‘Fallujah never leaves my mind’

This week marks the 5th anniversary of the First Battle of Fallujah. By the end of the second attack on the city in November 2004 hundreds of civilians were slaughtered and 60-70% of the city reduced to rubble. Operation Phantom Fury marked one of the darkest moments in the history of the occupation of Iraq – which explains why it has been so carefully dispatched down Orwell’s Memory Hole with the aid of the complicitous silence of the free press. “Laith Mushtaq was on of only two non-embedded cameramen working throughout the April 2004 ‘battle for Fallujah’ in which 600 civilians died. Five years on, he recounts the events he witnessed and filmed.”

“What you saw on your TV sets at home reflects only ten per cent of the reality. Also, if you watch those pictures at home, you can change the channel.

But we were in the middle. We smell. We feel, see, and touch everything. We could touch the bodies, but we couldn’t change the channel. We were the channel.

When I think of Fallujah, I think of the smell. The smell was driving me crazy. In a dead body, there is a kind of liquid. Yellow liquid. The smell is disgusting, really. It sticks in your nose. You cannot eat anymore.

And you can’t get the pictures off your mind, because every day you see the same: Explosion, death, explosion, death, death.

After work, you sit down and notice there are pieces of flesh on your shoes and blood on your trousers. But you don’t have time to ask why.

In April 2004, I remember I was in the Baghdad office and my boss said: “We have information that the Americans will attack Fallujah. We need a crew to go inside Fallujah immediately. Who can go there?”

I said: “Yes. Me. I can go there.” I didn’t hesitate at all.

Filming was a ‘duty’

Laith filmed this family attempting to flee Fallujah – ten minutes later they were dead

I knew the price to pay was high. Maybe my life. But if I’m afraid to die, then I shouldn’t hold a camera in any dangerous place. I know some day I will die. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. Or in ten years. I don’t know.

But the point is that maybe I will die in my bed. Or maybe I will die doing something good.

Fallujah was my duty. I had to show the truth to people outside of Iraq.

By truth, I mean what really happened in the streets. Not a political message, just what I could see with my own eyes. Because some people were talking about Fallujah and said “there is nothing happening,” or “the people are okay” and “everything is stable”.

It would be great if everything had been stable. I would be happy if nothing had happened. I would shoot it and show it, with pleasure. But the reality was very different.

One day, I think it was April 9, 2004, someone with a loudspeaker in Fallujah’s main mosque said: “The Americans will open a gate and women and children can go out.”

As soon as he had finished, all the women and children of Fallujah tried to find a car to leave the city but when they were in the streets, the US forces opened fire.

There’s a picture that I cannot forget. An old woman with three children, I saw her on the street and took a picture of her and the children.

She said: “We don’t have any men here, can anyone help us?” Many of the men from Fallujah worked in Baghdad, once the city was sealed off they could not get back to their wives and children.

So, some men helped her, I decided to film the scene and then I sat down to smoke.

Ten minutes later, an ambulance came down the road. I ran to follow the ambulance and when they opened the door, I saw the same woman and her children – but they were in pieces.

I still remember the nurses couldn’t carry the woman because she was in too many pieces, people were jumping back when they saw it. Then, one nurse shouted: “Hey, she looks like your mother.”

In the Iraqi language that means: “She could be your mother, so treat her like you’d treat your mom.” Everyone stood up and tried to carry a piece because they needed to get her out quickly, because the ambulance was needed for other people.

“We heard people screaming inside the hospital, they did not have any drugs left. They had to cut legs without anything at all”

We were standing in front of the main hospital, but we would have needed 12 cameramen in order to cover all that happened that day.

There were five, six ambulances coming and going with dead and injured people. When I filmed people inside the hospital, there were so many outside. When I filmed outside, there were so many inside.

Me and all of the Al Jazeera crew, we felt paralysed. It was bigger than us. We were only two cameramen and two reporters. It’s not enough.

Reporters, editors in Doha and Baghdad, the people of Fallujah, all of them kept calling for us to film what was happening, and the ambulances just kept coming and going.

We heard people screaming inside the hospital, because they did not have any drugs left. They had to cut legs without anything at all.

At some point, I couldn’t move anymore. I sat down on the street and kept smoking. I couldn’t move. I see what’s happening around me, but I can’t move. Khallas [enough]. I didn’t have any energy left.

Corpse-strewn streets

But then you remember the heroes of Fallujah that nobody talks about.

Like this old man. He had a pick-up truck and every day, he drove through the streets and listened to the people who told him there is a dead body in this or that street, but nobody can go there because there’s a sniper.

Then he went there, stopped his car, and on his knees, he’d crawl to the body and carry it to his pick-up car. One day he brought five bodies.

Some of them had died more than a week ago, but no one had dared to carry them away. Some, the dogs had started eating them.

While I was inside Fallujah, I knew that every single move of my camera is not for me. It’s for the people inside. And the people outside who should know what happened. It’s like an SOS.

The Americans said our pictures stirred up hatred against them. But what I did was only showing what their army did on the ground.

Mushtaq: ‘You remember the heroes… nobody talks about’

I don’t hate them, I don’t want vengeance, I just wish they had understood what they were doing.

And sometimes I wish my mind was more like a computer that you can reformat. Or that you can go to hospital and get pieces of your memory removed.

In Fallujah, there were moments when I held my camera beside a dead body and I felt I haven’t got a heart anymore. Because of the dose of war that I’ve seen. It was something like an overdose.

Not just for me inside, also for my family in Baghdad.

The month that I spent in Fallujah, my mom was watching TV all the time, because she knew her son was there and she knew those were the pictures that he had shot. Sometimes we couldn’t talk for a couple of days.

One day, she heard on the news that the Americans would try to reach the middle of the city. She couldn’t bear it anymore. She went to the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad and cried: “Give me my son back!”

I was embarrassed, but my mother is, well, a mother.

Around the same time, in the evening, we got a phone call from the general manager of Al Jazeera. He wanted to talk to every member of the crew. The driver. Me. Everyone.

He said: “Thank you very much, we appreciate what you’re doing.” And then he said: “If you want to leave Fallujah, we’ll send someone and will try to get you out of there.”

We all refused. Everyone wanted to stay.

Why should we be better than the women and children of Fallujah? No one had called them to ask whether they wanted to leave.”

In a written statement given to Al Jazeera, Lieutenant Colonel Curtis L Hill, public affairs director for the multi-national force in the west of Iraq, denied US-led forces fired on “unarmed civilians” .

“Coalition forces were there to capture the terrorists responsible for the death of four American contractors. They would not have fired on unarmed civilians attempting to leave the city,” he said.

Specifically asked if a ceasefire had been called on April 9, he said troops had “halted the advance although I believe the date was 11 April”.

Interview compiled by Stephanie Doetzer

Laith Mushtaq is from Baghdad and joined Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel in 2003. He is now based in Doha.

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