Tragedy in Iraq
Tragedy in Iraq: One Journalist Died Covering the War in the Persian Gulf, Photographer Gad Gross. This Is the Story of How it Happened.
by Frank Smyth
The Village Voice, May 14, 1991
Near the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq — Small waves broke over the sides of the creaky raft that our Kurdish contacts had lashed together from old inner tubes and scraps of plywood. Though it was only about as wide as a city avenue, the river was high with the spring melt, and the water was the color of coffee as it rushed by. The far shore was Iraqi territory, where a pickup truck waited to take us to the rebel commanders. On this day — March 21 — the rebels claimed to control 90 percent of what they call Kurdistan in northern Iraq. To the south, Shi’ite-led rebels were claiming that the resistance there was also going well. Rebel leaders in Damascus had said that “the revolution” was advancing into new areas, and that there was fighting in Baghdad itself. The Americans appeared to have completely routed the Iraqi army, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was tottering — anything, even the breakup of Iraq, seemed possible.
Winning his struggle with the rivet’s current, our oarsman splashed into the shallows under the opposite bank. Photographers Gad Gross and Alain Buu, along with Wall Street Journal correspondent Geraldine Brooks and myself, had entered the country illegally. We had all met at a conference of Iraqi opposition leaders in Beirut a week earlier, where Gad and I were working various Kurdish opposition leaders incessantly, hoping that sooner or later we would be able to gain access and enter Iraq. After our Kurdish friends had arranged the trip, Gad decided to turn Alain on to our contact, even though Gad was on assignment for Newsweek and Alain was working in direct competition for Time. I told him that few photographers would be so generous.
With the uprising at its peak and Saddam’s army broken, the possibility that we might get caught barely crossed our minds. The two dozen or so members of the Kurdish resistance who greeted us certainly betrayed few doubts as we shook hands and passed cigarettes around. Every other male, it seemed, was armed with a Kalashnikov folding-stock automatic rifle, which he handled with assured nonchalance. There was no sign of the Iraqi army.
Over the next several days, the spirit of revolution was both palpable and contagious, and really not too different from the popular resistance movements I had seen in Central America. Civilians and peshmager, as the Kurdish fighters are fondly called, mingled freely; once, in front of the hospital at Dahuk, we watched a group of peshmager join hands with the nurses in a folk dance to celebrate their imminent independence, the circle of dancers growing larger and larger with every round.
But it was all new to Gad, 26, who had never before covered an armed insurgency. I met Gad in Amman, Jordan, three weeks before we crossed the river. Gad was an ethnic German born in Romania who had graduated from Harvard on a liberal arts degree a year ago. He had covered the fall of the Berlin Wall just before his graduation, but missed the Romanian revolution because he had to be in Boston for his finals; it was a nagging regret to him, and as we traveled through Kurdistan over the next week he would often say he saw similarities between the Kurdish and Romanian revolutions. The enthusiasm of the Kurds was infectious, and Gad loved that, but particularly he liked the way people seemed so glad to see us, foreign reporters, covering their struggle.
Gad was tall and good-looking, but he was missing a front tooth. “I fell asleep on a motorcycle,” Gad told me the first time I saw him take out his false tooth. He wouldn’t always wear it, and it could unnerve a subject, so I was always telling him to put the thing in. As we were preparing to leave for Kurdistan, Gad heard he’d won the Missouri Award of Excellence for a photo of a Romanian soldier sitting on a toppled statue of Lenin. He was ecstatic. He danced to his Walkman in our Damascus hotel room, singing along with M.C. Hammer, and smiling that damned smile.
Nobody in Kurdistan believed the revolt would fail. Kurds and reporters both speculated on how many days or weeks Saddam had left: most said no more than two months, one bold reporter thought two days. Our plan was to stay with the resistance all the way to Baghdad.
I could feel that his broken wrist had never properly healed when I shook his hand. We were in Zakho, a sunny mountain town near the Turkish border, to meet Dr. Kamal “Kirkuki,” the man who had personally led what the people here called the “intifada” — the liberation of most towns and villages in Iraqi-held Kurdistan. The title of “doctor” is an honorary one: Kamal had dropped out of medical school in Vienna, where he learned fluent German and some English, to become a Kurdish guerrilla leader. Somewhere here, in the Zagros Mountains, a piece of shrapnel had crippled him.
A seemingly frail man, Kamal spoke so softly we could hardly hear him. With steady eyes and a subdued expression, Kamal explained that the uprising had gone off like clockwork, almost like pushing in a door. On March 14 — a scant two weeks after the American bombing halted and President Bush urged the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam — villagers and townspeople all over Kurdistan had joined forces with more experienced peshmager and locally recruited militia to overwhelm Iraqi army outposts.
It took the rebels and townspeople little more than four hours to liberate Zakho, but it did not fall without casualties. Before they retreated, government troops indiscriminately lobbed mortar shells into the into the town’s center. At least 40 civilians were killed and dozens wounded. The guerrillas took us to see several young boys in the hospital who had burns over their faces and more than 50 percent of their bodies, but none of the laceration wounds normally associated with shrapnel or other conventional weapons-Saddam may have been using incendiary bombs, possibly, phosphorous.
“We had many friends in the military,” a smiling Kamal said. He was flanked by more than a dozen Iraqi military officers who had defected to the guerrillas. One was a former intelligence officer from Saddam’s elite Republican Guard. Another, a former aircraft gunner, was put in charge of Kamal’s air defenses. Once loyal to the regime, these officers said that Saddam had simply gone too far-first going to war with Iran and then Kuwait.
“For years and years, we have been fighting our neighbors for nothing,” said Lieutenant Colonel Akhmed, the former commander of 700 Iraqi government soldiers. Akhmed, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his family, had been a professional officer for 20 years, yet he had been recruited by Kamal’s clandestine agents. On the 14th, he switched sides. “Many officers feel the same way about Saddam. But they can’t do anything,” he said, adding to the generally accepted impression among the Kurds that the Iraqi army had lost its will to fight.
Rebel leaders claimed that more than 30,000 Iraqi troops had either been captured or defected, a number that seemed too high to believe. But there was little question that among rank-and-file Iraqi, foot soldiers, discipline and morale were visibly crumbling.
We saw 60 prisoners in green Iraqi army uniforms were squatting on the ground, casually watched over by a handful of armed guards and dozens of the ubiquitous Kurdish civilians. (Everywhere we went while the revolution was running, in the streets, near battles, we were surrounded by staring civilians, who watched over events with the intense curiosity of a people who had waited decades for a taste of liberation.) A regular soldier, who only gave his name as Hussein, demanded the floor. “God willing, he’ll be dead soon,” he said of Saddam.
“Why do we kill? Why did we go to war with Iran?” he yelled, his face taut as the blood rushed to his cheeks. The wails of this lone soldier, standing among his huddled comrades, were soon joined by others, until finally the crowd of civilians joined the chorus. When the chant of “Down with Saddam Down with Saddam!” went up, one of the prisoners grabbed at a guard’s gun — in order to brandish it over his head, for emphasis.
The scene gave vivid testimony to the collapse of the locally-deployed regular Iraqi army, which was made up of largely the same sort of poorly motivated conscripts caught in the American turkey shoot in Kuwait (though it gave no inkling of the condition of elite Army Special Forces and Republican Guard assault units then massing to the south). Nearby, Gad photographed a pair of POWs huddled together for support; as Private Hussein screamed out his grief, they began silently to cry.
Sound of boots and sneakers sucking up mud was all that could be heard through the cold rain outside of Mosul, the last major city in northern Iraq still under Baghdad’s control. Several units of about 20 fighters each were marching single file through the fields of sprouting millet. The lush landscape, punctuated by the occasional boulder, reminded me of Ireland. “We are going to war,” said one peshmager, his lips curling into a bold smile beneath his thick black moustache. Grizzled old men and young boys marched together under the weight of the munitions they had just picked up.
Behind them, other units were still clustering around the heavy burlap sacks sitting beside a white Toyota pickup parked on the main road out of Mosul. A rebel kneeling on the blacktop used both hands to distribute bullets. Other guerrillas stripped the seals off dozens of stubby, green plastic tubes and loaded rocket-propelled grenades — minifootball-shaped projectiles — onto these propellant charges. Many of the peshmager wore the dark brown one-piece jumpsuits traditionally worn by Kurdish men. Gad snapped a picture of one proud teenager who had accented his black-and- white checkered sash with two bandoliers of oversized bullets wrapped tightly around his chest, so that he looked like a chilly, wet Kurdish version of Rambo.
But Americans are not necessarily heroes to these rebels. Despite the success of Desert Storm — which after all, had made this sudden rebellion possible — they remember that the United States had supported Saddam Hussein as late as 1988, viewing the Iraqi dictator as a strategic buffer against the Islamic government of Iran. And, like many Third World militants, they remember America’s defeat in Vietnam as a victory for popular insurgencies everywhere.
One evening, after learning Alain was French-Vietnamese, a Kurdish fighter insisted on singing an old revolutionary song about Ho Chi Minh for Alain and me. Alain had fled Vietnam with the first boat people the day Saigon fell-but he appreciated the sentiment.
“We want the world not to help dictators like Saddam Hussein,” Azad, a 28-year-old civil engineer-turned-rebel, told us, explaining why the United States was at best a temporary and unreliable ally. Azad had spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison, where he was repeatedly tortured with electrical shocks to his testicles; the prison building was a target during the war, and he escaped when American bombing blew out the wall to his cell block. “The U.S.A. made [Saddam]. If the U.S.A. and Europe didn’t give him the help, he couldn’t have done this.”
Even though, like many rebel leaders and spokespersons, Azad said the Kurds were hoping to receive humanitarian and even military assistance from the United States and other member nations of the anti-Iraq coalition, he went on to complain that in its cease-fire agreement the United States had allowed Iraqi helicopters to fly “humanitarian” missions — a concession General Norman Schwarzkopf would later admit he had been “hoodwinked” into making. Just one week into their rebellion, the Kurds had heard that the Iraqis were beginning to use helicopter gunships with devastating effect on their fellow insurgents in the Shiite south. We saw our first helicopter firing over the horizon here, at rebel targets in the battle for Mosul.
But not all Kurds — then, at least — were so critical. One peshmager laughingly told me as we trudged through glutinous mud that many newborn Kurdish babies were being given “Bush” as their first name.
Neither of us suspected that many of those same infants would soon die of exposure along the Turkish and Iranian borders.
Thick black smoke billowed from a burning oil well and mortar shells echoed steadily in the distance, but Kirkuk seemed relatively undisturbed otherwise. The city, an important oil-producing center, had been in Kurdish hands for more than a week. The Kurds explained that the Iraqi army still held two primary positions, one just southeast of the city and another just northwest. Although the mortar fire was intense, for the first two days we were in the city the basic battle lines never changed, and the Kurds appeared to be in complete control of the situation.
The afternoon of March 26 was clear and cool, spring weather in the highlands. The three of us rode out to the northwest front, a series of mortar and machine gun emplacements along the rolling plain that flows to the edge of the town. In these outlying areas, clashes had continued for several days, and territory had shifted back and forth repeatedly. At the base of a hill we found a group of Kurds huddling around a big, 81-millimeter mortar, firing I over the ridge at the Iraqi army, dug in about two miles away.
As we watched, Iraqi helicopter gunships beat in over the horizon and attacked several Kurdish mortar positions around us, ignoring our own. The Kurds returned fire with machine guns and a few larger antiaircraft guns, to no apparent effect. The choppers did little damage either, choosing to fly high; they seemed to be probing the Kurds, trying to get the rebels to expose their positions, rather than engage them directly. High above the helicopters, a jet made several passes. The cease-fire agreement between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq had grounded Saddam’s fixed-wing aircraft, supposedly without exception, but the Kurds complained that Iraqi planes were indeed flying reconnaissance. But the jet we saw was so high we couldn’t tell whether it was an Iraqi or an American observer photographing the battle.
As the sun began to set over the open plain, “Lieutenant Omar” — the zone field commander — joined us on the crest of the hill in front of the mortar emplacements.
From there, looking out over miles of open country, Omar pointed to what he said were the Iraqi troop and tank positions, adding that they had not moved for several days. Omar said his forces were preparing to attack them — maybe as early as that evening. He seemed quite sure of success.
But the helicopter gunships were a chilling reminder of the regime’s superior firepower. One peshmager admitted that, as a guerrilla army, they had never learned how to use mechanized equipment, so the helicopters and hundreds of tanks and armored; vehicles they had captured when they took Kirkuk and the other cities in Kurdistan in were, by and large, useless to the revolution. But others said they were planning to find drivers and eventually to deploy captured tanks against Saddam Shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and mortars of all sizes were everywhere.
The Kurds showed us dozens of captured crates of American-made mortar shells, whose markings showed they had been shipped to Saddam’s army via the Jordanian military in March 1988. But the Kurds had no heavy weaponry. Even when they managed to capture an anti-aircraft gun from the fleeing Iraqis, their sights had been removed, rendering the guns largely useless. And we had seen no surface-to-air missiles, the best answer to helicopter gunships in this exposed terrain.
Guerrilla movements elsewhere in the world, especially in Vietnam and El Salvador, have demonstrated that firepower can be matched by ingenuity. Land mines, for instance, can be designed to stop ground soldiers or even advancing tanks, and homemade explosives could have been easily manufactured locally. But the Kurds did not seem to manufacture any of their own weaponry. Even more surprising, the rebels had no two-way radios to coordinate military action. To compensate, I assumed they had established a network of scouts and runners to monitor enemy movements. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
That night, the shelling was heavy, and the head of the household where we were staying decided to evacuate his family to Arbil. Bakhtiar, the young rebel who had volunteered to be our translator and guide, and the other rebels laughed, saying the man had panicked, and moved us into their own billet. They were occupying the headquarters of an oil refinery company a few hundred yards away, just outside the city. Bakhtiar didn’t really seem worried about our safety, only our comfort.
After breakfast (cooked by a former Iraqi soldier), we piled into a pickup and drove to the ruins of Iraqi helicopter base K1, just north of Kirkuk. Dozens of confident Kurdish rebels triumphantly gave us a tour. They showed us box after box of munitions — many from the Eastern Bloc, Gad noticed — they had captured with the base.
The floors in here were covered with blankets, raincoats, boots, gas masks, and the insignias ripped off by Iraqi officers in their rush to get out. The burnt-out hulls of two Iraqi helicopters squatted on the field where the Kurds had torched them, not far from the body of a dead Iraqi soldier. I believe it was the first dead body Gad had seen up close; he lingered, staring. Later, inside the base headquarters, the four of us had a talk about the risks we were taking, I and we agreed: Nobody gets killed.
The guerrillas also gleefully showed us the officers log book for the communications center at the base, which listed all the reports on soldiers that had gone AWOL, who were described as “wanted criminals.”
According to the log, hardly a day had gone by since the war began without at least one I soldier lighting out. The last entry had been made four days ago-shortly before the base was overrun by the rebels.
Despite the incessant crump of the mortars, the mood was playful. We even stopped to take a pair of group photos posing with the rebels, who brandished their AK-47s and smiled into the lens. Gad had someone take a picture of him with his arm around Bakhtiar. They were both the same age, and bumping through the war together over the past few days had already made them fast friends. Bakhtiar had been an economist, a graduate of the University of Baghdad, and he was amicable and urbane, even with his AK-47, extra clips, and high-topped military hoots. Elegant and charming, he seemed almost to be standing, like a cutout before the backdrop of his own war. “Imagine this guy in New York, but you stay away my girlfriend! ” Gad would say, laughing.
Over lunch that day, March 27, Geraldine Brooks and the remaining two journalists from an ABC TV crew decided to return to Arbil. Because she worked for a daily newspaper, Geraldine’s deadline was tight, and she had to get back to file; the ABC crew wanted to get back because they had lost their correspondent, and thought he might have returned to their base. She offered to carry a videotape I had shot for CBS News back to Arbil, where a group of reporters had arranged a system to secretly send material out of the country, and to make sure a dispatch for the Voice I’d left behind made it out as well. Gad, Alain and I were several days away from our own weekly deadlines, so we elected to stay -making us the last remaining Western journalists in Kirkuk.
After lunch, Bakhtiar offered to take us out to see a row of Kurdish homes that had been bulldozed by Saddam’s army. Fahdil, a fiftyish midlevel commander from the Kurds’ largest Marxist faction, offered to accompany us.
As we picked our way among the rubble of the block of homes, we were startled by a series of powerful explosions that shook the ground, one after another, within a hundred yards of where we stood. Bakhtiar explained it was a Katushya — a Soviet-made, truck-mounted missile launcher that fires up to 40 medium-range projectiles in succession. Even as the rockets bit, we could see a man painstakingly stacking cinder blocks amidst a pile of dust and rubble that once had been his home. Neighbors told us he had been doing this ever since the bulldozers came. He returned to find his wife and children gone, apparently dragged away by the Iraqi army, as many civilians were.
He had lost his mind. For days, he refused to leave the rubble where his loved ones had last been seen. Fahdil gave the man money for food, and others tried to persuade him to take shelter with friends or relatives. But we left him there as dusk fell, stacking his concrete blocks in the ruins.
That evening, Fahdif and Bakhtiar offered to share a bottle of white wine with us. The older and austere Fahdil began to open up, and Bakhtiar was planning a trip to visit Gad and I in New York sometime after the revolution. We discussed class struggle, perestroika, ethnic nationalism, and Kenny’s Castaways in the Village well into the night.
“Wake up ! Wake up!” said Bakhtiar. “Fahdil wants you to go.” Incoming mortar shells, which we had been hearing since we arrived, were now landing so close we could feel the walls vibrate with every hit. It was the morning of March 28. We were still sleeping in the oil refinery building a few miles outside of town. Something was definitely up: peshmager rebels, including Lieutenant Omar, had dropped back into the city from the front. Still stiff and bleary-eyed, the three of us crowded into a double cab Toyota pickup, and Fahdil’s men quickly drove us into the city center.
The shelling in outlying areas had increased, but downtown Kirkuk, for a few hours at least, was relatively quiet. Armed with still and video cameras, we wandered about the downtown square, frustrated at having been removed from the action. Then a few shells began to land nearby. One killed a young girl two blocks away; as I filmed her, a man drove by on a bicycle and shouted, “This is Saddam Hussein!” his voice cracking with emotion. “Mr. Bush must know.”
Several helicopters appeared over the city, and the blue sky was suddenly overcast with streamers of anti-aircraft fire. We were standing in front of a former Iraqi government building that was now a rebel command center; armed with their automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, truckloads of eager peshmager fighters waited impatiently for orders to the front. Two men walked out of the building in street clothes, each carrying what might have passed for an oversized fishing-rod case.
The long green tubes were heal-seeking surface-to-air SAM-7 missiles. We got them on film, and I told Gad that SAMs were a good sign, they could be quite effective in trained hands. (I didn’t learn until later that those two were the only SAM missiles in Kirkuk.)
We were still anxious to get back to the fighting, and one group of rebels invited us to accompany them in a tour bus heading for the city’s southern edge. A young boy stuck his head in the door as the bus turned a corner and said proudly, “Remember, you are peshmager. You will fight and win.” Everyone nodded in silence.
We hadn’t gone far when the shelling sounded very close, backed by the brittle staccato of machine guns. The sound was coming from two directions, both incoming and outgoing fire; the Iraqi army was nearby, where only hours before the streets were empty. The bus pulled to a halt in a Kurdish middle-class neighborhood of simple, one- and two-story concrete block homes.
The rebels poured out of the bus and began to disperse, saying they intended to form a line of defense against an Iraqi advance. We stumbled outside the bus into a clutch of crowing roosters, chickens, and dozens of peshmager, who were yelling back and forth to each other over the sound of whistling bullets and exploding tank shells. They had no formal command structure, for the first time, I saw confusion and fear on their faces. Bakhtiar saw it at the same time. “These are not [regular] peshmager,” Bakhtiar said. “They are militia from the city.”
One sobbing man wailed that a tank shell had killed his brother. He grabbed a Kalishnakov and ran out to challenge an Iraqi tank on his own. The Kurdish militia set up machine guns on top of several two-story buildings, around our position. But the shelling was becoming more accurate as the Iraqi tanks advanced. Bakhtiar, Gad, Alain and I started running across a field that spread to the east of the city center. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the rebel militiamen take up their counter battery fire from a nearby rooftop, and seconds later, the entire building wobbled from a direct hit. Within 30 minutes after the militia and we had gone pounding down the steps of the bus, the entire neighborhood was alive with shrapnel.
The field we were running through was planted with mint, and the air was thick with its sharp green scent; I remembered picking mint for the kitchen of a restaurant in Vermont where I had a summer job once. I worried about snipers and, especially, helicopters. We could see them off on our left, but for now, the choppers were engaging rebels to the west, where we had spent the night. We were near the far edge of the field now, breathing hard. Suddenly a high-pitched whistle that keyed up to a metallic scream seemed to tear the air in front of us, and a shell landed with a thud about 300 feet away, before anybody could take cover. Incredibly, it was a dud. I told Gad, “That was it, that one had our name on it. But we’re going to make it -we’re lucky.”
Once past the field and into the city streets, we felt less exposed. Here on the city’s northern edge, as far from the original Iraqi positions as you could get within the limits of Kirkuk, there was only quiet. We rested, drinking from our canteens. Bakhtiar drew a map in my hand. “This is the city,” he said drawing a circle. He drew two solid dots on the left and bottom of my palm. “This is the Iraqi army.” According to Bakhtiar, the Iraqi army was still located to the southeast and northwest of the city. To get away, all we had to do was travel straight north, up the main road to Arbil.
Refugees carrying blankets and other belongings lined each side of the road north. Both cars and fuel were scarce — many pleaded for rides from passing motorists. Men with Kalashnikov rifles, apparently separated from their units, were also fleeing — they must have been local militia, since many were with their families. As the exodus grew, the distinction between rebel and civilian was blurring.
We began to film the scene, feeling now and out of combat, trudging along the secure road north. But all three of worried about our packs, which we had left behind in the city. Bakhtiar tried to find a car to take us back into town them, thinking we still had time. But when Bakhtiar finally found us a car headed our way, we discovered Fahdil sitting in the front seat. We realized then that it was not just militia, but regular peshmager and their commanders who were retreating.
Fahdil told us calmly that it, get out of Kirkuk, and he said he would take care of the gear we’d left behind. As he drove off, a man in civilian dress — who’d been listening — offered to give us a ride to Arbil in his Toyota compact (earlier, when, we’d asked him to take us into Kirkuk, he’d said his tires were bad, and couldn’t make the trip). We drove up the hill mountain pass that marked the edge of the city. Looking out the window, I saw a helicopter overtaking us from behind.
I had learned in El Salvador that helicopter bullets can pass through car metal like papier-mâché. We got out of the car to take cover in the crevices of the granite outcroppings that littered the treeless hillsides. These rock formations seemed to continue cast for miles, toward Iran.
While tucked in the crannies, we filmed the scene overhead. More helicopters appeared, swarming like hornets over the pass ahead, strafing and firing rockets. Two smaller gunships were soon joined by four or five heavy attack helicopters. They hovered, searching out rebel positions; finding one, a chopper would deliver a swooshing volley of rockets. According to the cease-fire agreement reached in the gulf war, Iraqi helicopters are permitted to fly only for transport or humanitarian emergencies. We watched their rockets and guns pummel the surrounding hillsides for half of an hour. It is hard to believe that American reconnaissance would not have detected their deployment in combat.
Then there was a brief lull — the helicopters were still around, but there were fewer of them and there were no more rockets — and civilians who had taken cover resumed walking. “Let’s go,” Bakhtiar said. I suggested that we take advantage of the rocks and leave the city on foot. “But to where?” he said. “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. After this, you’ll be on the way to Arbil.” The stream of refugees indicated that, at least to the north, the way was clear.
The helicopter reappeared. It hovered over our left, firing a rocket onto the road ahead. As we topped the hill, I saw for the first time what the hornets had been buzzing over, and I pleaded with Bakhtiar to stop the car and let us get out. A white pickup truck had gone off the road, and its driver was slumped over the wheel, shot. A few yards farther on, a bus sat with a gaping black hole in its side; what remained of a woman’s body was strewn about the road. The sharp crack of machine guns was incessant. We were driving into a wall of bullets. “I don’t like this either, Bakhtiar,” said Gad.
Bakhtiar, always anxious not to upset those around him, relayed our doubts to the driver. He didn’t react, and we sped further into open terrain. About 70 yards ahead, the driver saw a cluster of houses on the right side of the road, and instinctively drove off the highway in front.
We jumped out of the car and took cover behind a one-story, flat-roofed cinderblock house. The green fields roundabout were lit up by two incoming volleys of Katushya rockets that landed about a hundred yards behind us, and the helicopters continued to hover overhead, searching for fleeing peshmager rebels. Thousands of rounds of heavy caliber bullets were smacking into the house and ground all around us, fired indiscriminately from the mountains about 200 yards to the north, and tank shells were exploding nearby; the Iraqis were laying down a field of fire to seal off the road. I filmed a column of tanks — at least eight — but there were more, more tanks than thought Saddam had left, pouring through the mountain passes to our left. The Iraqi army was not only south and northwest of the city, it had circled around to the north and now had cut the rebels off from Arbil. We were trapped. Bakhtiar summed up our dilemma. “if we try to leave through the field, we’ll be shot,” he said. “And if we stay here?” I asked.
“That is just as dangerous.” Gad walked over to me. We both smiled. “He’s funny,” Gad said with a grin, trying to cut the tension. “If we go there we’ll be shot, and if we stay here it’s just as dangerous.” He laughed.
We didn’t have time to decide. “The tanks, they’re coming!” Alain shouted, and looking over my shoulder I saw two Soviet- made tanks roaring up the road beyond our shot-up Toyota, about 50 yards away, coming straight for us. “Come on!” Alain yelled, and we started running. Gad and Bakhtiar were in the lead — our driver had already melted away — and they disappeared behind the wall of a house. Alain and I glanced back at the tanks and saw a turret turning in our direction. Just a few steps ahead a pile of dirt stretched out of sight along the right side of the highway, some 10 feet high; just behind it was a short ditch, about four feet deep and twice that long. We jumped in.
The rumble of the tanks passed us on the other side of the dirt wall, sending little streams of earth into our trench. The machine gunner started firing into the standing houses and open fields, clearing out any possible enemy stragglers. The firing was relentless, sending literally thousands of bullets whistling over our heads. One ricocheting round landed on the edge of the ditch, close enough to touch. We kept our heads down and prayed.
After a time, the tanks seemed to head back for Kirkuk. But we could still hear voices in the area. We decided to wait for nightfall, hoping that Gad and Bakhtiar had survived the second onslaught of bullets and were also safely hunkered down, out of sight.
Alain and I jumped into the ditch between two and three in the afternoon. Shortly before sunset, we heard the tanks and trucks returning. One went past us. Another killed its engine literally right behind us, less than 15 feet away on the other side of the dirt wall. The Iraqi army had decided to make camp all around our hiding place.
They set up a machine-gun post atop the flat roof of the first house we had used for cover. Other soldiers established positions further up the road to the north. We could hear soldiers talking, laughing, even their footsteps as they milled about. There was a distinct popping noise anytime someone opened a can of food.
Worse yet, it was a clear night. I looked up despairingly at the Big Dipper — I could see every star in the sky, sharp and clear, and a fat full moon beamed down enough light to read by. Whispering, we talked about trying to crawl away. But the soldiers near us fired away throughout the night. They were apparently under orders to shoot at anything they thought had moved. There was no return fire.
We thought we might be able to bury ourselves in the loose earth. But we were afraid that the soldiers would hear us digging — or, if we could not cover ourselves completely, that we would be immediately shot and killed upon being discovered.
I turned. off the alarm on my watch, and tried to control my breathing. When I get nervous, I tend to take quick, short breaths. But Alain’s blood pressure dropped from the stress, and he soon fell into a fitful sleep. I had to keep him from snoring. It gets cold in Kurdistan at night, dropping from a high in the 60s to near freezing. But shivering could be a problem — the soldiers might hear our chattering teeth.
Embracing each other like lovers to stay warm, we stayed in the ditch for over 18 hours. I watched an ant colony at work below, and envied each passing bird.
Shortly after sunrise, we heard a commotion coming from the closest house, about 100 feet away, where we’d last seen Gad and Bakhtiar running. A soldier began angrily yelling, as many more came running in answer to his call. I swallowed deeply.
We heard more banging; it sounded like someone was whacking metal filing cabinets with a bat. They were searching the rest of the house. Then they found something — this time we knew it was a person. We hoped it was Kurdish civilians and not Gad and Bakhtiar.
The soldiers’ shouts seemed to grow angrier and louder. There was more commotion, and even louder shouts. I think I heard a soldier yell, “Kurdi!” Then we heard a single sustained burst from an automatic weapon.
It all happened very quickly, but it was, clear that whomever the Iraqis had seized had not resisted, but was in the soldiers’ custody — for a short time, anyway.
About a half-minute later, we heard a very strong and distinct scream. It lasted for at least a full second. There was about a five second delay, and then another long burst from an automatic rifle, followed by silence.
Alain and I both knew it had been Gad screaming.
Alain knelt In the trench to pray. A blanket of terror descended upon us. Peeking over the edge of the ditch, Alain saw a soldier carrying Gad’s camera bag from the house. I began to panic, but was quickly overcome by an overwhelming obsession to stay alive.
Whispering, we decided our only chance if caught would be to surrender, saying we were sahafi-journalists. But after what we had heard in the house, that didn’t seem to be much protection. I thought we were going to die, and soon.
The ditch was deep enough that a soldier would have to nearly walk right on top of it to see us. The waiting was becoming unbearable. About an hour after the incident at the house, a soldier climbing over the earth mound glanced into the ditch and did a double take, but kept walking. Alain said he thought the soldier was going to walk up behind the dirt mound and then lob a grenade into our trench. He jumped up, put his hands in the air, and yelled, “Sahafi!”
“What are you doing?” I said incredulously, looking up at Alain standing in the ditch, his face pale in the morning sunlight. Then I put my hands up and did the same.
We saw several soldiers approaching us with rifles raised. They ordered us to put our hands higher. One searched the pockets of the field jacket I was wearing — actually, it was Gad’s jacket, he’d lent it to me because the pockets were big enough to carry a large tape recorder. When the zipper got stuck and I couldn’t open it, the soldier pulled out a grenade and threatened to drop it inside. I pulled the jacket over my head and dropped it to the ground. I pulled my American passport out of a pouch strapped to my ankle and handed it to him. There was $800 in cash folded into the Ziploc bag, and he stuffed the money quickly into his pocket. I felt lucky to still be alive.
Another soldier searched Alain. He wore a solid green uniform, indicating that he was either an officer or a military liaison official from the ruling Baath party. His demeanor was more human, much less brutal than that of the foot soldiers. He said in his broken English, “No shoot, no shoot,” even as he ripped a gold pendant of the Virgin Mary from Alain’s neck.
Petrified, we repeated that we were Western journalists and pleaded for our lives. Some of the soldiers leading us away from the trench understood English. “Where are we going?” I asked one.
“You,” he said laughing, and looked at me as he roughly drew his index finger across the base of his neck.
Piling into the back of an army truck, I though they weren’t likely to mess it up by killing us there. We were taken to see “the captain,” whose field command was on a hill overlooking the site of our capture.
There were civilians being held prisoner there; at least they hadn’t killed them. I looked, somehow expecting to see Gad, maybe hurt but still alive. Then I saw his camera bag, with his press identity cards hanging from the outside.
“I want to take the gun and shoot you,” the young captain said, in English, as he gave us a look of distilled contempt.
“You know what happened to your friend?” he asked. “He killed himself. You know why? He had a gun.”
Another officer, whose uniform indicated he was a Special Forces commander and a paratrooper, asked, “Do you know him?” holding Gad’s press I.D. in his hand.
“No.” We didn’t want to give them a reason to kill us.
A third Iraqi soldiers said, “He had a gun. He shot himself.”
Gad and I had talked about the issue of self-defense in a war zone. He was adamant that a reporter should never carry a weapon, under any circumstances.
The officer who had taken Alain’s Virgin Mary medal then appeared, and began talking to the paratrooper commander. I don’t understand Arabic, but I understood that they were discussing our lives. The body language of the officer who’d found us was nonthreatening and open as he made his case, but the paratrooper shook his head. “Sahafi,” I heard him say. Seconds later, he gestured towards Gad’s ID. Then he held his right hand as if he were writing on his other hand. I understood he wanted to kill us for what we knew. The captain said, “See you in” — and hesitated, searching for the right English word, and the paratrooper came to his aid, saying, “another place.” Like the afterlife.
“Are you married?” the paratrooper asked me. I lied and said I had a wife and three kids. “I am sorry for you,” he said. “It is too late.”
We were blindfolded and put into the back of a Land Cruiser headed west over back roads toward the highway between Baghdad and Mosul. Alain and I held hands — we were terrified that we would be separated. With every shift of gears or bend in the road we feared we would be taken out and executed.
My blindfold was made of thin cotton cloth. I managed to spread it loosely over my eyes so I could still see somewhat. All around us, I heard the rumble of large engines. It was then that I knew that the Kurdish revolution would soon be finished.
I could make out the outlines of dozens of tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and heavy military trucks. In addition to the units that had found us and cut off the road to Arbil, whole divisions were massing for a major counteroffensive. The Kurds, it seemed, had no intelligence on the build up. I knew that — apart from their own heartfelt enthusiasm — they had nothing with which to counter the superior firepower of the Iraqi army. Saddam was clearly planning to overrun and retake the rest of Kurdistan. In fact, he took most of it in less than four days.
The truck stopped and our blindfolds were removed. We were standing on the tarmac of a military air base somewhere near Mosul.
An officer pulled out some papers that we recognized as being Gad’s — they were stained with blood. “What about this?” he said. We later realized that he genuinely didn’t know about Gad; he thought Gad’s camera bag belonged to me.
Blindfolded again, we were taken to a room at the base. “How did you get into Iraq?” said the interrogator. “From Syria,” I said, speaking into the dark. They wanted to know about the Kurds; they did not ask either of us about Gad. We later speculated that only his death, but not the way he was killed, had been reported to superior officers.
That night, Alain and I were alone in a makeshift cell in a bombed out building in Kirkuk. We tried to coordinate our stories, in an attempt to distance ourselves as much as possible from Gad. Unless they raised specific questions, we would deny knowing him.
But mulling it over in my mind, I remembered that there was considerable evidence linking us to Gad. We had already seen among Gad’s captured papers a hotel card from Damascus with both my name and Gad’s on it. I also realized that in my last radio tapes for CBS, I had reported–in case somehow the tape was found and we weren’t — that the three of us were together in Kirkuk when it came under siege.
But the tape was still in an inside pocket of Gad’s field jacket, the one that made the soldier with the grenade impatient. Keeping an eye out for the guards, that night we removed all the tape from the spool, wrapped it in several pieces of electric tape, and tossed it among the rubbish on the floor of the littered room.
“Gatewood Enginnering Ltd” read the sign on the gate. We had been driven form Kirkuk to Baghdad the day after our capture. You could see lots of evidence of the American bombing throughout Baghdad. Our escorts, military intelligence officers, removed our blindfolds and invited us into a public restaurant for lunch.
The scene in the restaurant was surprisingly normal. Men smoked cigarettes and sipped tea around a stand. Veiled women with children walked down the street. There was no unrest, let alone any sign of fighting. The larger-than-life portraits of Saddam, which had been methodically defaced and destroyed further north, now greeted us defiantly, even jubilantly.
Judging from its interior, Gatewood Engineering had been the home and office of a British businessman and his family. The little bar on one side of the living room was adorned with the red Bass Ale flags. The backside of an attractive blond woman decorated one wall; we were still too terrified to really notice.
The guards locked us up in what appeared to be the bedroom of a teenage boy. It was adorned with pictures of motorcycles and boasted a collection of Back Street Heroes, a British biker magazine.
A third interrogation began immediately. There were many men waiting, who among them spoke Arabic, English, and French. They were clearly from military intelligence, and knew very well what they were doing.
They asked us what was in our bags. I said just cameras and light meters. I answered what had become somewhat routine questions. But Achmad, my interrogator, was suspicious. He asked how many were with us. I then said that the camera bag was not mine but belonged to another reporter.
“Why did he leave it?” he asked.
I said I didn’t know, but that maybe he left it to run away.
“But a reporter would never leave his bag, his cameras,” he said. “I think you don’t tell all you know because you fear death.” I tried not to react, but my stomach tightened like a fist.
Nevertheless, our handlers still didn’t seem to have the whole picture. Alain’s interrogator accused him of using Bakhtiar’s identity card to enter Iraq. Throughout our ordeal, our interrogators were more interested in trying to prove we were spies than in finding out what we know about Gad. Perhaps that saved us.
Left alone in the room with the motorcycles, we confabulated a new story. We would tell the truth, Gad had been with us. To make it simple, the only lie would be that we became separated form him at 11 A.M. in Kirkuk, instead of 2 P.M. near the house where we had been captured. We would never admit knowing of his execution.
We stayed in relative comfort in the house, watched by military intelligence, for three days. On April 2, we were again blindfolded. After about a half hour drive, we were brought to a real prison, nearer the heart of Baghdad.
“This is a bad sign,” said Alain. “If they start torturing people and we hear it, that will be worse.”
Our cell measured 6 by 10 feet. There were no bunks or mattresses, just a concrete floor and three blankets apiece (two more than the average prisoner got, we later found out). Unlike the others, the bars of our cell door were curtained with pieces of burlap. It was unclear if that was so we couldn’t see out or so others wouldn’t see in.
Dinner was a bowl of tomato soup with a few cooked vegetables, some bread, and a bowl of water. Later that evening, a man was dragged out of his cell. We heard him making strange sounds, bleating like a sheep, “Bah, bah, bah, baaah.” That was interspersed with the sound of heavy wood meeting flesh. Even as he continued, the change in the tone of his voice indicated his pain. The soldiers were trying to make him crow like a rooster, and they laughed uncontrollably when a real rooster crowed, as if to answer his call. As all this was going on, the sound of guards playing ping pong competed for our attention. A prisoner with a rare, beautiful voice began to sing, almost to wail — he was reciting a Muslim prayer. The sounds of pain, ping pong, and prayer mixed in the air around us.
[Days later], I was blindfolded and led down a corridor where, I could tell from the voices, there were at least a half dozen men. The possibility of being beaten or severely tortured was on my mind. I was ordered to sit, and waited in the darkness.
The translator spoke English, and seemed to have some compassion. But my interrogator was another matter. He asked me what my “real job” was. I painstakingly retraced my steps, from flying into Amman in early February to my capture nearly two months later in Kirkuk. I said I had already told them that I was a reporter for the Village Voice and CBS News.
Much to my relief, he asked little about Gad, and never questioned my story about how we became separated. I could tell from his questions that he had developed both Gad’s and Alain’s film–including the group photos from the base in Kirkuk. The interrogator again asked, “Now tell us about your real job, your real purpose in coming to Iraq.” I repeated that I worked for the Voice and CBS.
They said I was lying. “Tell us,” said the interrogator, “about your relationship with the CIA.”
I denied having any relationship with the CIA or any other intelligence organization.
“We have our own information, our own proof, of your longstanding relationship with the CIA,” he said. “Don’t like to us. We know. If you tell us the truth you will go free. But if you continue to lie, you will stay here many years.”
Alain and I had already decided that unless the pain was unbearable, we would never admit to being spies. In 1990, an Iranian-born British journalist, Farhad Barzoft, was offered the same promise — if he “confessed” to working for British intelligence, he would go free. He did, and was summarily hanged.
I continued my denials. At the end I learned the interrogation was also a trial. “You are found guilty of entering Iraq without a visa, and concerning your relationship with the CIA, you remain under suspicion.” It was the best I could hope for under the circumstances. Alain timed the ordeal: I’d been gone for two hours. Then he underwent a similar experience, being accused of working for French intelligence. But his interrogation only lasted 45 minutes.
After more than two weeks in prison, Alain and I became disillusioned. We discussed the possibilities. The Iraqis might really think we were spies. Although we hadn’t yet been physically harmed, we knew that — as Western reporters — if they began to torture us, it would mean that they had already decided that we must be killed. Alain told me how to commit suicide without a rope: get a full running start and ram your own head into a brick wall. He said it was common among prisoners during the Vietnam War.
The most difficult feeling was our abject helplessness as we listened to the cries of other prisoners being abused. The guards’ instrument of choice was a heavy rubber hose. We listened and occasionally managed to watch — I could just peek out a small window that looked into the prison yard — as men were beaten. Prisoners were made to hold out their hands just like in Catholic grade school. Some were hit in the soles of the feet. If a prisoner raised his hand to defend himself, he would be savagely beaten about the head and body.
The guards also had a collection of heavy sticks, some as thick and twice as long as a baseball bats. I watched one blindfolded man beaten with these sticks in the cell block yard. About five guards surrounded him, flailing away, as the prisoner tried to remove his blindfold. One ingeniously sadistic guard playfully held a broom handle like a pool cue and repeatedly poked a crying man in the head.
One evening we heard a strange sound: Alain thought it was a welding torch. As another prisoner was dragged out of his cell, my imagination lost all self-control. The strange sound continued, but we hardly heard any screams.
The next morning, I heard the same hissing sound, and looking through our tiny cell window I saw a guard playing with a flat, gunlike device by a chain-link fence. He was placing the two white prongs on the end of the device near the fence watching the tiny blue bolts of electricity that arced between them. It was a stun gun. Some of the guards were genuinely fascinated with their “toys.”
Later I saw a black man, presumably from Sudan, hosed down and then made to stand outside on an overcast day. He was interrogated while he stood there shivering. When the answer was not up to par, a guard zapped him with the stun gun and watched as he tumbled onto the wet paving.
The abuse was systematic and routine — to the point of being institutionalized sadism. The most disturbing aspect was that most of the physical abuse did not occur in the context of extracting information, but on the whim of individual guards. We don’t know if the Ministry of Information was aware of what we were witnessing, or simply didn’t care.
The Iraqi prisoners — from young teenage boys to grandfathers — didn’t seem like hardened criminals, nor did they seem important enough to be political prisoners. They just seemed to be under suspicion: in Iraq, to be under suspicion is as good as being charged with a crime.
Clearly, such abuse serves a political purpose. To be even suspected of being against the regime can result in the nightmare of being held incommunicado and randomly abused in jail. I watched new prisoners come in. One man, about my age and wearing regular street clothes, simply covered his face with his hands, shaking his head.
In the evening the guards liked to play dominoes. The game seemed to enhance their own sense of camaraderie. Afterward, their laughter would become louder and more menacing; they would often drag an unfortunate prisoner out of his cell soon after the last domino fell.
On the night of April 9, they chose Jaffer. I had seen him a few days before, he was a boy about 16 years old.
Like a game, the guards chased him around the cell block, up and down the stairs and even into the outer yard. They beat him relentlessly with rubber hoses. His high-pitched screams echoed through the cells. Although not seriously harmed physically, he was terrorized to the point of breakdown. The guards dragged him back to his cell, laughing.
The next night they chose Jaffer again, but rather than chase him, one guard pinned him against a cell door with a chair while the other guards beat him. A prison source told me that the boy had participated in the Shiite uprising in the south, and that he had killed an entire family. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Regardless, the guards got great pleasure out of horrifying the defenseless boy. Alain and I began to hate them.
“Would you like to do a television interview?” asked Moustafa, one of our liaisons from military intelligence, when he came to check on us the next day. We had received confirmation that the Arabic-language version of Voice of America had reported us missing. We knew that if the interview ran on television, at least our families would know our status — and the Iraqis would be less likely to kill us. We agreed.
We were brought to the Ministry of Information on Thursday, April 11. We met with vice minister Sadoon Al-Janaby and the Iraqi press officer, a Mr. Oudai Al-Tahir. We later learned that just days before these same men had told reporters in Baghdad we had been killed, only to subsequently deny any knowledge of us.
The TV interview focused on negative aspects of the Kurdish revolt. In response to questions, we told our interrogators that ethnic Turkish refugees had complained that the Kurds had looted Arab shops in Kirkuk. Local sources, including one rebel, had also told us that the Kurds had executed 17 Baath party officials in a small village north of Dahuk. They explained that they did so because these officials had executed soldiers who had been caught trying to defect from the Iraqi army.
I tried to qualify my answers; it was clear they were not interested in explanations. I don’t think the tape was ever aired anyway. As we left, the vice minister said that, “God willing,” we would be freed soon. But we were returned to our cell.
As the days went by I thought more and more about Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief who has been held in Beirut now for more than six years. I was determined to keep a positive attitude, and concentrated on preparing to write an account of our captivity; I wondered how long Anderson had done that. Alain, on the other hand, withdrew into himself. He spent most of his time sitting, rarely wanting to talk.
But it was difficult to hold on to even your own thoughts. In the last week of our captivity, for two nights in a row, we both heard faint cries coming from somewhere far away in the prison. At first, we both tried to ignore them. But the cries persisted. On closer listening, we were almost overcome by nausea. They were the screams neither of fear nor even sharp pain, but the steady, uncontrollable cries of a man in unbearable agony, undergoing a much more severe and systematic form of torture.
Three days after being told that our release was up to God, we began to lose hope. It had now been 17 days since our capture. We decided that on Monday we would begin a hunger strike, and maintain it even if we were separated.
But that day we were both transferred to what appeared to be a permanent cell deep[er] in the prison [cellblock]. We delayed our plans for a strike to make sense of our situation.
The night we were released without warning to fellow reporters at the Al-Rashid Hotel. The decision to release “Mister Alain and Mister Frank,” we were told, had come personally from President Saddam Hussein.
When I called New York, Gad’s photo agent said his shots of Kurdistan were now outdated; all his subjects are smiling. I laughed to myself. Although it sometimes made it hard to get a serious news photo, Gad was the kind of guy who inevitably provoked even the most severe people into a grin.
Gad identified with the Kurds and their struggle, and saw his own role in documenting it as his personal contribution. But his deep commitment was always complemented by his laughter. Gad called people, like he called regimes. Before he died we agreed on what might be the best measure for both — whether they have a sense of humor.
The Iraqi government has no sense of humor. Any legitimacy it once held is lost. It has become almost apolitical; it exists solely by its monopoly of force.
But there is little alternative. While there is now considerable dissent, even among government officials, opposing voices have few outlets for expression. Saddam’s hold on the country is genuinely weak, but his enemies are even weaker.
Much of the blame lies with U.S. policy. Having started the gulf war, the United States hoped that by terrorizing Iraq’s civilian population and destroying the country’s infrastructure it would inspire a move to oust Saddam. But the United States would never back a popular attempt to seize power — with the instability and uncertainty it might bring. Rather, American policymakers remain wedded to the concept of an anti-Saddam coup from within his own army, thinking such people might be more amenable to American aims than insurrectional Shiite and Kurdish masses.
Contrary to the hyperbolic rhetoric of three months ago, American leaders now seem prepared to accept Saddam. His survival has become the price of stability. A humiliated and defeated Saddam in power is useful to American policymakers; he has been used just like everybody else.
Since we crossed the river six weeks ago, thousands of Kurds have died of starvation, exposure, and warfare. Looking over Gad’s photos, I wonder if any of these people — who pressed tea and hearty lamb and rice dishes on us wherever we traveled in those bright spring days of the revolution — have survived to reach the “secure zone” belatedly established by the Americans.
Upon leaving prison, it was painful to learn just how disastrous had been their fall.
We had plans to cover other conflicts and countries. A poet as well as an artist, Gad’s own interests and knowledge were broad. While reporting in Kurdistan, Gad had been accepted to Yale Law School. Typically, he had posted his application from the Plaza Hotel in Amman. He never knew he was accepted.
After he ran around that house, I never saw Gad again. His body has yet to be recovered. In fact, although they had both his camera bag and passport in their possession, after Alain and I were released from prison, the Iraqi authorities acted as if he had never existed at all.
–For Gad–as well as Joe, Edith, Mauzi, Jocelyne, Alain, and all those who knew and loved him.