Saving Ali: Where US snipers fire at ambulances

[ Journalist Lee Gordon saved a four-year old Iraqi’s life, who was among the first Falluja evacuees. –BL ]

April 29, 2004 | The Guardian

by Lee Gordon in Falluja

It was when I saw little Ali’s ruined body that I stopped being just a reporter and became a true embed. The scene was a makeshift field hospital in Falluja. A missile fired at the hospital has left the walls of the room Ali lies in pockmarked with shrapnel.

Glass crunches underfoot. Four-year-old Ali is lying in a cot, the mattress matted with dried blood. He is bleeding from a horrific groin wound and his left leg has been amputated above the knee. His left arm is bandaged and bleeding, his face badly cut. His father brushes away the flies buzzing around Ali’s wounds. It is a scene of almost utter hopelessness.

Ali is one of the only survivors of an extended family, bombed the day before by a jet, probably an F-16. He might live, but only if he is evacuated to a Baghdad hospital within hours. Ambulances have tried to evacuate him and other seriously wounded casualties. They were turned back at US checkpoints by troops carrying out orders: no one in and no one out. There is one last hope: I got past the checkpoints with my press ID and my passport, and I could go back with Ali.

It was a white-knuckle ride back to Baghdad with my guide, but 90 minutes later Ali was being treated by doctors at an Italian coalition hospital, who were shocked to see their first Falluja evacuee. The surgery saved Ali’s life, but not his arm.

Over the next few days I got to know the back roads from Falluja to Baghdad almost as well as the field hospital’s filthy corridors as I evacuated the injured. I am left with vivid memories: the stench of a burned man’s flesh; the dead eyes of two children, a boy and girl under 11 who were shot in the head by snipers.

I volunteered to ride in ambulances evacuating the wounded. Surely they don’t shoot ambulances? In fact, US snipers were targeting ambulances. I learned to pick out the beams of sniper rifles.

I remember the medics’ anger when the hospital’s last working ambulance carrying British and American volunteers returned shot to pieces, how stunned they were when American, British and Australian volunteers came under fire after declaring their nationalities to US troops.

Some days before I met Ali, my guide and I had been seized at gunpoint after we’d run into a mojahedin ambush of US scouts. Over tea, we had agreed to continue our work as reporters embedded with them. The mojahedin threw open their doors and their lives to us, escorting us past firezones to safety.

Embedding has come at a price: eating, sleeping and being bombed with the mojahedin means sharing more than chicken and rice. It means listening out for helicopters and feeling helpless about injured families trapped behind “enemy” lines. It means sharing the same revulsion as maimed bodies are tipped into hospital beds. But what’s the point of trying to report a war from an embedded position in the fortified Hotel Palestine, miles from the frontline?

  • Lee Gordon is a freelance journalist; this is an edited version of an article that appears in tomorrow’s UK Press Gazette.

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