As US leaves Iraq, AP men recall a war in pictures
BAGHDAD -- Burned bodies hanging from a bridge. A boy buried under rubble from a bombing. A father gunned down in front of his 7-year-old daughter. These were some of the harrowing images captured by three Iraqi photographers of The Associated Press who have covered the Iraq war since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Now, as the last American troops prepare to leave their country, the three remember the images that have held the most significance for them.
On a beautiful spring day in 2004, during a ride through Baghdad looking for stories to photograph, my driver and I were changing a flat tire when a phone call came from my office. There had been an attack in Fallujah, 70 kilometers (45 miles) west of the capital. We rushed there.
I had not slept well the night before. My country was engulfed in violence, and I had dreamed of being chased by the ghosts of dead people I had photographed. Now, as we drove into Fallujah, we immediately sensed something was not normal. There were no police in sight. People were closing their shops. Parents were pulling their children out of class early.
I could see a column of smoke coming from the city center, and we drove there. The smell of burning flesh was everywhere. There was blood and black ash where bodies had been dragged on the asphalt. An SUV was on fire. Young people nearby were chanting anti-U.S. slogans.
I asked them what had happened. "They killed them," the kids said. "You can find them hanging at the bridge."
Hanging from the bridge spanning the Euphrates River were the remains of four American private contractors. More young people were gathered there, laughing hysterically and chanting "Death to America!"
"God, I have to document this," I thought, my hands trembling, heart racing.
I used to work in Fallujah all the time, and I recognized many of the faces in the crowd, but this time the atmosphere was different, almost hysterical.
"Come on! Take some photos of this CIA staff! They think they can ride into Fallujah!" someone said to me.
I told my driver to stay in the car with the engine running, and got out to take pictures. But seconds after I started shooting I heard voices -- "Who is this photographer? Why is he shooting? Stop!"
Then I heard heavy gunfire from the direction of the bridge as the American troops arrived. I ran back to the car.
It was the first time that I had ever shot pictures of hanging people. I knew this would affect both sides. Even as I was running to the car I heard older people deploring what had happened to the four Americans.
I have been back to Fallujah a few times, and would rather stay away. The smell of burned flesh and the sound of hysterical laughter are still with me.
It was 2008 and I was in Sadr City covering clashes between U.S. forces and Mahdi army militiamen when I heard the sounds of loud explosions from American aerial bombardment and headed in their direction. There were gunmen everywhere, U.S. helicopters above, destroyed buildings and people trying to flee.
I heard a man shouting "My son is still trapped!" He told me he had taken his wounded wife to an ambulance and then returned to his house. Firefighters and residents began searching for the 3-year-old boy. I stayed, wanting to help the man and hoping to get a picture of the child being found alive.
After two hours he was found and carried aloft by rescuers who rushed him to a waiting ambulance. I had my shot but I wanted to follow the story to its conclusion, believing, like the others, that the boy had survived. So I jumped into the ambulance and rode with it to the hospital, where a doctor pronounced him dead. The father was shocked. I too started to cry.
Sadr City was never an easy place for a journalist to work. The Shiite militiamen who controlled the district distrusted us. American forces surrounded the area and sometimes shelled the gunmen's hideouts, trapping me in the crossfire.
But I kept coming back to the bereaved family, whose destroyed house stood in the same neighborhood as my own. The father was a simple soul who wanted nothing more than to live peacefully with his family, yet his son's life had not been spared.
I gave him a newspaper that had published my photos of the bombing. I wanted somehow to help him. Then, on one of my visits, I found that his home had been rebuilt, and he told me that U.S. forces and local authorities compensated him. Now, all the destroyed houses have been repaired, and the area is much calmer.
In 2005, while covering parts of western Baghdad and the airport road, I heard a volley of bullets and then saw two police cars speed by. Arriving at the scene, I found a man lying dead in an empty street, and a little girl sitting cross-legged, staring at him, her clothes blood-soaked, crying "They killed my father." Her name was Ahdaf, and she was 7.
When she saw me, she became terrified and started to cry, thinking I was the killer. I thought of my baby daughter, and I imagined she would do the same thing if I was killed, and I started to cry as well.
Then the dead man's wife arrived, weeping and shouting "You killed him!" I tried to calm her down, telling her I was a journalist who had nothing to do with the killing. I had the feeling that we were being watched by the insurgents. Some people were looking at me from a nearby house. After the body was taken by the police, I was stopped by a man asking if I was related to the dead man and wanting to know why I was crying. I sensed that the man was from al-Qaida. He told me to leave.
I have been back a half-dozen times to visit the family, trying to help put them in touch with a humanitarian organization which saw my photos and wanted to help resettle the family in a safe area. The wife said she would rather use the aid to buy sheep and cattle to earn money for food. On my last visit, in September 2005, a woman told me that I was being watched by al-Qaida people, and I should leave immediately because they would come and kill me. She was very worried.
Each time I visited this family, I used to kiss my sleeping children before leaving the house, knowing that this could be the last time I see them, and my children could be in the same situation as the girl I photographed.
My impression at that time was that the dead man represented Iraq which was dying and the little girl represented a generation that would be haunted by memories of killing and blood. I hope the coming generation will show tolerance and love to each other. It is only with tolerance and love that Iraq can be revived again; with hatred, Iraq can't move one step forward.