Iraq: exclusive report by Carlos Reyes Manzo - part three

 The award-winning photographer and journalist Carlos Reyes-Manzo visited Iraq with a Caritas delegation last October. Last month he returned to the country. This is the last of his exclusive three-part series for ICN. From Mosul to Babylon In the hot afternoon while the green palms are sleeping under the sun I cross the gate of Bab Ishtar of Babylon, the museum within looted and burnt. A column of US soldiers arrives to the ancient site for a cultural tour. The new conquerors come in their Bradleys and tanks. Like many others before them, they have come to occupy one of the oldest places in history. The original Bab Ishtar of Babylon is on show in the museum of Pergamon in Germany. We hear soldiers shouting, 'Stop, stop, raise your arms!' Guy Hovey and I stop paralysed. The shouts are not for us, three soldiers are pointing their guns to a small boy. They throw him to the ground. One soldier puts his foot on the boy's throat, his face in direct contact with the scalding ground, another checks his pockets, and a third points his gun to his head. They only find some pieces of paper and string. The boy pleads with them, 'Please let me go!' but they throw the boy into the Bradley to take him for interrogation at the military headquarters. As children noisily offer cans of drinks, an officer shouts to the column of soldiers emerging from the Bab Ishtar Gate, 'Don't buy drinks from the locals'. One of the soldiers has just bought a brick from the wall of Babylon, he is very proud of his souvenir. I can see the discontent on the faces of the Iraqi people. They are shouting to the US soldiers, 'Go home,' in Arabic. At the motorway junction to Karbala one of the battles for Baghdad took place. The flyover was used as an exercise field by US soldiers who shot at civilians trying to cross the motorway. I can smell decomposing human flesh rising from the graves under the burnt and blown up military lorries and civilian cars. The owner of the mechanics workshop opposite tells me what happened. 'When the Americans attacked, hundreds of young soldiers and civilians were killed. Helicopters even shot at those who had given themselves up or were injured, they all died. The place was covered in bodies and body parts, we placed them in graves by the roadside. Families keep coming to open the graves looking for their missing loved ones.' Another mass grave lies outside Al Rashid Military Camp next to the motorway. Palm branches mark the fresh graves of soldiers and civilians who died in the military camp and surrounding area. An empty coffin, shoes and uniforms with dried blood, a shovel for the families who come to open the graves. How many died and their identity, nobody knows. What happened to the prisoners captured by the US military forces, only rumours and conjecture. Prisoners who were freed from the military camps speak of days and nights of interrogation and torture. Human rights organisations are protesting timidly at the treatment of prisoners. When the Gulf War ended in 1991 I documented Kurdish refugee camps in northern Iraq. Kurdistan was devastated by the military offensive of Saddam Hussein's regime. In the winter cold, people were living in refugee camps, with many more thousands in exile. In May 2003 I return to the self-governed region, the changes are visible, modern cities and towns, good schools and housing, supermarkets and local markets full of goods and the peace they were looking for so long. But under the glossy surface there exists another world. The world of Arabs and Gypsies. For twenty five years the regime of Saddam Hussein imposed the 'Arabization' of the north especially in the area of Kirkuk, zone rich in oil. Thousands of Kurds, Assyrians and Turkomans were expelled from their lands, thousands died in military offensives. In March 2003 the Anglo-American coalition invaded Iraq, Kurdish militias supported by the US Army advance and control the region from the frontier with Turkey to Mosul, East to West. Now the Arabs are being expelled from their houses and lands. When I asked if I could meet them there was either a wall of silence or they gave reasons why it is important to expel the Arabs from northern Iraq. In an NGO's medical centre a nurse tells me that Arab refugees are living in very bad conditions next door to her, with many families in one house and other families living in tents. But when I express interest in meeting them she tells me that they have just left and she does not know where they have gone. The internally displaced Arabs have become invisible. In one of the streets in Mosul, under the cold stare of a column of US soldiers stationed in the middle of the street, two girls and a mother are asking for help. These are Gypsies, I'm told, and a torrent of racist explanations justify why people reject them. 'They live apart, they do not work and live from stealing and prostitution.' I stay overnight at The Lady Virgin Monastery near Alqosh run by Fr Mofeed Toma. In the early morning I meet a group of smiling children sweeping the corridors, who are orphans living in the monastery. Some Christian families were unhappy that increasing numbers of orphans were being adopted and converted by the local mosques and asked Fr Mofeed to rescue the children and he set up this orphanage for them. It is not an ideal situation for the children because they walk long distances to school through fields infested with snakes so venomous that a scratch from one can be fatal. They desperately need a minibus for transport. In Karakosh I hear that a mass grave in Al Hillah had just been opened. I decide we should return to Baghdad to witness the exhumation. We drive to Abril where Saad buys a satellite system to connect him to western TV and to see what had been forbidden for many years. In the bustling market I talk to people about the situation in Iraq. Even though they are pro US, they hope the US military forces would leave soon and let the Iraqis deal with their own matters. We arrive in Sulaymaniyah, a bustling and rich city where aid agencies and UN organisations have been putting millions over the years. My Christian friends buy dry cheese characteristic of the area and harat, 'medicine' for their father. On our return journey to Baghdad we stop at several Kurdish militia checkpoints, each one controlled by a different faction. The trip should take no longer than six hours but with all the checkpoints and wrong turnings by eight o'clock we are just approaching Jalabad. It is like entering an iron circle, every few hundred metres we cross a US military checkpoint where we are asked the same questions, who we are and where we are going. After Jalabad the road to Baghdad becomes very dangerous due to snipers according to the US military. That is when my nightmare begins. The driver keeps putting on the light inside the car to check the map, making us visible for miles. When we arrive at the next checkpoint we decide to ask the US military the way. I tell the others to put the light on and stay in the car and I approach the checkpoint with my hands raised. As I am walking slowly towards the officer I hear the click of machine guns and soldiers shouting 'Stop, stop,' I look back and see my three companions walking quickly towards me and the soldiers, I shout at them to stop. They reluctantly stop. I establish communication with the officer and show my press card. I look around and see other US soldiers pointing their guns at us. One of the soldiers says, 'Boy you came close to your ....end!' We enter Baghdad at quarter to eleven and reach the church at two minutes past eleven just after curfew began. On farmland in Al-Mahawil at Al Hilla, three miles from the main road to ancient Babylon, they find the remains of thousands of people killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. At 9.30 am the mechanical digger is at work. Cars with coffins on the roofs are travelling in the opposite direction. After walking a few hundred metres I reach the site situated on elevated terrain. In the vastness of the space, the smell and the heat are so harsh they envelop me completely. People are arriving from all over Iraq to see if one of their loved ones is there. They are moving around the mechanical digger in a daze, racing from one hole to next, from remains to remains, looking into white plastic bags of unidentified bodies left in a row, twenty four in one place, sixty seven, twenty more and so on. Two US soldiers are filming and other soldiers are guarding the site. When a body appears in the sand, a mother raises her hands in desperation, others sit quietly looking in the distance. Some fight over the remains when they think it is their relative from the details in the clothes, even the colour of their shoes is in their memory. Some are not identified by anyone so the remains are placed in plastic bags. The people managing the site keep telling everyone to keep away from the mechanical digger as they could be killed, but the families continue to dig with their hands. Every so often I hear a scream from someone who has found a relative. People are crying. My thoughts go to Chile where over a thousand people are still missing thirty years after the military coup. I say to Malik Sabri, a Chaldean Catholic, 'This is a crime against humanity,' he replies with tears in his eyes, ' No, it is more than a crime.' I ask myself why this situation is being allowed to develop like this. Who killed these people, who provided the guns and bullets. Why were forensic examinations not carried out when the mass graves were opened so that the guilty could be brought to justice? Carlos Reyes-Manzo has travelled all over the world documenting social and human rights issues. He began his career in Chile where he suffered imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet regime. A campaign lead by Amnesty International, Cardinal Hume and several Bishops' Conferences lead to his release. He told ICN: "The plight of the Iraqis now is a poignant reminder of the situation we experienced in Chile - where so many people were killed and disappeared" Carlos Reyes-Manzo is now based in London. His latest images of the Al Kindi Hospital described above, can be seen at:

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