Sudden death from the sky

The burning truck and scattered carnage bothered him and everyone who saw it. It became a mental fever that got worse the more we thought about it.

Published April 9, 2003 12:36AM (EDT)

The trees, gray tufts on the horizon, look like air strikes, but they don't bloom and roil like the real ones. They are frozen in time yet they still trick us. The land is green and everything else is another color, but we don't pay attention because we are talking about how the others beat us down to Khazar so many kilometers west on the front lines, talking about how we're late for the fall of the town to the coalition of U.S. and peshmerga forces. We are rushing across this landscape in our once white car, toward Khazar on the Mosul front to catch up with everyone else, but there's nothing in the way and Rashad drives like a madman, takes it up to 70 mph, 80. Khazar, like Kalak, is a Kurdish town on a fast river, which you get to by crossing a bridge, and the hills that feed the river lean over the village. The river has the same name as the town. One side of Khazar is called Manguba. This is the side that the peshmerga hold.

On Thursday night, Special Forces called in a round of particularly intense bombing; on Friday we thought that the whole town might have fallen to the Kurdish forces. We thought we were missing the story because we waited too long to get to the front at Khazar, a front that had broken open just the day before in what seemed to be a massive and hideous firefight that was nearly lost.

And so the afternoon finds us falling down a black well and the well is a road while the sun is behind a screen of dust. Rashad slows down only when he sees small groups of soldiers on the road. Peshmerga wave us through the checkpoints after leaning in for a look through our windows. "They're Americans," Baravan says, and that's enough for the Kurdish soldiers even though it's only half true. Sion is Welsh. Rashad drives us up to the ridge checkpoint just west of Kalak, where the Iraqis had a camp the week before. We expect a crowd, but the checkpoint isn't there. The place has cleared out. The overly helmeted and flak-jacketed TV horde, absent. Rashad steps on it when we see that there's nothing keeping us from going forward.

We find the rise in the road where Thursday's firefight happened, and the Special Forces are still in their position, moving around quietly doing their thing, not at all happy about being disturbed. They are working and when they work they ignore outsiders and talk out of earshot. We don't get out of the car, just slow down to make sure they are still there, that they haven't pulled back or anything spooky, generating a terrible omen we couldn't ignore. If they were gone, we would turn around and disappear in the opposite direction because if the situation was suddenly too weird for them, who could stay?

We see Americans up on the hill and that is a good sign, so Rashad keeps going down the road. Sion does a bit from a British game show, saying: "Nice to see you, to see you, nice!" I have an Almond Joy commercial playing in an endless tape in my head. Driving down the road to Khazar, we sing them. Sion sings, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." I shout, "Nice! Nice! Nice!" We feel good.

Rashad stops the car just before Khazar when we see a burning pickup truck just on the western side of the Khazar bridge, the side nearest to us. Sion says: "Hang on." We get out and we smell something vile and in the burning truck are the shapes of people, shadows with depth and form but no features. I see a French reporter, Natalie, going in the other direction on foot, and I can't remember what she was saying. I want to count the dead in the car because that seems important. None of us wants to stick around, we want to keep heading into Khazar, but we take our time with the truck. Sion edges closer to the wreckage and tells me the burning truck had propane tanks in the truck bed that were ready to explode. I count three people and step over a woman's shoe in the street. Due to the force of the initial explosion and the fire, parts of the passengers are missing and it throws off my count. I count two, three, two. Rashad tells Baravan to tell me that he is sick to his stomach.

Somebody else is there asking me who the passengers are and I see blankets and books scattered around. There is a heater and other household things in the truck. Whatever hit it came from the sky because there is a hole in the engine compartment made by something that came straight down from the sky. It looks like the pickup was hit by a bomblet dropped from an American aircraft. The pickup wreckage looks like the Taliban trucks looked fleeing Kandahar. A huge hole punched in the exact center of the engine compartment, like it was punched with an awl held by a god.

All the household items lying around make it seem like the truck had villagers in it when it was destroyed. There are no weapons near the pickup, either in pieces or whole. No Kalashnikov clips, no mortars or portable machine guns that the Iraqis like to mount on light trucks and shoot at people. The passengers look like villagers, they had villager things in the car, and there is a woman's shoe lying in the road but we can't see if there was a woman in the car because the bodies are incinerated.

Across the street is a severed hand, palm up with the index and middle finger extended, pointing west. I think that if it had rings on it -- Arab and Kurdish women often wear rings -- there would be an answer to the question of whether the bomb killed a family, but the hand is bare. I ask a friend from the Associated Press what he thought of the burning truck and who was in it and he says he doesn't know. The truck bothers him; in fact, it gets into everyone who sees it, became a mental fever that got worse the more we thought about it. I haven't asked U.S. Central Command for a report.

After looking over the truck, Rashad, Baravan who translates for us, Sion and I walk up the hill to the bluff overlooking the river where there are scores of mounds of earth with peshmerga hiding below them. The hill has these mounds of earth all over it like eyes, and these mounds are the old Iraqi defensive positions. When the fighters see us walking up the hill they panic and make "get down" motions with their hands. They are burrowed deep into the dark red earth of the hill facing us in trenches and revetments, not a scrap of clothing visible to the Iraqis in the hills. We don't even break our stride, because we are stupid and our minds are still in the burning truck.

We try to talk to the soldiers but they were sitting quietly, eating stale bread. The peshmerga of Battalion 17 from Dohuk think we are a bad sign and that we are giving their position away, which is not true; the Iraqis already know their position because they just left it the night before. We watch the peshmerga taking serious cover. Sion and I walk around thinking: What's the big deal? Jesus, we just saw this vision of hell 100 yards down the road, what can possibly be the problem up here? This town just fell, didn't it just fall?

It's one of those times where nothing happens until something happens and that is a slowly building barrage of Iraqi tank, artillery and mortar shells that begin to fall behind us on the road we had just come walking up. Shells start to fall on the bridge we needed to cross to get back to Arbil, cutting all of us off. Shells fall in the town. Shells fall in the fields but never in the same spot. The gunners have a pattern, cycling through a list of targets. The shells make different noises depending on where they come from and where they are going. There's no story here except what it's like to hear the sound of the pop when the shell leaves its idiot womb and the whistle it makes which is just like the sound in the movies. That makes me feel crazy, listening to the pop from somewhere in the hills above us and the cartoon zzzzzzzzzooooooh detonation, a Wile E. Coyote routine. Our field is full of donkeys grazing on the grass and when the shells land, they scream and that makes us laugh when we're hiding. The donkeys scream but they don't run.

I lose sight of Rashad and Baravan and wind up taking cover with an Australian TV crew and then Sion comes up to tell me he is leaving and calmly walks back down the hill to the car. I start to get up and go with him but there's a new round of shelling and I go back to the Australians and stay there listening to the shells and watching for the explosions. It's worse than sniper fire because once the shell launches, there is a long moment of pure dread that lasts seconds before it hits the ground. And what does our side have? Nothing. They have only light weapons, no artillery, no communications and no plan. They need a plan.

A weak, narrow bridge stretches between the peshmerga and their escape route, but the road and the bridge are well-known targets for the Iraqis, and they are pretty good shots because they have been practicing all morning. The Americans are back at their base doing secret things, maybe calling in air strikes, maybe not, we don't know. We don't see the planes and we want to see them. I remember the peshmerga as they hid in the earth, pinned and fixed there, thinking the journalists had brought all this bad luck with them. After a shell hit the bridge we decide to move closer to the road and make our way out of town. We think that the Iraqis are getting ready to retake the position, come pouring down from the mountains and kill all of us after they blow the bridge to splinters.

We run from hole to hole until we find the unit commander, who tells us to beat it and then gives us sips of water from his canteen and lets us stay for a few minutes with his men. While we wait, a car comes driving from the direction of the Iraqis and one peshmerga fires on it, and then 50 more peshmerga fire on it but I never see what happens because I am in a tank revetment with the Australians. The translator for the Australian crew says that the driver lived through the shooting and it seems to me that is a miracle. A commander then comes up and chews out the fighters and tells them not to fire on civilian vehicles because they could end up killing a family. It turns out that they shot at the car coming down the road because they thought he was an Iraqi scout.

We still want to leave, so between shells we walk down the hill toward Rashad. He could've run and left us with no ride home, leaving us to walk miles down a road in a rain of shells, but he didn't. We pile in, along with some Australians, and Rashad steps on it until we are out of there and out of the range of the artillery. As we leave that place, the donkeys are still screaming.

Later, I hear that the peshmerga had to retreat to a position just before the bridge, that they couldn't hold the place overlooking the town and the Khazar river and that the Americans had told them to fall back. I hear, too, that the pilots of the attack aircraft like to have a landmark between the enemy and friendly forces so they can figure out where to drop the bombs.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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Iraq War