THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD
By David Lynn
The air is thick, like a heavy mist embedding in your clothing and skin, invading all senses through your nose and mouth, a smell and nauseous taste that spins you around into bouts of gagging and gut-wrenching dry heaves.
Once you have experienced it, it dwells in your psyche until your next encounter. The second time you are assaulted by it, no matter how slight or brief, instantly you know death is near. The scent of rotting flesh, whether from the dead and lifeless body of a soldier, innocent civilian, man, woman or child, invades and then eternalizes itself within your senses and forever becomes a part of who you are.
At first glance, segments of this four-lane highway and rural backdrop could be a scene from a Southern California back road drive. But walking this 10-mile stretch of Iraqi highway, you are dragged into the reality of a US led war: mangled vehicles, pools of blood, putrid smells and bloated and burnt remains of somebody’s father, mother, brother, sister and child.
My journey begins at first light as I leave the rural community of Taji that surrounds rows of towering grain silos containing the main source of food for five million people. As roosters crow to the break of dawn and donkeys bawl to the sounds of distant explosions, I make my way down a dirt road which runs along railroad tracks paralleling Highway 6, the main road linking northern Iraq to the capital city of Baghdad.
I have two cameras in my daypack, one a new Nikon digital on loan from my sponsor, KPFK radio station in Los Angeles, and the other my old crusty Nikon 35mm I used in Nicaragua to capture the Contra war and in El Salvador investigating ‘death squad’ murders as a United Nations homicide investigator.
Slung across my right shoulder is a canvas bag with a prominent white cross on its side stocked with emergency medical supplies. My hope is to find the nearest hospital, donate the supplies and photograph the reality of the war that is now three weeks old.
Before getting very far, I meet two young Iraqi men from Taji who know me from my work in their village documenting the innocence of children in the face of an approaching war.
As with kids the world over when they spot a camera in the hands of a westerner, some of the Taji children are frightfully cautious, while others come running straight at me with broad smiles and squeals of excitement.
Most of the children are well aware that the American (Amerikee in Arabic) military is knocking at their door. After they learn that this bearded stranger is also an Amerikee, their warmth and curiosity does not falter as demonstrated by how they often take my hand and lead me to their homes to meet brothers and sister, mothers and fathers. The adults also prove to be extremely friendly and hospitable by offering chi’ (sweet and strong Iraqi tea) and other humble gestures of kindness.
The level of poverty in Taji equals that of most rural areas in third world countries I have visited. However in Iraq, the suffering has been particularly harsh compounded by 12 years of a United Nations embargo against medications and other quality-of-life essentials, a war with Iran that left over one million dead and 10 years of US bombings targeting Iraq’s fragile infrastructure.
As the sun peeks over the railroad tracks resting atop a five-foot high berm that separates us from the paved and empty highway, my two Iraqi companions and I make our way toward the Gates of Baghdad. Burned-out shells of Iraqi armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, trucks and missile launchers litter the landscape. Many of the war vehicles have been burned, while others are left unscathed.
All along the dirt road are foxholes surrounded by dented helmets, empty black military boots and ominous gas masks. Loaded rocket propelled grenades (capable of penetrating and destroying a tank), live hand grenades and bullets are lying underfoot as we continue to move south.
While trudging through chest high brush and peering into date palm groves, I explore deserted Iraqi military positions attempting to speculate why there are no bodies, no bones, no blood. Were the bodies carried off and buried by the Iraqis or even by their American foes? Did the Iraqi camps turn into ghost towns as the columns of American armored vehicles arrived? For the past couple of days I have been hearing a lot of tank and automatic weapons fire coming from this direction. Was it only the sounds of US tanks and armored vehicles taking pot shots at empty Iraqi war machines? In my search, I find no answers or clues.
The stillness of a seemingly tranquil palm grove is broken by the roar of an unseen jet filling the air, an orange fireball mushrooming on the horizon and delayed sounds of rolling thunder. The air strike west of the dirt road reminds me of the children back in Taji and how such bombs have impacted their young lives.
When the sounds of jets overhead first began three weeks ago, the children of Taji reacted by running home to the protective arms of their parents. As the sounds of jets became more familiar, the children grew bolder standing outside their doors and even on rooftops pointing to missile and fighter jet trails - fluffy white stripes in dark blue skies.
Curiosity returned to fear when the noise of jets is soon followed by hellish balls of fire, deafening explosions and shock waves so powerful they ruffle hair and clothes. In the dead of night, missiles hitting their targets light up the sky with eerie orange glows. Explosions rattle windows and doors, beds shaking, babies screaming. Of such things children’s nightmares are made.
By day, the children act out in response to the war that now surrounds them. Young boys march like soldiers and point imaginary weapons at American fighter jets streaming through the sky. Sticks become rifles and rocks are grenades. As the war escalates in intensity, the children turn on each other. The imaginary weapons become real as sticks and rocks now hit and bruise.
I never observed this type of war play nor any violent behavior among the children of Taji before the bombs started dropping. An old truth never learned, surrounding children with war and violence only breeds more of the same.
We pass behind a deserted gas station that faces the main highway but freeze when the clank of tracks hitting pavement draws near. The young Iraqis and I take cover by grabbing onto the dirt railroad berm. After a couple of beats, I crawl up the steep dirt slope and sneak a peak, but question the impulse to take a picture of what turns out to be American tanks. Over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to BBC short wave radio reports describing the deaths of several war journalists at the hands of US forces. I am afraid. The tanks eventually roll on and as we get up and dust off Iraqi dirt, I can’t help but contemplate the soil on my hands; soil from a land known as the “cradle of civilization”. The earliest written history of man lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that flow near where I stand. This is the birthplace of Abraham who Jews, Christians and Muslims alike all claim as the father of their religions. This is a land where blood has been spilled throughout the ages during countless battles of insurrection and a steady stream of endless wars brought by foreign invaders.
My two friends, impatient with my frequent stops to shoot photos, present me with a ragged fishing knife for my protection and then pick-up their pace, effectively leaving me on my own. The young Iraqis know the dangers of traveling this road; a road only a handful of other Iraqis have dared to venture down today. They are all eager to get to Baghdad and check the fate of loved ones living in a city that has for weeks been the target of night and day allied bombings and whose streets are now overrun with invading troops. I more than understand their desire to push on without me.
A few days ago, a disabled Iraqi war veteran told me that if Iraqi soldiers spotted a westerner walking through this war zone, the westerner might be viewed as a spy, a lost US soldier or downed pilot who has donned civilian clothes. I was told I could be justifiably shot on sight, no questions asked.
It doesn’t take long for the silhouettes of the young men to disappear down the dirt road. I continue to stop, inspect and photograph the remnants of the Iraqi army until a burst of automatic gunfire whizzes past my head.
It’s not the first time I’ve been caught in someone’s sights. At the age of 18, while picking up claymore mines around the perimeter of LZ Baldy in Vietnam, a sniper sporting an AK47 opened up on me. This was the first time someone actually tried to kill me. My response was just to stand there. Not frozen out of fear, but mystified that some person who I didn’t know wanted me dead.
At that moment, my year of Marine Corp training proved meaningless. Combat training was designed to condition me to “hit the dirt” and “return fire,” but all I could do was stand there trying to figure out why I was the target of a Vietnamese soldier who was probably even younger than I.
A fellow Marine who shared the foxhole, opened up with his M60 machine gun, firing across a rice paddy and into a distant tree line toward the unseen sniper’s position. The loud rap of machine gun fire within a few feet of my right ear snapped me back into reality, forcing a ground-hugging crawl back to the safety of our hole. Since then, I’ve been shot at several other times over the course of my life and each time I reacted as trained and got my head down, way down. This morning in Iraq is no exception.
After determining the shooter is firing from the east, I keep my head down while moving along the dirt berm that again provides some very welcomed cover. In all, I am shot at three different times that day and each time I have no idea who is pulling the trigger. US soldiers or Iraqi regulars, it really doesn’t really matter, a bullet is a bullet. I just stay low and keep moving.
Off in the distance I can see arched gates marking the entrance to northern Baghdad. The once beautifully tiled arches stretching over the highway are now blackened from smoke and pock marked from machine gun and tank rounds. The battlefield is smoldering.
Exploding shells from a burning tank on the other side of the road is peppering everything within its reach with red hot, jagged shards of shrapnel that fly over head and kick up dirt all around me. With each explosion I grimace, crouch down a little farther and wait for the shower of shrapnel to end. At that moment, I am reminded of my mother’s undying prayers for my safety and calmed by the assurance that her prayers have gotten me this far.
Running hunched over, I pass the gates, out of the reach of the exploding tank, and connect with a road that takes me into the upper middle class neighborhoods of northwestern Baghdad.
Prior to the bombing and invasion, I made several other trips to Baghdad down this same city street. On one of those occasions, I attended an international women’s protest, linking through pleas of peace - mothers and daughters, students and teachers, professional women and the poor. A few days later on the west bank of the Tigris River, a children’s anti-war rally attended by over 1,000 elementary school age kids, expressed their fear through painted images of bombs falling and families dying. Through the smoke hovering over Baghdad’s skyline it is abundantly clear, the women and children’s shouts and cries for peace fell on deaf ears and were overpowered in the international press by Washington’s war talk and bravado.
I grab one of the few taxis braving Baghdad’s roads today and together in a car load of young Iraqi men we travel for another mile or so into the windingstreets of an impoverished neighborhood. Suddenly, people come into the street from all directions and frantically motion for us to stop and turn around. No explanation is needed as the distinct sounds of automatic gunfire and explosions echo nearby. We drive another couple of blocks and again try to head east, but this time we turn around on our own as the war sounds of the street battle draws nearer.
The driver invites me to go to his home until the fighting stops. I thank him for his kindness, pay him in Iraqi dinar and set out on foot determined to unload my medical supplies at a local hospital.
While I walk around in circles trying to figure out how to get around the urban firefight that continues in intensity, several men invite me into the safety of a corner tea shop and offer me a free cup of chi. It all seems so surreal, sipping mid-day tea in a room full of friendly Iraqi men while listening to a raging US battle just a couple blocks away. It is just one of those moments.
One of the Iraqi men nudges his way through the crowded room and surfaces next to me. He smiles, sticks out his hand for a shake and begins speaking to me in perfect English. After exchanging small talk competing with explosions, we discover we once were neighbors. The soft-spoken, balding, mid-thirties man explains how he was educated in civil engineering at the University of Southern California and actually lived in my old neighborhood known as Korea Town near downtown Los Angeles.
The USC grad is more than frustrated with the 10 years of sanctions and now the war that has effectively dashed his hopes of working in his field and making contributions to the rebuilding of Iraq. After exchanging our views on the war and explaining my desire to find a hospital to drop off the medical supplies, he agrees to walk me to a hospital that is nearby and out of the way of the firefight.
While walking down a commercial street, the civil engineer points out a burned-out open air market that he believes was hit by a US bomb, but we soon learn from a local that looters were actually the ones who destroyed the once thriving marketplace. As we near the hospital, my new friend gets noticeably nervous and states he cannot go any further with me for reasons he does not immediately disclose, but then confides he fears US soldiers might be inside.
As I approach the concrete five-story building, I realize I am at the Saddam Hospital, the same hospital I visited a month before the war began. During my last visit here, I was accompanied by a couple of very young doctors to the beds of a dozen or more children who were dying from malnutrition, dehydration related to severe bouts of diarrhea, and other conditions successfully treatable under different circumstances.
The diarrhea, primarily a result of drinking the unclean, sewage-tainted water of Baghdad, can normally be cured with basic medications. The UN sanctions against Iraq prohibits the importation of medication, medical supplies and chemicals needed for the water purification plants of Iraq. The sanctions have taken a severe toll on these infants, many of whom will die within hours of my taking their picture.
International aid agencies have reported up to 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of five die each month due to conditions created by UN imposed sanctions. “This is genocide. Children are dying slowly and painfully. We call on the president of America, the vice president and the congressmen to come to Iraq and see the little children and Tony Blair, the U.K. government and Kofi Annan to come and to go to the cancer ward and give us an answer… what was their crime?” – Adolfo Perez-Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize Winner.
While walking up to the hospital entrance, I am met by a tall man in his mid-twenties wearing a blood stained medical coat who takes me to the head doctor. The doctor standing outside and is in the middle of an impassioned discussion with two other doctors. The doctors, who are from a children’s hospital located on the other side of town, are on the verge of tears as they explain in loud and emotional voices how looters came into their hospital and stole what little medical equipment and supplies they had, including all their incubators.
The two ask the head doctor if they can bring a dozen babies to his hospital, even though the head doctor conveys he has little care to offer them. He and the intern in the dirty white lab coat are the only doctors who showed up for work today at Saddam Hospital. Normally there are over 60 doctors on staff. Not one nurse, not one nurse’s aide, not even housekeepers came to work today because of the ever-present dangers faced on the streets of Baghdad.
The discussion reaches near shouts of frustration as the head doctor explains there is not enough gasoline to drive an ambulance across the city to get the babies. One of the doctors is now in tears. The two male doctors, both in tears, turn and walk away.
After a brief introduction, I explain to the head doctor that I have a few medical supplies I would like to donate and, if possible, I would like to photograph some of the civilian war wounded inside his hospital.
The doctor starts by showing me far more than I had asked for. He walks me to a one-story building detached from the hospital. As we approach, my eyes become fixed on a lifeless body draped across a hospital gurney covered in an army of flies.
The doctor tells me to catch-up with him later as he turns and heads back to the main hospital building. Once inside the door it is nearly impossible not to step on some unknown father or unknown son’s hand or foot. Dead bodies dressed in civilian clothes cover the floor, wall to wall, in what has become the hospital’s makeshift morgue.
A young veiled woman with tear-filled eyes opens the door and enters the hot and humid room in search of her missing husband. She only takes a few steps before she falls into uncontrollably dry heaves as she is assaulted by the stench of an un-air conditioned room filled with rotting corpses. The smell of death is thick. The flies cover both the living and the dead.
As I take pictures, I try to keep it together by saying over and over in my head, “Point and shoot, point and shoot, don’t stop and think about what you are smelling and seeing, just hold your breath, point and shoot, point and shoot.”
A security guard with an AK47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder is waiting outside the morgue and I take a couple breaths of fresh air before he escorts me to the doctor. I trail the doctor from bed to bed, room-to-room, floor-by-floor, full of victims who have so far survived the fate of those lying in the building next door.
Men, women and children, suffering shrapnel and bullet wounds to their heads, chests, abdomens, arms and legs fill the hospital. The fortunate ones have relatives at their sides caring for them. All are in need. Many are suffering alone.
A US tank round hit the hospital’s water pump yesterday. No doctors, no nurses, no technicians, little if any medical supplies and medicine, no electricity and for a day now, no water. God, is this really happening?
Some relatives rush the doctor as we enter the rooms begging for him to help their loved ones, but he can do little except to try and quiet them with reassuring words. With a shrug of his shoulders, the doctor asks me in despair, “What can I do with so many needs?” I bow my head. I have no answers.
In the emergency room, a young man is brought in with a deep shrapnel wound where his left eye once was. He is followed by another civilian casualty who has been shot in the back and another bleeding from a shot in his arm. One man’s right arm was blown off, but he is grinning - just happy to be alive.
I present the doctor with the few medical supplies I have and promise to try and return with the 150 liters of bottled water we have stored back in Taji. Considering the condition of the road and no available gasoline, I am not exactly sure how I am going to pull it off, but I make the promise anyway.
After leaving the hospital and walking only a few yards, I stop to photograph a torn poster of Saddam Hussein, the man who clawed his way to power during the 1970’s and supported until recent years by the same country whose troops are now seizing his palaces and seat of power.
A group of men who were watching from across the street approach. One is young and husky with a couple days of coarse growth on his face. He speaks fluent English as he tells me of his Kurdish descent, American education, and the plight of his people living under the rule of Saddam Hussein. His voice is strong and his arms gesture angrily through the air as he describes the genocide Saddam has committed.
The Kurd describes how Saddam’s notorious cousin, General Al Hassan al-Majeed, came to be known as “Chemical Ali” after he gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1988. The young man states that he heard on Iranian TV that Chemical Ali may have been killed last week during an allied bombing raid, but he demands proof. He wants to see Chemical Ali’s body for himself.
The young Kurd walks with me a few blocks through the neighborhood of two-story, gated, upper middle class homes. Along the way several carloads of Iraqis stop and exchange greetings with him. It is apparent the Kurd is well known and liked in this community. One car stops and a middle aged woman leans over from the passenger’s seat and pleads with me, “We need water!” “We need water!”
The young man at my side just looks at me and shakes his head, and says in a quiet voice, “I don’t know what is going to happen to us now.” Again, I have no answers and can offer no encouragement as the young Kurd points me back in the direction of Taji.
As I continue to make my way through what first appears to be a quiet and unassuming neighborhood, I soon hear the sounds of tracks and diesel engines on the next street. I walk back to an alley I just passed and take a picture of a group of men dressed in typical Arab attire passively watching US tanks rumble by.
Still leery about being spotted by US forces, I retreat back to the quiet residential street only to be chased down by the group of men from the alley. The men speak to me emotionally in Arabic and I am not able to catch anything they are saying. Out of frustration, they literally begin tugging at my shirtsleeve leading me back down the alley and to the street where the US tanks had passed a couple of minutes before.
They take me to a white mini truck that is riddled with bullet holes. While making machine gun actions with their hands and bullet sounds with their mouths, the men take aim at the mini truck shouting, “Amerikee!” “Amerikee!”
The men then take me to a nearby mound of dirt outlined by palm leaves where an Iraqi dressed in western clothes explains in English, “We just finished burying the man here. According to some paper work we found in his truck, he worked for the Ministry of Trade. The Americans killed him yesterday for no reason. He was just driving down the road and they started shooting at him.”
My eyes and camera lens move to the bullet pattern in the bed of the truck that seem to indicate the truck was driving away from the shooters. The bullet pattern is located behind the cab, right were the truck’s gas tank is located.
The same man then takes me to another car across the street. It appears to be a Mercedes Benz, but is hardly recognizable after being thoroughly torched. He tells how he witnessed US troops, in broad daylight, fire their guns at the car. Several bullet holes to the rear of the vehicle, and again in the area of the gas tank, indicate that it was driving away from the shooters at the time it was being fired on. According to the witness, the US armored vehicle fired at the Mercedes until it caught fire and plowed into a tree. The man, woman and child inside were burned to death.
The witness, who later explains he is a US trained homicide detective, walks me to another mound of dirt and marked with palm leaves telling me he and his friends buried the family there just a few hours ago.
The Iraqi detective invites me to walk down the street with him as he and what has now become the self-appointed neighborhood burial team continue their mission of digging the graves of those left to rot on residential streets.
We come across a white Toyota Land Cruiser that has come to rest on the center median. It has a large gaping hole in its passenger door and is riddled with what appears to be automatic weapons fire. I have no one to explain to me what happened since the burial detail has moved around the corner passing several US tanks that have effectively sealed-off the Gates of Baghdad and my route back to Taji.
I keep my distance from the US roadblock as I head toward the crew who are in the process of burying several dead and bloated Iraqi soldiers. There are other bodies nearby which appear to be Iraqi citizens lying in the street next to civilian cars.
Other human remains are reduced to heaps of ashes left inside the burned-out shells of trucks and buses. Some of the bodies have been left for days in the Iraqi sun and are covered with so many maggots that it is hard to distinguish facial features.
I try to keep down wind of the putrification that hangs over this scene, but there is no escape. I take deep breaths from pockets of fresh air when I can find them and do my best to document what US troops have left in their wake.
As I move from body to body, a mustached, serene-faced man holding the hand of his 11 year old daughter asks me in broken English to take pictures of his farmhouse that was destroyed in a cross fire between Iraqi and US tanks. I agree, telling the detective that I will return.
The detective eyes the man and his daughter giving me a nod as he grabs the edge of a dark blue blanket containing the remains of a dead Iraqi civilian. As he and his crew cross the street with blanket and body in tow, I snap one more shot and then turn and follow my new guide. As the farmer and his daughter head directly for the US tanks poised in front of the city gates, I explain that I need to go around them, and head over to the adjacent railroad tracks and dirt berm that continue to serve me well.
I successfully circle around and meet up with the farmer who then leads me to the burned-out shell of a building that he once called home. Inside, a pile of grain is still smoldering on the ground in what was once a kitchen. The hulls of destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers surround the farmhouse. It is obvious a very intense battle took place here and it is a miracle this family survived.
The farmer explains that he sent his wife and the rest of his six children away to relatives after the battle ended. The daughter that is with him has an injured hand, but unfortunately I do not have any more medical supplies with me to treat her. The farmer asks me when I am going to leave Iraq and I explain that I will probably leave within the next couple of weeks. He then asks for copies of the photos I took of his destroyed home, but I explain because of the war and the lack of electricity it is impossible for me to process them. I tell the farmer I hope to return to Iraq within the next couple of months and ask how I can get a hold of him. The farmer looks at me and proudly says, “By the time you return, I will have my house rebuilt. You can find me right here working my land. This farm is my life.”
It’s getting late and I still have a ten-mile walk back to Taji. I had hoped to interview the homicide detective in more depth about what he witnessed, but I feel the need to retreat back to Taji before nightfall.
I head back to the dirt road, but don’t get very far when I hear the familiar rumble of tanks moving down the highway about 50 yards away. I take a couple of shots with my cameras, get down and keep moving. I soon run into a convoy of parked US Army Bradlys and tanks and their crews who are taking a break.
Bradleys are armored personal carriers with turret-mounted 25-millimeter cannons, TOW missile launchers and 7.62 mm machine guns with a heavily-armed fire team of five infantry soldiers hunkered down inside. The US Army tanks are Abrams, equipped with a 120 mm main gun, two 7.62 mm machine guns, and a cupola mounted 50-caliber machine gun.
I stay down low as I try to skirt the convoy, but one soldier spots me and calls out for me to come over to where they are standing. The US soldier who first saw me and several of his buddies train their M16 rifles and a couple of M60 machine guns on me as I climb the berm, cross the tracks, and approach them while holding both my cameras high over my head.
A red-headed, blue-eyed, heavily-tattooed Army soldier, green bandana wrapped around his head, bandoleers of M60 machine gun bullets draped across his chest, sporting a southern drawl, shouts, “Are you a journalist? Come over here and we’ll tell you the real deal about this war!”
As I get within a few feet of the now relaxed, but heavily-armed cadre of Americans, I respond, “Yeah, I’m a photojournalist. I’m focusing on the effects of war on children.” A black soldier taking a swig of water from his canteen, wipes his mouth with his dirty sleeve and quietly responds, “Ya, it’s the kids who suffer the most out here. That’s no secret.”
After learning that I am an American, a Latino soldier asks, “What the hell are you doing out here walking by yourself with all these terrorists around? I answer, “You mean the Iraqis? Actually they are the friendliest people I have ever met.” I let them know that I am an ex-Marine sergeant and Vietnam veteran while again raising my hands over my head asking them not to hold that against me. The Army and the Marine Corps have an honored rivalry that goes way back. The Army soldiers just shake their heads and look at me with a smile as they offer food and water.
The atmosphere between us has warmed and I offer to contact their loved ones once I get back to the States. This makes me man of the hour as they explain they have not had any contact with their wives, kids, mothers and fathers for over eight weeks, some longer. They pass around a sheet of paper and write down contact numbers as we exchange small talk.
The young men, 18-21 years old, ask me to contrast Vietnam to the war they are now fighting. As I begin to explain, a brown Humvee approaches our circle and slows to a stop. An Army captain riding in the passenger seat eyeballs my cameras. He gives me a nod, but orders the convoy to mount-up and continue their patrol. The captain moves on and I take a few pictures as the grunts (infantry men) prepare to move-out and continue down the road.
As the soldiers climb back into the Bradleys and as the thick steel doors shut, I cannot help but consider their fate. Not only wondering if they will survive the duration of this war, but also if they will beat the odds of surviving their own conscience when they return home. During the first eight years after the war in Vietnam, more Vietnam veterans died at their own hands through suicide than actually died in combat during that 10-year war.
With confidence, I now walk north on the paved highway, the same highway I had been hiding from all day. I befriended the US troops who patrol it and now have the opportunity to openly document the death they left behind.
As the afternoon sun beats down hard as I approach each lifeless form, a few things are clear. There are far more civilians, I would estimate 2-1, over Iraqi soldiers left for dead on this highway and when considering the civilian body count back at the hospital, it is more like 10 civilians to every Iraqi soldier - perhaps as many as 50 civilians in all I either stopped and photographed or just walked by that day.
I could not help but wonder if we were truly fighting terrorism in Iraq, or in our zeal we had become what we dread most.
In what has become a pattern and practice, most of the civilian cars are burned as the result of machine gun fire hitting the gas tanks, incinerating all inside. Other cars are crushed beyond recognition as the result of heavy tanks rolling over them.
Two charred families appear to have crawled out of their flaming vehicles. The pain they must have suffered is beyond description. Others have been eviscerated with bullets and shrapnel and others seem to have eerily melted and become part of the pavement.
A little further down the road is a mini van with an arm dangling from the front passenger window. As I approach, the smell of death overwhelms me so I go around to the driver’s side, hoping for some relief. In that side of the van is a gaping hole revealing several bodies piled on top of each other.
I walk a little closer to get a tighter shot, but quickly repel and stumble backwards, spin around and begin to uncontrollably convulse, gag, gasp and wrench. This time I am completely overpowered by the nauseating and oppressive stench that hangs in the air. I feel it crawling on my skin. I taste it in my mouth.
I have had my fill. I can’t do this any longer. I am sick and don’t have what it takes to see or smell the reality of this war any longer. I have walked the war zones of Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nicaragua and El Salvador, but none of those experiences touch the carnage that paves this Iraqi highway.
As my blistered feet near the Taji grain silos, a massive convoy of US military Humvees and trucks lumber by. As they pass, I make eye contact with innocent faces in fresh uniforms, young Americans, our children, now heading toward Baghdad to reinforce the war-hardened veterans I met a few hours ago. If these young men and women immerse themselves in the type of brutality found on this highway, I can only feel sorrow for them.
As with Vietnam veterans, no doubt some will wrap themselves in a range of rationalizations for the crimes committed. But as most veterans have learned, rationalizations eventually surrender to conscience, and a conscience riddled with guilt manifests a myriad of self-destructive behavior.
The nightmares haunting the Taji children foreshadow the horror awaiting US Soldiers who slaughtered innocence – their own and their victims – while on the road to Baghdad.
David Lynn is a Humanitarian Law Project Board Member
Article copyright 2004 David Lynn. Photos copyright 2004 KPFK. All rights reserved.