Fallujah Stories

My driver, Mousab, a sweet shy man with a smile like an adorable 4-year-old’s, got a call from his cousin in Fallujah. The call was short, the line fizzy, and they were abruptly cut off. His cousin told him that they had tried to send his mother and the children out of the city (“Somehow, I don’t know, they don’t have a car”), and could he try to come and collect them?

Mousab set off the next day from Baghdad at 10 a.m. He took the main highway that goes to Fallujah and Ramadi. Still in the city, among the suburbs, he saw a tank burning and a Humvee on fire. There were explosions. He saw another car; it was also going to Fallujah, and they joined up and got off the highway and tried to find back roads, dirt roads between villages. Soon they came to a mujahideen checkpoint. They stopped.

“Who are you? Where are you going?”

“We are going to Fallujah.”

“To Fallujah? For jihad?”

“No, we are going to help people there.”

“Do you need weapons? Do you need someone to show you the way in?”

Mousab and the other car declined the offer and drove another two or three hours to Gurma. There was fighting in Gurma. Mousab saw the blackened carcass of a helicopter and a Humvee on fire. There were large numbers of mujahideen there and American helicopters overhead firing rockets.

The mujahideen told them which way to go. They saw Americans on the highway, but they avoided them. Finally they arrived at the north side of Fallujah on the outskirts of a neighborhood called Jolan.

“The fighting was very bad,” said Mousab in his calm way, without adding any details or drama. “There was heavy bombing, there were large numbers of mujahideen heading toward the Americans. I could see houses burning.”

He could not get into Fallujah, and he drove back to Gurma, ate some lunch, and set out to try again.

The fighting was still going on. Iraqis on the road told him it was too dangerous to go forward, that the Americans were targeting every vehicle, any kind of car. The explosions were continuous. He came across a man in a car with his family. The man asked him to take his family—five women and a multitude of small children—to relatives in Gurma. The women did not want to leave their father. They were crying, “We want to stay with you, we would rather die together.” For half an hour this conversation continued, and then the father left them, promising to follow in a couple of hours. He walked back to his own car. Before he got to the car he was shot in the head.

Mousab, telling me this, looked down at the ground. “His brain was everywhere. The women were screaming. I got them into the car.”

There were hundreds of cars in Gurma—families, people trying to get out of Fallujah. The family Mousab had ferried found their relatives. Mousab stayed a few hours in the house of a stranger, and then in the small hours he set off for Baghdad in a convoy of refugees. The mujahideen said it was safer then, there was less bombing. They drove on back roads with their headlights off. There were mujahideen fighters all the way into the city. Mousab saw them outside Khadamiya, a Shiite neighborhood to the west. One had his face covered with a red and white scarf, the others just standing there with their rocket-propelled grenades.

The American spin suggests a cordoned-off Fallujah full of small arms fire. I’ve been talking to people who have been in and out of Fallujah over the past few days, mostly friends of mine trying to take medical supplies in or to get relatives out. The Americans don’t control the main highway—their supply convoys are constantly getting hit—and they have not sealed the town effectively. They do not seem to control any tract of country between Baghdad and Ramadi, and every day attacks on the western edges of Baghdad creep closer into the center of the city. The streets in Baghdad are emptier and emptier, the unease is palpable. On Saturday I drove out to the western suburb of Ghaziliya (a town on the way to Fallujah) and saw a tank on fire under an underpass. There were two Bradley fighting vehicles a few hundred yards away craning the surrounding neighborhoods with their gun turrets. Two helicopters circled overhead, like poised dragonflies in the muddy afternoon blue sky haze.

Sunday morning I woke up at half past 5 to explosions, maybe mortars. It was still dark, lightening with birdsong into dawn. A siren sounded in the U.S. compound in the center of Baghdad, the green zone, across the river from my balcony. I stayed awake. Bradleys rumbled down the road, a tank, some Humvees, and a truck full of American troops, then a foot patrol platoon strung out along the verge.

When he got back to Baghdad on Sunday morning, Mousab got a call from his relatives in Fallujah. They said they had made a mistake trying to leave the town. They couldn’t get out, they were back home. They were all right; they were going to stay.

Three brothers and a neighbor drove their families out of Fallujah on Saturday night.

I found them in a relative’s house in Baghdad, angry (“We saw them shooting families with children”; “There was a cease-fire but they continued to attack us”). They were family men with their wives and dozens of children crowding shyly around, listening to their fathers talk.

“Just tell the truth,” they told me. “Because we can see CNN and BBC are full of lies.” They held up a weighty pointed piece of steel and said it was an armor-piercing bullet fired at their car.

Abdul Karim Majid, the middle brother, said they had wanted to stay in their home. They had a generator and food. The electricity was off, but there was water. They could hear explosions half a mile away in Jolan and see the jets firing bombs overhead, but their neighborhood was all right—until Saturday night, when a tank stopped at the edge of their street; there was fighting, gun fire, and then the tank fired a shell through their house, blowing up their water tank on its way into their neighbor’s house. There it exploded and injured the legs of two small girls. Abdul called an ambulance because they had a mobile phone, a rare thing in Fallujah, but when the ambulance came, it was fired upon. More bombs were exploding. They loaded the whole family into four cars and escaped from their neighbor’s house, driving to Baghdad on back roads. “The Americans don’t know.”

I asked them about conditions in Fallujah. They said that most of the shops were closed, and they had been helping their poorer neighbors with food. The new cemetery was outside the town, and the Americans had blocked the road and shot a burial party on the first day of the insurgency, so the clerics had said that bodies should be buried in the football pitch. Only the men would go out of their homes, “to get food, to check on relatives, to give the fighters our support,” said Abdul’s brother Ali. “To give them food and water.” They offered to help fight, but the mujahideen groups are close-knit and small, they said they didn’t need recruits. The main hospital was also cut off outside the town. The injured couldn’t reach it. Mortada, the neighbor’s son, said his friend had been shot in the calf by an American sniper firing from the top of a grain silo. Mortada had dragged him bodily to the nearest mosque. The mosque had sent out the call for medicine, beds, blankets, and doctors, and a clinic had been set up inside. They left the bullet in his calf, bandaged it up, and sent him home to make room for more wounded.

“Most of those injured are just bleeding to death because there is no help for them,” said Ali.

I asked them about the fighting. They said the Americans had not used helicopters since the first two days, because they risked getting shot down easily. They saw only F-16s firing missiles and tanks in the streets. No Humvees, no soldiers on foot. The tanks would come in and fire at things for an hour or two and then withdraw.

“Hopefully Fallujah will become the Graveyard of the Occupiers,” said Ali, the more fervent of the brothers. “Every time we put up that sign, the Americans come and wipe it out.”

And the police, I asked? And the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps?

They laughed.

“The police ran away and gave their cars and RPGs to the mujahideen. They are from Fallujah; they cannot fight people in Fallujah.”

The brothers were strong and clear and proud. They did not exaggerate what they were saying or inject it with polemic. Ali stroked his little son Ahmed’s head, teasing him, telling me proudly, “He is always pointing his hand in the air like a gun!” The men were going back to fight. “The Americans,” Ali seemed sure, “will not leave Iraq without violence. The only way is by violence. All their excuses and reasons are false.”