By Laith Mushtaq (a cameraman for Al Jazeera)
'Fallujah never leaves my mind'
- Publish date:12/04/2009
Laith Mushtaq was one of only two non-embedded cameramen working throughout the April 2004 'battle for Fallujah' in which 600 civilians died.
Five years on, he recounts the events he witnessed and filmed.
"What you saw on your TV sets at home reflects only ten per cent of the reality. Also, if you watch those pictures at home, you can change the channel.
But we were in the middle. We smell. We feel, see, and touch everything. We could touch the bodies, but we couldn't change the channel. We were the channel.
And you can't get the pictures off your mind, because every day you see the same: Explosion, death, explosion, death, death.
After work, you sit down and notice there are pieces of flesh on your shoes and blood on your trousers. But you don't have time to ask why.
In April 2004, I remember I was in the Baghdad office and my boss said: "We have information that the Americans will attack Fallujah. We need a crew to go inside Fallujah immediately. Who can go there?"
I said: "Yes. Me. I can go there." I didn't hesitate at all.
Filming was a 'duty'
I knew the price to pay was high. Maybe my life. But if I'm afraid to die, then I shouldn't hold a camera in any dangerous place. I know some day I will die. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. Or in ten years. I don't know.
But the point is that maybe I will die in my bed. Or maybe I will die doing something good.
Fallujah was my duty. I had to show the truth to people outside of Iraq.
By truth, I mean what really happened in the streets. Not a political message, just what I could see with my own eyes. Because some people were talking about Fallujah and said "there is nothing happening," or "the people are okay" and "everything is stable".
It would be great if everything had been stable. I would be happy if nothing had happened. I would shoot it and show it, with pleasure. But the reality was very different.
One day, I think it was April 9, 2004, someone with a loudspeaker in Fallujah's main mosque said: "The Americans will open a gate and women and children can go out."
As soon as he had finished, all the women and children of Fallujah tried to find a car to leave the city but when they were in the streets, the US forces opened fire.
There's a picture that I cannot forget. An old woman with three children, I saw her on the street and took a picture of her and the children.
She said: "We don't have any men here, can anyone help us?" Many of the men from Fallujah worked in Baghdad, once the city was sealed off they could not get back to their wives and children.
So, some men helped her, I decided to film the scene and then I sat down.
Ten minutes later, an ambulance came down the road. I ran to follow the ambulance and when they opened the door, I saw the same woman and her children - but they were in pieces.
I still remember the nurses couldn't carry the woman because she was in too many pieces, people were jumping back when they saw it. Then, one nurse shouted: "Hey, she looks like your mother."
In the Iraqi language that means: "She could be your mother, so treat her like you'd treat your mom." Everyone stood up and tried to carry a piece because they needed to get her out quickly, because the ambulance was needed for other people.
We were standing in front of the main hospital, but we would have needed 12 cameramen in order to cover all that happened that day.
There were five, six ambulances coming and going with dead and injured people. When I filmed people inside the hospital, there were so many outside. When I filmed outside, there were so many inside.
Me and all of the Al Jazeera crew, we felt paralyzed. It was bigger than us. We were only two cameramen and two reporters. It's not enough.
Reporters, editors in Doha and Baghdad, the people of Fallujah, all of them kept calling for us to film what was happening, and the ambulances just kept coming and going.
We heard people screaming inside the hospital, because they did not have any drugs left. They had to cut legs without anything at all.
At some point, I couldn't move anymore. I sat down on the street. I couldn't move. I see what's happening around me, but I can't move. Khallas [enough]. I didn't have any energy left.
But then you remember the heroes of Fallujah that nobody talks about.
Like an old man. He had a pick-up truck and every day, he drove through the streets and listened to the people who told him there is a dead body in this or that street, but nobody can go there because there's a sniper.
Then he went there, stopped his car, and on his knees, he'd crawl to the body and carry it to his pick-up car. One day he brought five bodies.
Some of them had died more than a week ago, but no one had dared to carry them away. Some, the dogs had started eating them.
While I was inside Fallujah, I knew that every single move of my camera is not for me. It's for the people inside. And the people outside who should know what happened. It's like an SOS.
The Americans said our pictures stirred up hatred against them. But what I did was only showing what their army did on the ground.
I don't hate them, I don't want vengeance, I just wish they had understood what they were doing.
And sometimes I wish my mind was more like a computer that you can reformat. Or that you can go to hospital and get pieces of your memory removed.
In Fallujah, there were moments when I held my camera beside a dead body and I felt I haven't got a heart anymore. Because of the dose of war that I've seen. It was something like an overdose.
Not just for me inside, also for my family in Baghdad.
The month that I spent in Fallujah, my mom was watching TV all the time, because she knew her son was there and she knew those were the pictures that he had shot. Sometimes we couldn't talk for a couple of days.
One day, she heard on the news that the Americans would try to reach the middle of the city. She couldn't bear it anymore. She went to the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad and cried: "Give me my son back!"
I was embarrassed, but my mother is, well, a mother.
Around the same time, in the evening, we got a phone call from the general manager of Al Jazeera. He wanted to talk to every member of the crew. The driver. Me. Everyone.
He said: "Thank you very much, we appreciate what you're doing." And then he said: "If you want to leave Fallujah, we'll send someone and will try to get you out of there."
We all refused. Everyone wanted to stay.
Why should we be better than the women and children of Fallujah? No one had called them to ask whether they wanted to leave."
Men pray over the bodies of civilians killed by US forces in Fallujah, Iraq, 08 October 2004.