'He's just sleeping, I kept telling myself'
On Sunday, 13 Iraqis were killed and dozens injured in Baghdad when US helicopters fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. G2 columnist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who was injured in the attack, describes the scene of carnage - and reveals just how lucky he was to walk away
Dead and injured Iraqi civilians on Haifa Street, Baghdad, after a US helicopter attack. Photo: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images
09/14/04 "The Guardian" -- It started with a phone call early on Sunday morning: "Big pile of smoke over Haifa Street." Still half asleep I put on my jeans, cursing those insurgents who do their stuff in the early morning. What if I just go back to bed, I thought - by the time I will be there it will be over. In the car park it struck me that I didn't have my flak jacket in the car, but figured it was most probably just an IED (improvised explosive device) under a Humvee and I would be back soon.
On the way to Haifa Street I was half praying that everything would be over or that the Americans would seal off the area. I haven't recovered from Najaf yet.
Haifa Street was built by Saddam in the early 80s, part of a scheme that was supposed to give Baghdad a modern look. A long, wide boulevard with huge Soviet high-rise buildings on both sides, it acts like a curtain, screening off the network of impoverished alleyways that are inhabited by Baghdad's poorest and toughest people, many of whom are from the heart of the Sunni triangle.
When I arrived there I saw hundreds of kids and young men heading towards the smoke. "Run fast, it's been burning for a long time!" someone shouted as I grabbed my cameras and started to run.
When I was 50m away I heard a couple of explosions and another cloud of dust rose across the street from where the first column of smoke was still climbing. People started running towards me in waves. A man wearing an orange overall was sweeping the street while others were running. A couple of helicopters in the sky overhead turned away. I jumped into a yard in front of a shop that was set slightly back from the street, 10 of us with our heads behind the yard wall. "It's a sound bomb," said a man who had his face close to mine.
A few seconds later, I heard people screaming and shouting - something must have happened - and I headed towards the sounds, still crouching behind a wall. Two newswire photographers were running in the opposite direction and we exchanged eye contact.
About 20m ahead of me, I could see the American Bradley armoured vehicle, a huge monster with fire rising from within. It stood alone, its doors open, burning. I stopped, took a couple of photos and crossed the street towards a bunch of people. Some were lying in the street, others stood around them. The helicopters were still buzzing, but further off now.
I felt uneasy and exposed in the middle of the street, but lots of civilians were around me. A dozen men formed a circle around five injured people, all of whom were screaming and wailing. One guy looked at one of the injured men and beat his head and chest: "Is that you, my brother? Is that you?" He didn't try to reach for him, he just stood there looking at the bloodied face of his brother.
A man sat alone covered with blood and looked around, amazed at the scene. His T-shirt was torn and blood ran from his back. Two men were dragging away an unconscious boy who had lost the lower half of one leg. A pool of blood and a creamy liquid formed beneath the stump on the pavement. His other leg was badly gashed.
I had been standing there taking pictures for two or three minutes when we heard the helicopters coming back. Everyone started running, and I didn't look back to see what was happening to the injured men. We were all rushing towards the same place: a fence, a block of buildings and a prefab concrete cube used as a cigarette stall.
I had just reached the corner of the cube when I heard two explosions, I felt hot air blast my face and something burning on my head. I crawled to the cube and hid behind it. Six of us were squeezed into a space less than two metres wide. Blood started dripping on my camera but all that I could think about was how to keep the lens clean. A man in his 40s next to me was crying. He wasn't injured, he was just crying. I was so scared I just wanted to squeeze myself against the wall. The helicopters wheeled overhead, and I realised that they were firing directly at us. I wanted to be invisible, I wanted to hide under the others.
As the helicopters moved a little further off, two of the men ran away to a nearby building. I stayed where I was with a young man, maybe in his early 20s, who was wearing a pair of leather boots and a tracksuit. He was sitting on the ground, his legs stretched in front of him but with his knee joint bent outwards unnaturally. Blood ran on to the dirt beneath him as he peered round the corner. I started taking pictures of him. He looked at me and turned his head back towards the street as if he was looking for something. His eyes were wide open and kept looking.
There in the street, the injured were all left alone: a young man with blood all over his face sat in the middle of the cloud of dust, then fell on to his face.
Behind the cube, the other two men knew each other.
"How are you?" asked the man closer to me. He was lying against the cube's wall and trying to pull out his cellphone.
"I am not good," said the other, a young man in a blue T-shirt, resting against a fence. He was holding his arm, a chunk of which was missing, exposing the bone.
"Bring a car and come here please, we are injured," his friend was saying into his cellphone.
The man with his knee twisted out, meanwhile, was making only a faint sound. I was so scared I didn't want to touch him. I kept telling myself he was OK, he wasn't screaming.
I decided to help the guy with the phone who was screaming. I ripped his T-shirt off and told him to squeeze it against the gash on his head. But I was scared; I wanted to do something, but I couldn't. I tried to remember the first-aid training I had had in the past, but all I was doing was taking pictures.
I turned back to the man with the twisted knee. His head was on the curb now, his eyes were open but he just kept making the faint sound. I started talking to him, saying, "Don't worry, you'll be OK, you'll be fine." From behind him I looked at the middle of the street, where five injured men were still lying. Three of them were piled almost on top of each other; a boy wearing a white dishdasha lay a few metres away.
One of the three men piled together raised his head and looked around the empty streets with a look of astonishment on his face. He then looked at the boy in front of him, turned to the back and looked at the horizon again. Then he slowly started moving his head to the ground, rested his head on his arms and stretched his hands towards something that he could see. It was the guy who had been beating his chest earlier, trying to help his brother. He wanted help but no one helped. He was just there dying in front of me. Time didn't exist. The streets were empty and silent and the men lay there dying together. He slid down to the ground, and after five minutes was flat on the street.
I moved, crouching, towards where they were. They were like sleeping men with their arms wrapped around each other in the middle of the empty street. I went to photograph the boy with the dishdasha. He's just sleeping, I kept telling myself. I didn't want to wake him. The boy with the amputated leg was there too, left there by the people who were pulling him earlier. The vehicle was still burning.
More kids ventured into the street, looking with curiosity at the dead and injured. Then someone shouted "Helicopters!" and we ran. I turned and saw two small helicopters, black and evil. Frightened, I ran back to my shelter where I heard two more big explosions. At the end of the street the man in the orange overall was still sweeping the street.
The man with the bent knee was unconscious now, his face flat on the curb. Some kids came and said, "He is dead." I screamed at them. "Don't say that! He is still alive! Don't scare him." I asked him if he was OK, but he didn't reply.
We left the kids behind the bent-knee guy, the cellphone guy and the blue V-neck T-shirt guy; they were all unconscious now. We left them to die there alone. I didn't even try to move any with me. I just ran selfishly away. I reached a building entrance when someone grabbed my arm and took me inside. "There's an injured man. Take pictures - show the world the American democracy," he said. A man was lying in the corridor in total darkness as someone bandaged him.
Some others told me there was another journalist in the building. They took me to a stairwell leading to the basement, where a Reuters cameraman, a cheerful chubby guy, was lying holding his camera next to his head. He wasn't screaming but he had a look of pain in his eyes.
I tried to remember his name to call his office, but I couldn't. He was a friend, we had worked together for months. I have seen him in every press conference, but I couldn't remember his name.
In time, an ambulance came. I ran to the street as others emerged from their hiding places, all trying to carry injured civilians to the ambulance.
"No, this one is dead," said the driver. "Get someone else."
The ambulance drove away and we all scattered, thinking to ourselves: the Americans won't fire at an ambulance but they will at us. This scene was repeated a couple of times: each time we heard an ambulance we would emerge into the streets, running for cover again as it left.
Yesterday, sitting in the office, another photographer who was looking at my pictures exclaimed: "So the Arabiya journalist was alive when you were taking pictures!"
"I didn't see the Arabiya journalist."
He pointed at the picture of the guy with V-neck T-shirt. It was him. He was dead. All the people I had shared my shelter with were dead.