Fallujah refugees describe ordeal of life in crossfire
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Cowering in their house with nothing to eat or drink as bombardments and firefights shook their neighborhood, Iyad al-Mashadani and his family dug a 3-foot hole in their yard and drank the brackish water.
"We were sure that we would die," said Mashadani, 32, a car mechanic.
He and his family -- his wife, his six children, his mother, and his father, who has heart disease -- made their way south out of Fallujah on Wednesday and now live in a 6-by-9-foot tent in a refugee camp in Baghdad.
Families who fled Fallujah over the past several days tell harrowing stories of being caught in crossfire, being harassed and threatened by insurgents and Iraqi government soldiers alike, and hiding as guerrillas battled US tanks outside their houses.
US and Iraqi officials estimate that 70 percent to 90 percent of Fallujah's population of 250,000 to 300,000 fled the city before the fighting started a week ago. But the most conservative of estimates would place 25,000 civilians inside the city, subject to what US commanders on the ground have called the military's most intense urban fighting since Vietnam.
Success in Fallujah depends as much on sparing civilians and minimizing destruction to infrastructure, admit American and Iraqi officials, as it does on defeating insurgents on the field of battle. Horror stories of starving families, bombed civilians, and aid convoys blocked by US troops circulate more quickly among the Iraqi public than information about the capture or killing of insurgents and foreign Arab fighters.
Only now is the human toll becoming apparent, as the fighting subsides and those who fled the city during the last week regroup in refugee camps and tell their stories. It will determine the depth of the backlash against the US-backed Iraqi government, which will be hard-pressed to convince Fallujans that the devastating assault to drive out insurgents was for their benefit if there are large numbers of civilian dead.
Even if civilian casualties turn out to be the mere handful that Iraqi and US authorities contend, resentment could build over the trauma of the attack and the widespread damage. It could increase if it takes a long time to ease the misery of residents left without homes, electricity, and other infrastructure.
US officers said the operation took every possible step to minimize civilian casualties. At the same time, the methods used -- firing artillery, airstrikes, and tank fire from a distance -- make it difficult to know whether civilians were caught in the crossfire.
Troops that pounded their way through the eastern half of Fallujah reported seeing no women or children and saw few men who were not armed. A reporter traveling with troops saw only deserted streets.
But an Iraqi Globe correspondent who covered the battle from Fallujah ducked into a house during a crossfire and encountered a woman and her three daughters huddling in terror as bombs exploded around them.
The Iraqi Red Crescent has identified about 150 families in the city.
But since US radio messages and leaflets urged Fallujans to remain in their houses during the assault, it is unclear how many were at home but lying low. Troops with thermal sights often assumed that if there was a "hot spot" inside a house -- indicating body heat -- the people inside were insurgents.
Marine Colonel Greg Tucker, commander of US forces in the eastern half of the city, said some residents are starting to come out of their house in the mornings.
Yesterday afternoon, the city, viewed from the main highway that flanks it on the east, appeared to be smoldering, with gray puffs of smoke rising above it from one end to the other. By night, much of the city was again a pitch-dark landscape of crumpled houses.
If the tens of thousands of refugees who fled Fallujah were to return today -- after months of US bombing, occupation by insurgents, and now the fighting -- many would find their possessions strewn all over their houses, windows broken, or walls collapsed.
Residents of a neighborhood in the city's southeast, where a First Infantry Division battalion has staged its mobile command center, would find it almost unrecognizable. Insurgents built huge earth berms to stop a US assault they thought would enter the city here. Nearly every house has a collapsed wall or ceiling. Cabinets have been overturned, spewing family snapshots across the floor.
Major General Richard Natonski, commander of the First Marine Division, who directed the assault, said yesterday that it would take some time before electricity could be restored to the city, because the spaghetti of downed wires that trails into streets and courtyards will have to be repaired before the power is turned on again.
New dangers, too, could confront returning refugees. Insurgents had threatened a mass onslaught of suicide bombers and car bombs against the US offensive, which never materialized, but Natonski said they could be waiting to use those until Iraqis venture back out.
"They're going for that big death toll," he said.
Unexploded weapons, including those fired by both sides as well as undiscovered insurgent stockpiles, could pose a hazard. Insurgent weapons may be buried in rubble, while the sheer quantity of US ordnance poured into the city suggests that some dangerous leftovers could still be lying around. One battalion artillery team alone, which covers the far-eastern portion of the city, fired 700 155mm cannon rounds. Twenty-two explosive ordnance disposal teams are set to start work in Fallujah.
The voices of Iraqis stuck in Fallujah have been heard little during the battle, because the combined threats of insurgent kidnappings and US bombs have made it nearly impossible for journalists to work there.
But at a refugee camp in Baghdad, they are beginning to tell their stories.
Abid al-Aghaidi, 63, who fled with 12 family members, ventured out of his house for the first time in days to see American tanks rolling down his street and insurgents shooting them with rocket-propelled grenades. "The tanks started to shoot randomly and so did the fighters," he said.
Mashadani, the car mechanic, said he stayed in Fallujah because he believed the Americans would not harm his family. But when the fighting began, they found themselves terrified by the bombs landing frighteningly close.
They were so desperate they drank water from a hole they dug, though they knew it wasn't healthy. "We boiled it and filtered it through a piece of cloth for drinking, even though it was salty," he said.
Salehma Mahmoud, 43, and her four daughters fled Fallujah on Tuesday after her husband was killed fighting against the Americans. They walked 4 miles only to be confronted by Iraqi soldiers who insulted and harassed them, grabbing at Mahmoud's oldest daughter.
"He grabbed Fatima's hand and tried to kiss her. I was trying to stop him with all I had," she said. "He beat me and pushed me to the ground, and his friends were laughing at us loud. He tore the right sleeve of my daughter's dress and lay her on the ground."
To Mahmoud's surprise -- because she had been told that US troops would beat and rape her -- a US patrol rescued them. An American soldier pulled the Iraqi soldier away and yelled at him.
Mahmoud's daughter, who speaks some English, told her that the American called the Iraqi names and said, "If you had really come to save the people of this city, you would not have done such a thing."
An Iraqi correspondent for the Globe contributed to this story from Fallujah and Baghdad.