Friday, March 25, 2005

Tales of Fallujah 

Courtesy of Zemblan patriot J.M.: From the Santa Barbara Independent comes a long and spellbinding article on oil diver-turned-documentary filmmaker Mark Manning, who spent most of January in the ruined city of Fallujah. There he "lived as an Iraqi" so that he could interview "the hardest, worst-case guys" in the ever-expanding insurgency:
For the past two years, Manning has been making a documentary, American Voices, crisscrossing the United States and asking hundreds of Americans if they could explain why, exactly, the U.S. is at war with Iraq. He was profoundly disheartened, he said, by the lack of facts and accurate information out there. Very few of the people he interviewed could back up their opinions with facts. Even worse, he realized, neither could he. That’s when he decided he had to see what life was like on the receiving end of Operation Enduring Freedom. “As an American citizen,” said Manning, “I felt personally responsible for what happened to the people of Falluja. We live in a democracy. In our democracy, my government is conducting a military operation over there in my name. To me, it doesn’t get more direct than that.”

Manning is perhaps the only American citizen, outside the employ of a major news agency, to have embedded himself in Falluja for the sake of information. It’s not the sort of thing most people — crazy or not — would contemplate, but as one friend noted, Manning “is crazy brave.” One longtime diver buddy said, “Mark’s always had big ideas and big balls, but to go to Falluja, unarmed? That’s crazy.”

By delivering medical supplies to Iraqi refugees, Manning said he was able to conduct dozens of interviews — videotaped clandestinely — amassing some 25 hours worth of tape. Speaking with Iraqi citizens - men, women and children - who’d witnessed firsthand the fury of war, Manning asked: “What do you want to tell the American people? How can there be peace between our countries? What has your life been like since the war began?”

Their answers, Manning said, were nearly always the same: Peace was possible, the Iraqis told him, but time was running out. American citizens, said the Iraqis, need to wake up to what their government is doing. Manning was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops. Manning said he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja that described American forces deploying — in violation of international treaties — napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and “bunker-busting” shells laced with depleted uranium. Use of any of these against civilians is a violation of international law.

Shocking stuff, but Manning’s biggest surprise came after he’d returned home to the United States. Arriving in San Francisco late on the night of February 11, Manning and Natalie Kalustian, a close friend and filmmaking partner, crashed at the Oceanside Motel on 46th Avenue. The next morning, after a stroll near Baker Beach, they returned to their car to find one of the windows smashed. Expensive camera and computer equipment lay in plain view, but only Kalustian’s purse was gone. Inside the purse, Manning said, were keys to their motel room. And when Manning and Kalustian returned to the motel, he recounted, someone had broken into their room. Even though there was jewelry and more film equipment lying about, he said, none of it was touched. In fact, said Manning, none of the suitcases had even been opened. The only thing missing, Manning said, was the big bowling-ball shaped bag containing his camera — and all his taped interviews.

At that time, Manning had not been back in the United States for more than 10 hours.

The next day, Manning said, a mysterious man contacted them to arrange a meeting, claiming he had the stolen purse. Manning and Kalustian went to a spot near 6th and Mission as instructed, where they were met by a man who appeared to be a “full-on street bum,” Manning said. After returning the purse, the man pulled Manning to one side, opened his wallet, and flashed what Manning estimated was $5,000 worth of $100 bills. According to Manning, the “bum” winked at him and said, “Look in my eyes. I have the eyes of a former sniper. You thought you had the goods on George Bush, didn’t you? You’ve been sandbagged, boy.”

Manning said he has received more phone calls and mysterious emails from the man since returning to Santa Barbara, but holds out little hope of getting the missing tapes back. He’s most worried, he said, that whoever stole his tapes might seek to make examples of the Fallujans who spoke to him. “I risked my life to get those interviews,” he said, “and I saw the level of fear in the people I talked to.”

“There were 500,000 people living in Falluja at the time, not the 250,000 that the media reports. They were given one week to leave home,” Manning said. “After three days, they were told they had to walk out. Then after a week, the U.S. forces sacked the city and killed anyone that was left.” Manning expressed outrage that no provision was made for the mass exodus of refugees. “There were no refugee camps. Families were living in chicken coops, tents, and cars. In Iraq, the winters are very cold and very wet. And these are people who left with pretty much just the clothes on their back.”

Manning said he interviewed doctors who told him that the first target during the second siege was the hospital. That’s because televised images of the casualties incurred during the first assault proved so damaging in the court of international public opinion. “If you were a male between the ages of 14 and 50, you were considered a terrorist. Troops went into the hospital, dragged people out of their beds, and evicted them. The hospital was sealed. No one was allowed in during the four-month seige. If an ambulance went out to pick up the wounded, it was fired on,” Manning said.

By the time Manning arrived in Falluja, he said the dead bodies had been disposed of. “You could smell them, but you couldn’t see them,” he said. Doctors he interviewed told him that chemical weapons had been deployed because they handled many dead bodies bearing no evident sign of trauma. As to the evidence of napalm, Manning said he saw — and has in his possession — photographs of the dead, whose clothes had been melted into their skin. As to the uranium-tipped shells, he said there was evidence everywhere. “The heat generated by these is so intense that they can basically burn through three layers of concrete to get to a target.” He said that one family showed him where the shell from a Bradley Tank went through the front of a house, through four walls, and killed their son in his bed. “The whole town is radiated,” said Manning. “We are poisoning the whole country.”

Over the course of his interviews, Manning said he spoke with a mother who saw her son killed in front of her. He talked to a father who had lost his wife, brother, and daughters. “I talked to a 17-year-old girl who saw her father and mother shot by Marines,” said Manning. “She was hiding under the bed with her brother when her parents’ bodies dropped on the ground in front of her them... Her parents’ brains were on the floor. The girl and her brother stayed under the bed for three days, until the Marines came back, and this time they found her and her brother. They shot her brother in the head and they shot her three times, in the chest and the legs. When she told me about it,” said Manning, “I had to look down. I felt I was personally responsible. And she did too.”

Because of incidents like these, Manning said, the resistance has grown from about 5,000 to 250,000. “Everybody’s in the resistance. You don’t ask them directly; that wouldn’t be wise. But everybody’s in the resistance,” he said.

Manning said his time in Falluja convinced him that the war is not winnable as it’s currently being fought. “There are kids everywhere over there. It’s like Jimboree at lunchtime. So when we make a mistake and drop bombs on the wrong location, it’s kids we’re killing. Can you imagine the hate and anger, the desire for revenge these people have? It’s just not going to work.”

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