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Two More Bullets

By Donna Mulhearn

25 April, 2004
Information Clearing House

On 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 and torches.

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 sniper fire.

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 street.

"Hello? American 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 air.

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 the neighbourhood.

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.

"Hello! American 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 know.

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 was 'No'.

Jo got angry. We all did. We stepped back to the corner but Jo continued on the loud speaker.

'Do you know it is against the Geneva Convention to fire at unarmed civilians and at ambulances?" she cried.

"How would you feel if your sister was trapped in a hospital under siege without food or water?"

We took the loudspeaker from her.

"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 trying."

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:

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

Donna Mulhearn(from Australia) went to Iraq as a human shield and went back last Nov to start a house for street kids in Baghdad.