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In the Rubble of Falluja
 
Nermeen Al-Mufti accompanies a relief convoy into the city of untold stories and unbearable pain
News from Falluja has been scarce and one-sided. Even the photos are censored. The access road to the city is still closed. The only people allowed in are those working with the Iraqi Red Crescent (RC).
I am at the RC information office in Baghdad, waiting to travel to Falluja with an RC convoy. An old man walks in and takes a picture of a young man from his pocket. It is his son, Raad Maoloud. The father thinks he has been killed in Falluja, and he wants to know if the Red Crescent has come across his body or buried it. Another man walks in with photos of a son and two brothers, asking similar questions.
I remember Umm Omar, my neighbour, who still carries the picture of Omar, her son, who went missing in 1983, during the war with Iran. My reverie is interrupted by the voice of Haytham Said, a volunteer, announcing that RC teams have evacuated 275 bodies which are now preserved in refrigerators. The photos will be of little help. Most of the bodies are decomposed and the families have to try and remember the clothes their relatives were wearing.
According to well-informed sources, 600 bodies or so are still lying under the rubble in Falluja. Others have been dismembered by dogs, thrown in the river, or completely decomposed. Most buildings and markets have been destroyed. The city has no electricity, drinking water, telephone service, or sewage network.
Our trip begins at 9am. The man leading the mission, RC chief Dr Said Hiqqi, tells me that the RC is trying to supply the people with the basic necessities. They have set up Crescent House as a hostel for the displaced and the homeless, and they are evacuating women, children, and old people who wish to leave the city, and moving patients to hospitals. The RC entered Falluja only a few days ago. Since then, it has evacuated 17 women and children, and more are to follow.
Within less than half an hour, our convoy arrives at a US checkpoint near the Abu Ghraib prison, now infamous as a US base and detention facility. Dozens of floodlights are still on, even though it's broad daylight. And this, at a time when Baghdad is under electricity rationing (two hours on, six hours off). Our convoy consists of 33 employees and volunteers, six ambulances, and a relief truck, the latter carrying supplies and drinking water. The vehicles are clearly marked with the RC flag.
I don't expect the convoy to be stopped, as it bears the flag of a neutral international organisation. But instead we do stop, for a long time. Permits have to be obtained. The convoy vehicles and passengers are searched. Then we wait some more. A truck arrives carrying bedding, food, and a sign reading "Relief to Falluja the steadfast". The truck is turned back.
Two hours into the waiting, three mortar shells, perhaps meant for the prison, land near us in the dust. Another hour passes, then finally permission is given and the convoy begins to move. In the past, the journey from Baghdad to Falluja used to take 45 minutes. We have an escort of Marine military vehicles. They keep their distance from the convoy in order to reduce the likelihood of our cars being attacked.
Arriving at the outskirts of Falluja, we are greeted by columns of smoke and a checkpoint manned jointly by the Iraqi National Guard and the Marines. A National Guard soldier tells us that Falluja is calm and that the smoke and the explosions we can hear are due to the detonation of the immense quantities of ammunition seized in the city. In the background, I can make out light arms fire. No one comments on it.
On our right is the Askari district with its fancy villas now in ruins. A nearby mosque has lost one of its minarets, and another is peppered with shellfire. On our left is the industrial area, its workshops all burnt out or demolished.
We are waiting again. It is time for prayers, but I hear no call to prayer. Normal life has come to a standstill. Only 10,000 people remain in Falluja out of a total of 650,000 inhabitants. Two hours later, we move on, past the empty shells of houses in the districts of Al-Dubbat Al-Oula, Al-Dubbat Al-Thaniya, and Al-Shurta. The doors all stand open, on orders from the Marines. Children's toys and bicycles litter the empty parks, where the unused swings sway in the wind.
We pass the Al-Hadra Al- Mohamadiya Mosque, which is now a US detention facility. More ruined mosques. In the deserted streets, abandoned passenger cars are redeployed as roadblocks.
Finally, we arrive at Crescent House, a magnificent structure that was originally the home of Khalaf Shadid, a local merchant who has fled the city with his family. Shadid's son, an RC volunteer, stayed behind and turned the home into a refugee safe house after the shelling had stopped.
There, I meet Haj Fouad Al-Kebeisi, 54. He now works as a volunteer with the RC, burying the dead. Al-Kebeisi tells me how Haj Radif Abdel-Wahed, 90, the oldest merchant in Falluja, died. Abdel-Wahed was in the yard doing his ablutions before prayers when a sniper bullet hit him. His children buried him in the garden.
I run into Haj Mahmoud, accompanied by his wife and six surviving children. Mahmoud's 13-year- old son, Mostafa, was killed by shrapnel. The family's house was burned down. Having lost all their possessions -- cars, jewellery, money, furniture -- they took refuge in the one remaining room of their otherwise destroyed home. The mother says that during Ramadan she would soak rice in a little water and the family would eat it for iftar. The day their house was hit, they ate nothing for 24 hours.
Haj Mahmoud says that they did not leave the city because they thought that the fighting would be confined to the outskirts, as it was last April. They did not expect the whole city to be shelled and destroyed. The Americans, he assures me, want to punish the city for not welcoming them. Zarqawi was only a pretext, Mahmoud says.
Mahmoud's daughter Fatema, 16, a student at the Teachers Institute, says that she used to have big dreams. Now all she wants is to be a normal person once again, to live without fear. The family's youngest son Abdel-Gabbar, aged three, has been traumatised by the shelling, and still runs to his mother's arms whenever he hears a loud noise, even if it is just a door slamming. Aisha, 14, misses her younger brother and says she cannot forget the sight of him lying dead in front of the house.
The whole city is calm. So calm, it is disturbing. Falluja today is a city of untold stories and unspeakable pain. The only electricity in the whole town is that produced by the generator at Crescent House.