Iraqi patient voices complex feelings about war
April 13, 2003
NEAR NAJAF, Iraq — If anyone should be bitter over the collapse of Iraq, it is Ali.
The 21-year-old student lay injured in an intensive-care bed at the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in central Iraq, his parents and two sisters killed last week, perhaps by an American armored vehicle.
A sheet covered the tubes running into his body, the crushed leg and the mangled muscles of his left arm.
He cried as he told of his family’s last moments: their panicked flight from besieged Baghdad in a little white Toyota, rounding a curve to encounter an American convoy and the Bradley fighting vehicles that fired at them from point-blank range.
Ali’s story cannot be verified, and he asked that his last name and photograph not be published. But his injuries are real, and the tears seem genuine. Despite the deep personal loss he said came at the hands of U.S. troops, his greatest anger is directed at the regime that now has fallen.
“I believe the winds of change are coming with Americans,” Ali said through a translator Sunday. “People have said ‘The hell with Saddam.’ They don’t want Saddam anymore.”
Ali said his father, an oil truck driver, called a family meeting April 3 as U.S. troops rolled into the suburbs. They decided that Ali, his parents, and his two sisters, ages 14 and 5, would take food and clothing and flee the city. They hoped to find refuge with relatives in the town of Yusufiyah, 12 miles south of the capital.
“We were afraid Saddam would use chemical [weapons], and all Iraqis would become caught in the crossfire,” Ali said.
They hurried out of Baghdad that morning about 11 a.m., directly toward the oncoming American forces. Ali said they saw a U.S. fighter aircraft — probably an A-10 Warthog — flying low toward them, and two Iraqi civilian vehicles racing northwards.
“My father became panicked,” Ali said. “He drove fast. There was a curve, and at the end of the curve, we were surprised to see an American armored vehicle.”
He said the Bradley leading the convoy was no more than 15 meters away.
“In a matter of nothing, three American armored vehicles started shooting at us, directly,” Ali said. “Then our family started screaming and crying.”
The car was spun around, facing the opposite way. Sitting in the back seat, Ali looked down and saw the muscles of his left arm hanging on the outside. His legs were badly mauled. Next to him, half of his 14-year-old sister’s head had been blown off.
In the front seat, his father slumped, motionless. His mother’s head lurched to one side, and she made a terrible noise. He heard his youngest sister shout “Mother, mother!”
Then, Ali said, the Bradley rolled over the top of the car, crushing it.
After that he heard no more sounds from his littlest sister. Only Ali remained alive, but his leg was crushed. He couldn’t pull himself from the car.
Over the next three hours, several Iraqis passed by the car, but ignored his pleas for help. One man pulled him out of the car and laid him on the ground, but then left.
“Nobody gave us a damn,” Ali recalled.
Finally two young men came along and found him.
“They said, ‘This man is breathing. He’s alive!’ They asked, ‘How can we help you?’” Ali recalled.
He begged for cold water, which the young men brought. They stayed with him for two hours, until about 4 p.m., when another U.S. military convoy drove by and they flagged it down and asked for help.
Ali said a medic, or perhaps a doctor, named Jeremy cared for him inside a Bradley. He was taken by car to a medical tent, then by helicopter to the 212th MASH near Najaf.
“Without the help of this man [Jeremy], I would have died,” Ali said.
As he recovered in a ward reserved for nonmilitary Iraqis, he met other injured civilians. An injured family of six came in with bullet wounds, saying they had been shot at although they had pulled off the road and raised a white flag. An injured 4-year-old boy lay in the bed next to him.
There is no question Americans have taken great pains to avoid killing civilians. Apache pilots and tank drivers repeatedly have said they will back off a target if they are not sure whether civilians are inside.
But it is equally clear from the injured people showing up in Army hospitals that some innocents have ended up in U.S. gunsights. Army commanders say it is inevitable, especially in a conflict where the enemy dresses in civilian clothes and uses women and children as human shields.
“In a war, there is going to be civilian casualties,” said one unit commander. “There’s no way to avoid it.”
Most Iraqis seem joyous over the arrival of the Americans. For the civilian victims of the war, like Ali, the feelings are a bit more complex.
“My mother said, ‘Don’t be afraid of the Americans, they are good people. They will bring us food and medical supplies,’” Ali said. “It’s awful that the American friends came to help us, to take over the regime, and then they kill us and our families.”
But, he said, Saddam Hussein is really the one to blame. Ali plans to start over again, making a home with his five older brothers, who survived. Even without the rest of his family, he believes his future is better than if the Americans had stayed home.
“There’s nothing worse than Saddam. If there is more of Saddam, it is better to die,” Ali said. “I wish my story would go to America. I am one of the victims of Saddam.”