from this mornings "Sydney Morning Herald"
In the ruins, all that's left is death and fear
April 4 2003
There is no respite in shattered Baghdad, writes Paul McGeough, who searches for remnants of normality - but finds only grief, anguish and dread.
I wanted to write about the last pockets of tranquillity in a besieged city.
About the barber shop in the Christian quarter, where Karim, 65, deftly wields his cut-throat razor, saying little but oozing warmth and a welcome as he tidies us up. He smokes as he works, invariably signalling the job is done by stubbing his cigarette into the puddle of lather he has removed from my face.
About the peacefulness of the Al Jindi Majhoul Mosque, an extravagant Ottoman creation that stands apart from box-like modern Baghdad, where the aged and frizzy-bearded Mullah Mohammed Sale cradles his walking stick as he talks quietly about Islam and the world.
About Ahmed's Chicken Inn Restaurant, a laminex and vinyl kebab house on Sadoun Street, where the wartime menu is pared back to just one dish - chicken, rice and Pepsi. Somehow, Ahmed managed to keep the nervous tension of the city beyond his windows.
But it's too late. No one lingers over lunch any more and Karim the barber is a ball of nerves.
The sanctuary of silence in the mosque is shattered because the mullah's son, Muthana, is forever rushing to the microphone for the minaret speakers - to sing a dirge-like prayer to counter the latest wave of missiles: "Allah akbar, Allah akbar," which means "God is great, God is great."
Baghdad went to bed on Wednesday night hearing reports that the invasion forces were a day from the city. Yesterday morning the BBC claimed they were only hours away.
The bombing is round the clock and much more powerful. Previously the US was putting buildings out of commission. They know they have been abandoned, but now they come back to pulverise them.
Al Rasheed international telephone exchange, on the banks of the Tigris, still stands. But it is a deathtrap - after the third strike in as many days, four or five floors in the middle of the building are gone and the upper floors are supported only by fragile corner columns.
Another suburban phone exchange that has been disembowelled continues to emit an eerie sound - the noise of thousands of phones left off the hook.
And near a third bombed-out exchange, layers of dust and shards of glass coat one of Saddam Hussein's memorials to his "victory" in the 1991 Gulf War - a larger-than-life bronze of himself and tiny busts of George Bush snr, Maggie Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and other leaders of the coalition of the time which are strewn mockingly at his feet.
After punching a great hole through the Air Defence Ministry, on Sadoun Street, last week, the US and British bombers have been back to smash it completely; all that remains now is a flat pile of rubble, and, out the front, a column on which a statue of Saddam is still standing.
Yesterday morning, my driver, Mohammed, was coming through one of the better suburbs, Mansour, when four missiles landed around him. Stunned, he watched the force of the blasts crush a bus "like a cigarette packet" and wreck a dozen cars. He fled on foot, as windows for blocks around shattered and about a dozen buildings in the Baghdad International Trade Fair complex were levelled.
Seven motorists died and 25 were injured. A nearby Red Crescent maternity hospital had to be evacuated. Mohammed is fine and he was able to go back and retrieve the undamaged Toyota that is his livelihood.
The jets fly lower now - a sign that the US believes it has destroyed Iraq's air defence system. And many of the over flights seem to be surveillance - they rumble across the city without dropping munitions.
The commercial districts are shuttered and building owners have taken to bricking up their doors and front windows - the Al Safeer Hotel, where I had booked a back-up room, is now sealed with cinder blocks and cement.
Businessmen and shop-keepers worry about damage and looting. With a wary eye on the sky, the city's market gardeners sell vegetables on the pavement, and eggs are sold from the back of trucks parked for a fast get-away.
The Information Ministry has been forced to abandon its gutted headquarters and has set up shop where the journalists are - in the abutting Palestine and Sheraton hotels. Even the shoeshine boys who used to work the ministry car park are here - among them the foul-mouthed Khalid, who uses his repertoire of disgusting epithets, in English, to lure customers.
The small city of Hillah might have been another pocket of tranquillity. Despite its location, 60 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, it seemed to be thriving - the markets were bustling and most shops were open.
But at the local hospital there was chaos and too much pain. The lobbies were crowded with gurneys and every patient seemed to be a new amputee - men, women and children with blood-soaked bandages on the stumps of what had been complete limbs.
In the operating theatre doctors fought to save three lives - a woman with serious head and face injuries; a man who had holes the size of bread-and-butter plates in his abdomen; and a man with much of his abdominal organs beside him on the operating table.
Saad Al Fallouji, an Edinburgh-trained surgeon, said that in 24 hours the hospital had received 33 corpses and more than 180 people injured from two incidents - what he said was a cluster bomb attack on a village and a mysterious tank attack on a bus headed for Najaf.
Hussain Ali Hussain, 26, said that a US tank had fired at his car four days earlier. He had been unable to get immediate medical treatment, so his right leg had to be removed below the knee. "We believed the US when it said civilians would be safe. I went back to my home to get food and some of our furniture; I saw the tank and I saw the shot. The US has changed everything - they used to come here as tourists, but now they come to occupy or land and to control us."
In the next bed was Basan Hoiq, 38, who was one of 34 passengers on a bus bound for Najaf - his left arm, gone from above his elbow, is bandaged, but gaping wounds on his legs are in need of urgent treatment.
He had fled his home in strife-torn Najaf, but decided to return after being away for only a day. He said: "I could see the American flag on the tank 500 metres down the road from us. There was no warning. There was a noise and a lot of shouting on the bus - then people's heads seemed to snap away from their bodies and many of them were dead."
His wife, Samia, sat blank-faced at the end of his bed, clutching a two-month-old baby to her chest. His brother-in-law, Hiderj Abid Hamza, said that Basan Hoiq's mother, Najia Hussain, was among the 18 civilians who died.
"We had to bury her without her arm because we did not know how to match all the body parts for the different families. We still wonder about what happened. The bus did not explode and there were no burn marks, but the floor and the inside of the roof were layered with human flesh and the seats were soaked in blood."
Dr Al Fallouji said: "We don't know what kind of weapon did this. The bodies were completely destroyed, but the bus wasn't. People's heads were severed and the viscera was outside their bodies; their limbs were cut off. It was a horrible thing to see."
Asked how he felt about his war-imposed workload, he said: "Angry. I feel very angry about this situation. Don't you feel angry about it too?"
There is no tranquillity in Iraq today.