Cry, the despoiled city

Abandoned by the Iraqi army and unprotected by Kurds or Americans, Mosul burns, as looters dismember its ancient splendors and its archaeological heritage is smashed to bits.

Published April 12, 2003 10:46PM (EDT)

A little girl in a red velvet dress stood in the middle of the street on the outskirts of Mosul on Friday morning, holding a box. Traffic zoomed past her in both directions. She was hesitating, uncertain about which way to go, because she was transfixed by everything that was rushing past her.

Beat-up taxis sped out of town, loaded down with every possible item -- light fixtures, teapots. A boy was trying to sell black electrical transformers to drivers through the window of passing cars. Men on donkeys carried impossibly tall heaps of office equipment down the road toward their villages. The road was jammed with madness and greed; drivers were barely avoiding their rivals in their haste to get to the free merchandise.

It was a violent scene, because in order to pillage, you have to break locks, smash windows, burn and threaten, and this was all happening because it had somehow become necessary. Tens of thousands in Mosul were helping themselves, climbing over fences and walls, while the rest hid in their houses. We saw that the cars coming from the city center were full of junk, while the cars going in were empty. Everything with wheels carried loot. What they couldn't carry, they put on the curb, and guarded it by sitting on it. Bedouin farmers brought their tractors in and loaded them up. The population armed themselves. Men with guns were everywhere, and they were looting, too, doing most of it in fact; and they were busy organizing themselves into criminal gangs -- but we learned that later.

We drove closer to the urban core through chaotic traffic, and it seemed to me we were moving through Dante's circles of hell. Automatic weapons fired in long bursts from the center of the city. Sections of town were covered by black smoke from burning buildings. Police offices, any buildings associated with the government, were alight; any structure that held things of value had the door torn from its hinges. There was no law, no order, no soldiers to secure the city from any nation or group. Mosul has existed for millennia, and we were watching it burn.

I saw the little girl in the street a second before the car in front of us ran her down. She must have been only 5 or 6 years old. The driver who hit her was trying to get his fair share of the loot, and because she was there in front of him, he hit her. She disappeared in the traffic for a moment, then -- miraculously -- stood up. The car had only knocked her down. She made her way to the median and looked shocked and sad; her parents were gone, or perhaps were busy trying to get something for themselves. Her mouth filled with blood. Behind her, a supermarket burned.

Early Friday, Donald Rumsfeld had said that Mosul was falling. I caught a few minutes of the BBC early in the morning and heard him say in his press conference, "Peshmerga and U.S. special forces are now entering the city of Mosul." It was a tip from an unusual direction, but we had expected the city to crack any time. Kirkuk had fallen the day before, and we thought that Mosul was next on the list because the Iraqi army had collapsed and Baath Party officials were on the run all over the country. The Iraqi checkpoints near Kirkuk were totally abandoned, and scores of military vehicles sat in fields with their doors wide open. Why shouldn't the entire northern army vote with their feet, we thought, and leave Mosul to the Kurds and the Americans to walk in without having to fire a shot?

As soon as I heard Rumsfeld mention Mosul in the news conference, I woke up my friend Sion, a photographer, and we found our driver and translator and then drove as fast as we could toward the city from Arbil. We passed several peshmerga checkpoints along the way, but at the last Mosul checkpoint, we got stopped. A uniformed fighter made a circle with his hand, saying, "Buru, buru" -- go.

We got out of the car and tried to work it out. A Kurdish officer told us that we couldn't go forward and yelled at Rashad to go back. But he didn't take it well and said something under his breath in Kurdish. We asked the officer if there were Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, and he told me that there were no Iraqi soldiers, but that there were no peshmerga in the city, either, which sounded strange and didn't square with Rumsfeld's statement. The soldier said that he couldn't let us go because he didn't know what was happening in the city. I explained who we were, and asked him again if we could proceed. He said that it was out of the question. A taxi driver crossing the checkpoint from Mosul yelled to no one in particular, "The city is burning."

While we argued with the officer to let us through, we saw cars coming from the direction of Mosul filled with celebrating peshmerga. They raised their fists and shouted, and that pushed us over the edge. We looked at a row of cars that were also being turned back. No one was getting through. The last checkpoint for Mosul was choked with people from the surrounding areas, desperately trying to get into the city. They were also coming from Arbil to get some, and the soldiers weren't having any of it. Their tempers were short; they thought everyone on the road to the city was on the make. I watched a soldier strike a driver with his fist to get him to turn around, beating him in the face with quick blows.

We gave up on getting past the checkpoint. Rashad knew another way into the city, so he turned the car around and drove us across a grassy field, then through an old Iraqi defensive position that was also probably a minefield. He stuck to the vehicle tracks and then got us back on the road to the city through an alternate route. The new road was empty, so he floored it. The bridges across the Khazar River had been blown up by the retreating army, but they did a bad job and left one partially intact. We drove over the shattered concrete that dipped into a steep V shape; somebody had patched it over with dirt. We were in the city by 9:00 in the morning. The sky over the road went from white through shades of gray to black from smoke as we came in.

Mosul's liberation was not an ode to joy -- it was an anguished lament. Iraqi troops abandoned the city; the ruling order dissipated; and now there was nothing holding the population back from their worst impulses.

Baravan and Rashad shook their heads and were ashamed when they saw what was going on. We crossed the bridge over the Tigris and saw graceful stands of trees and a lovely neighborhood on the hills overlooking the river; then we drove through the great stone gates of the city. We drove into biblical Nineveh.

When we reached the government electricity office, a river of water was pouring down the stairs, because the looters had taken the toilets. Men dragged metal desks down the stairs through sheets of dirty water. Someone was shooting a block away, yet no one was running, so we didn't run. We took our cues from the crowd. Sion went into the electricity office to take pictures; that seemed like a bad idea to me -- the idea of being in that building with the crowds made me nervous. Instead, we watched the street and waited for him to come out. Something was happening a block away -- disordered noises, a fitful roar, the sounds of things breaking.

We had wanted to go to Mosul because we wanted to see joyful scenes there, of residents destroying giant images of Saddam. It was the liberation of a great city from decades of a tyrant's rule. Shouldn't they be ecstatic?

Sion reappeared and got back in the car and we drove to the source of the sound and movement, down a broad avenue toward the crowd. Rashad parked across from the Mesopotamia Bank. There was no statue of Saddam, no celebrations. Armed men stood on the bank's steps; they milled around, while others ran and smashed their way into buildings. The men on the bank steps were not peshmerga; they were armed men, possibly former Iraqi soldiers or villagers -- we didn't know who they were. At first we thought that the men were guarding the bank, but that wasn't true -- they were locals, and they were looting it in a furious way. Thirty seconds after we arrived, they started shooting. It was 10 o'clock.

I watched as Iraqis ran out of the bank with burlap sacks of currency over their shoulders, like thieves in a cartoon. Other men staggered from the bank with money in their shirts; their bodies melted into lumpy spare tires of cash. They wandered around with stupid grins on their faces. Another man fainted in the bank, and his friends revived him by placing sodden bundles of currency on his face. An old Arab man watched the looting from down the street and wept. The air was snowy with shreds of paper, like a tickertape parade; the paper was five-dinar notes with Saddam's face on them. All the notes have Saddam's face on them.

The men near the bank surged and ran in packs -- not well organized, but organized enough to do the job, which was to gut the place. The bank men had rifles and rocket launchers and stood on the steps in a proprietary way. They kept other armed groups at a distance by firing entire clips of ammunition into the air. Men in red kaffiyehs ran straight down the steps of the Mesopotamia Bank to getaway cars and leveled their rifles at the onlookers as they peeled out. As soon as they were gone, another armed gang took their place. If two groups wanted to get in the bank at the same time, they fended their rivals off with automatic weapons -- this was why they were shooting. A rumor that the bank had gold in it swept the gangs' caution away, and they worked faster at tearing the place to pieces. The looters were leaving with millions of dollars in a dead currency. Most of it was worthless.

Every second was a year. Time stuttered. It was perfect weather for a picnic. I looked at the men on the bank steps and tried to observe them in a clinical way, but I couldn't get the pattern. Who was running the city? Where were the peshmerga, where were the Americans? They were manifestly not around. No one had really taken the city; it had been abandoned. The U.S. soldiers Rumsfeld mentioned must have hunkered down in some secret place, observing and sending reports back to the big men. What else could they have done? A city this size needed thousands of soldiers, an occupying army -- and instead it had nothing. This is just speculation, but it's possible that the U.S. government told the peshmerga to stay out of the city, because the U.S. was already having problems with the Turks from the fall of Kirkuk a day earlier. We looked for Kurdish soldiers, and we didn't see them. I saw only one peshmerga during the hours we were in the city: He was stealing a truck, and he was leaving town in a hurry.

While the armed gangs looted the bank, I walked down the street and stood with the onlookers. An angry crowd of Iraqis formed around me. Baravan stayed nearby for translation, and kept it together under the most uncertain and screwed-up circumstances I've ever put a translator through. He told the angry crowd who I was. The Arabic word for journalist is sahafi, and Baravan said it many times to convince them I was not a soldier. But it didn't matter -- only the country of origin mattered to them. They wanted to know where I was from, so I told them the truth. When they heard it, they leaned in, and when new men joined the circle, the others told them I was American.

This new information changed everything, and the men in the back rows grabbed my arms to get my attention. They became more urgent, and all spoke at once. The first man said, "Look, the peshmerga are destroying my city"; he wanted to show me what they had done to his home. Baravan told him in Arabic that it was not true. A young man named Rafiq was panicking in a terrible way and said in a broken voice, "Where are the American forces? We want to stop this situation. There is stealing and looting and we need safety. WHERE ARE THE AMERICANS?"

Rafiq was pleading with me, desperate, and I said they were coming. "When are they coming, what time?" I told him that I didn't know exactly. The crowd just shouted more questions and reached out to grab me, pointing at my notebook. Panic spread. Baravan stood his ground and tried to calm them down. Another man shouted, "Stop the killing. Stop the killing." A long burst of gunfire from the bank quieted everything for a moment. The crowd took the moment to check and see if it was time to run away. We looked to the street and saw gunmen throwing sacks of money into a car and speeding down the road. They kept their weapons leveled at the crowd to make sure they wouldn't have any problems.

"This isn't freedom, this is bullshit," a kid said to me. It was like the report of a rifle.

Next, a fighter fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the air, and the horrible, instantly recognizable sound it made as it tore out a piece of a building -- imagine the tympanum in an orchestra played with an explosive charge -- sent the hundreds of men near the bank running for their lives. They poured down the street in a great wave. The questions were over.

We decided to keep moving around the city, because staying in one place for longer than a few minutes wasn't working out. We found Rashad near the car, started driving around and found quiet residential areas unshaken by violence. Shopkeepers sat in front of their stores to protect them; neighborhood people milled around. Fathers took their kids out for a walk. As we circled back toward the center and the locus of all the looting, we found a burning police station. We didn't do much there, but while I was waiting for Sion to take pictures, a man came up to me and pointed toward the Tigris River. Baravan told me that the man was directing us to a particular place in the city: "You should go to the museum." We took his cue.

Mosul is one of the oldest cities in the world: it is where human beings invented cities, then developed writing so they could write about them. As we drove to the museum, I had the feeling I always have when it's time to visit a museum in a great city. I felt it despite the looting and burning going on around us: curiosity, and awe.

We parked in front of the museum in the place where human memory begins -- a building of red stone, built in a simple but old style, like the lower levels of a zigurrat. A kid with a gun sat in front of the side entrance. The space inside was black. There was no electricity, and we walked inside over a sheet of water, because someone had already taken the water fixtures. In the research and archiving part of the building, the library had been looted, and files were on the floor. Sion found a room full of artifacts smashed on the floor. Clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing were scattered around like refuse. The larger display artifacts were in another wing, and we walked outside to find the main entrance. We crawled through a broken window to see the exhibits.

Inside, we saw a sign that said "Assyria" in printed letters with an arrow, so we followed it. Rows of shattered glass cases had been emptied of smaller artifacts. Some cases were not shattered, but they were empty as well. Either the curators had placed the artifacts in safekeeping, I thought, or officials had stolen them.

We walked until we found the main exhibition hall. The room was sepulchral; the windows had been blacked out with sheets of felt. When our eyes adjusted, we saw the great stone lion that guarded the Ishtar temple at the Nimrud Ziggurat, three thousand years ago. The ghost of an ancient history teacher shouted in my mind, "Look!" The large hall had been built to hold the lion and the graceful winged form on the massive slab next to it: another lion, this one with wings sprouting from its back. Cuneiform covered every inch of its body, and its mouth was open in speech.

We stared at the walls of Nimrud, and we spoke quietly, because we were in a museum.

At the lions' feet were large square beds of sandbags the curators had placed there, in case the bombs knocked the huge stone slabs over. They did it to keep them from shattering when they fell.

I saw a plaque next to the slab with the winged lion. It read, "These stone statues represent the power located at the entrance of cities. They are guards to ward off demons and spirits."

The lions must have been sleeping. On this day, they had failed.

[For a directory of Phillip Robertson's past stories from Iraq, click here.]

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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