The Digital Journalist
Down the Spider-Hole
January 2004

by Dana Smillie

It looked a lot bigger on TV. That is, before the journalists started popping out of it like little jack-in-the-boxes.

The initial grainy images of the most famous hole in Iraq showed just the facts, ma'am, but not to scale. But two days after the raid that netted the biggest prize of the year, the Ace in the Hole, the first wave of journalists were permitted to visit the site.

"This was Saddam Hussein's final hiding place.…"

"Es el mismo lugar donde emos encontrado Saddam Hussein …."

"Ana amam al hofra aliti ….."

I missed the first wave, of course. I attempted to enter the site Tuesday. Standing in the mud at the outer cordon, trying to sweet talk four soldiers from the 4-42 Field Artillery to let me inside. A few other odd journalists were attempting the same thing with no luck. Of course, the phone of the military public affairs office up the road in Tikrit was not working. "Can you radio to headquarters?" I pleaded. "No, we have no communications with them." And all I have is the ever-so-dysfunctional Thuraya which is like having no communications at all.

Most of the important evidence from the farmhouse where Saddam Hussein was captured has been removed, only odd personal artifacts remain.

Photo by Dana Smillie/Polaris
A big white SUV pulled up with the Fox News crew inside. They joined the waiting game briefly but after a few crackles and sputters on the radio, they were given the green light.

"Take me with you," I begged, throwing my arms around a man I had met only two minutes ago.

"Sorry," he smiled. I suppose if I had been about 20 years younger he might have been a little more sympathetic.

Several phone calls and emails later, I got my own green light. I set off early on Friday morning, but before leaving the house, Tahrir, one of the security guards at the house where I have been staying, decided to come along for the ride. Partay! Road trip!

I guess it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up on even though Tahrir had just pulled an all-nighter at the house. We were driving up in a van, a soccer-mom mobile, and it occurred to me to sell tickets for the rest of the empty seats to pay the driver's fee for the day.

The sun was making a rare appearance when we arrived, and the whole town had that certain Friday-morning-day-off calm that I have grown to love over the past 8 years living in the Middle East. We bumped down the dirt track towards the farmhouse to our Humvee-bound friends from the 4-42, who after a few radio calls waved me in. "You're good to go!"

Music to my ears. Roger that. We drove as far as we could, then Tahrir grabbed one camera and Ismael, the driver, grabbed my bag, trying to look like an integral part of my personal security and professional mobility team.

"Shoot everything," my agent had advised me. So I did.

First, down the spider-hole.

It was smaller than I expected, not big enough to lie down in, and outfitted with only a small fluorescent tube for light, a small fan and airpipe for ventilation. By this time, nearly a week after the capture, hundreds of people had been down the hole but I still had a sense that my coolness factor would rise significantly when I told people about this. I pointed my torch at the floor and found a candy wrapper and some dates. Hmm. Saddam's snacks. Before I came out, a small beetle/scarab caught my eye. Saddam's bug.

And yes, before I got out, I had someone take a snapshot of myself.

Most of the good stuff was gone from the farmhouse hideaway, and what remained was chaotically strewn around. I started photographing tableaus of disarray. Saddam's salad. (Moldy by now). Saddam's candy wrappers. (Bounty.) Saddam's slipper and Saddam's walking stick. Saddam's soap. Saddam's bug spray (one of them was Raid). Saddam's sausages.

Too bad we didn't find a pile of Saddam's stash of cash.

A moldy salad remains in the kitchen of the farmhouse where the 13 December raid on the area resulted in the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Photo by Dana Smillie/Polaris
A broken egg was dried up on the floor of the outdoor kitchen. I imagined that Saddam was preparing a snack when suddenly the warning came—he drops the egg in his haste to scamper down the spider-hole. Checking the watch from his waist-coat pocket, he says to himself "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late."

Behind the tiny farmhouse is an orchard of citrus trees and beyond that a gate leading to the banks of the Tigris. Ironically enough, the farmhouse was located only about 100 meters from the spot where in 1959 Saddam eluded police in pursuit for his role in the assassination attempt on Abdel Karim Kassem and swam across the Tigris, escaping north and eventually leaving the country to Syria and Egypt. Most Iraqis know the story from a film starring Saddam's son-in-law, Saddam Kamel. The film was eventually destroyed after Kamel defected, but the story became part of the Saddam Mystique.

I forbade Tahrir and Ismael to take anything from the house (they wanted something as a memento) but decided an orange or grapefruit or two plucked from the tree would be fine. Saddam's citrus. Quite tasty.

A few other journalists and U.S. soldiers trickled in during the time that I spent at the farmhouse. Most of the visiting soldiers were from the 4-42 Field Artillery, the unit that has been based in Adwar since June and provided outer cordon security on the night of the raid. The battalion had been pulling guard duty around the site since that time, but you could say in a way these guys were the forgotten heroes of the operation, having worked the territory for so many months.

PFC Anthony Croaker from the Humvee on Tuesday greeted me when he came in. "Hey, you made it in today!"

Lt. Frank Fisher was not surprised they caught the Iraqi leader on his turf. They had been getting calls for months, "Elvis sightings' as Fisher called them. Saddam was cruising around on a red motorcycle. Saddam was driving a taxi. They dutifully checked out the reports, but never found anything suspicious.

Journalists investigate the 'spider hole' where Saddam Hussein was captured by US troops.

Photo by Dana Smillie/Polaris
The hole was getting a lot of action by how. Soldiers removed weapons and jumped inside. Others knelt with weapons poised beside it. One group planted an American flag and the flag of Texas next to the entrance. Sgt. Michael Serna posed emerging from the hole, holding a Marlboro like one of Saddam's stogies, and chortling ‘heh, heh, heh'.

It occurred to me that someone should sell tickets. One buck to have your photo taken in the hole. It occurred to me to offer the service myself. Gimme your email address and five bucks and I will send it to your mom's email address as well. Hell, you don't make much money freelancing.

Serna told me that this was not his first visit to the famous farmhouse. He had ‘cleared' this house in late October, he said. They were on a joint patrol with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, searching for unauthorized weapons. The owner of the house was a big guy, he recalled, and very cooperative. They found nothing unusual that day.

Heh. Heh. Heh.

I wonder if Saddam was in the hole at that time, listening to the pattering of footsteps above? Or perhaps he was out driving his red motorcycle. Elvis has left the farm.

Before leaving Adwar, we stopped by the river at the site of the big swim, appropriately marked by a large stone memorial plaque and a now-destroyed stone monument. A man stood alone by the river, brooding. Hesitant to speak to me, he was definitely not one of those red-flag-waving happy people cheering in the streets of Baghdad when Saddam was captured. Two other cars full of men pulled up and we left. I found out later that we were followed by one to the edge of town. Adwar welcoming committee?

I went back the next day, because the grapefruit were really very good. Actually, I found out that Colonel Hickey, the man who led the raid that caught Saddam, might be out at the site and available for the media, and it seemed like a good opportunity and worth risking another joy ride through the Sunni Triangle.

By this time, the guys at the 4-42 thought I was some kind of Spider Hole groupie freak. Saturday was more crowded, more journalists clamouring about, and I was glad I had been there in the relative calm of the previous afternoon. I saw a lot of changes in the house from the previous day. The cans of insect spray were gone. The sausage was missing. The broken egg cleaned up a bit. My tableaus from the day before shifted.

I started thinking about what had else had changed in Iraq this past week.

Saddam was gone, but what did this mean for the average Iraqi? Gas lines are still of epic lengths, the electricity is in scarce supply and most people worry about the lack of security. The things that go boom and the attacks on the coalition continue unabated. I guess in the long run it will get better. I hope so. For all of our sake's.

I grabbed another orange before I left and wondered what tomorrow would bring.

© Dana Smillie
Polaris Images

Dana Smillie is a photographer and videojournalist who has been commuting from Cairo to Baghdad since May. She is represented by Polaris Images.