Children, the Wounded, the Dead:
Victims of the Day Cluster Combs
Rained on Babylon
Fisk, in Baghdad
03 April 2003
The wounds are
vicious and deep, a rash of scarlet spots on the back and thighs or
face, the shards of shrapnel from the cluster bombs buried an inch or
more in the flesh. The wards of the Hillah teaching hospital are proof
that something illegal something quite outside the Geneva Conventions
occurred in the villages around the city once known as Babylon.
children, the young women with breast and leg wounds, the 10 patients
upon whom doctors had to perform brain surgery to remove metal from
their heads, talk of the days and nights when the explosives fell "like
grapes" from the sky. Cluster bombs, the doctors say and
the detritus of the air raids around the hamlets of Nadr and Djifil
and Akramin and Mahawil and Mohandesin and Hail Askeri shows that they
Were they American
or British aircraft that showered these villages with one of the most
lethal weapons of modern warfare? The 61 dead who have passed through
the Hillah hospital since Saturday night cannot tell us. Nor can the
survivors who, in many cases, were sitting in their homes when the white
canisters opened high above their village, spilling thousands of bomblets
into the sky, exploding in the air, soaring through windows and doorways
to burst indoors or bouncing off the roofs of the concrete huts to blow
up later in the roadways.
remembers that it was 10.30am on Sunday when she was sitting in her
home in Nadr, that she heard "the voice of explosions" and
looked out of the door to see "the sky raining fire". She
said the bomblets were a black-grey colour. Mohamed Moussa described
the clusters of "little boxes" that fell out of the sky in
the same village and thought they were silver-coloured. They fell like
"small grapefruit," he said. "If it hadn't exploded and
you touched it, it went off immediately," he said. "They exploded
in the air and on the ground and we still have some in our home, unexploded."
thought the bomblets had some kind of wires attached to them
perhaps the metal "butterfly" that contains sets of the tiny
cluster bombs and springs open to release them in showers.
died at once, mostly women and children, some of whose blackened, decomposing
remains lay in the tiny charnel house mortuary at the back of the Hillah
hospital. The teaching college received more than 200 wounded since
Saturday night the 61 dead are only those who were brought to
the hospital or who died during or after surgery, and many others are
believed to have been buried in their home villages and, of these,
doctors say about 80 per cent were civilians.
certainly were, at least 40 if these statistics are to be believed,
and amid the foul clothing of the dead outside the mortuary door I found
a khaki military belt and a combat jacket. But village men can also
be soldiers and both they and their wives and daughters insisted there
were no military installations around their homes. True or false? Who
is to know if a tank or a missile launcher was positioned in a nearby
field as they were along the highway north to Baghdad? But the
Geneva Conventions demand protection for civilians even if they are
intermingled with military personnel, and the use of cluster bombs in
these villages even if aimed at military targets thus
crosses the boundaries of international law.
So it was that
27-year old Asil Yamin came to receive those awful round wounds in her
back. And so five-year-old Zaman Abbais was hit in the legs and 48-year-old
Samira Abdul-Hamza in the eyes, chest and legs. Her son Haidar, a 32-year-old
soldier, said the containers which fell to the ground were white with
some red and green sometimes painted on them. ''It is like a grenade
and they came into the houses," he said. "Some stayed on the
land, others exploded."
is the only word to describe 10-year-old Maryam Nasr and her five-year-old
sister Hoda. Maryam has a patch over her right eye where a piece of
bomblet embedded itself. She also had wounds to the stomach and thighs.
I didn't realise that Hoda, standing by her sister's bed, was wounded
until her mother carefully lifted the little girl's scarf and long hair
to show a deep puncture in the right side of her head, just above her
ear, congealed blood sticking to her hair but the wound still gently
bleeding. Their mother described how she had been inside her home and
heard an explosion and found her daughters lying in their own blood
near the door. The little girls alternately smiled and hid when I took
their pictures. In other wards, the hideously wounded would try to laugh,
to show their bravery. It was a humbling experience.
The Iraqi authorities,
of course, were all too ready to allow us journalists access to these
patients. But there was no way these children and often uneducated parents
could manufacture their stories of tragedy and pain. Nor could the Iraqis
have faked the scene in Nadr village where the remains of the tiny bomblets
littered the ground beside the scorch marks. A crew from Sky Television
even managed to bring a set of bomblet shrapnel back to Baghdad from
Nadr with them, the wicked little metal balls that are intended to puncture
the human body still locked into their frame like cough sweets in a
metal sheath, They were of a black colour which glinted silver when
held against the light.
the aircraft that dropped these terrible weapons American or British?
The deputy administrator of the hospital and one of his doctors told
a confused tale of military action around the city in recent days, of
Apache helicopters that would disgorge special forces on the road to
Karbala; one of their operations if the hospital personnel are
to be believed went spectacularly wrong one night recently when
militiamen forced them to retreat. Shortly afterwards, the cluster bomb
raids began, although the villages that were targeted appear to have
been on the other side of Hillah to the reported abortive American attack.
One thing was
clear: there is no "front line" in the fighting around Babylon,
that US forces strike into land around the Tigris river by air and then
withdraw and Iraqi forces do much the same in the other direction. Only
the Americans and British, of course, have air superiority indeed
there is no evidence a single Iraqi aircraft has taken off since the
start of the invasion so even the US and British officers back
at Qatar headquarters can hardly claim the cluster bombs were dropped
The most recent
raid occurred on Tuesday when 11 civilians were killed two of
them women and three of them children in a village called Hindiyeh.
A man sent to collect the corpses reported to the hospital the only
living thing he found in the area was a hen. Iraqi bomb disposal officers
were ordered into the villages yesterday afternoon to clear the unexploded
say, it is not the first time cluster bombs have been used against civilians.
During Israel's 1982 siege of west Beirut, its air force dropped cluster
bomblets manufactured for the US Navy across several areas, especially
in the Fakhani and Ouzai districts, causing civilians ferocious and
deep wounds identical to those I saw in Hillah yesterday. Angry at the
misuse of their weapons, which are designed for use against exclusively
military targets, the Reagan administration withheld a shipment of fighter-bombers
for Israel then relented a few weeks later and sent the aircraft
It is not easy
to listen to Iraqi officials condemning the use of illegal weapons when
the Iraqi air force has itself dropped poison gas on the Iranian army
and on pro-Iranian Kurdish villages during the 1980-88 war against Iran.
Outraged claims from Iraqi officials at the abuse of human rights sound
like a bell with a very hollow ring. But something terrible happened
around Hillah this week, something unforgivable and something contrary
to international law. One hesitates, as I say, to talk of human rights
in this land of torture but if the Americans and British don't watch
out, they are likely to find themselves condemned for what they have
always and rightly accused Iraq of: war crimes.