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Kevin Cullen

The fatal touch of war

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 24, 2011

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Chris Hondros piled out of the Stryker with soldiers from the First Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, and when they aimed their guns, he aimed his camera.

This was Iraq, 2005, and the only thing you aimed were guns and cameras. You didn’t aim smiles.

The car, an Opel sedan, came whizzing along the dusty road in the fading light, kicking up a cloud like a horse on a desert trail.

The soldiers — kids, most of them — stood there, waving for the car to stop. They were sleep-deprived, jumpy, absolutely terrified, wondering if this was yet another suicide bomber. The car didn’t slow down and the soldiers stopped shouting and started shooting.

It was over in a few seconds. Bullets the size of golf balls penetrated the car like molten darts and it rolled to a stop.

When the soldiers trotted up to the car, they saw their mistake and their legs melted.

“Civilians!’’ they howled.

They were sweating. Their hearts were racing. So was Hondros’s.

But he kept pushing his right index finger down. The click of his shutter echoed, staccato-like, between the curses and the cries of the American soldiers, who had just slaughtered not insurgents but a family trying to beat the nightfall curfew in a town called Tal Afar.

Hussein Mohammed and his wife, Kamila, were dead, their heads thrown back, their faces like accusing death masks. Their children were in the back seat, crying, splattered with their parents’ blood. One of them, a boy, Rakan, couldn’t feel his legs. A bullet had hit his spine. He lay on the ground, like a fish on dry land, helpless, pitiful, an orphan.

“It’s like slow motion,’’ Hondros explained. “You see this stuff, this terrible stuff, happen, right in front of you, and it’s like slow motion. You keep shooting. You’re thinking about angles, and light. But mostly you think — keep shooting.’’

Hondros was still shaking when he pressed the buttons on his computer that sent his photographs halfway around the world. His pictures were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, showing a family ruined, a platoon of soldiers forever haunted, because this is what happens when we send young people to war.

Some people will tell you the secret to covering war and immense human suffering is to tune it out. Because if you don’t, it will eat you up. But you cannot check your humanity at the door. Hondros couldn’t.

“I couldn’t get the images out of my mind,’’ he said five years ago as we sat in a room too brightly lit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I kept thinking about the boy.’’

He said that right after the shooting, he told his friend, a humanitarian worker from California named Marla Ruzicka, what had happened in Tal Afar. He showed her the photos.

Ruzicka said what she always said: “We’ve got to do something.’’

So Ruzicka and Hondros vowed, on that morning over a bad cup of coffee in a cold, dank Baghdad cafe, to get Rakan out of Iraq, to America, to something called a chance.

They called everybody they knew. They hectored diplomats. They begged. They pleaded.

And it worked. Ruzicka lined up a hospital in San Francisco.

Ruzicka sent Hondros a joyous e-mail: “We did it!’’

And then, right before Rakan was to fly out of Iraq, Ruzicka and her colleague, Faiz Ali Salim, were on Route Irish, the road that connects Baghdad and the airport, and a bomb went off and they were dead.

“She was,’’ Hondros said, “a special human being.’’

A disabled postal worker in Rockland, Adam Burnieika, read about Ruzicka dying before she got Rakan out of Iraq, and he wrote a letter to Senator Ted Kennedy, asking him to finish the job. Kennedy and Donald Rumsfeld, not exactly buddies, worked together to get Rakan to Boston, where Dr. Larry Ronan and the people at Massachusetts General Hospital and the physical therapists at Spaulding Rehabilitation put Rakan back together. He learned to walk again.

Hondros visited Rakan in Boston and didn’t know what to say. How do you tell a 12-year-old boy that your connection to him was that you photographed the worst day of his life?

“Someday,’’ Hondros said, “he’ll see those photos and we’ll talk.’’

We brought Rakan back to Iraq, because that’s what he and his family, what was left of it, wanted.

Three years ago, Rakan was killed when somebody put a bomb in his family’s house in Mosul.

“The poor kid,’’ Hondros wrote in an e-mail. “He got it from both ends and never had a chance.’’

Hondros went on to other wars because that’s what he did. He was not a social worker. He was a photojournalist.

The other day, a rocket-propelled grenade killed Hondros and another terrific, empathetic photojournalist named Tim Hetherington in a place called Misurata in a mess called Libya.

Now they’re all dead. Ruzicka. Rakan. Hondros. Fate threw them together and then war killed them, one by one.

These were not wasted lives, none of them. But this is not the movies. This is what happens when we send young people to war. Not just soldiers, but everyone around them. The civilians. The journalists. Everybody.

This is what war does. It kills good people.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.