Refugees tell of rising anger in Fallujah
A fragile, four-day cease-fire still in place as of Tuesday.
BAGHDAD — With a US Apache helicopter hovering above, Kadher Fudella took her children and began to run. She did not stop until she reached the highway, along with scores of other refugees, flagging down cars headed to Baghdad.
"My children tried to run away and the helicopters chased them," says Ms. Fudella, breaking into tears. "Families were running through the streets.... Windows were broken, and many, many people were dead."
Fudella is one of tens of thousands of refugees to have fled the besieged city of Fallujah, where a US assault left 600 dead last week. The victims include hundreds of women and children, according to hospital and clinic records in Fallujah, before a cease-fire was carved out over the weekend.
The violence that erupted last week in Iraq has been subdued in recent days. As of late Tuesday, a fragile four-day cease-fire was still holding in Fallujah, and emergency supplies to help the wounded were streaming through.
On another front, after negotiations with Iraqi leaders, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's army moved out of police stations and government buildings in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, as well as Karbala and Kufa. But the relative calm, many say, is tenuous. Sadr's army rebuffed US demands that it disband, and according to news wire reports, a 2,500-strong US force moved to the outskirts of Najaf Tuesday.
Occupation troops were still circling Fallujah, where a helicopter was shot down Tuesday. And the reported kidnappings of some 40 foreigners during the week, over a dozen of whom have since been released, has raised the stakes for coalition forces.
Back in Baghdad, Fallujah's refugees are still reeling from the violence they witnessed last week. As many as 60,000 - one fifth of the city - may have poured into Baghdad since Friday, taking shelter in private homes and mosques. US forces say civilians have been caught in the crossfire, but that their primary mission was to "take out insurgents."
Fudella told her story from a crowded, dank, bomb shelter in Baghdad, alongside some 60 other Fallujan women and children. With tattooed hands and black veils wrapped around their faces, the women shouted out accusations of reckless killings by the US forces the say they witnessed: a neighbor's house bombed, killing all 19 people inside; a 5-year-old gunned down by a sniper on a minaret; an old man mowed down by helicopter fire.
The women say they hid with their children in their homes from Wednesday until fleeing over the weekend, while many of the men stayed behind. "I have not seen my husband since Friday," says Turka Hashim, a crying baby in her arms. Ms. Hashim says she believes he stayed in Fallujah to fight. In fact, many of the men in the shelter displayed anger.
Take Hamid Ali. He says he only came to the Sunni Islamic Party headquarters in Baghdad to find a safe place to relocate his family.
He arrived late Sunday evening, having fled by foot and later by car. "I only came here to drop off my family. I will be going back to Fallujah to help the resistance as soon as possible." Ali was surrounded by several Fallujan men in their 20s and 30s who nodded in agreement.
Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold, has been a hotbed of anti-American resistance since last April. US forces began their attack on the city on April 4 this year, vowing to "hunt down" those responsible for the murder and mutilation of four US security contractors in late March. With most highways into the city either blocked by US military, or deemed too dangerous to travel, refugees offer one of the few first-hand accounts of the turmoil.
Exact facts and figures have yet to be confirmed. Dr. Najeeb al-Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, entered the city on Saturday with a US escort.
"People were not allowed in the hospitals because the roads are closed. I saw 50 wounded people gathered in mosques on the floor. The doctors are afraid of the Americans - that they will shoot them even in the hospitals."
On Sunday morning in Baghdad, Dr. Ani prepared a relief convoy into Fallujah. Stacks of fresh water were piled up outside a Baghdad mosque. Neighborhood residents cooked bread and donated other food and supplies. .
Across Baghdad, residents have come out to condemn the US assault. Store owners have closed down their shops, and students are protesting at universities.
"We are calling for negotiations and a legal route, not fighting," says Dr. Taqy Mosuwy, vice president of Al Mustansiriyah University. "Because of this, the problem is no longer between the Americans and Moqtada al-Sadr's army. Now, the problem is between America and Iraq."
Some refugees have taken shelter in private homes of Sunni Islamists. Adnan Abid, a taxi driver, described how he escaped in his father's orange and white Brazilian taxi with his family. They took side roads out of the city and did not stop until they reached Baghdad.
"I saw nine people on the roof, and the helicopter shot them all dead," he says. "On the way to Baghdad I saw bodies in the car. I couldn't help them because the Americans were shooting everyone."
Coalition forces have disputed claims that attacks have killed or wounded many civilians, though they say the number is impossible to verify. They have reported that most of the victims were probably participating in the insurgency.
But, like many other refugees from Fallujah, this family is critical. "We have no hope. Half of our family is in Fallujah, and we don't know anything about them," says Mr. Abid's wife, Hakima. "There's darkness everywhere."
The family fell silent, until their son Mohammed Adnan added his take, that the US has only magnified the problems. "Before it was a small, specific group that fought the USA," he says. "Now it is every family. They all want revenge."