May 6th - Bombs and Goodbyes
08 May 2004
On getting woken up by car bombs, Falluja, Najaf and saying goodbye to a load of people.
Please note that the e mail address wildthing (at) will stop working VERY soon and use wildthing (at) instead.

I’ve moved down the street. This has mainly advantages but one notable disadvantage in that I’m a couple of hundred metres closer to “The Green Zone”, as in “They’re bombing the…” The Green Zone, for those who have never needed to know, is the heavily fortified bit which most of the decision makers and foreign workers in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never leave because of a theory that it’s somehow more dangerous to be on the streets of Baghdad than walled into the most heavily attacked part of it.

Sure enough, first thing in the morning there was a car bomb just outside it. Another advantage of the new apartment is that there’s a generator right outside my window, powering a roaring air conditioner. The Fourteenth of July Bridge provides access from Abu Nawas Street, across the Tigris, and soldiers manning the checkpoint approach the cars waiting to cross. It seems the soldier came as usual to look in the car before it reached the checkpoint and the driver detonated it, killing himself, the soldier and six other Iraqis.

In Falluja they are still finding bodies, bodies in the rubble of the houses crushed by aerial bombing by the US in Al-Julan, Hay Askeri and Shuhada, bodies buried in gardens, bodies being brought to the football fields turned into cemeteries. There are some very tiny graves. There are people still missing. The 600-deaths estimate put out by most of the media seems on the low side.

If the killings of four US mercenaries were the reason for the attack on Falluja then the ratio is at least 150 Iraqis to one American, maybe 250. From the other side, the Iraqi side, the resistance side, the Iraqi life is worth more. If the killings of eighteen Fallujans shortly before the killings of the mercenaries were the spark for the latter then one American life is worth just four and a half Iraqis, a little less than the six-to-one of the car bombing.

There is, of course, a difference between armed self-defence when your town is being invaded, like Falluja, and setting off bombs in the street but in the end it comes down to this: there has been enough killing. There has been too much killing.

The US military says it will begin patrols through the town again on May 10th. The many people of Falluja that I’ve talked to say they can never accept US troops on their streets again after all they’ve done. They say the Mujahedin are still there, are waiting, will kill them if they try to re-enter the town. Perhaps the US command is hoping that, having gone home after so long away, people will have lost their will to go through it all again and will beg their sons and brothers and fathers not to fight anymore, leaving the troops an unhindered passage back into the town.

There’s already been a massacre in Falluja, a living town turned into a desert of humanity where to step outside to look for food and water or to flee for safety was to risk death from a US gunman on top of the next building, where young men died fighting, in uniforms and in tracksuit pants and trainers. With every death, the journey back gets longer. There doesn’t need to be any more.

Meanwhile we’ve been trying to get into Najaf and Kerbala, where Sattar is setting up field hospitals to help deal with the sick and the expected and actual casualties. He’s a civil engineer, now running a driving company since the sanctions and the Baathists combined to eradicate the possibility of work that he was qualified for. During the war, while looking for some neighbours in the hospitals, he realised that hundreds of people needed help and volunteered. In Najaf the troops closed down the main hospital, which houses almost two thirds of the 950 or so beds the city has.

The extra difficulty in Najaf – apart from the obvious one of US troops preparing to attack the city - is the increasing number of factions involved. The various leaders are starting to publicly express disagreement and people in the town, dependent on the pilgrim trade for their income, are none too impressed with the economic effects of the stand off. Again every step, every fracture created, is one bit further from peace.

That all this is going on makes it hard to leave, that and the fact that I love this place and quite a few of the people in it, but I’m going to, in a few days, as I knew I’d have to one day. It’s impossible to get the Boomchucka Bus going at the moment – because of the security problems and the heat, not as a result of any kind of engine problems – and it’s already hotter than the hottest summer day in Britain and I’m too tired to want to do anything.

I went to say goodbye to the boys. Six months ago they were filthy, glue addicted, violent, with no self-esteem at all, living on the streets around Abu Nawas and Baba Sherji, the ones who were rejected by all the new orphanages setting up because of their anti-social behaviour or who couldn’t settle in one and returned to the streets. Nahoko used to wash their clothes and feed them. Donna and Uzma and some others came and set up a shelter for them in a basement which provided a stepping stone for most of them to move on into long term accommodation in an orphanage run by the Kurdish Children’s Fund.

Now Aakan is back with his mum and has been for a few weeks. Maybe he’ll end up back at the house for a few more spells, respite or space or something, but they’re working on it. A few of the older ones have got jobs a few hours a week and seven are going to school, including Ahmed and Laith, who Imad and I used to play counting games with on Abu Nawas, when they weren’t dazed on solvents. You couldn’t have imagined them going to school then, or when the circus first worked with them in January.

Nothing’s changed at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Yasser and Omar and Alaa pick up more and more English each time I see them: Alaa’s most-used words seem to be, “What are you doing?” You could set up a balloon animal factory in their room and none of them would get tired of it. Omar likes trying to pump them up but hasn’t quite got the strength or co-ordination to push the air in. Ilyas is still singing “Oh Donna” over and over again. Probably we ought to have taught her another song for the sake of variety. Some Australian doctors are going to give Noor some prosthetic limbs.

I know there are issues about Mother T herself but the nuns and volunteers there are good people and it’s the best place I’ve seen here for disabled kids. They asked us if we can get some child-sized exercise bikes. Most of the kids can’t walk and there’s no way for them to get any exercise. Not being the engineering type, I thought we could just get a small bike and put it on a stand instead of wheels. Alas it’s not quite so simple because the front wheel needs some resistance, so we’re going to show the diagram to the welders next door and see what they can do.

A few things have changed at the camp at Shuala. There’s been no aid at all for a month, partly because most of what was available went to Falluja and partly because most of the international organisations had to pull out for security reasons. There are no jobs for the same reasons – the security problems and the fighting. Even we are afraid to go out, they said, even the Iraqis. Wasn’t I afraid to go out?

The women scolded me for staying away so long, asked where I’d been. “The children miss you. They’re always shouting ‘Boomchucka’ and asking when you’re coming.” I apologised, from under a heap of children but still it was good for the soul of a very tired clown.

Aala explained, unprompted, about Falluja as the kids played with the drawing things I brought, Abdullah covered in felt tip ink. The old Iraqi flag features a lot in kids’ pictures lately, since the new flag was introduced, Shia and Sunni alike. These are the ones I’ll miss most, the tribe of girls and Abdullah and Abbas who have become more and more bold and boisterous over the months, rediscovered the clowns within themselves, and Marwa, the beautiful, clever one, now twelve, who wants to be a doctor but hasn’t been to school for over a year.

Abu Ahmed has been ousted as representative of the camp and Abu Bassim elected to replace him. Beyda rolled her eyes as Abu Ahmed explained the conspiracy behind his removal and, when he was gone, everyone else explained the conspiracy for which he was removed. Mistrust is virulent. Both the conspiracies and the conspiracy theories are products partly of the love of intrigue combined with a lack of other entertainment and partly of the sores of years of living with surveillance and corruption.

Between them they’ve raised the money to run some more electricity cables from the nearby pylons into the camp and Saida wanted to know if I could bring them fans to keep the mosquitoes off at night. Of course I couldn’t, but I did say I’d try to find an aid agency that could, and one that could pay for her operation as well as carrying on looking for one that could provide a doctor and build the school.

We gossiped. Beyda grumbled, understandably, about her husband’s preference for his other wife. “He only comes to me to say hello and then he goes to her. I’ve only got one daughter.” But her sister Fadma, who got married in January, is pregnant now, due in November. Fadma was engaged for five years before she and Ali could afford to get married.

Ali was called up to the army when he was eighteen, as usual. He and his friends turned up for training but weren’t given proper uniforms, food or wages. The money wasn’t enough to support the two young nieces and other family members he was responsible for supporting, so after his first month he paid off an officer to give him false papers and cover for him and didn’t return from leave.

“I carried on working, using the false papers, until I was caught at a checkpoint and I was put in prison for a year in Kirkuk, where my unit was based. When I was released I was returned to my unit and I did the same again but after that whenever I was caught I paid a bribe to the police who caught me, so I didn’t go back to jail again. When the war happened all that was over, but Bush has betrayed us again.”