|This Is the Reality of War.
We Bomb. They Suffer
Robert Fisk, The Independent
BAGHDAD, 23 March 2003 - Donald Rumsfeld says the American attack on
Baghdad is "as targeted an air campaign as has ever existed" but he
should not try telling that to five-year-old Doha Suheil. She looked
at me yesterday morning, drip feed attached to her nose, a deep frown
over her small face as she tried vainly to move the left side of her
body. The cruise missile that exploded close to her home in the
Radwaniyeh suburb of Baghdad blasted shrapnel into her tiny legs -
they were bound up with gauze - and, far more seriously, into her
spine. Now she has lost all movement in her left leg.
Her mother bends over the bed and straightens her right leg which
the little girl thrashes around outside the blanket. Somehow, Doha's
mother thinks that if her child's two legs lie straight beside each
other, her daughter will recover from her paralysis. She was the
first of 101 patients brought to the Al-Mustansaniya College Hospital
after America's blitz on the city began on Friday night. Seven other
members of her family were wounded in the same cruise missile
bombardment; the youngest, a one-year-old baby, was being breastfed
by her mother at the time.
There is something sick, obscene about these hospital visits. We
bomb. They suffer. Then we turn up and take pictures of their wounded
children. The Iraqi minister of health decides to hold an
insufferable press conference outside the wards to emphasize the
"bestial" nature of the American attack. The Americans say that they
don't intend to hurt children. And Doha Suheil looks at me and the
doctors for reassurance, as if she will awake from this nightmare and
move her left leg and feel no more pain.
So let's forget, for a moment, the cheap propaganda of the regime
and the equally cheap moralizing of Messrs. Rumsfeld and Bush, and
take a trip around the Al-Mustansaniya College Hospital. For the
reality of war is ultimately not about military victory and defeat,
or the lies about "coalition forces" which our "embedded" journalists
are now peddling about an invasion involving only the Americans, the
British and a handful of Australians. War, even when it has
international legitimacy - which this war does not - is primarily
Take 50-year-old Amel Hassan, a peasant woman with tattoos on her
arms and legs but who now lies on her hospital bed with massive
purple bruises on her shoulders - they are now twice their original
size - who was on her way to visit her daughter when the first
American missile struck Baghdad. "I was just getting out of the taxi
when there was a big explosion and I fell down and found my blood
everywhere," she told me. "It was on my arms, my legs, my chest."
Amel Hassan still has multiple shrapnel wounds in her chest.
Her five-year-old daughter Wahed lies in the next bed, whimpering
with pain. She had climbed out of the taxi first and was almost at
her aunt's front door when the explosion cut her down. Her feet are
still bleeding although the blood has clotted around her toes and is
staunched by the bandages on her ankles and lower legs. Two little
boys are in the next room. Sade Selim is 11; his brother Omar is 14.
Both have shrapnel wounds to their legs and chest.
Isra Riad is in the third room with almost identical injuries, in
her case shrapnel wounds to the legs as she ran in terror from her
house into her garden as the blitz began. Imam Ali is 23 and has
multiple shrapnel wounds in her abdomen and lower bowel. Najla
Hussein Abbas still tries to cover her head with a black scarf but
she cannot hide the purple wounds to her legs. Multiple shrapnel
wounds. After a while, "multiple shrapnel wounds" sounds like a
natural disease which, I suppose - among a people who have suffered
more than 20 years of war - it is.
And all this, I asked myself yesterday, was all this for Sept. 11,
2001? All this was to "strike back" at our attackers, albeit that
Doha Suheil, Wahed Hassan and Imam Ali have nothing - absolutely
nothing - to do with those crimes against humanity, any more than has
the awful Saddam? Who decided, I wonder, that these children, these
young women should suffer for Sept. 11? Wars repeat themselves.
Always, when "we" come to visit those we have bombed, we have the
same question. In Libya in 1986, I remember how American reporters
would repeatedly cross-question the wounded: had they perhaps been
hit by shrapnel from their own anti-aircraft fire? Again, in 1991,
"we" asked the Iraqi wounded the same question. And yesterday, a
doctor found himself asked by a British radio reporter - yes, you've
guessed it - "Do you think, doctor, that some of these people could
have been hit by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire?" Should we laugh or cry at
this? Should we always blame "them" for their own wounds? Certainly
we should ask why those cruise missiles exploded where they did, at
least 320 in Baghdad alone, courtesy of the USS Kitty Hawk.
Isra Riad came from Sayadiyeh where there is a big military
barracks. Najla Abbas's home is in Risalleh where there are villas
belonging to Saddam's family. The two small Selim brothers live in
Shirta Khamse where there is a store house for military vehicles. But
that's the whole problem. Targets are scattered across the city. The
poor - and all the wounded I saw yesterday were poor - live in cheap,
sometimes wooden houses that collapse under blast damage.
It is the same old story. If we make war - however much we blather
on about our care for civilians - we are going to kill and maim the
Dr. Habib Al-Hezai, whose FRCS was gained at Edinburgh University,
counted 101 patients of the total 207 wounded in the raids in his
hospital alone, of whom 85 were civilians - 20 of them women and six
of them children - and 16 soldiers. A young man and a child of 12 had
died under surgery. No one will say how many soldiers were killed
during the actual attack.
Driving across Baghdad yesterday was an eerie experience. The
targets were indeed carefully selected even though their destruction
inevitably struck the innocent. There was one presidential palace I
saw with 40ft high statues of the Arab warrior Salahuddin in each
corner - the face of each was, of course, that of Saddam - and,
neatly in between, a great black hole gouged into the facade of the
building. The Ministry of Air Weapons production was pulverized, a
massive heap of pre-stressed concrete and rubble.
But outside, at the gate, there were two sandbag emplacements with
smartly dressed Iraqi soldiers, rifles over the parapet, still ready
to defend their ministry from the enemy which had already destroyed
The morning traffic built up on the roads beside the Tigris. No
driver looked too hard at the Republican Palace on the other side of
the river nor the smoldering Ministry of Armaments Procurement. They
burned for 12 hours after the first missile strikes. It was as if
burning palaces and blazing ministries and piles of smoking rubble
were a normal part of daily Baghdad life. But then again, no one
under the present regime would want to spend too long looking at such
things, would they? And Iraqis have noticed what all this means. In
1991, the Americans struck the refineries, the electricity grid, the
water pipes, communications. But yesterday, Baghdad could still
function. The landline telephones worked; the Internet operated; the
electrical power was at full capacity; the bridges over the Tigris
remained unbombed. Because, of course, when - "if" is still a
sensitive phrase these days - the Americans get here, they will need
a working communications system, electricity, transport. What has
been spared is not a gift to the Iraqi people: it is for the benefit
of Iraq's supposed new masters.
The Iraq daily newspaper emerged yesterday with an edition of just
four pages, a clutch of articles on the "steadfastness" of the nation
- steadfastness in Arabic is Soummoud, the same name as the missile
that Iraq partially destroyed before Bush forced the UN inspectors to
leave by going to war - and a headline which read "President: Victory
will come in Iraqi hands".
Again, there has been no attempt by the US to destroy the television
facilities because they presumably want to use them on arrival.
During the bombing on Friday night, an Iraqi general appeared live on
television to reassure the nation of victory. As he spoke, the blast
waves from cruise missile explosions blew in the curtains behind him
and shook the television camera.
So where does all this lead us? In the early hours of yesterday
morning, I looked across the Tigris at the funeral pyre of the
Republican Palace and the colonnaded ministry beside it. There were
beacons of fire across Baghdad and the sky was lowering with smoke,
the buttressed, rampart-like palace - sheets of flame soaring from
its walls - looked like a medieval castle ablaze; Tsesiphon
destroyed, Mesopotamia at the moment of its destruction as it has
been seen for many times over so many thousands of years.
Xenophon struck south of here, Alexander to the north. The Mongols
sacked Baghdad. The caliphs came. And then the Ottomans and then the
British. All departed. Now come the Americans. It's not about
legitimacy. It's about something much more seductive, something
Saddam himself understands all too well, a special kind of power, the
same power that every conqueror of Iraq wished to demonstrate as he
smashed his way into the land of this ancient civilization.
Yesterday afternoon the Iraqis lit massive fires of oil around the
city of Baghdad in the hope of misleading the guidance system of the
cruise missiles. Smoke against computers. The air-raid sirens began
to howl again just after 3.20 p.m. London time, followed by the
utterly predictable sound of explosions.