As regular readers know, my friend Paul is a journalist based in the Middle East, and spent a year working as a reporter in Baghdad. He finished that a little while ago, but he’s back, and has sent another of his intermittent dispatches.
I’ve been posting these to the blog when I get them. This one, I’m putting entirely below the fold, because it’s a little more disturbing than some– it’s a story about a guy getting killed in a sniper attack. It’s not the sort of cheery story that makes you think our little Mesopotamian adventure is going to end well, and it’s a little graphic, so read on at your own risk.
The little boy had a hole in his throat – picked up three years ago after complications from a car accident required him to get a tracheotomy. He smiled alot, but the 6-year-old couldn’t speak.
In small wooden hut, at the Fallujah Development Center, his father explained to a US marine medic that he really wanted help in getting to a good hospital where his son could be operated on.
Over the whirr of the air-conditioning and the gentle hissing of the boy’s breath through the little hole, the marines said they knew of a doctor in the Green Zone willing to examine him.
His father, a Sunni, refused, saying he wouldn’t go near Baghdad, a mere 45 minute journey becaue it was full of Shiites and Sunnis died there. He was however willing to go to Jordan, some 13 hours away.
The marine medic, Doc, had taken a personal interest in the case and told him to find out how much the operation would cost and they could see about providing some kind of help.
The father promised to get back to them and everyone shook hands and rose to leave, and prepare for the next interview, when there was a light “crack” sound in the courtyard.
Silence and then shouts of “man down, man hit!” The cozy scene in the hut was shattered as we all scrambled to put on our helmets and flak jackets, and outside, on top of a water truck, a young man with sunglasses lay limp and bleeding, his friend crouched over him.
There was rushing around, stunned standing, someone got a medic truck, and the marine was slowly eased off the water truck onto the ground. He twitched as they tried to put bandages on him, there was blood everywhere, and shouting and lots of swearing.
“Why do they let those motherfuckers get up on top of the trucks!” yelled one staff sergeant, who rapidly took charge of the situation while the most others, including the officers, just stood there.
Doc worked on him, gave him CPR, bandaged him and they got him on to the stretcher, and carried him with much shouting to the waiting truck, which peeled off leaving behind a stained helmet filled with dark blood in the middle of the courtyard.
The side of a water storage tank was splattered with blood, the side of the truck on which he died was covered in blood. The gravel of the courtyard was bloody, drops of blood stood out bright against the sand when someone walked away with his dripping helmet.
He was part of a logistics supply crew, they bring their gasoline and water trucks to resupply remote bases like this one. When he stood up on top of the truck while fixing the pump hose, he was exposed over the the little base’s walls to a patient, waiting sniper.
The center was one of the few direct points of contact between the Americans and the local people. It was where the Fallujans came to get their id cards, lodge complaints against the Americans, or make requests, like the little boy’s father.
The morning had been spent in meetings with contractors, bidding to work on the various reconstruction projects the marines are trying to implement in this battered city made famous by the November 2004 re-invasion. With the death of the marine, the center was closed for the day and all petitioners and contractors sent home.
The city had long ago dropped out of the headlines, compared to more vicious fights farther west in Ramadi, but there is still a steady toll of violence here.
Almost two and a half years after the marines re-took the city, the main street still bears blatant scars from the assault. Every building has a stitching of bullet holes and some still lie where they fell all those years ago.
Trash chokes the alleyways and electricity comes from generators. The city council says it is powerless because the central government — run by Shiites — won’t give them any development money. And besides, there’s still a war on.
Snipers are the new bane of the US forces existence. The ubiquitous armored humvees keep acquiring more accoutrements every time I come. Now their turrets are all equipped with little nests of camouflage netting to protect the vulnerable gunners.
Every time the patrols I was on in downtown Fallujah would stop cars for searches, the marines would drop smoke bombs to foil the snipers and bob and weave as they walked, never standing still, looking for all the world like hyperactive children.
With the body gone, everyone just sort of looked at each other in stunned silence. Then, they began kicking sand over the blood spots, mopping the side of the water tank, and trying brushing over the slick wet pieces of gravel as well as those just lightly speckled.
“You know, it’s possible to survive a head shot,” said one. Another pointed to blood dripping off the tanker and pooling on the ground. “Nah, that dark stuff comes from around the brain, and look, that’s solid,” he said pointing to a bit of gristle on the side.
I talked to Doc later, he said in the nightmarish drive to the base hospital he brought back the marine’s pulse and had him breathing on his own. Then he died in the hospital. The bullet went through the forehead and out the back.
When I left Iraq back in December I told the bureau chief to feel free to call me back if he needed me. As happy as I was to get out of there, I felt bad for leaving everyone behind, I knew I would miss the story.
And of course, they did need me because finding people to work in Baghdad these days is not easy. The experienced reporters are gone, it’s not a fun story any more, it’s a sad and tragic one, but that too gets old. Now the one place newspapers are still hiring is in Iraq.
I came back to find a new Baghdad security plan under way, which I thought was pretty funny because I’d extensively covered last year’s security plan for Baghdad. But the neighborhood they cleared didn’t stay safe because they didn’t have enough troops to hold it and the Iraqi security forces were not up to the job.
In Fallujah, they are supposed to be up to the job. A very competent looking Iraqi army lieutenant near the center immediately secured the area and came to give us his theory on where the sniper was – his own share of men had been killed as well.
Finally it was time to leave and we began gathering up our things, including the dead man’s pair of sunglasses which they’d forgotten to take with them.
As we were leaving, the interpreter, a former English teacher from Baghdad who works out here so no one will recognize him, grabs up the blue case file of the little boy and takes him back from the camp and leaves it in Doc’s room.
I saw Doc after he came back from the hospital and mentioned the kid, he snarled something about how that could the sniping happen when “we’re just trying to fucking help.”
The next day though, after the marines had sat around and worked through the whole incident together, retelling it, comparing memories, figuring out what happened and what was done wrong, he seemed calmer and still committed to trying to do something.
“It would be great to help this kid, and have something good come out of all this crap,” he said.