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p h o t o j o u r n a l i s m

p e t e r  t u r n l e y

April 2003

I entered Iraq from Kuwait on the first day of the ground invasion by U.S. and British military forces, sharing a four-wheel-drive SUV with two other friends, both Italian photographers. For the following five weeks I worked independent of the military. I made this choice consciously, as I had during the Gulf War in 1991, hoping it would let me have the broadest possible exposure to the war. While I appreciate the great work of many of my colleagues who were “embedded” with the military, that approach to covering war was not the one I preferred.

It must be said that, regardless of the benefits that do exist of allowing embedding, the full story of a conflict can never be told to the public without those journalists who work independently. It is difficult, if not impossible, while you are with an advancing military unit to linger in an area and report on the casualties seen in hospitals, or witness the aftermath of battle on the civilian population, or cover the humanitarian and refugee crises.

This decision to work as a “unilateral” photojournalist led, as it did for all other unilaterals, to a series of implications that directly affected our ability to participate in telling the story of this war.

It is a little-known fact, as I have since learned in conversations among the general public, that the official policy of the U.S. and British military, as well as of the Kuwaiti border guards, was not to allow unilateral journalists to work in Iraq during combat. Every time I or my colleagues presented ourselves at a checkpoint on the two highways into Iraq from Kuwait, and openly showed our unilateral accreditation badges, we were told to turn back, that we had no right to enter Iraq. As in most situations of this kind, I, and many others like me, found ways to bypass the rules. Some times we dressed in military clothes, hoping the checkpoint authorities would not notice we were journalists. Other times, we found ways to fall in behind or into the middle of a military convoy, and crossed the border that way. On occasion, in the very hot weather of the desert, we would encounter border guards who were a bit asleep and cared little about checking our identities.

Since I could not cross the border freely, once inside Iraq, a country with no gas stations, open stores, or hotels, I was at all times scared that if I returned to Kuwait to sleep at night, or to resupply, I might never get back to cover the story. Thus, I was obliged to transport on the rooftop of my vehicle nearly 300 liters of petrol in fifteen jerry cans, making me the driver of a rolling bomb. I also transported nearly a month of food and water supplies. I ate more cans of tuna in five weeks then in my whole life put together. Because U.S. and British military units usually refused to let unilateral journalists camp near their units, my biggest daily challenge was to find a seemingly safe place to sleep, where I wouldn’t be attacked by pro-Saddam militia hostile to the presence of non-Iraqis in their country. During most of my time in southern Iraq, I joined other carloads of western unilateral journalists at night. We would “circle the wagons,” parking our cars together and as near as possible to an area under control by the British or U.S. military. I usually laid out my sleeping bag on the ground. For many nights, an area outside the port of Um Quasr became my refuge.

Though I had worked previously all over the world in diverse conditions, I don’t recall ever having the same relationship with certain basic amenities that meant my survival. Gasoline and electric power became among my most-needed friends. Before, when organizing a trip, my checklist of necessities had been pretty small: cameras, film, some money, a few clothes, and my passport. Now, in the digital age, I had to add a multitude of items: lots of batteries, a recharger, a computer, a satellite data-transmitter, and multiple plugs, cords, and adapters. Any missing element or a broken or lost part could take me completely out of effective action.

After a week in southern Iraq, Rachid, a Kuwaiti man who owned a farm in the north, purchased for me a small Robbins gas-propelled electric generator. I risked crossing back into Kuwait to pick it up. Suddenly, that generator became an indispensable lifeline. And I remember times when, while pouring gas into my vehicle, looking at and smelling the liquid, I felt an almost sensual connection to it – so much it seemed the essence of my survival in a country where a disabled vehicle could mean being attacked and killed at any time by hostile Iraqi militia.

After spending nearly three weeks in southern Iraq, I arrived in Baghdad, on the evening of the day a crowd had toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein near the Palestine Hotel. For the next week, I roamed the city and its outskirts, observing the aftermath and the near-term effects of this war on the Iraqi people.

One memory will always haunt me. On April 14, in Baghdad, I walked into a hospital room in the Al Asskan Hospital. There were two beds. On one of them lay two-year-old Martatha Hameed in the arms of her mother, Eman Ali, who was twenty-three. I noticed an expression of great anxiety and stress on the face of Eman Ali. On the other bed lay, diagonally, a ten-year-old girl with curly brown hair, named Worood Nasiaf. She was dressed in a small shirt and pants, and her feet were covered only by little white socks. Her head was pulled back on the side of the bed. A doctor held it in his hands. From the other side of the bed, another doctor pushed violently on her chest with repetitive strokes. Both doctors wore expressions of determined intensity, and their energy offered a great sense of hope. After many minutes of cardiac massage, one of them stopped, waited a few seconds, put his stethoscope to her chest, and listened.

I thought I saw breathing, and a leap of joy lifted me. Several seconds later, the doctor resumed pushing on her chest. After what seemed at least ten minutes, in an almost violent gesture, one of the doctors stopped and put his hand over her face. The other stood up and put her tiny hands together over her chest. In the next instant, he pulled a towel over her face. Both doctors turned and walked out of the room shaking their heads, and I realized I had just seen this beautiful little girl’s life evaporate. I stopped one of the doctors and asked him her name and what she had died from. In perfect English, the Iraqi doctor gave me her name, and explained that she had died of pulmonary pneumonia, which, he said, could easily have been treated. Her father had been unable to bring her to the hospital in time because of the impossibly dangerous traveling conditions. With bitter resignation he said to me, “I am sorry, I have no more time to talk, there is too much work left for me to do here.” A few minutes later, a man walked into the room and removed the towel from her face. It was her father. Holding her hands, he stood and sobbed.

I visited several hospitals in Baghdad and Basra. In all of them were almost no medicines, anesthesia, or sterile instruments. In the emergency rooms were scenes from a hell. The results of war took on names and faces. A young woman, Hanan Muaed, 16, was wrapped in a body bandage, burned from an explosion when her home in Baghdad was hit by a bomb. Mahmoud Mohammed, 17, lost his leg from shrapnel from a shell. Zeinan Haneed, 9, lost her leg, and all of her family, when her home was shelled in Basra on March 23. A grandmother, Shukria Mahmoud, stood crying next to a bed where her grandson, Saif Abed Al Karem, lay hurt by a bomb, one having lost his father, the other her son, in the incident.

A small girl, Safah Ahmed, lay on a bed in the Al Karch Hospital, Baghdad. She had been playing in front of her house when a bomb landed in her neighbors’ front yard. All she could remember was that it had been her birthday, and that when she woke up, she only had one leg.

On the western outskirts of Baghdad, daily, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis were on the move, on foot, coming home after having left the capital during the war, or walking in the opposition direction, home, towards the the south and Basra. The war in Baghdad seems almost over for the time being; but on the faces of these masses on the move were no smiles. Children often had the look of terror and fear in their eyes. At one point, twenty-five meters from the road, American troops blew up a large munitions cache, as thousands of people were walking by. There was a huge boom, and families scattered, screaming, in all directions and dove to the ground. A woman speaking perfect, well-educated English stopped me one day and told me she was a medical doctor, and that she and her family lived in a small village near Baghdad. She would identify herself only as Jasmine. She expressed what I heard in variation from many, many people: “We don’t like Saddam, but what has happened here is criminal and you must tell it! We will give you our oil, you can take it, but we won’t let you take our country. Look at this, no electricity, no water, no food, no control, everything stolen. We didn’t like Saddam, but our country needs force to be controlled.”

At one of the central cemeteries, near the Al Karch hospital, a group of women wear the traditional black chadors of the Shiite Moslem minority. They come from the poor, predominantly Shiite neighborhood in the north of Baghdad called Saddam City. The women were there to bury Abed Al Hassin, 53, who was killed by Iraqi militia as he waved a white flag from his car while driving home. One of the woman – “Just say I am a mother” – said, “Bush is better than Saddam, We will give him our oil, and maybe he will let us live in peace.”

The crowd burying a body, an Iraqi soldier killed by a Coalition bomb, in the “1,000 Houses” neighborhood, was much less calm and cordial. One man, called out, “If Bush has any honor, he should tear Saddam into pieces and bring him to us.”

I witnessed dozens of burials of Iraqis killed during the war. A large family stood at the grave of Fadila Sadek,74, as she was being buried. I asked if she had died from injuries from the war, and one of her relatives said to me gently, “She died from the stress of this war.”

A few days after one of many of the Saddam Hussein statues was pulled down by crowds in Baghdad, signaling the end of his regime, life began to come back to certain daily routines. Elder men, gathered again at the Al Zahani Cafe in the old city. Jamal Abdullah Khalil, sixty-six years old, a former carpenter, sat smoking his water pipe. The cafe owner told me, “Jamal has been coming here since he was born.” I asked Jamal what he felt about the war. He looked at me and said, “I don’t want to say to you what I have to say, please don’t ask me.”

In the Al Alawi Market in Baghdad, business is coming back gradually to routines of daily life. In the month I spent in Iraq since April 17, I saw glimpses of smiles only twice. Once was while women fought with each other to get buckets of fresh water, the first they had had in weeks, from a water truck provided by the British military in Al Zubair, a town in southern Iraq. The second time was just a few days ago, as men sold squawking, live chickens to buyers in the Al Alawi Market.

I have traveled to more than eighty-five countries and covered most of the major conflicts of the past twenty years. I spent a lot of time while in Iraq trying to make some semblance of sense from all the impulses of experience I have lived, felt, and observed. The theme that seemed to dominate my observations of and conversations with Iraqis and Coalition Forces has been that of two worlds – two cultures, at least two religions, and two sets of history and civilization – which have confronted each other. At best, they seem not to know each other well. At worse, they are openly hostile toward each other. They are not really sure they want to live in each other’s midst. As British and American soldiers sped through towns and villages in southern Iraq leaving no military presence behind, time after time, Iraqis would shout out at their speeding backs, “Where is the water, where is the aid we heard about?”

When I was leaving, I approached the town of Safwan, on the border of Kuwait and Iraq. A group of Iraqi children stood waving as I drove up near the customs point. As I lifted my camera to take a last picture in Iraq, a young boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten, waved, walked up to my car, and, suddenly, produced a brick and slammed it into the windshield, shattering it. Disoriented, my car rolled to the side. I managed to speed away across the border, leaving behind a crowd of pursuing children.

When I crossed into Kuwait, I was stopped by a border guard. I felt relieved to be in a seemingly less-hostile, safer environment and heading home. The guard asked me to take everything out of my car so he could search it. As I removed heavy boxes, I said to him, “I was here in 1991, when the Americans fought for your country.” The guard looked at me and said, “They didn’t fight for my country, they fought for my oil!”

After I was cleared, I drove away slowly. I wondered if I should be angry at the words and ideas of this Kuwaiti man, standing by himself at a dusty crossing between the two countries. It occurred to me that what was important, much more so than my feelings about them, was that his words actually represented his feelings and perceptions about his world, and about a war the United States and its allies had “won” more than eleven years ago.


Photographs and Text, Iraq 2003

© 2003 Text and photographs Peter Turnley

These photos are part of a larger collection of Peter Turnley’s work in Iraq

on The Digital Journalist,

published here with kind permission.




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