Iraq Four Years On
I am running down an alleyway, feeling claustrophobic, unable to see anything or make any pictures in the total blackness as I stumble behind fast-moving soldiers in pursuit of suspected snipers. My protective eyewear has fogged up, blinding me. Gunshots crack in the darkness.
An explosion erupts behind me.
"I'm hit! I'm hit!"
"We need to get out of the kill zone!"
I crouch as a soldier fires a shotgun multiple times at a lock on a door in attempt to get into a building for cover. Cries come from inside and a distraught woman opens the door and collapses in the entrance wailing. The soldiers retreat.
Afterwards, one of the soldiers who had helped carry his wounded commander to safety was shaking so badly he could hardly put a cigarette to his mouth. The mental scarring these soldiers suffer will last as long as any scar from bullets and shrapnel. The commander nearly lost his leg – grenade fragments had severed both the artery and vein in his thigh.
I did not make a single usable picture that entire night but I had survived my first night out in Baghdad.
I spent almost two months in Baghdad – my first trip to Iraq – covering the planned surge of 21,500 additional U.S. troops in the grim effort to reverse the tide of sectarian cleansing that has left the capital bloodied and fragmented. The operation is the United States' last chance to halt a slide towards an all-out civil war between majority Shiites and minority Sunni Muslims.
Embedded with the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division and the elite 82nd Airborne Division, I lived alongside Iraqi Army soldiers in a squalid compound with one shower for over 100 men and where human waste was mixed with gasoline and burned in open containers outside. Quite a contrast to Saddam Hussein's marble-floored palace where I had been staying before.
The city feels like a seething cauldron of chaos and violence. Thick black smoke from car bombings fills the sky, helicopters buzz incessantly overhead and the crackle of automatic gunfire never ceases. In many areas when the soldiers step out of their armored vehicles they must run to avoid sniper fire. In the alleys that are too narrow for the tanks and humvees, they continue on foot.
"It's a roll of the dice every time we go in there," one soldier said.
The following day was just as terrifying as the night before in the alley, but at least now I could see. I ran behind "Speedy," an Iraqi translator contracted by the U.S. military, through a seemingly abandoned neighborhood as sporadic bursts of gunfire erupted nearby.
I followed Speedy through gates that lead into a house. Women and children wailed as a man in a blood-stained shirt, who later confessed to being an insurgent, pretended to be part of their family in an attempt to escape detection from U.S. and Iraqi soldiers who had swarmed the house. After the insurgent was detained the terrified family said that he threatened to kill them all if they gave away his identity.
In the next room was a man's body lying on the floor, his head contorted unnaturally and his shirt soaked in blood. It was the first dead person I had ever seen in war. The shock froze me for a moment. It felt as if a weight had dropped onto my chest, making it hard to breathe. I avoided looking into his glazed, half-open eyes. There was a distinct odor hanging in the air – the smell of congealed blood or death itself. I forced myself forward to make a picture.
The soldiers regularly come across dead people lying in the street. As many as 50 bodies turn up in the street each day throughout the city, showing signs of torture and indications that they had been killed execution-style. While it has become routine for the soldiers to witness a corpse drenched in a pool of blood, I could see in a soldier's eyes a rip in their mental fabric, invisible damage that only time will reveal.
The conflict between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis has become self-sustaining. Sectarian animosities are pervasive, from neighbors on the street to the highest levels of the government. East Baghdad is almost entirely under Shiite control. West Baghdad, where the sectarian fighting is fiercest, has fragmented into divided neighborhoods. Crossing between Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods without the right identification can mean death.
The prospects of reconciliation are bleak because there are no Shiite or Sunni leaders who can unify the sects whose schism dates back nearly 1,400 years, to who should have rightfully succeeded the prophet Muhammad. The conflict has driven more than 2 million Iraqi refugees into Syria and Jordan and 1.9 million have been displaced within Iraq.
On the last day of my embed, after a 15-hour search and cordon operation, I was jammed with 21 soldiers in an open-top truck meant to transport only 12. The soldiers were exhausted but high-spirited as they were heading back to hot meals at the base.
Suddenly there was a horrific explosion. It was as if hell opened its jaws and roared upon us. The blast from the IED knocked out all of my senses. I was in a state of shock, completely deaf and numb but unhurt. As my senses returned, the first thing I was conscious of was agonized screaming. The confusion swirled with blood and frantic commands.
"Put pressure on the wound!"
"Oh God, I don't have a hand!"
"Stop the truck! Stop the fucking truck!"
Still dazed, I tried to balance making pictures with not getting in the way of the soldiers rushing to dismount. Within two minutes, what was left of the soldier's mangled hand was bandaged, and he was evacuated. The soldiers then took up positions in a field in a futile attempt to find the insurgents responsible for the IED. My ears are still ringing from the blast and I have permanent hearing loss.
Despite the chaos and violence in Iraq the most difficult event to reconcile was shortly after I returned to the safety of London. A month after his abduction the Taliban executed my Afghan friend and colleague, Ajmal Nakshbandi. This was personal. This was a friend. Ajmal was the same age I am and recently married. I admired him as a first-rate reporter and a kind human being. He didn't deserve to die. The Italian journalist he was working with under the much-criticized influence of President Karzai was released in exchange for five senior Taliban leaders.
I find it almost incommunicable to describe my recent affair with war. Fleeting memories intrude my thoughts like dirty secrets I'm trying to hide: contorted, bloody bodies piled up carelessly in the back of a pickup truck; a baby crying, not realizing that his mother was eviscerated in a bombing; a trash-strewn street devoid of life except for a dog eating the corpse of another dog; children playing soccer next to the burned out skeletons of cars as a firefight crackles in the distance; the acute feeling that in the next instant I could die.
A single flickering fluorescent light illuminates a grizzled Iraqi man who points into the night and says in English, "the evil is coming." I look in that direction and all I see is darkness.
© Danfung Dennis
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