Fallujah residents relate the destruction of their city.
LE MONDE | 07.02.05 | 15h18
Three months after the US offensive on Fallujah, barely 20% of the population has returned to the city. Only a few residents live among the ruins. The Red Crescent tries to help, while the Iraqi Army patrols—and loots what is left.
Three months after the US offensive against Fallujah launched on November 8, 2004, this rebel city 50 km from Baghdad is victimized, abandoned and funereal. It’s as if there’s been an earthquake, a tidal wave and a firebombing. Nothing’s been spared, not even the moques, says Sheik Taghlib Al-Alousi, Chairman of the Shura, an assembly of religious dignitaries. The city of one hundred mosques is merely a shadow of its former self. It’s a tragedy, it makes me bawl like a child., explains the Imam of the Hazrah Mouhammedia mosque, who has returned to Fallujah -- once a Sunni bastion-- three times since December .
An engineer’s eyes well up with tears when he looks over the this city of 400,000 on the banks of the Euphrates. Practically no building was spared. 20% of the structures have burned, and at least 10% were totally destroyed. He says the US bombed massively every time the Marines ran into resistance. Sheik Taghlib did not witness the fighting. He left before it started. But Abu Ahmed lived through the inferno, hunkered down inside a mosque. The Americans forced him along with others to dig graves for the dead lying in the streets. There were corpses everywhere--burned, decapitated, mutilated. Some were wearing suicide vests. Others were killed sitting behind the wheel of their cars. You had to watch out for everything. We put the bodies in bags and loaded them in trucks to be driven to the cemetery. Sometimes we buried them on-the-spot. Now and then we just carried them unbagged to the stadium. The people who worked with me couldn’t take it, except for one Sudanese.
On this trip to Fallujah, Abu Ahmed found some terrified survivors inside their home. They came out looking haggard and dressed in bedsheets. Abu Ahmed relates the story of a young woman, Souad, who phoned him at the beginning of the siege. He was able to coax her our of dread and insanity during ten days of absolute terror. I hope no one ever finds themselves in a situation like that. The soliders painted an X on the homes they’d already searched. An X inside a circle meant the house was to be dynamited. They drew a skull and crossbones on homes with dead inside them. I assure you there were plenty of dead among the ruins."
Sheik Taghlib finds it difficult to estimate how many Fallujahns have perished. 1 800, 2 000, maybe 2 500. I don’t think we’ll every know for sure." Fallujah is a ghost town. Only a tiny fraction of the population has returned, certainly less than 20%, and mostly poor residents who couldn’t afford to live in Baghdad and had no place to go. They survive in an apocalyptic landscape, amidst destruction and streets littered with burned-out cars and rubble.
All the shops are empty—they’ve been looted. The hospitals were heavily damaged and have been shuttered. The schools and the market places are deserted. Cars are not allowed in town—the inhabitants live like nomads. The Red Crescent tries to meet their needs. Itinerant merchants supply some items of subsistence to this prostrate city, still occupied by Marines and latticed by checkpoints.
The Iraqi Army has moved into the center of town and patrols there. Comprised of Shi’ite and Peshmerga fighters, they clean out every home, looting furniture, fixtures, and appliances, say residents. They take computers and throw them to the ground. I saw them do it myself. They turn on gas outlets and set them on fire. They try to destroy anything that’s left, relates an indignant witness.
Each day a few former residents return to the city to inspect what’s left of their property. To be admitted into the city--under tight surveillance--for damage inspection and recovery of their belongings, they have to produce identification issued by the Americans and wait on line for hours. Most don’t stay long. They return to Bagdad, Ramadi, Habbania, the camps which have sprung up around Fallujah, farms, lean-to’s and tents. Thousands of families live as refugees while awaiting the departure of US troops. The entire city is in exile and longs to return to rebuild what became a Salafist bastion and was then reduced to cinders by US troops.
According to witnesses, the Mujahideen left for Mosul and elsewhere. Rebel snipers and suicide bombers still attempt incursions inside the city, which was once their fief. But no one has ever seen Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian al-Qaida member, whom the Americans still insist was headquarted in Fallujah. For us, he’s imaginary. The Americans invented him because they needed an excuse to justify their actions, says Sheik Taghlib. This dignitary, opposed the Salafists, explained that he attempted to save the city from destruction. He told the rebels not wait for the Americans to enter the city. He told them it was trap, that the Marines shouldn’t be fought on their own terms. But they wouldn’t listen, says the Sheik.
Surveying the destruction, the Sheik wonders how Fallujah is going to rise from the ruins. Abu Ahmed is despairing. I hope I never see another American, either here or anywhere on the planet. If I could, I’d take up the cause against them but I’m too old and the Americans are too well-armed. They are going to colonize Iraq for 20 years or more—because we have oil. I don’t know if they will ever leave.