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With the Throat Slitters of Fallujah
As a reporter covering the war in Iraq, my goal for the past year had been to enter the insurgents' capital, Fallujah, forbidden to all foreigners — especially journalists. I wished to interview insurgents in an effort to understand and convey to the world at large what made them do what they did. It was an important if self-imposed assignment. After months of trying, using every military and political contact I had, I had all but given up hope. Nonetheless, with the invaluable help of Muhammad, my devoted Iraqi driver cum guide, who had been obliged to give his entire family's whereabouts to the insurgents as guarantee, we finally received an "invitation" to the insurgents' inner sanctum. Fully aware that any mistake on my part would jeopardize Muhammad's wife, children, and family, Muhammad and I left Baghdad for the infamous city with a sense of victory but also with great trepidation.
"I am responsible for the decapitations of the American agent Nicholas Berg, Kim Sun Il, and the Iraqis who spied on us on behalf of the American enemy," said the man before me. He was about thirty, had a short black beard, and was wearing a white tunic. Looking directly at me, he delivered this calmly, without my having asked anything. In fact, he was the one asking the questions: "And what do you think of our combat?"
Suddenly fifteen pairs of eyes focused on me. The elite of the extremist guerrillas of Fallujah were hanging on my everyword. I pretended to be absorbed in my glass of tea, examining the tiny grains of sugar mixed at the bottom with the dry black leaves that were swelling with water. My face was impassive, but inside I was swearing at myself. What was I doing in Fallujah, the capital of throat slitters, with the temperature 120º in the shade? I knew I had to keep my composure, and I decided to take a little time before answering the question posed by Omar Hadid.
Was I living through my final minutes? I betrayed no emotion.
I had wanted to come here to this most dangerous town in Iraq. For the last ten days I had been thinking of nothing else and had tormented everyone around me with my obsession.
Once the temperature gets above 120° in Iraq, you move with economy; every step is an enormous effort. But every step I had taken for the ten days while I had been running around Baghdad had pointed to the same goal: to find a way to get to the town where Iraqis themselves no longer went. Yan, my partner and the father of my daughter, tired of spending summers apart, had surprised me by buying a ticket to spend a few days with me in Baghdad. He was the only "tourist" in a city where every foreigner is involved in the war in some capacity. He stood out. Everyone must have thought he was a spy. I found his gesture a moving sign of love, and was touched that he wanted to understand and see for himself how I worked and what I did during the long weeks when I was not with him and Hanna. In Baghdad, he was able to come along with me to meet the sheikhs and to the most clandestine guerrilla hideouts. My Fallujah obsession was contagious, and soon Yan shared my fixation on how to get to the forbidden town.
And then, one morning when I no longer expected it, the invitation I had been working so hard for finally arrived. Omar Hadid, al-Zarqawi's right-hand man in Iraq, head of the Fallujah mujahideen council, had agreed to meet me the next day in Fallujah. I was not yet aware of the close connection between the military leader Hadid and the Jordanian terrorist who had declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. I only knew that Hadid was an "eminent" member of the resistance to the occupation and that his headquarters were in the accursed city of Fallujah, capital of the anti-American insurrection, capital of Iraq's very own Bermuda Triangle.
My Iraqi friends hated all the media hype about this little town, a way station on the road to Jordan. "It's a provincial town swarming with smugglers," they kept telling me, when I mentioned I had seen it gradually turn into the epicenter of the jihad against the West. Personally, I had nothing but unpleasant memories of the place. My first time in Fallujah, a year before, I had been chased out of town at gunpoint, and the last time, the American photographer Stanley Greene and I, the only Westerners there that day, found ourselves witnessing with horror the desecration of the bodies of the four American contractors. That nightmare vision still haunts me today.
Since the Americans had laid siege to Fallujah in April 2004, no news had come out, and no one any longer knew what was going on there. Non-native Iraqis made brief and risky visits, like dives into shark-infested waters. For war correspondents, however, living on adrenaline and scoops, Fallujah was the last frontier.
Why was I so eager to go? The fact is, Fallujah with all its dangers represented precisely why I was covering the war, and why — to the distress of my partner — I kept coming back to Iraq. In Fallujah, I knew I would be the first reporter to meet the very man who embodied evil in the eyes of Americans, the devil's spawn.
So far I had managed to cover and understand both sides of the war. I had been lucky and had often enjoyed rare access to the insurgents, trying always to process and sort out the information I received in the opposing camps. But from the moment the insurgents started using the barbaric tactic of decapitation, my journalistic objectivity faded, leaving me with complete horror and disgust at their archaic fanaticism. What had at first been perceived as resistance had evolved into all-out terrorism. True, barbarism had a way of shifting from one side to another in Iraq. What was unacceptable for one was quickly explained away by the other. But this time, I had come face to face with absolute otherness. These acts could never be justified. Furthermore, how was it possible that Arab intellectuals, no doubt equally disturbed by these acts that risked tainting the entire Muslim world, had not yet come together to speak out against barbarism? The future of the insurgency was now at stake in Fallujah. The town had become a jumping-off point for the restoration of pride among Islamists. My job was to try and understand the gap between two civilizations.
Which of my convictions, prejudices, elements of my identity as a Western woman, I wondered, would I have to surrender in order to understand them?
I must confess that one of the reasons I wanted to go to Fallujah was a perverted kind of laziness. If this interview was successful, I would no longer have to write the banal political analysis of the transfer of power I had tediously been researching in Baghdad for weeks. This on-the-spot report would preempt it.
But now I was also afraid. Very afraid. What had I got myself into! In my Baghdad hotel, the Korean photographer for Time, Cho, pleaded with me every day: Whatever you do, don't go to Fallujah! He had tried using his contacts in the Iraqi resistance to intercede with the kidnappers of Kim Sun Il for the release of his compatriot, but he had failed and Kim had had his throat slit. Cho was still traumatized.
Sitting around the hotel pool, none of the reporters would utter the name of "the F town," even though we all knew it was on everyone's mind. This was especially true after some extremists in Fallujah issued a fatwa authorizing the killing of all foreign reporters. "You're not going there today? Don't do anything stupid," my friends would say. Journalism in Iraq is a merciless business, and although a good reporter is a live reporter, none of them wants to lose out on a scoop.
Like my colleagues, I had originally given up on the idea of going to Fallujah. For ten days Yan and I had danced attendance on sheikhs from Fallujah who had taken refuge in Baghdad, drunk tea with them in the hope of getting a safe-conduct, a password, an invitation. In London a Salafist (reactionary militant) doctor I had met and befriended during the siege of Fallujah in April 2004 had given me letters of recommendation in case I was arrested by jihadis, and cryptic passwords. With tears in his eyes, he too had pleaded with me to abandon my expedition. I'd had no better luck in Baghdad. Since spending a few days earlier on with the insurgents who had carried out the first attack on a civilian aircraft in Iraq, the one belonging to DHL, I had established many contacts with anti-American guerrillas, which made me assume that entering Fallujah would be relatively easy. But no one wanted to help me now. Kidnappings had grown far more frequent; I was politely warned that even my "contact" could not guarantee my safety. Much tougher mujahideen had just taken control of the war against American occupiers. I was on my own.
With the decapitation of Nick Berg, the nature of the war had radically changed. In Fallujah's total war against the infidel West, there was no time to make distinctions of nationality or sex. And a detailed account of the death of six Shiite drivers cut into pieces called for a political analysis of the new Iraqi government. Not to mention the fact that, one after the other, all the translators I approached, on the chance I might find a way to be invited into the accursed town, categorically refused, despite their need for money. Was I crazy to pursue going to Fallujah?
Only Muhammad, my driver and guide in Iraq throughout the time I had been covering the war, now accompanied me in Baghdad as I made my rounds to find ways to get to Fallujah. He seemed to be even more frustrated than I by our failure. At night, after dropping me off at my hotel, he went on his own trying to stir up his contacts in Fallujah. I pleaded with him to be careful, knowing how dangerous it was for an Iraqi to act as a go-between. His life was in greater danger than mine, and that responsibility frightened me each day a little more.
On July 23, Muhammad and I finally had a lead. Through a complex set of messengers, I sent my Arabic business card to someone identified to me as an associate of the leader of the mujahideen in Fallujah. He carried out the customary checks, and Muhammad told me I had passed the test. This man had vouched for me. As a guarantee, however, Muhammad had to surrender his address and the names of all his brothers and cousins, an act that placed him further on the firing line. We were both on pins and needles. One false move and his entire family, wife and children, would pay the price.
A few hours later Muhammad's cell phone rang, and I gathered from his respectful tone and his apparent disappointment that this was the call we had been waiting for. It was bad news, however. "Do not come under any circumstances. You are not welcome. We will not guarantee your safety."
My face betrayed my feelings — I wanted to howl in disappointment. All this wait for nothing! Muhammad, deeply distressed, suggested we disregard the warning and visit one of his friends in Fallujah to get a feeling of the town's atmosphere.
The image, back in April 2004, of the charred leg hanging from a wire over my head that day in Fallujah flashed back into my mind, as did the memory of my journalist colleagues who, a few days later, were forced at gunpoint to lie in the dust. I also remembered my first visit to Fallujah, when a Salafist sheikh had stepped between me and a gang pointing weapons in my direction. Not to mention Kim, and Nick Berg. No, I would definitely not go, and I was fully reconciled: it was just too dangerous.
Next morning, however, Muhammad rushed into the hotel out of breath, in a state of panic. The "people" in Fallujah suddenly requested that we come very early the next day. He didn't understand, for the rejection had been so categorical the day before. What had made them change their minds? Was this a trap? We spun out the most complicated theories. Had they seen on the Internet one of my pieces that displeased them and were ready to finish me off? Was it my name, my CV? Had Muhammad's insistence made them suspicious? What would happen to us? Would we ever return?
No, we had to give up the whole idea once and for all. No article was worth having our throats slit. But we no longer had any choice, Muhammad told me. We simply had to accept the "invitation" and go. If we didn't, the insurgents would take exception. And they not only knew where he lived, they even knew the number of my hotel room.
Muhammad rang my doorbell at six in the morning. His face was drawn; it was clear he had not slept. He inspected me, making sure I was properly dressed — nothing could be left to chance. Muhammad's poise and volubility had been responsible for securing this "invitation." He had spent long hours at the Iraqi game of name-dropping, listing all his religious acquaintances in the region in the hope the mujahideen were related to some of them. Trying to impress them, he had also talked about all the reporting I had done since I had begun covering Iraq, and praised my impartiality. This must have been a good part of the reason the insurgents finally said yes. Being interviewed by a member of the French press made it possible for the insurgents to convey their message to the world. My only safeguard: I was serving their purpose.
Still, we knew there were no guarantees, and as we set off we were deathly afraid. The hard part would be to make it to the house of the people who had agreed to see us. We had at all costs to avoid being intercepted by one of the several roving groups of mujahideen, who might simply shoot at us for the hell of it before taking the trouble to find out whether we had permission to go where we claimed. What's more, how could we be sure the fighters along the way would recognize the authority of the man who had agreed to let us enter the capital of the jihad? The fatwa authorizing the killing of reporters didn't help. American bombing of Fallujah had resumed a few days earlier, and the inhabitants were understandably nervous. Anyone could be considered a spy. Not to mention the patrolling coalition forces, also trigger-happy on this road, the most dangerous road in Iraq.
I put on a headband that completely covered and flattened my hair and a hijab that came down to my shoulders. I was wearing a full-length black tunic and, over everything, a long Iraqi abaya like the ones worn by Shiite women. I put the recommendations Dr. Salam had given me for the sheikhs of the town into my pants pockets — lists of names and enigmatic code phrases, one of which mentioned "the last bullet of the last battle."
In Muhammad's yellow Chevrolet Caprice, originally a New York taxi, I had always had the impression that everyone was looking at us. But yellow happens to be the color of Baghdad taxis as well, and we were in fact relatively inconspicuous, especially with my Iraqi costume. Sitting next to Muhammad, I could have passed for one of the women in his family. When reporters had begun to be singled out and it had become extremely dangerous to travel in Iraq, being a woman was an advantage.
We were not allowed to bring anyone with us. Yan was very disappointed, but he understood and didn't insist. He knew his presence would put us in even greater danger. Terrified at letting me go alone, he hugged me and stoically said nothing. I was frankly relieved that he couldn't come. It would have been sheer madness for both of us to risk our lives and, literally, abandon our daughter.
I really would have liked at least to take a photographer along. But the insurgents trusted only Muhammad and me, the reporter he had vouched for. I would have to deal with his English, which was not great, though getting better every month. We had no camera, the sign of a spy to the mujahideen, and no satellite phone. Muhammad took along his mobile phone, with the batteries carefully removed so that his car could not be tracked by satellite. Since the "DHL affair," we knew it was impossible to move around Iraq without being noticed.
In the pale light of dawn, we took the road I had already traveled dozens of times, the desert road to Jordan. There were tanks scattered on the roadside and a single Iraqi police checkpoint on the outskirts of the town. I couldn't figure out why Americans didn't have a roadblock on the "hottest" road in Iraq. No one stopped us, and the trip took less than an hour. At that time of day, the streets in the outskirts were deserted. We turned right after the mosque, near the very spot where I had seen the charred leg.
In this particular spot, we knew that we risked being stopped, shot, and decapitated at any moment, and I felt my heart pounding. Nicholas Berg's pleas echoed in my head. But as we moved through town, my fear dissipated. My abaya made me invisible and, absurdly, made me feel safe and invulnerable. Outsiders, even Iraqis from the immediate area, were automatically suspect in Fallujah and in danger of death unless they produced a good reason for being there and a proper invitation. The entire town was controlled by totalitarian fanatics who executed people without trial as they saw fit. The mujahideen had become killing machines, impervious to compassion.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Voyage to a Stricken Land"
Copyright © 2012 Sara Daniel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 With the Throat Slitters of Fallujah 1
2 The War Without a Name 25
3 Tikrit, Mosul, and the Border 37
4 The Americans' First Mistakes 49
5 The Ominous Shadow of Ali 61
6 The DHL Attack, Before and After 69
7 With the 101st Airborne 83
8 Captain Elliott 95
9 Allen, Ed, and Ivan: Soldiers Speak 105
10 Journey to the Land of Hatred: Through Iraq from Kuwait to Turkey 113
11 The Barbarity of Fallujah 133
12 From Nasiriya to Palestine, West Virginia: The Epic Tale of Jessica Lynch 147
13 The Iraqi Auxiliaries 155
14 Dispatches 165