Helen Williams from Gwent has been in Iraq for the past month. She reports here from Fallujah where she is helping to deliver humanitarian aid.
Falluja. 12 April 2004. On Friday night Lee and Ghareeb called to see us asking if any of us wanted to go to Fallujah to try to take aid in and get people out. They told us how they had been back and fro the past three days, how so many people were dying there and about human rights abuses being perpetrated by the soldiers.
They said that there were long queues of families trying to leave, the soldiers were making their life hard, making them wait hours to cross checkpoints. They were not letting men of 'military age' cross. These men were taking their wives and children out and then returning to the city , in many cases, to fight. We heard how the hspitals were unable to cope with the huge numbers of casualties and how one had been bombed.
Ghareeb would be able to sort out a safe passage through for us if we managed to get through the American checkpoints. Julia, Jo, Wendy and myself agreed to go the next morning. We were due to leave early the next morning but we were waiting for $1000 of blood equipment to arrive.
The delivery was late because it was coming from the other side of Baghdad and there was a battle going on in Adhimaya, not far from our friend Issam's house. We had to decide whether to wait for it to arrive or go straightaway. If we waited, it would mean staying in Gurma (nearby resistance village to Fallujah - attacked last night), but if we went without it we were risking our lives to go with less aid.
In the end we opted to leave at 2 pm, with or without the blood equipment to give ourselves a chance of being able to return to Baghdad that night. We went in a long bus, about the size of the coaches we use at home in order to be able to fill it with refugees/injured people in Fallujah. If we could not get into Fallujah, our intention was to go to the maerican checkpoints to help refugees get through them - the soldiers were making life hard on the checkpoints, keeping progress slow and not allowing everyone to pass, especially any men of 'military age'.
Ghareeb, Lee and Aziz (the sheik's nephew from Gurma village) went in a car in front of the bus to sort out the checkpoints ahead of us. We made our way out of Baghdad and onto the highway to Fallujah. The highway was littered with burnt out vehicles - most were petrol tankers, but there were also many destroyed American military vehicles too.
We passed a huge convoy of American military lorries carrying containers with DHFM (Detention Holding Facility Material) inside and long lorries carrying wood with the same initials stamped on it - there must have been enough to build several detention holding facilities. Then we passed a lorry which was being looted by people from a local village. We drove by quickly. Then we came to the American checkpoints - there were long queues of traffic waiting to go through. We were lucky at both - they did not really bother to search our bags of the bus that much and they only body searched the males.
They said they were pleased to see friendly faces, speaking English! Indeed we had been friendly, teasing them about their suntans andt elling them to put plenty of lotion on - after all we wanted to get through! We left the highway at Abu Gharib, passing the huge tented prison there and then crossed country towards Fallujah.
The countryside here is stunning, a lush 'cartoon' green - peaceful and beautiful. We passed through Mujahadeen checkpoints with ease - please note Mujahadeen means 'freedom fighter', nothing more, nothing less. People were shouting good luck to us and blessing/thanking us for going to Fallujah. At one junction some boys threw bread and cake into the bus for us.
As we approached Fallujah on these back roads they deteriorated becoming no more than a bumpy dirt track, barely two cars wide. Coming the other way were cars full of families and their possessions and vehicles with signs on them reading 'Aid to Fallujah - from the people of Hilla/Nagaf/Ramadi' for example.
It seemed that all the people of Iraq, whether Shia, Sunni or Christian wanted to help Fallujah with whatever they could - water (there is no clean drinking water in Fallujah), blankets, food or medical aid - it was wonderful to see. As we approached Fallujah, we could see a mosque through the dust in the distance. More Mujahadeen lined the road.
At one point they stopped us and greeted us, smiling, waving and posing for photos with their weapons - mainly RPGs, AK47's and RPK's (machine guns). Then they started shooting into the air above the bus - the sound was deafening. We drove through Fallujah's deserted streets (apart from fighters and the odd group of children) - we had to duck at one point as we passed an American sniper position - to the hospital.
The hospital we went to was more of a clinic - Five beds in a row and a room at the back for the doctors. We unloaded the aid and Maky, the hospital manager who spoke English, told us of recent events there. He said how Fallujah badly needed more aid - they were running short of all sorts of medicine and hospital/surgical equipment - indeed the city was completely out of any pain relief or anaestetic.
He also told us about the American soldiers shooting at ambulances and he showed us their last ambulance shot at this morning - it had bullet holes in the front and back windows and on the roof, but it was still being used, there was no choice. And he told us about the horrific casualty numbers and the terrible injuries being sustained by people there.
Antother aid worker there repeated the same. We went into the hosptial. Suddenly a young boy was brought in. He had been shot in the head by an American sniper while his family had tried to leave their house waving a white flag. His parents were grief stricken, his father covered in his son's blood.
They told us to film their dying son, I hated to, but I took his photo and I have emailed it to Kevin so you can see what the Americans are doing in Fallujah. At the same time, a middle aged woman was brought in - she had been shot in the abdomen and chest - we could hear her lungs filled with blood as she tried to breath - she later died too - I have also sent her photo. She had come into the sight of a sniper and he had indiscrimainatley shot her - a woman in her chadoor, not a fighter, no gun in hand.
We felt shocked and so sad - it was horrible. We then decide to split into groups of three - one boy, one girl and one translator in each. We were going to accompany vehicles to collect injured people around the city. Unfortunately there was only one available vehicle - a mujahadeen pick up truck.
Jo, Dave and Raina set off, passports held aloft. They were going to another hospital to get an injured man - no-one could go into the hospital because of American snipers all around it and this man had been shot by one. It was a dangerous venture, but they went and when they got there they shouted to the snipers who did not shoot.
Sadly the man was already dead, lying in the street. They brought him to the hospital. Then they went again, this time in the already damaged ambulance with Ghareeb driving. The hospital had received a call about a pregnanat woman in difficulty about to give birth. As they approached the house the ambulance came under heavy sniper fire - Jo said there were red flashes going past her head, the bullets were so close.
They shot out a tyre and then Ghareeb burst two more escaping from the scene. Thankfully they were all uninjured - but now we have the proof - The American army shoot at ambulances - no wonder they don't sign up to the Internatgional Criminal Court.
So many injured people were being brought to the hosptial - many of them resistance fighters with horrific injuries - gunshot wounds and blood everywhere. We met a small boy, he wa actually 15 years old and he had volunteered to drive his dad's small van - a makeshift ambulance, with signs written in red on white sheets taped to the side of the vehicle.
We were struck by his bravery. We also met another small boy, he was an 11 year old mujahadeen fighter, masked by his yeshmack and holding his AK47 - the gun was almost as tall as him. It was a tragedy - how scarred by these events will this young boy be when he grows up - if he survives?
He and his family probably thought he would have as much chance surviving if he fought as if he did not - it was a very sad sight.
At 7pm Fallujah was under curfew. The mosque called out warning everyone that curfew had just begun and to be careful. Then some missiles were fired at positions not far away. The mosque started again, this time calling on everyone to fight the enemy and resist. It finished with calls of 'Allah Akbar' - God is great.
Everyone around joined in including all the Mujahadeen fighters, holding their guns aloft and firing into the air. It was something I will never forget - I found it so moving.
During the day the doctors in the hospital had been fighting to save one particular man's life - they had brough him back to life with CPR but with no life support machines or anything like it they had to keep working on him, keeping his legs held up in the air. Each time we passed we would hope and pray he would make it.
Just after curfew he died - we knew because a friend came outside crying uncontrollably. Seeing these brave fighting men break down and cry just adds to the tragedy that it Fallujah.
We now had to make a decision whether to stay in Fallujah or try to leave during the curfew. Ghareeb told us that the road was secure for us and we could try to get back to Bagdad. We discussed it and there seemed little point in risking it and we decided to stay.
We could have stayed in the hospital but felt we would get in the way and so we were taken to a nearby house for the night. Before we left some missles landed not far away - we tried to work ourt how far from the time between the flash and the boom - it was not much time - we reckoned on about one klilometre away.
Not long after we saw the results. A car sped up to the hospital door containing two badly burnt men - one was burnt all over his body - the smell oif his burning flesh was unbearable. We cannot even begin to imagine his pain - and the hosptial, as I mentioned before, had no pain relief for him.
We made our way in the darkness to the house. Suddenley we heard a plane above us - it dropped flares over us. At first we thought we were being bombed and we took cover against a wall, Raul managing to fall and twist his ankle in the panic. Two lots of flares dropped over us so we had to hurry - after all we were walking in the streets after curfew.
The house we were taken to for the night belonged to the father of the 15 year old ambulance driver. He and his brother were the cutest boys I have ever seen - they kept bringing us water and chai all eveng. The house was lovely, very posh and we were given lovely food to eat - all of it veggie, most of it vegan (for those of you who like to know these details).
Us vegans had bread, beans and date jam and sesame biscuits. A missile landed not too far away and we opened the windows to stop them shattering should there be any more close hits.
None of us slept much in the night - I don't know if that was due to bombs or mosquitos, or one of the men snoring in the next room, but I was glad when morning came. It was so peaceful in the morning - we were in a pleasant suburb with lots of trees - the birds were singing - it was surreal. We had breakfast and left.
The peace did not last long and as we made our way through the streets we could hear fighting in the distance - we kept alongside walls in single file along the roads. As we approached the hospital we could see more and more families in the area around it. There were women and men with their children all looking for transport and a way out of the city before the bombardment that everyone was sure would come today.
More and more injured people arrived - and many more fighters - thankfully some were able to walk. Jo, Dave and Raina left to do one last pick up before we left. They went to a house where the unarmed father had been shot dear by a sniper - he was surrounded by his wife and children - crying in anguish and grief.
They brought the body to the hospital. They shouted to the Americans not to shoot - the soldiers were surprised to see them. they told them to get out of Fallujah as air strikes would begin soon (but they could not say when) and they siad they woulo start to sweep up the main road carrying out house searches for weapons.
Meanwhile we were taken to the hospital morgue - they wanted us to take photos/films of the dead.
The nearest body is 18 year old Hussam, the next one (in the middle) was a 21 year old called Mohammed and the furthest one was another Hussam - I don't know his age, but they uncovered his bloody injured body and he looked in his twenties.
While we were there his brother arrived to collect his body. During the night 12 people had died in this small hospital - that is not including those we saw die the day before.
We were loading up the bus with injured peole when a very excited Mujahadeen fighter came across the road - he had just shot and killed an American sniper (we later heard about it on the news) and he was overjoyed. It is hard to see death greeted with such happiness and celebration, but seeing the suffering and cruelty endured by the people in Fallujah, I came some way to understanding it.
We took about eight injured people including the badly burnt man, some young fighters with bullet wounds, another young man with a shot arm and cut up eye and face, another with a bullet hole in his neck and one with a broken leg. And two women with gunshot wounds - one of them very close to death.
As the burnt man was taken onto the bus, the hosptial security man could take no more - he just broke down in tears and sat down for a while. Soon I saw him up and about again continuing his work.
The road out of Fallujah was made safe for us and we set off. The streets were deserted except for the fighters in their positions ready for the American onslaught of their city.
As we drove out across the desert we could see American tanks and humvees charging back and fro - not quite sure what they were doing but they were raising plenty of dust. We joined the traffic leaving Fallujah and we were pleased to see that pick up trucks of aid were still going the other way into the city. (It has been repored on the news today that there are 3000 people from fallujah out in this dusty desert).
We passed the Mujahadeen checkpoints and the villages and made it back to the main highway. As we approached the first American checkpoint, all the Westerners on board moved to the front of the bus so they would be seen first. The car with Lee, Ghareeb and Dave stopped and they got out and walked up to the soldiers, their hands up. They spoke to the Americans and returned and we moved forward slowly in the bus (we approach all American checkpoints slowly and with caution!)
The soldiers did not search the bus, they just stepped on, had a quick look and gave us humvee escort to the next checkpoint - somehting we certainly did not want and which, in fact, put us in more danger. At the next checkpoint, those of us who could walk had to get off the bus with our passports.
We hope to carry more of Helen Williams’ dispatches soon.