By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 12, 2009
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq, March 11 -- At noon Tuesday, there was the explosion. Gunfire followed, and 33 people were dead, pieces of their corpses mixing with stagnant water, trash and soggy scraps of food. At noon Wednesday, there were the atlal.
The word in Arabic means the remains or ruins, the traces of something left behind. The atlal of Tuesday's attack, one of two in the past week that killed scores in the capital and its environs, were spent bullet cartridges, catching the glint of a morning sun, that survivors accused soldiers of firing at them in the chaos and confusion that followed the blast.
The atlal were the orphaned boy who had been selling plastic bags for a few cents. They were the vegetable seller whose 18-month-old daughter was ripped from his grasp as he was hurled to the asphalt. They were the relatives standing at a morgue that housed the remains of their families together with the remnants of the bomber who killed them.
"Neither the American nor Iraqis will try him," said Rahim Abdullah, whose aunt and cousin were among those refrigerated inside. "He'll be judged in heaven."
In 2003, when America began its occupation, bombings with half the casualties of Tuesday's suggested the United States might not prevail. Today, when America and its Iraqi allies seem to be winning, the attack failed to make the front page of the government newspaper.
"No one values the victims anymore," said Mohammed Awad, another relative standing near the morgue, under a sun that washed Abu Ghraib of color.
Even before the fall of Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib, a desolate swath on Baghdad's western outskirts, was a symbol. The prison here was the worst of Hussein's hellholes, a place whose name spoke to the horrors of his ubiquitous terror. When he issued an amnesty emptying the prison and others in October 2002, it foreshadowed the tumult that would ensue after his fall six months later, as a country stepped from a prison cell into the sunlight. Abu Ghraib became an axis of the insurgency, once one of Iraq's most dangerous locales. Its prison was taken over by U.S. soldiers, who photographed their own sadistic treatment of inmates.
On Wednesday, the day after the market bombing, Abu Ghraib was a symbol of death's anonymity, in a conflict where hundreds of people still die every month, even as a sense of the ordinary returns.
Pieces of flesh collected in a black plastic bag were tossed near the market, its stalls built of tattered canvas, soiled blankets, and rickety wood and iron. The stench of death still hung along muddy puddles of blood that were something in between red and brown. Barbed wire snagged plastic bags, fluttering in a forlorn breeze. Scenes of doves, rivers and a sun setting over palm trees were painted on blast walls, dissonant with a landscape that, from its dusty palm fronds to its dead grass, was painted solely in grays and browns.
"It is forbidden to stop," a concrete barrier read at the very place police Maj. Gen. Maarid Abdel-Hassan stopped Tuesday to tour the market before the suicide bomber rushed his car and detonated explosives that tore through the crowd of men, women and children.
"We won't forget," said Ahmed Naji, whose brother Ali lay in a hospital bed, a tube in his nose draining blood from his wounds. "We won't forget what happened."
Ali was crossing the street when the assailant, dressed in a camouflage police uniform, threw himself toward Abdel-Hassan. The blast tore Ali's infant daughter, Aya, from his arms, flinging her down.
"Thank God," he said simply of her survival.
"It was like the day Baghdad fell," his brother Ahmed said. "No, it was worse."
Abdel-Hassan said insurgents fired on his men, unleashing gun battles that raged as his car sped away. Police stationed in the area blamed soldiers in his convoy for firing randomly. Survivors at the hospital, along with doctors and staff, insisted the general's soldiers simply lost control, pouring gunfire at survivors as they staggered through the market.
"Anyone who moved was shot," Ali said.
"It's an army of occupation," a man attending his wounds said under his breath.
Ahmed Tahsin, so gaunt he looks younger than his 12 years, sold plastic bags in the market for about 20 cents. His father was dead, in a car accident before the war. His mother abandoned him. His half sister, Noura, had raised him and his brother, Hossam.
"It's hurting," Ahmed cried in the room next door, as a doctor tried to snake a tube through his nose to drain blood from surgeries that removed part of his stomach and intestine. His spleen was, in the doctor's words, shattered. "I can't bear it!" he cried again.
"Shut up!" the doctor barked. "It's for your own good."
"Don't let him put it in my nose," the boy begged, sobbing, swallowed by the blanket that was tossed over him. "Don't let him. Somebody please talk to him."
His brother leaned against a grimy wall, crying.
"What did he do to deserve this?" Hossam said. "Why? He didn't do anything wrong."
The sun poured down outside. It does that in Iraq, relentless as it batters. Abdullah and Awad stood with other men near the refrigerated morgue, sweat gathering on their brows as they waited to collect their relatives. They couldn't travel in the hours after the attack. All the roads were closed.
"They wouldn't let anyone, not a single person, come in or out," Abdullah said.
He went that night to retrieve his 28-year-old cousin, Raed Sabar Abed. He returned Wednesday to bury his 63-year-old aunt, Baraka Hussein Khalaf. Her body was stored inside, along with nine other corpses and the remains of the bomber's legs.
"A nightmare," Abdullah said.
"I want to know the dialogue that goes on between them right now. I hope they ask him why he killed them," he said. "I want them to know his answer."
The Karkh Cemetery is a few miles from the market, which was abandoned Wednesday but for a few vendors selling tomatoes, eggplants, squash, bananas, oranges and the potatoes for which Abu Ghraib is known. A ledger sat on the desk at the cemetery's entrance.
"Rasoul Fadhil Abbas" read the first name, born in 1988. "Abdel-Majid Hamid Ahmed" read the second, born in 1995. "Mohammed Khudeir" read the third, born in 1998.
Thirteen more names followed. The cause of death was identical for each.
Infijar, it read. "Explosion."
The bodies were buried under piles of dirt not yet settled. The names were scrawled by hand in cheap concrete. A palm frond jutted from the dirt of each grave. Occasionally there was incense. A sign of the newly dead, black crows fluttered near denuded eucalyptus trees.
"God have mercy on them," said the gravedigger, Akram Ahmed.