It was the smell that first hit me, a smell that is difficult to describe, and one that will never leave me. It was the smell of death. Hundreds of corpses were decomposing in the houses, gardens and streets of Fallujah. Bodies were rotting where they had fallen—bodies of men, women and children, many half-eaten by wild dogs.
A wave of hate had wiped out two-thirds of the town, destroying houses and mosques, schools and clinics. This was the terrible and frightening power of the US military assault.
The accounts I heard over the next few days will live with me forever. You may think you know what happened in Fallujah. But the truth is worse than you could possibly have imagined.
In Saqlawiya, one of the makeshift refugee camps that surround Fallujah, we found a 17 year old woman. “I am Hudda Fawzi Salam Issawi from the Jolan district of Fallujah,” she told me. “Five of us, including a 55 year old neighbour, were trapped together in our house in Fallujah when the siege began.
“On 9 November American marines came to our house. My father and the neighbour went to the door to meet them. We were not fighters. We thought we had nothing to fear. I ran into the kitchen to put on my veil, since men were going to enter our house and it would be wrong for them to see me with my hair uncovered.
“This saved my life. As my father and neighbour approached the door, the Americans opened fire on them. They died instantly.
“Me and my 13 year old brother hid in the kitchen behind the fridge. The soldiers came into the house and caught my older sister. They beat her. Then they shot her. But they did not see me. Soon they left, but not before they had destroyed our furniture and stolen the money from my father’s pocket.”
Hudda told me how she comforted her dying sister by reading verses from the Koran. After four hours her sister died. For three days Hudda and her brother stayed with their murdered relatives. But they were thirsty and had only a few dates to eat. They feared the troops would return and decided to try to flee the city. But they were spotted by a US sniper.
Hudda was shot in the leg, her brother ran but was shot in the back and died instantly. “I prepared myself to die,” she told me. “But I was found by an American woman soldier, and she took me to hospital.” She was eventually reunited with the surviving members of her family.
I also found survivors of another family from the Jolan district. They told me that at the end of the second week of the siege the US troops swept through the Jolan. The Iraqi National Guard
used loudspeakers to call on people to get out of the houses carrying white flags, bringing all their belongings with them. They were ordered to gather outside near the Jamah al-Furkan mosque in the centre of town.
On 12 November Eyad Naji Latif and eight members of his family—one of them a six month old child—gathered their belongings and walked in single file, as instructed, to the mosque.
When they reached the main road outside the mosque they heard a shout, but they could not understand what was being shouted. Eyad told me it could have been “now” in English. Then the firing began.
US soldiers appeared on the roofs of surrounding houses and opened fire. Eyad’s father was shot in the heart and his mother in the chest.
They died instantly. Two of Eyad’s brothers were also hit, one in the chest and one in the neck. Two of the women were hit, one in the hand and one in the leg.
Then the snipers killed the wife of one of Eyad’s brothers. When she fell her five year old son ran to her and stood over her body. They shot him dead too.
Survivors made desperate appeals to the troops to stop firing.
But Eyad told me that whenever one of them tried to raise a white flag they were shot. After several hours he tried to raise his arm with the flag. But they shot him in the arm. Finally he tried to raise his hand. So they shot him in the hand.
The five survivors, including the six month old child, lay in the street for seven hours. Then four of them crawled to the nearest home to find shelter.
The next morning the brother who was shot in the neck also managed to crawl to safety. They all stayed in the house for eight days, surviving on roots and one cup of water, which they saved for the baby.
On the eighth day they were discovered by some members of the Iraqi National Guard and taken to hospital in Fallujah. They heard the Americans were arresting any young men, so the family fled the hospital and finally obtained treatment in a nearby town.
They do not know in detail what happened to the other families who had gone to the mosque as instructed. But they told me the street was awash with blood.
I had come to Fallujah in January as part of a humanitarian aid convoy funded by donations from Britain.
Our small convoy of trucks and vans brought 15 tons of flour, eight tons of rice, medical aid and 900 pieces of clothing for the orphans. We knew that thousands of refugees were camped in terrible conditions in four camps on the outskirts of town.
There we heard the accounts of families killed in their houses, of wounded people dragged into the streets and run over by tanks, of a container with the bodies of 481 civilians inside, of premeditated murder, looting and acts of savagery and cruelty that beggar belief.
Through the ruins
That is why we decided to go into Fallujah and investigate. When we entered the town I almost did not recognise the place where I had worked as a doctor in April 2004, during the first siege.
We found people wandering like ghosts through the ruins. Some were looking for the bodies of relatives. Others were trying to recover some of their possessions from destroyed homes.
Here and there, small knots of people were queuing for fuel or food. In one queue some of the survivors were fighting over a blanket.
I remember being approached by an elderly woman, her eyes raw with tears. She grabbed my arm and told me how her house had been hit by a US bomb during an air raid. The ceiling collapsed on her 19 year old son, cutting off both his legs.
She could not get help. She could not go into the streets because the Americans had posted snipers on the roofs and were killing anyone who ventured out, even at night.
She tried her best to stop the bleeding, but it was to no avail. She stayed with him, her only son, until he died. He took four hours to die.
Fallujah’s main hospital was seized by the US troops in the first days of the siege. The only other clinic, the Hey Nazzal, was hit twice by US missiles. Its medicines and medical equipment were all destroyed.
There were no ambulances—the two ambulances that came to help the wounded were shot up and destroyed by US troops.
We visited houses in the Jolan district, a poor working class area in the north western part of the city that had been the centre of resistance during the April siege.
This quarter seemed to have been singled out for punishment during the second siege. We moved from house to house, discovering families dead in their beds, or cut down in living rooms or in the kitchen. House after house had furniture smashed and possessions scattered.
In some places we found bodies of fighters, dressed in black and with ammunition belts.
But in most of the houses, the bodies were of civilians. Many were dressed in housecoats, many of the women were not veiled—meaning there were no men other than family members in the house. There were no weapons, no spent cartridges.
It became clear to us that we were witnessing the aftermath of a massacre, the cold-blooded butchery of helpless and defenceless civilians.
Nobody knows how many died. The occupation forces are now bulldozing the neighbourhoods to cover up their crime. What happened in Fallujah was an act of barbarity. The whole world must be told the truth.