By Donna Mulhearn
25 April, 2004
arrival in Fallujah we drove through the deserted streets straight to
the clinic where our friends had helped out a few days before.
It was a small neighbourhood
clinic that had been transformed into a makeshift hospital after the
main hospital in Fallujah was bombed and closed by the US military.
The staff adapted
admirably to the influx of wounded that were continually delivered in
the backs of cars, vans and pick-ups - extra beds were wheeled in and
cans of soft drink were emptied from the 'coke' machine so it could
be used to cool bags of blood.
But the clinic had
no disinfectant, no anaesthetic, and other vital equipment required
for the type of surgery the horrific wounds demanded. And as a form
of collective punishment all electricity to Falluja had been cut for
days. The clinic had a generator, but when the petrol ran out the Doctors
had to continue surgery using the glow from cigarette lighters, candles
We spoke to the
Doctors - they were exhausted, and looked defeated as they told us the
stories of their recent cases - a ten-year-old boy with a bullet wound
to the head, a grandmother with an abdominal bullet wound - both the
victims of U.S snipers, young men with severe burns, limbs blown off
and so on. But each time a new patient arrived the Doctors quickly got
up, put on a new set of surgical gloves and got to work.
Many had worked
for 24 hours straight, others surviving on only a few hours sleep for
days at a time. They didn't complain. They are the heroes of Fallujah.
We talked about
how we could help. In the last mission a few days earlier, our friends
had been successful in negotiating with soldiers in getting wounded
people off the street and evacuating families from areas of cross-fire.
The Doctors asked
if we could accompany an ambulance packed with food and medical supplies
across town to a hospital that had been cut off. It was in the US controlled
section of the town so it was not able to receive aid because of constant
The Doctors figured
our foreign nationality could make a difference in negotiating the safe
passage of the ambulance with the soldiers.
It might seem a
strange and unnecessary mission to help an ambulance drive from one
place to another - anywhere else in the world it's a basic thing, but
this is Fallujah and this is war and nothing is as it should be, despite
guarantees laid out in the Geneva Convention.
The last time an
ambulance went to this part of town it was shot at by US troops. I know
this because two of my friends were in the ambulance at the time, trying
to reach a pregnant woman who had gone into pre-mature labor. They didn't
reach her, but the bullet holes in the ambulance are a testament to
the fact they tried.
So we packed the
ambulance with supplies and got in the back
With me were three
other foreigners: Jo, Dave and Beth - two British, an American and an
Aussie, a good representation of young people from the "Coalition
of the Willing" trying to counter-balance the military intervention
of our countries with loving intervention. We donned bright blue surgical
gowns and held our passports in our hands. A couple of medical staff
were with us, as well as the drivers in the front.
We drove slowly
through the parts of Fallujah controlled by Iraqi fighters then stopped
in a side-street that faced a main road. We could not go any further
because the main road was under watch and control of US snipers. They
had developed a habit of shooting at anything that moved.
So we parked the
ambulance in the side street and the four of us got out with the task
of approaching the American soldiers, communicating with them and getting
permission for the ambulance to continue to the hospital.
The area was completely
quiet. The silence was unnerving.
We prepared the
loudspeaker, put our hands in the air and held our passports high. Before
we ventured onto the main road we called out a message from the side
soldiers! We are a group of international aid workers. We are unarmed.
We are asking permission to transport an ambulance full of medical supplies
to the hospital. Can you hear us?"
The reply was just
a chilling silence.
We repeated the
message. Silence again.
We looked at each
other. Perhaps the soldiers were too far away to hear us? We had to
walk onto the main road and take the risk that we would be clearly visible
as unarmed civilians, and approach the soldiers with our hands in the
I took a deep breathe
and for a split-second thought that this was probably the most dangerous
thing I had ever done in my life.
As I exhaled, my
heart gave me strength: I looked at the others and could tell we were
all thinking the same thing: "If I don't do this, then who will?"
Their courage inspired me as we all stepped out on the road together.
We walked slowly
with our arms raised in the air. My eyes scanned the tops of the buildings
for snipers. We didn't know where they were set up so we walked in the
direction of the hospital.
We repeated the
message over and over again on the loudspeaker, in the silence it would
have been heard for hundreds of metres. It echoed eerily throughout
I turned my head
briefly and just in time. In the distance I saw two white flashes, then
the loud bang of gunshots and the ugly realisation that they were shooting
into our backs.
It all happened
so fast: ducking, hearing the whizz of the bullets above our heads,
diving for cover off the side of the road against a wall.
We huddled there
for a moment behind a bush, then someone cried: "Let's go".
We crawled along the ground, at one stage I was walking low with my
back hunched. In the scramble I fell. My hands broke my fall onto sharp
gravel on the rough ground. I felt the sting of pain and could see the
blood, but I had no time to stop and check what happened.
We ended up in someone's
back yard then made our way back to the ambulances by jumping fences
and going through gates.
My hands were covered
with blood, my left foot cut and my passport was stained red, leaving
an ever-constant reminder of the episode.
We re-grouped, but
we didn't want to give up. Now we knew where the soldiers were, we could
walk towards them. We decided to go out again.
Same drill: we called
out the message first, then stepped out onto the road, this time facing
the direction the gunfire had come from.
soldiers. We are foreign aid workers- British, Australian, American.
We are not armed. We are asking permission to transport an ambulance
on this road."
My injured hand
was shaking as I held my passport now damp with my blood. I tried to
work out what I was feeling: fear, anger, determination. I still don't
We had only repeated
the message twice and walked a few metres when our answer came.
Two more bullets.
By this stage I think I entered a state of shock. I had been shot at,
not once, but twice by American soldiers after politely asking permission
to transport aid to a hospital.
I guess the answer
Jo got angry. We
all did. We stepped back to the corner but Jo continued on the loud
'Do you know it
is against the Geneva Convention to fire at unarmed civilians and at
ambulances?" she cried.
you feel if your sister was trapped in a hospital under siege without
food or water?"
We took the loudspeaker
"May your trigger
finger be plagued with warts," she continued under her breathe.
We bundled in the
back of the ambulance. It was a handy place to be with deep cuts and
grazes on my hand. I bowed my head as someone tended to my wounds.
We headed back to
the clinic. My head was spinning. I felt angry, I felt frustrated, my
hands were aching. But strangely enough my spirit was in-tact. I had
just walked with my hands in the air like a vulnerable lamb into the
face of armed soldiers, yet this non-violent action and my complete
and utter faith that the 'rightness' of the mission would protect me
had been immensely empowering.
We didn't deliver
the supplies, just a clear message to the military:
"We are not
afraid. We will not be intimidated by your weapons.
"If we have
to confront your violence to help people who are suffering then we will.
We will do it without using violence.
"We will keep
PPS: Some people
have asked: "how can you be sure it was American soldiers who shot
at you?". The answer is that the area we were in was under the
control of US soldiers for at least five days. Iraqi fighters did not
have had access to the area the shots came from.
PPPS: Thanks to
everyone who has sent me messages of support and letters to Howard and
Downer. Sorry if other people cannot get e-mails through to me - if
you're frustrated, try this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
PPPS: "We will
match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure
suffering. We will meet your physical force with our soul-force."
Dr Martin Luther King Jnr
Mulhearn(from Australia) went to Iraq as a human shield and
went back last Nov to start a house for street kids in Baghdad.