Look into the eyes of Ali Ismail Abbas: what do you see?

April 30 2003

This is the story of Ali Ismail Abbas. Ali is the 12-year-old boy who had the misfortune to be at home in Iraq when a United States rocket arrived.

According to one newspaper report, the “hovel” he lived in was destroyed. So were his father and his five-months pregnant mother. He lost his brother. Some of his sisters were injured. Cousins and other relatives were also killed. The number of relatives who died varies from report to report.

What happened to Ali himself is not in dispute. After the terrible explosion, Ali woke up, soaked in blood, his sheets on fire. The Times of London reported that Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker correspondent who saw him in hospital, was shown a photograph of Ali before his treatment, his body blackened, one of his hands “a twisted, melted claw. The other arm had apparently been burned off at the elbow… two long bones were sticking out of it.”

That is not the photograph of Ali that we see now, however. We see photographs of Ali after his arms were amputated, the stumps and his body swathed in bandages, his face somehow unscathed, his eyes… What do we see in his eyes?

Almost all of us will retain images of this invasion of Iraq. There is the shot of a dead child, taken by Akram Saleh of Reuters, his or her face like porcelain, intact, appearing strangely at peace as only the dead can, but the rest of the head and body bound together, as if to stop bits falling out. There is the symbolism of statues toppling, footage of crowds (with one person wearing a Beckham shirt), a mother sobbing next to her injured toddler, suspects stripped and kneeling in the dirt, a boy liberating a bag of sugar as big as he is. The blood on a BBC cameraman’s lens. Those are my images. You will have yours.

The full cruelty and catastrophe of war has become something we cannot avoid. We are assaulted by it even when we try to avoid it. Susan Moeller, an American journalism professor, describes us all as “passive receivers of images”. That is akin to blaming the victim. The images home in on us, no matter how much we duck and weave. They are wrapped around our papers, they are inserted into television programs, even our children’s programs are “updated”.

Children have always suffered massive damage in war. Even when they are not themselves killed or maimed like Ali, they lose mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. As in my parents’ families, in the London Blitz, they lose uncles and aunts and other relatives, both actual and potential.

The world has a long history of treating children cruelly. Children worked as chimney sweeps, encouraged to work faster by the fires lit under them. Children were used to dip pottery figures into poisonous lead glaze. Slain infants, it was believed, could benefit sterile women, cure disease. Buried in the foundations of buildings, dead children strengthened the structure. The unwanted child was abandoned. Children were mutilated to alter their appearance.

Perhaps our new technologies have provided new ways of using children.

Most of us will now have an image of Ali Ismail Abbas, although it is hard to believe that the images we see are sanitised.

We do not see (but can read about) his arm that looked like, in Jon Lee Anderson’s words, “something that might be found in a barbecue pit”. Perhaps we are shown what it is believed we can tolerate, what is judged to be useful, what is required to show that he has been rescued.

As ABC TV’s Media Watch observed, Ali’s future is brighter “with the help of The Daily Telegraph, “his rescue was organised by The Courier-Mail team”, “by the Herald Sun’s team”, “by The Australian”. Many newspapers claim a part in his recovery.

Several charities and other papers have claimed his image. London’s Evening Standard and the Daily Mirror are reported to be using his face and torso to raise money for good causes.

What do we see when we look at the photographs of Ali? What do we see and think when we look into his eyes? I see the confusion and random cruelty of war. I see a child who, in the words of his uncle, “wants to be normal again” but can never be. I look for other children’s eyes, other bodies, other children we should be caring for but are not.

I think, such are our relations to children, that we need a particular child to “adopt”. Just as we “adopted” the bruised and battered face of Daniel Valerio, dead and beyond repair, so we “adopt” Ali Ismail Abbas who can never be mended. Perhaps, at heart, we tend to be indifferent to the present suffering of children in general, of children who need our help every day, but we find it difficult to ignore a child, a clearly identified, named, photographed, damaged and distant or dead child.

I wonder what Ali Ismail Abbas is thinking. I think of the words he has said, his anger at being repeatedly exposed to the stares of strangers. I wonder if we do this to him because he is 12 years old and because he is an Iraqi. After all, that is how he came to lose his arms, skin, parents, family and home. I reflect upon our sensitivities to photographs of “our” soldiers as prisoners. I wonder if any of the newspapers and charities have thought to ask his permission to use his photograph around the world in this way. Perhaps we use his photograph rather than that of a wounded adult because we do not feel we have to ask a child. Perhaps some of us believe that, after all he has lost, he will not miss his dignity and privacy.

I wonder if Ali Ismail Abbas knows that, perhaps, we need him more than he needs us, that he is helping us more than we can ever help him, that we didn’t want to do what we have done, that we really don’t know what to do now.

I see Margaret Drabble’s words, in The Millstone, that we claim that children forget and recover so readily because we dare not contemplate the fact that, in reality, they will always remember, they will never forget.

That is perhaps another part of the story of Ali Ismail Abbas.

Dr Chris Goddard is head of social work in the school of primary health care at Monash University and director of the Child Abuse and Family Violence Research Unit, a joint initiative with Australians Against Child Abuse.
Email: chris.goddard@med.monash.edu.au



America brings Darth Vader to the desert
From Daniel McGrory in southern Iraq

THE American infantryman controlling the checkpoint on the road to al-Nasiriyah was clad in so much body armour he looked like Darth Vader.
Dark goggles covered most of his face, a khaki scarf was wrapped around his nose and mouth. His M16 assault rifle was pointed at the windscreen of the saloon car, which was clearly being driven by a young woman who had young children in the backseat.

This did not stop the young soldier from screaming at the occupants to “step out of the vehicle and move to the side of the road”. How much of that muffled command the frightened woman understood was unclear, but as she hesitated and tried to comfort the youngest of her children, who was trying to clamber over the seat towards her, the infantrymen yelled even louder.

It was difficult to tell who was the more nervous. Rifles remained trained on the mother and children, who were made to stand 60ft away from their car while it was searched. There was no attempt to explain to the woman why this was necessary, but American patrols appear to treat everyone now as if they are suicide bombers.

You would not expect British commanders to criticise their allies publicly, but troops who have witnessed Americans at close quarters in this war are baffled at their approach to Iraqi civilians. British troops manning checkpoints in Safwan, Umm Qasr, al-Zubayr and Rumaillah were ordered yesterday to replace helmets with berets. A British military spokesman said: “It looks less aggressive, makes us appear more open and friendly.”

One captain in the Royal Marines, watching a US unit monitor a checkpoint, said: “The Americans are still behaving like invaders, not liberators. They behave as if they hate these people.”

Indeed, many American troops speak as though they do. You often hear them describe “Eye-rakis” in disparaging language. One US officer in charge of delivering humanitarian aid earlier this week likened the crush of people waiting to get hold of food and water to a pack of stray dogs. His troops’ idea of crowd control was to lash at those pushing to the front of the queue with fists and rifle butts, even firing shots into the air.

When Irish Guards were nearly mobbed by a crowd trying to grab the food that they were delivering to al- Zubayr this week, Major David Hannah urged his men to keep calm and to get the people to sit down.

“They need to have their dignity respected, and while this is a sticking plaster approach we need to make better contacts with locals to ensure the food goes to the needy,” he said.

British units have asked local worthies, such as hospital directors, teachers and anybody untainted by association with the regime, to distribute food aid as they see fit.

British commanders are appalled at how the Americans pulverise anything from afar before daring to set foot out of their armoured vehicles.

This was no better illustrated than in the first skirmish of the land war, where the American 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was handed what should have been the easy capture of the seaport of Umm Qasr. Royal Marine officers watched incredulously as their US compatriots bombed and shelled the town for five days.

There is no doubt that the experience of nearly 30 years policing Ulster has taught British forces that the only way to root out gunmen is to patrol on foot, searching house by house. They did this in Bosnia, in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

The rhetoric of US soldiers is often provocative. When an American colonel was asked by The Times what the role of the Fifth Corps would be, he replied: “We are going in there, we are going to root out the bad guys and kill them.”

His men, grouped around him, grunted, whooped and punched the air as if they were watching a football match.

A British officer who saw this exchange shook his head and walked away, saying: “We are working from a different script but you won’t get anyone in Whitehall to admit it.”


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A drive straight into death

April 2 2003

As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barrelling towards an intersection held by troops of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, Captain Ronny Johnson grew alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard on the radio to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, alerting it to a potential threat.

“Fire a warning shot,” he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot into its radiator. “Stop (messing) around,” Captain Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted: “Stop him, Red 1, stop him.”

That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of cannon fire. About half a dozen shots were heard.

“Cease fire,” Captain Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader: “You just (expletive) killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough.” So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.

Fifteen Iraqi civilians were packed inside the Toyota, along with as many of their possessions as the vehicle could hold. Ten, including five children who appeared to be under five, were killed, Captain Johnson’s company reported. Of the five others, one man was so severely injured he was not expected to live.

According to the Pentagon, the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. A statement said the vehicle was a van carrying “13 women and children”. The statement claimed seven were killed and two injured.

In Doha, Qatar, US Central Command issued a statement, saying: “In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the soldiers exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life.” The shooting is being investigated.

Back at the scene, Sergeant Mario Manzano, 26, a medic with Bravo Company of the division’s 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, said: “It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and I hope I never see it again.” He said one wounded woman sat in the vehicle holding the mangled bodies of two of her children. “She didn’t want to get out of the car,” he said.

The tragedy cast a pall over the company as it sat on this stretch of Highway 9 at the intersection of a road leading to Hilla, about 20 kilometres to the east, near the Euphrates River.

Dealing with the gruesome scene was a new experience for many of the soldiers. They debated how the tragedy could have been avoided. Several said they accepted the platoon leader’s explanation to Captain Johnson on the military radio that he had fired two warning shots, but that the driver failed to stop. And everybody was edgy since four US soldiers were blown up by a suicide bomber on Saturday at a checkpoint much like theirs, only 30 kilometres to the south.

The soldiers of Bravo Company had their own reasons to be edgy. The Bradley tank of the 3rd Battalion’s operations officer, Major Roger Shuck, had been fired on with a rocket-propelled grenade a few kilometres south of Karbala. Throughout the day, Iraqis lobbed mortar volleys.

It was in the late afternoon after this day defending their positions that the men of Bravo Company saw the blue Toyota coming down the road. After the shooting, US medics evacuated survivors to US lines south of Karbala. One woman escaped without a scratch. Another, who had superficial head wounds, was flown by helicopter to a US field hospital when it was found she was pregnant.

Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Twitty, the 3rd Battalion commander, gave permission for three survivors to return to the vehicle and recover the bodies of their loved ones. “They wanted to bury them before the dogs got to them,” said Corporal Brian Truenow, 28.

To try to prevent a recurrence, Captain Johnson ordered signs be posted in Arabic to warn people to stop well short of the Bradleys. Before the signs could be erected, 10 people with white flags walked down the road and were allowed to walk around the Bradleys. And the war continued.

– Washington Post

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/04/01/1048962756979.html


Allies split over battle for hearts and minds

April 2 2003

Cracks are appearing between British and American commanders that have serious implications for operations in Iraq.

Senior British military officers are dismayed by what they see as the failure of US troops to try to fight the battle for hearts and minds. They are also appalled by reports that US marines killed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, as they seized bridges outside Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

“You can see why the Iraqis are not welcoming us with open arms,” a senior British defence source said on Monday.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the army, drove home the point at a press conference in London on Friday. “We have a very considerable hearts and minds challenge,” he said. “We are not interested in gratuitous violence.”

British and American troops “must convince the Iraqis of their good intentions”, echoed British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram. It was not clear whether he was referring to any particular incident.

British officers have described the very different approach between UK and US soldiers by pointing to Umm Qasr, the Iraqi port south of Basra and the first urban area captured by US and British marines. “Unlike the Americans, we took our helmets and sunglasses off and looked at the Iraqis eye to eye,” a British officer said.

While British soldiers “get out on their feet”, Americans, he said, were reluctant to leave their armoured vehicles. When they did – and this was the experience even in Umm Qasr – US marines were ordered to wear their full combat kit.

One difference emphasised by senior British military sources was the attitude towards “force protection”. A British defence source added: “The Americans put on more and more armour and firepower. The British go light and go on the ground.”

British defence sources contrast the patient tactics of their troops around Basra and what they call the more brutal tactics of American forces around Nasiriyah. US marines there appeared to have fired indiscriminately, with orders to shoot at civilian vehicles.

Unlike their American counterparts, British commanders have said they will not change their tactics following the suicide bombing attack last week on a group of US marines in Nasiriyah.

The British military put the difference in approach down to decades of training as well as experience, first in insurgencies in Malaya, then in Northern Ireland and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.

Sir Roger Wheeler, former head of the army, points to the “experience, awareness, and skill”, particularly important among non-commissioned officers such as corporals and sergeants.

What is striking is the emphasis British military figures put on the differences between their approach and that of the Americans on the ground. They have gone out of their way to draw attention to nervous, “trigger-happy” US soldiers.

US marines in Nasiriyah have said they had asked British troops for instructions on urban warfare. They began using new tactics in operations around the town yesterday when they started searching suburbs block by block.

British military sources are now concerned that the experience in peacekeeping and unconventional warfare of British troops will mean they will be in Iraq long after the Americans have left, even for years, in policing and humanitarian operations.

The concern among military chiefs is that the experience will mean the US will want to get out of places even quicker, leaving the British and others to continue fighting the battle for hearts and minds.

– Guardian

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