Samar Hussein was killed by a bomb that fell on dusty farmland miles outside Baghdad. But, as Kim Sengupta discovers, she is just one of this war's forgotten victims
Samar Hussein was in the kitchen helping her aunt Alia Mijbas to make breakfast when the missile landed. The farmhouse where they lived, like most of the hoes in the area, is built of a soft, brown stone, and the explosion was close enough for shrapnel to cut through the house's outer walls like butter and slice into Samar's stomach. Alia was struck on both legs by razor-sharp fragments, while her five-year-old son Mahmood, who was drinking a glass of milk, was hit on the chest and shoulders. The blast knocked over the cooker, which burst into flames, severely burning one of Mahmood's brothers, 11-year-old Sahal. All were rushed to hospital, but Samar died before they got there. She was 13 years old.
The victims of this particular explosion were in Manaria, a village in Mohammedia district, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. Since the war began, this mostly rural area of dusty brown fields and quiet villages has seen 53 inhabitants injured and 22 killed.
These figures don't come from Iraqi government ministers as they tot up the numbers of victims of "American and British aggression" during their daily news conferences in Baghdad. Instead, I learnt of these deaths from a doctor at the local hospital. For it seems that, while vivid atrocities in Baghdad – such as the marketplace bombings at Sha'ad and Shu'ale, which killed 72 people in two days – get huge international publicity, everyone, including Saddam Hussein's regime, is unaware of the steadily rising number of casualties in the rural areas just outside the capital.
What is happening in Mohammedia emerged only by chance. Last Saturday, after the press had been taken to view the aftermath of the bombing of Shu'ale, the Ministry of Information announced that "another big massacre" had taken place, this time in Mohammedia. I and a handful of journalists negotiated the red tape necessary for even such a short trip outside Baghdad, and traveled to the Mohammedia Hospital. We discovered that there had in fact been "just" one death, Samar's (later, senior officials at the Ministry of Information would "apologise" for this low body count, explaining that they had been misinformed by their subordinates).
At the hospital I met Alia Mijbas, who, though injured herself, was trying to comfort her son Mahmood as he lay screaming in the next bed. The doctors had told her that he had very little chance of pulling through; they said her son Sahal would survive, but would be disfigured by his burns. "It is very hard to see Mahmood suffer like this," she told me. "I wish I could do something, but I cannot. I am also worried about my other son – he too is suffering badly. Why did this happen?"
Alia's doctor is Luay Nhayim, a young, English-speaking medic at the hospital, who trained in Dublin. Unprompted by any ministry minder, he told me that he and his colleagues were both surprised and alarmed by the number of bomb victims being brought to the hospital. They were not aware – and he stressed the word "aware" carefully – that there were any large military installations in the vicinity. Dr Nhayim then showed me a list of the names of dead and injured, and asked if I had any idea why this small group of villages had been targeted. So I went back to Manaria.
To reach the village of Manaria, where about 50 families make their living from the land, you drive down a narrow, winding and unpaved road through dusty brown fields. Samar's home is surrounded by these fields, encircled by irrigation channels and swaying stalks of wheat. The only signs of the missile that killed Samar last Saturday morning are a small crater and the pockmarks of shrapnel damage scattered across the house walls and the family's battered Toyota Cressida.
"We heard a plane and went outside; it was very loud," 12-year-old Ahmed, one of Samar's brothers, told me. "One of my aunts grabbed me and pulled me around the corner. There was a big, big sound, and smoke. Then I heard screaming inside."
Samar's 40-year-old mother, Hamida, was telling her not to go out when the missile exploded. "She just fell. I could see blood coming from her stomach. She was gasping, and as I ran to her she was crying, 'Mama, Mama'... It was so terrible." She stopped, and wiped her eyes with her black chador before continuing. "There were others also hurt, and everyone was crying and screaming. We had to wait for a car because ours was so badly damaged. But I knew my Samar would not last until we got to the hospital. And that is what happened – she died in my arms..." Hamida's voice faded away.
Samar's formal education had ended earlier this year, when she had been taken out of school to help with the farm. But she loved reading, and wrote the family's letters for them. "She made me promise her that when we could afford it she would go back to school," said her father, Jasem Hussein. "Maybe it would have been possible, but now all that is gone. I do not know why they did this, I do not understand."
There is a similar incomprehension, as well as anger, in two other villages in the district, Zambrania and Talkana. Between them they have lost 19 people in a series of air attacks. Two members of the al-Yussuf family died in Zambrania. One, 12-year-old Ibrahim, had been sent there from Baghdad to stay with relations because his parents thought the capital was too dangerous.
Selim Haidari al-Yussuf, 54, told me that his 17-year-old son, Jalal, and Ibrahim, his nephew, died as they were making their way to a neighbour's house. "It was around midday, and my wife had just said the two boys would be eating their lunch with my friend Abdullah, who has the next farm. Then we heard something going very fast through the air, and then the loud noise.
"I started running straight away – I knew something bad had happened. When I got there I found Ibrahim was dead and Jalal was very hurt. He had a big open wound in his neck and there was blood pouring out. He was taken to hospital: he died there." Al-Yussuf, a tall man with a ramrod-straight back, sagged suddenly, sitting down on a rug on the ground and putting his head in his hands. His wife Rahima knelt beside him and stroked his hair.
Then he looked up and made a grab for a rifle leaning against a nearby tree. "I shall never forgive them for what they did to the two boys. For what? For what? We are farmers, we were not fighting in this war. But now I shall fight. I shall try to kill American and British soldiers when I meet them. Allah will know I am in the right." Three other men in his family joined in, proclaiming loudly that they will avenge their deaths. This may, of course, have been bravado, but they all carried AK-47 semi-automatics, arms handed out by the authorities to fight the invasion.
At Talkana, near Rashid, 68-year-old Amina al-Nimr lay on a string bed outside her home, her left leg and arm heavily bandaged. She had been carrying bread back to the house where three generations of her family live when she was caught by the blast from an exploding missile. A 50-year-old neighbour, Khursa Ali, was killed. "She was a young woman compared to me, and one of her daughters had just got married. But she died and I lived," said Mrs al-Nimr. "But I am in much pain. I have bones broken and cuts. When one gets to my age, the pain is worse. I remember very little of what happened. There was a noise and a strong force that threw me down. They told me later it was a bomb."
The dead from both villages are buried in desolate rows of graves at the Haj Khudair cemetery, a garden of sand and mud. The newest grave, a mound of grey earth, is that of Samar Hussein. In the rows behind her are the rest of the dead brought in during the last fortnight, matching many of the names in the hospital's casualty list.
Daoud, the cemetery's caretaker, was re-arranging some palm fronds covering the graves. "There have been more people buried here in the last two weeks than in the last two years. I knew some of them. They were killed by the Americans and the British," he said. "They all had simple ceremonies, because none of these people are rich. What is so sad is that many of those brought here were so young. We heard about the bombings in Baghdad and Basra, but we did not expect them here."
Why should they have? There is nothing within half a mile of these villages apart from fields. As of yesterday, the US army has been moving through this area on its way to Baghdad, but in the previous weeks, when these villagers died, there was no sign of any military presence apart from a few checkpoints manned by bored local militia, who were only too keen to talk to someone with news of Baghdad. Both Hassan Ali Hussein, the village headman at Manaria, and Abdullah Amran, a captain in the militia, were adamant that there had been no movement of Iraqi military in the area that could have attracted the US and British warplanes. "What made them think there were soldiers or weapons there?" asked Captain Amran. "The land is flat, you can see to the distance. Can you see even anti-aircraft guns? They are not here because no one thought they were needed to defend farms."
Hassan Hussein agreed. "There is nothing hidden here. Even if the Americans thought something was hidden, why are they attacking the villagers instead of the hiding places? What do they want to achieve by this? All the men here now want to fight the Americans and British, because, surely, they want to kill us." As if in agreement, as we spoke, a bomb exploded 500 yards away. It had landed on a patch of barren land.
Back at Mohammedia Hospital, Dr Nhayim was as perplexed – and concerned – as ever. "We were prepared to deal with casualties should any land fighting occur near here. But we were completely taken by surprise by the bombings – we don't know the cause, and we don't think they are justified. My colleagues who worked here during the 1991 conflict tell me too that the type of wounds we are seeing now is different – there is more deep penetration. The weapons are more advanced. We suspect they are cluster bombs."
So far, the US and British forces have said nothing about the casualties in Mohammedia, though they have claimed that civilian deaths in Baghdad were caused by Iraqi anti-aircraft shells falling back to ground or – worse – were engineered by the Iraqis as a form of black propaganda. However, the type of damage inflicted – and some of it does look suspiciously like the result of cluster bombs – along with the fact that the Baghdad regime has not sought to capitalise on, and indeed seems unaware of, what is happening here, makes an Iraqi set-up seem unlikely.
There is always the possibility that American planners at Central Command have information showing that these isolated villages contain secret caches, part of Saddam's arsenal. Or, perhaps, those people I thought were farmers were in fact Republican Guards in disguise. But what is much more likely is that the deaths in these villages are the result of misinformation, or simple human error. This does, of course, happen; I have seen it in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Whatever the cause, the result has been to sow a deep enmity – and a desire for retribution – in the hearts and minds of precisely those people Washington and London most want to win over. And if that is happening in Mohammedia, it is almost certainly happening in the rest of Iraq.