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© Peter Turnley

Seeing Another Gulf War

By Peter Turnley
April 2003

After spending nearly three weeks in southern Iraq working as a photojournalist covering the most recent war, I arrived in Baghdad the evening of the day a crowd toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein near the Palestine Hotel. For the next week, I roamed the city and its outskirts, observing the aftermath and the near-term effects of this war on the Iraqi people.

During the month I was in Iraq I worked independently of the military. I had consciously made this choice hoping it would give me the opportunity to have the broadest exposure to the war, including its effects on the people of Iraq.

One memory will always haunt me. On April 14th, I walked into a hospital room of the Al Asskan Hospital in Baghdad. There were two beds in the room and on one of them lay two year old Martatha Hameed, in the arms of her mother, 23 yr. old, Eman Ali. I noticed as I walked into the room, an expression of great anxiety and stress on the face of Eman Ali. On another bed lay diagonally, a 10 yr. old girl, Worood Nasiaf,with curly brown hair. She was dressed in a small shirt and pants, and her feet wore only little white socks. Her head was pulled back on the side of the bed. One doctor held it in his hands, and another doctor, from the other side of the bed, pushed violently on her chest with repetitive strokes. Both doctors had looks of determined intensity in their faces, and their energy offered a great sense of hope. After many minutes of cardiac massage, one of the doctors stopped and waited a few seconds and put his stethoscope to her chest and listened.

I thought I saw breathing, and a leap of joy lifted me. Then several seconds later, the doctor continued to push on her chest. Suddenly, after what seemed to be at least ten minutes, in one almost violent gesture, one of the doctors stopped and put his hand over her face, and the other stood up and put her tiny hands together over her chest. In the next instant, he pulled a towel over her face. Both doctors turned to walk out of the room shaking their heads, and I realized I had just seen this beautiful little girl"s life evaporate. I stopped one of the doctors and asked him her name and what she had died from. With perfect English, the Iraqi doctor gave me her name and explained that she had died from pulmonary pneumonia, and that it could have been easily treated. Her father could not bring her to the hospital because of the impossible dangerous traveling conditions caused by the war. He then said to me with bitter resignation, "I am sorry, I have no more time to talk, there is too much work left for me to do here. "A few minutes later, a man walked into the room and removed the towel from her face. It was her father. Holding her hands, he stood and sobbed."

I visited several hospitals in Baghdad and Basra. In all of them, there was almost no medicine, anesthesia, or sterile instruments. In emergency rooms there were scenes from a hell. The results of war took on names and faces. A young woman, Hanan Muaed,16, was wrapped in a body bandage, burned from an explosion when her home in Baghdad was hit by a bomb. Mahmoud Mohammed,17, lost his leg from shrapnel from a shell. Zeinan Haneed, 9, lost her leg and all of her family when her home was shelled in Basra on March 23rd. A grandmother, Shukria Mahmoud, stood next to a bed crying, as her grandson, Saif Abed Al Karem, lay hurt by bomb, both having lost his father, and her son in the incident.

A small girl, Safah Ahmed lay on a bed in the Al Karch Hospital in Baghdad. She was playing in front of her home when a bomb landed in her neighbors' front yard. All she could remember was that it had been her birthday, and when she woke up in the hospital, she only had one leg.

On the western outskirts of Baghdad, daily, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, are on the move each day, on foot, coming home from having left the capitol during the war, or going in the opposition direction, back home towards the the south and Basra. The war in Baghdad seems almost over for the time being, but on the faces of these masses on the move, there are no smiles. Children often have looks in their eyes of terror and fear. At one point, 25 meters from the road, a large munitions cache is blown up by American troops as thousands of people walk by, creating a huge boom, and families scatter with screams in all directions and dive to the ground. A woman stops me one day, speaking perfect, well educated English. She explains to me that she is a medical doctor, and that she and her family live in a small village near Baghdad. She will only identify herself as Jasmine. She expressed to me what I heard in variations from many, many people. "We don't like Saddam, but what has happened here is criminal and you must tell it! We will give you our oil, you can take it, but we won't let you take our country. Look at this, no electricity, no water, no food, no control, everything stolen. We didn't like Saddam, but our country needs force to be controlled."

At one of the central cemeteries, near the Al Karch hospital, a group of women wear the traditional black chadors of the Shiite Moslem Iraqi minority. They come from the poor, predominantly Shiite neighborhood in the north of Baghdad called Saddam City. The women were there to bury Abed Al Hassin, 53, who was killed by Iraqi militia, as he waved a white flag from his car while driving home in Baghdad. One of the women, who preferred to be called, "just say I am a mother", said, "Bush is better than Saddam, We will give him our oil, and maybe he will let us live in peace."

The crowd burying a body in the "1,000 Houses" neighborhood, an Iraqi soldier killed by a coalition bomb, was much less calm and cordial. One man, called out, "If Bush has any honor, he should tear Saddam into pieces and bring him to us."

I witnessed dozens of burials of Iraqis killed during the war. A large family stood at the grave of Fadila Sadek,74, as she was being buried. I asked if she had died from injuries from the war, and one of her relatives gently said to me, "she died from the stress of this war."

A few days after one of many of the Saddam Hussein statues was pulled down by crowds in Baghdad, signaling the end of his regime, life began to come back to certain daily routines. Elder men, gathered again at the Al-Zahani Cafe in the old city of Baghdad. Jamal Abdullah Khalil, 66 yrs., a former carpenter, sat smoking his water pipe. The cafe owner explained to be that "Jamal has been coming here since he was born." I asked Jamal what he felt about the war. He looked at me and said, "I don't want to say to you, what I have to say, please don't ask me."

In the Al Alawi Market in Baghdad, business is coming back gradually to the daily life of this market. In the one month I spent in Iraq since April 17th, I saw glimpses of smiles twice. Once was while women fought with each other to get buckets of fresh water, the first they had had in weeks, from a water truck provided by the British military in Al Zubair, a town in southern Iraq. The second time was just a few days ago as men sold squawking live chickens to buyers in the Al Alawi Market in Baghdad.

During my career as a photojournalist, I have traveled professionally to over 85 countries and covered most of the world's major conflicts of the past twenty years. I have spent a lot of time this past month trying to make some semblance of sense from all of the impulses of experience I have lived and observed while in Iraq. The theme that has seemed to dominate my observations and conversations with Iraqis, has been that of two worlds, two cultures, at least two religions, and two sets of history and civilization, that have confronted each other in the land of Iraq, and seem at best to not know each other well, and at worse, are openly hostile towards each other and are not really sure they want to live in each other"s midst. As British and American soldiers sped through towns and villages in southern Iraq, time after time, Iraqis would shout out as the soldiers went ahead leaving no military presence behind, "where is the water, where is the aid we heard about?".

Last night as I approached the town of Safwan, on the border with Kuwait and Iraq, a group of Iraqi children stood waving as I drove up near the customs point. As I lifted my camera to take a last picture in Iraq, a young boy, who couldn't have been more than ten, waved, and walked up to my car, and suddenly, produced a brick and slammed it into my windshield, shattering it in to pieces. Disoriented, my car rolled to the side, and I managed to speed away to through the border, leaving a crowd of chasing children behind.

When I crossed into Kuwait, I was stopped by a Kuwaiti border guard. I felt relieved to be in seemingly less hostile and more safe environment and heading home. The border guard asked me to take everything out of my car so he could search it. As I removed heavy boxes from the car, I said to him, "I was here in 1991, when the Americans fought for your country." The border guard looked at me and said, "They didn't fight for my country, they fought for my oil!"

After I was cleared, I drove away slowly. I wondered if I should be angry at those words and conceptions of this Kuwaiti man, standing by himself at a dusty crossing between Iraq, and Kuwait. It occurred to me, that what was much more important than my feelings about his words, was that they actually represented his feelings and perceptions about his world, and about a war the United States had been "won" over 11 years ago.

© Peter Turnley

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