariously over the highway. And then we came upon a heart-stopping scene. A bridge in front of us had been attacked with missiles and huge chunks were blastered out of it. Next to the damaged section was a luxury bus, severely wrecked by schrapnel and flying concrete. Very slowly we snaked pass the bus. The fear was palpable! At 19h30 after nine gruelling hours on the hell-run we finally reached the Jordan border.
Will the Iraqi’s throw flowers in the streets to welcome the American soldiers? Highly unlikely. Every Iraqi we spoke to called them ‘invaders’ not ‘liberators’. More human shields are entering Baghdad everyday. Many bear flowers for the little Tdora’s who will be paying the ultimate price.
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Courtesy Raja G. Mattar