Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Shout That Killed

On this day, five years ago, more than 950 people died in a single incident in Baghdad.  What became known as the al-A'Imma Bridge Stampede began with a single person shouting a warning about a suicide bomber, rapidly grew into mass hysteria and the crush of bodies on a bottle-necked bridge, and ended with national grief and sectarian fingerpointing.

In the U.S. these days, few people talk about the tragedy at the bridge--if they even remember it at all (the one exception is Brian Turner's excellent poem, quoted at the end of this post).  To be fair, the al-A'Imma Bridge Stampede came two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and so it got lost in all the media noise from that equally-tragic event.

In general, however, like so many things that have happened in Iraq since 2003, America has a type of collective Alzheimer's Disease regarding what happens in a country half a globe away: awareness and clarity come and go, but mostly it's pretty foggy.  News junkies, Pentagon bean counters, and families of deployed soldiers are, for the most part, dialed in to what's going on; but for the majority of Americans, the Iraq War has dulled to bumper stickers and repetitious headlines.  A fuzzy, gray half-awareness sets in.  When 950 men, women and children die in a single day, however, it should matter.  It should matter a lot.

I was there in Baghdad that day, working in the public affairs section at the Army's multi-national task force headquarters a few miles away from the al-A'Imma Bridge.  From where I sat in my cubicle, this turned out to be one of the saddest days I spent that year in Iraq. It struck my heart so hard, I later included it in my novel Fobbit.

Here is what I wrote in my journal at the end of that day:

Aug. 31, 2005:  The thuds striking the earth were hardly noticeable to us in the Division Headquarters.   They could barely be heard over the constant murmur of voices punctuated by occasional exclamations of laughter, the stream of official radio chatter from the Operations Center speakers overhead, the hissing drone of the air conditioning, the very thoughts inside our heads which steadily cried out, “Home! Home! Home!”

No, the thuds were only distant thumps, as if a giant was walking over the crest of the horizon with hard, measured footsteps.  We paid them no mind, like all the other daily thumps and thuds and thunder-cracks of bombs.

But less than 20 minutes later, we found ourselves snapping to attention because suddenly those distant explosions were front and center in our operations: terrorists had fired mortars and rockets into a crowd of thousands congregated at a mosque in Khadamiyah in honor of an ancient imam’s birth (or perhaps it was his death—either way, it was a religious celebration of his coming or going).  At least eight indirect fires were launched at the unsuspecting pilgrims from two different sectors of the city, one landing on the mosque, the others falling outside and along the miles-long river of chanting Shi’as.  The first reports streaming in estimated the civilian casualties in the hundreds; a few hours later, that would be downgraded to seven dead and a few dozen injured.

Some of our helicopters in the area saw the rockets launched; the pilots locked on target and effectively wiped out the terrorists, blasting them straight up to whatever Allah they had been praising.  Ground troops descended on the area, rounded up more than 50 people and gathered evidence, including a metal tube which had probably been used to launch the rockets.

Back in Cubicle Headquarters, our first instinct was to not issue a press release.   Instead, we would step back and allow the Ministry of Interior to handle the media—which they did in due time and with due competence with no help from us.

In the meantime, Col. G---- had swooped down on our cubicle, insisting we get something out there right away.  I sat down and started drafting a press release, patching together what little I knew.  My boss, Lt. Col. W---- had disappeared into an hours-long meeting and I was left with Col. G---- hovering over my shoulder, jingling the loose change in his pocket and helping wordsmith the sentences so that we put out accurate information, but yet remained generic and hazy enough to allow for wiggle room according to future developments.  Col. G---- said we needed to include casualty figures, but I held fast to our policy of not getting into the “numbers game” and he acquiesced.  Within thirty minutes, we had patted and molded and shaped a press release to our mutual liking and he pointed his finger at my computer screen and barked like a city editor, “Send it!”

Really, though, our little massaged, 150-word press release was a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things because by that time MOI had their hands on the controls and the wire services had already filed their own stories with no help from us.

We went on about our daily business.  I read e-mails, I saved photos to the archive, I strayed long enough in the bathroom to read a couple of articles in The New Yorker.  We went to lunch and ate our carrot sticks and parmesan chicken breast and blueberry cheesecake, we came back to our desks and fell into the torpid slumber of post-lunch lethargy, we played computer solitaire and circulated e-mail jokes.

Then the Bad quickly morphed into Worse.

Back at the mosque, in the already-edgy crowd, someone yelled, “He’s got a bomb!  Watch out!  He’s going to blow himself up!” or Arabic words to the effect of “Fire!  Fire!  Fire!” in the proverbial crowded theater.  The beast with four thousand feet grew restless.  It started churning.  A wave of panic rippled outward from the ground zero of whoever had sounded the alarm (which, in all likelihood was a false alarm planted by a terrorist).  The four thousand feet pivoted on their heels and stampeded outward like a spreading stain.  The huge mob of pilgrims started pushing and screaming, shoving and running, tripping and churning, the fallen trying to rise but kicked down by more and more feet gaining acceleration from the feared blast zone, those at the edge now turning in the face of the surging human tide and walking rapidly at first, then--as they felt the hot breath on their necks--starting to run.   The weak and less-coordinated tripped and fell, lying flat on the pavement, only to be stomped by all those feet, the four thousand sandals now running, running, running with blind panic.

Later that day, we read in The New York Times: "The Iraqi authorities had blocked off roads to car traffic throughout northern Baghdad starting Tuesday evening, anticipating attacks on the hundreds of thousands of Shiites who were converging on the capital.  The bridge where the stampede took place marks an especially fragile fault line, linking Kadhimiya with Adhamiya, a Sunni area that has long been a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein and the insurgency."

Dust clogged the air, swirled by screams and flailing limbs.  The mob funneled onto the bridge, all of them squeezing their way toward the other end, only to find their way blocked by an impenetrable Iraqi Police checkpoint.  People were crushed, the breath pushed from their lungs, their ribs cracked, their organs compressed, legs and arms and necks of young children snapped like thin, dry twigs.

Then, somewhere along the bridge, the pressure of human bodies grew too great and the railings broke and burst open, spilling body after body into the murky-brown Tigris River forty feet below.  Women covered in black from head to toe toppled over the edge and smacked the water, their heavy abayas dragging them under with the sound of smacking lips.  The current sucked and licked up the young children falling like little drops of flesh from the bridge overhead.  And still the bodies pressed outward from the imaginary bomber, the pressure of the crowd at last finding an opening, a relief valve.  Hundreds of bodies were jettisoned out of the break in the railing to the dirty, roiled water below.

Back in our cool cubicles, all laughter came to an end as the Ops Center speakers started delivering the grim news.  We turned to the TV for the most up-to-date (but not, as it turned out, most accurate) information since the roads around the mosque had been closed, sealed off by the police who wanted to contain the death around the bridge.  Western media was shut out from the area.  A Washington Post reporter called, begging to hitch a ride with any of our patrols going to the site.  I said, we can’t even get to the bridge at this point.

CNN started reporting figures of 600 dead; minutes later, it was climbing to 650 dead.  Apparently, they’d heard from someone at the scene who said they heard someone had heard on Al-Jazeera that Iraqi Police were handing out those figures.  There were reports that 50 people eating at the mosque had been sickened and killed by rat poison.

We drifted over and watched Al-Huriya television broadcasts.  One of the Iraqi generals came on and said not to believe any of the numbers which are being reported.  However, no matter what anyone said, it was plain to see there were lots and lots of dead.  No one knew if there ever really was a suicide bomber.  At this point, it didn’t matter.  More people had died in half an hour than in all of last month.  It was the shout that killed, the words that devastated more than any shrapnel or flames could ever do.

A Kate Bush song started playing in my head:
But they told us
All they wanted
Was a sound that could kill someone
From a distance.

We struggled to make sense of it.  We tried to separate truth from fiction, rumor from confirmed reports.  We sent teams of military police to the area hospitals and the mosque to count bodies and report back as soon as possible.

BBC Radio called and asked if they could interview me about the events of the day and I said I could only talk about our limited involvement with the rocket attacks.  They said that’s okay, that’s all they needed from us, but of course once I was live on air they snuck in several pushy questions about the bridge stampede and I could do nothing but stutter about how the Iraqi Security Forces had everything under control, that they were the ones in charge at the scene.  I had no fucking clue if that was true or not, but it was one of our official “messages” we needed to push when speaking to the media and I recited it like a good little boy.

After I hung up, I walked over to the bank of television sets near our cubicle.  Al-Arabia TV was showing footage from the scene.  Bodies weree stacked like cordwood along the pavement.  Some of them were covered with sheets, some were covered with tarps of gold foil (perhaps some building scraps dug out of the trash nearby).  When they ran out of materials to use, they just pulled shirts up over faces.  Still, as the camera panned along the sidewalk morgue, the breeze lifted the corners of the blankets and the gold foil and the dead looked at us through the camera—the open mouths with their teeth dirtied by river water, the rolled-back eyes, the knitted brows, the look of confusion.  A young boy in a T-shirt, flies walking across his eyeballs, reached out his arms for his mother, her face up on the bridge rapidly receding.  The buckled limbs, the splayed feet, the hundreds and hundreds of shapeless mounds beneath the sheets.  It was almost too much for us to bear.  Beside me, the Iraqi female interpreter who works for Information Operations, kept gasping and clucking her tongue.  She couldn’t even find the words—she could only helplessly cluck her tongue.

We watched the still-living walk among the newly-dead, lifting the corners of blankets, taking a fast peek, then moving on to the next body.  Every so often, a woman in black would collapse and begin wailing, rocking back and forth over the news she didn’t want confirmed—the “Yes, it’s me” face of her sister, her mother, her husband, her child.  One woman fainted completely away and several men rushed up to splash water on her face.  Curiously, the water was carried in plastic bags, like they’d just come from a pet store with a few goldfish.  They splashed the cold, clear water on the woman and picked her up by the still-limp arms and pulled her to the shade.  One of the men yelled and waved to an ambulance crew.  Two stretchers came—one for the woman, one for the dead body she’d just identified.  They were both carried away, the stretcher-bearers picking their way carefully through the miles of bodies which had been fished out of the Tigris and dumped along the road.

In time, the crowds evaporated, leaving the bridge to bear its sorrow alone--the span of pavement littered with trash, handbags, and the empty sandals of the dead.

*     *     *     *     *

In one of the most potent poems of his just-released collection Phantom Noise, Brian Turner describes the scene in "Al-A'Imma Bridge."  Here are the opening stanzas:

They fall from the bridge into the Tigris--
they fall from railings or tumble down, shoved by panic,
by those in the crushing weight behind them,
mothers with children, seventy-year-old men
clawing at the blue and empty sky, which is too beautiful;
some focus on the bridgework as they fall, grasp
the invisible rope which slips through their fingers,
some palm-heel the air beneath them, pressing down
as their children swim in the oxygen beside them;
lives blurring with no time to make sense, some
so close to shore they smash against the rocks;
the pregnant woman who twists
in a corkscrew of air, flipping upside down,
the world upended, her black dress
a funeral banner rippling in the wind,
her child never given a name;

Click here to read the rest of the poem.

(Photos: Top, Ahmad Al-rubaye--AFP; Bottom, Akram Saleh/Getty Images)


  1. how utterly horrible.... i can't imagine how hard it must've been to re-tell.

  2. Carrie,

    It was five years in the simmering.

    Make no mistake, most of what I "saw" (mostly from my comfortable cubicle) doesn't even compare to what other soldiers patrolling the streets experienced. Theirs are the really hard stories to tell. I'm just trying to process it all from a wide-angle perspective.

    Thanks so much for reading.


  3. David, I had no idea - I knew there is much you hold inside you from Iraq- Hard as it was, thanks for sharing. Mom

  4. All this stuff sounds pretty terrible!! I can't believe how hard you feel there and tolerate it...