In an Instant, a Junkyard of Humanity

Washington Post

BAGHDAD, April 12   The bomber blew himself up no more than a few yards away. First, a brilliant flash of orange light like a starburst, then a giant popping sound. A gust of debris, flesh and blood threw me from my chair as if I were made of cardboard.

I was lying on a bed of shattered glass on the floor of the cafeteria in the Iraqi parliament building, covered with ashes and dust. Small pieces of flesh clung to my bluejeans. Blood, someone else’s, speckled the left lens of my silver-rimmed glasses. Blood, mine, oozed from my left hand, punctured by a tiny shard of glass.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” asked Saad al-Izzi, one of The Post’s Iraqi correspondents, standing over me, his face framed by an eerie yellowish glow, his voice distant. I did not reply.

I had always thought about this moment. In Iraq, every journalist does. But I did not expect a bomber to take lives inside the Green Zone, the nerve center of the Iraqi government and its backer, the United States. To enter, you must pass heavily armed U.S. soldiers, Peruvian security contractors, bomb-sniffing dogs, body searches, metal detectors and several identity checks. Once you are inside, there are checkpoints sealed by concrete barriers on nearly every stretch of road. Then, more body searches, metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and identity checks.

Saad and I had arrived at the parliament building at around 2 p.m. on Thursday. The cafeteria on the first floor was packed with scores of politicians, aides and others working to rebuild Iraq. There were Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, the religious and the secular, seated at glass-topped tables. Waiters served roasted chicken on beds of rice.

We met Mustafa al-Hiti, a Sunni member of parliament. He motioned for us to sit down. A few feet away, at a nearby table, sat his friend, Mohammed Awad, another politician. Hiti greeted Awad, then returned to our table.

The explosion came at the end of the 25-minute interview. Saad initially thought a mortar shell or a rocket had struck the ceiling. In recent weeks, such attacks had taken place in the Green Zone. Later, Saad described what he saw:

“There were orange flames like the exhaust of a drag racer. Pieces of black paper fell from the ceiling. Dr. Mustafa was lying next to you. He was staring at me. I knew that you were having the same problems with your ears. I was shouting at you.”

Saad helped me up. The smoke was as thick as giant rain clouds. It was difficult to breathe. Our mouths and noses filled with dust. I felt like I was walking through one of Iraq’s famous sandstorms. Dust covered the carpeting, too, like snow. Hundreds of shoe imprints pointed toward the exit — and illustrated the chaos.

I thought: Are we going the right way? Could there be another bomb?

We walked through the apocalyptic landscape, silent save for the cries of ghostly, dust-covered figures searching for friends and colleagues. I didn’t know it then, but my left eardrum had been perforated. At the bottom of a staircase, an old man writhed in pain. He had somehow worked his way down the steps. He had two more to go, but he seemed to have given up. We didn’t stop.

Outside, Iraqis — men and women, young and old — were huddled in groups. Some punched the buttons on their phones. Others wept. Most appeared stunned and solemn, deep inside their own realms, as I was.

At 2:40 p.m., I followed dozens of Iraqis back into the building. I wanted to retrieve my tape recorder and notebook. I walked back up the stairs. The old man was gone.

Blue-uniformed policemen in surgical masks and carrying large flashlights searched for the wounded and the dead. I made my way to our table. A human leg, from the knee down, rested three feet from where I had been sitting. I stared at it for a few seconds.

The floor was a junkyard of humanity, a perfume bottle here, pieces of shirt there. Debris covered untouched chicken dishes. The sounds of shoes crunching shattered glass blended with the wails.

I found my dust-covered notebook. Some pages were splotched with blood. When I found my tape recorder, it was still running.

Later, I heard the vocabulary of a bombing’s initial moments:

“The rest, where are the rest?” someone screamed.

“Let’s go out.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

“Khalid, Hamada,” someone said, yelling out names.

“God is the greatest.”

“What is this?”

“Who is this?”

“Khalid! Pick him up!”

“Is there a doctor at the training room?”

“Yes, there is one.”

“It’s all a curse on us, Ayad. It’s because of the stealing, the corruption.”

“Why, God, why?”

“Ah ahhhahhhh,” someone screamed in pain.

By 2:45 p.m., an American security contractor inside the cafeteria was yelling: “Get out of here. Get out of here. Suicide bomber.”

I left the building. Then U.S. soldiers arrived and made their way inside, past a man clutching his bandaged head, past a woman yelling into her cellphone: “Where’s Ahmed?”

The old man was seated in a chair outside the front entrance, his face no longer showing pain, only exhaustion. A woman fanned him with a piece of yellow paper. “Give him room to breathe,” she said to anyone who came too close.

At 3 p.m., two U.S. soldiers approached me. One worked at the U.S. military’s press badging desk, in a building right behind parliament. He recognized me.

“Are you bleeding?” he asked. I shook my head.

“Where were you?” he wanted to know. I told him.

“The Lord is looking after you, brother,” he said, and walked away.

By 3:30, U.S. troops ordered everyone to a fenced compound filled with Humvees, a short walk from the parliament building. That’s where I found Hiti, the politician I had interviewed. He, too, was suffering from hearing loss. Dried blood marked his left cheek. Like many Iraqis there, he was edgy about being enclosed with a large group of people. He had lost faith in the security of the Green Zone.

“This is wrong. What if they planted a car bomb here?” Hiti said, glancing at the Humvees and the dozens of Iraqis there.

Nearby was a U.S. Embassy official. Minutes before the bombing, he had been speaking to some politicians in the press room next to the cafeteria. He wondered aloud what impact the attack would have on Iraq’s political progress.

“I hope this doesn’t slow things down here,” said the official, who did not want his name used because he is not authorized to speak to journalists. “These are the people we need to make this experiment work.”

A few minutes later, Hiti recounted his story. He, too, had reentered the building, to save his friends. He passed an arm and two legs on his way back to the cafeteria, he said. A few feet from our table, he found the body of his friend Mohammed Awad.

Next to him sat another lawmaker, staring at Awad in shock.

Hiti gently shook the man. “He’s dead,” he said.

Then he helped the man out of the building.

At 4:40 p.m., we heard another blast.

“Car bomb?” Hiti asked Saad. We weren’t sure.

An ambulance arrived to treat the wounded. The crew put a young man with a green cloth wrapped around his head into the vehicle. His shirt, like mine, was peppered with bloodstains. Saad and I joined him to have our ears checked. I couldn’t find Hiti. Later, I called him. He was fine, but he still couldn’t hear well.

At the main U.S. military hospital inside the Green Zone, a military ear doctor said 20 percent of my left eardrum was perforated. It would heal naturally in a month or two. By then, the hospital was treating 20 to 30 wounded Iraqis, said Maj. William Aiken, a nursing supervisor.

I watched orderlies wheel in an unconscious man, his body covered with dried blood. Then a nurse wheeled in a man whose face was pocked with pink shrapnel marks. She parked him next to the door. He clutched his head and mumbled.

Aiken said they were fortunate. Usually after a bombing, he has to fix patients missing arms, legs, their very souls. I still had all of that, and more.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Aiken, who is from San Antonio. “When it is your turn, it is your turn. I have seen too much here.”

I could not disagree.

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