Kim Sengupta: The eye of the storm

From his hotel roof, Kim Sengupta watched the first bombs fall on Baghdad. Here he tells, day by day, how the city has coped with its first eight days of war
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The Independent Online

I was not meant to be here. If all had gone according to plan, by now I should have been sipping a large gin and tonic at the bar of the Intercontinental in Amman. But yesterday, at 6am, myself and a group of other journalists were arrested by Iraqi officials at the Jordanian border for attempting to take our dollars out of the country without the proper paperwork.

Wednesday 19 March

I was not meant to be here. If all had gone according to plan, by now I should have been sipping a large gin and tonic at the bar of the Intercontinental in Amman. But yesterday, at 6am, myself and a group of other journalists were arrested by Iraqi officials at the Jordanian border for attempting to take our dollars out of the country without the proper paperwork.

No one declares money being brought into Iraq because some of it immediately disappears into the pockets of the border officials. Normally, baksheesh is sufficient to take care of matters. But this time, astonishingly, there are no takers. The reason soon becomes clear; half a dozen heavies from the Mukhabarat secret police stand watching – one of them making a great show of examining the clip of his Makarov pistol.

I am carrying $7,000. Ciaran McQuillan, a producer with Associated Press Television News (APTN) has $50,000 on him. He and I are taken off to be questioned. It is as if the Mukhabarat are fishermen, and we are the fish. The catches keep coming in – Spanish television, Mexican radio, a Norwegian church worker, another $50,000. After 14 hours, we are driven to the Security Ministry detention centre at Ramadi, halfway back to Baghdad.

Here the atmosphere becomes more threatening. More heavies and more Makarov pistols (now gold-plated for more senior officials). There is a lot of lewd banter about two female journalists in the party. We resist attempts to separate them from us. One of the Mukhabarat men enters the room, where we are sitting on the floor, and starts to slap a metal-studded leather strap against his palm. There is some pushing and shouting: "Yalla, Yalla." One member of the Spanish television crew hears them muttering that we are spies. They are intending to intimidate us, and it works.

After a night spent on the floor we are told that we will be taken back to Baghdad. But Neyra Moncavo of Radio 13 in Mexico – the object of much of the Mukhabarat men's banter – must stay behind, they say, as they intend to let her go on to Amman. She does not believe them and wants to return to Baghdad with us. But this is not allowed. She cries as we leave, promising her that we will take up the matter later.

Thursday 20 March

We spent much of last night waiting for the bombs to fall, but by the early hours, most of us had fallen asleep. At 5.57am I am woken in my hotel room by the sound of the first US bomb to explode in Baghdad – a dull thud in the distance. Two more follow in quick succession. All around me are the sounds of doors slamming as journalists, who occupy most rooms in the Palestine Hotel, rush to secure a vantage point.

I run up to the roof with Richard Downes from RTE. Coming down the stairs is Rory McEwan, an organic farmer from Oban in Scotland, and a "human shield''. He has an almost empty glass of whisky in his hands, and his eyes are bright with excitement. "I have been waiting for this, it's fucking amazing," he says as he hurtles down the stairs.

Later, we receive a summons from the Ministry of Information, which offers to take us to the areas that have been hit. It turns out, instead, to be a slow coach-tour of Baghdad. Afterwards, a colleague and I travel independently to an area where the bombs and missiles have landed. Several homes have been hit and the residents' anger is palpable. "What have we done, why should they do this to us?'' an elderly woman in a black chador weeps, beating her hand on her thigh. Her husband leads her away, staring at us accusingly. Four men carrying AK-47 semi-automatic rifles arrive and watch us silently. As we leave I remember that just a week before I had visited this same street. Then, I was greeted with smiles.

Later still I hear that two of the places hit during this morning's raids were a customs post at the Jordanian border and a government building in Ramadi. I wonder if it is the Security Ministry. A strange coincidence.

Friday 21 March

I first met Khalid and Samira three years ago, when I bought a watercolour painted by Samira. Her husband, Khalid, had trained as an engineer in Hamburg and Sheffield, but in the now-bankrupt economy of Iraq the only work he could find was as a handyman and a store assistant, earning $15 a month. During subsequent visits I had got to know them well. I had bought painting materials for Samira, and we managed to establish that very rare thing in Iraq: a level of trust that allowed them to talk freely to a foreigner.

Now, sitting in their one-bedroom apartment, we discuss the imminent crossing of coalition troops into Iraq. Samira is enthusiastic and optimistic – at one stage she dances around the room holding their beautiful seven-month-old daughter, Jenan. Khalid is more wary. He does not trust the Americans, and fears that something cataclysmic may happen in Baghdad before the troops arrive. One of his cousins, Majid, is stationed with the Iraqi army near Basra, and Khalid's family is very worried. "His father, my uncle, was killed in the war against Iran. If anything happened to Majid, my aunt would never recover,'' Khalid says.

On the way back to the hotel my driver and I stop to buy some last-minute provisions from one of the very few stores left open. The shopkeeper and his customers ask me how long the bombing will last. "Would the Americans and the British harm ordinary people like us?'' says a woman as she clutches her young daughter by the hand. They are facing the unknown, and they are scared.

Back at the hotel, it's clear that we journalists are scared, too. No one is quite certain what is going to happen. To add to our collective paranoia, a group of young North Africans – Algerians and Moroccans – take up residence in the hotel. They look tough, and carry rucksacks and commando-style knives. They say they are students.

Tonight's bombing begins at 9.28pm, although it still doesn't seem to be the promised "shock and awe". Anyway, the press have something more urgent on their minds. Our Iraqi minders have begun a room-to-room search for banned satellite phones. For some hours, it is like being back at school, hiding tuckboxes as Matron prowls the dorm. Drastic steps are taken. One TV producer feigns a panic attack. Someone else throws his phone in the bath – forgetting that he'd already filled it with water. When six TV crews set up their cameras on the roof to film the night's bombing, officials throw them off and the crews are beaten and kicked.

One piece of good news, though – we hear that Neyra Moncavo, the radio reporter we left behind in Ramadi, has made it out to Amman.

Saturday 22 March

We are taken on a tour of a hospital, al-Yamoukh, to meet injured children. It is orchestrated by the authorities, but sad none the less. Ten-year-old Ramal Abbas smiles wanly as she is photographed yet again. Part of the maternity ward has been damaged, and the hospital shows us babies it claims were born prematurely during the previous night's bombing; one of them is slightly smaller than my A4 notepad.

Dr Hassana Rahim resents my talk of public relations. "Listen to me; these are real human beings, real babies. You may have been brought here for some purpose, but all this is real." Before I can reply, she has turned and walked away through a group of women cleaners chanting, "My blood, my spirit, I shall die for you, O Saddam" to a bank of TV cameras.

Outside, I meet a correspondent for a European newspaper; let us call him Umberto. His visa ran out back in February, and he received several orders to leave. But he is still here, furtively and briefly surfacing before disappearing back into the shadows. Like Saddam, he never sleeps in the same room for more than one night, and has so far managed to elude the security men. "What is going on? What he say? Where you go today? You tell me that, then we go practise abseiling," he says. Umberto means it. He runs for 90 minutes every day, and keeps a rope in his hotel rooms to shimmy down should they come for him.

The first bomb of the night lands at 8.58pm, rattling the windows of my hotel room. The bombardment through the night and most of the following day. Parts of the cityscape I know disappear in front of my eyes. The journalists, at last, have their "shock and awe".

Sunday 23 March

The Palace of Peace, with its four giant heads of Saddam Hussein, has been left with a gaping gash in its side by a cruise missile. "Look at that, look what they have done," cries my ministry minder, bouncing up and down in the car. "That place belongs to the people of Iraq, not just the President." He has not, of course, like other ordinary Iraqis, ever been allowed to set foot inside, and I recall the look of amazement on the faces of the Iraqi minders, translators and journalists who accompanied the United Nations weapons inspectors as they searched another of Saddam's palaces, Sajood, back in November.

This afternoon, a rumour sweeps through the city that two pilots, possibly British, have parachuted into the river Tigris from a stricken aircraft. I go to investigate, and find the banks of the river packed with soldiers and civilians. Bullrushes are set alight in an attempt to flush the airmen out. Soldiers fire into the water. Teenagers strip off their shirts to wade in the shallows with machetes. But the atmosphere is more carnival than lynch mob. We meet a deaf and dumb man, who mimes what he would do if he catches the two pilots.The onlookers cheer. Later he returns by himself and tries to tell us, we think, that he hopes the airmen were swept away, out of the reach of the soldiers

Monday 24 March

Darkness at noon, as the smoke from burning oil in ditches around the city combines with unseasonably cloudy weather to blot out the sun. I am filled with a sense of foreboding. Walking beside me in the al-Salhiya district, Dr Mohammed al-Nasr, an English teacher and lover of Thomas Hardy, looks up. "Do you think we shall see the sun again in Baghdad? We have been through some terrible times here, but this time it feels different, far more worrying. I cannot explain it." We stop for a coffee at the only place open within a half mile. "You see the streets, you notice there are no women, just men. And most of them have guns. It will get much worse," he says.

Tuesday 25 March

The day dawns with a dark, oily sky, and gradually a furious sandstorm develops. I meet up with two young men I have known for some time – "Selim" (not his real name) and his brother. They are from Saddam City, a vast, poor and violent suburban slum half an hour's drive from the centre of Baghdad. It is home to about 2 million Shia Muslims. Despite making up 60 per cent of the population of Iraq, the Shia Muslims have seen the reins of power stay firmly in the hands of the Sunni minority. Three years ago the township exploded when its Grand Ayatollah al-Sadr and his two sons were assassinated – a killing that Shia clerics blamed on Saddam Hussein's regime. How do they feel now, as the Americans and the British draw closer and closer to Baghdad?

"The British and Americans have been killing a lot of innocent people with their bombing," says Selim. "And they cannot stay here as occupiers. This is Iraq and we are Iraqis. If they want to take our oil, then we shall fight them. And, anyway, we cannot trust them. Maybe they do a deal even now with the government, get half the oil and go away. We shall watch and see what happens."

Wednesday 26 March

It is 11.45am when we hear the news: two missiles have slammed into a non-military area of homes and shops six miles from the centre of Baghdad. As I arrive, crowds of men are still retrieving body parts. A hand has been found 100 yards from where I'm standing, a foot just a little nearer. The explosions and the subsequent fireball have turned many of the buildings on both sides of the road into charnel houses. There is twisted metal and rubble everywhere. The rest is just ashes.

Rehana al-Haitam kneels on the churned mud with her head in her hands, a deep gash on her forehead. She will not speak, but just shakes her head from side to side. A man explains: "She thinks she has lost her husband and children. Others are searching, but she does not want to move."

I climb the stairs to an apartment above an electrical store. A family of four live here, but they are missing. The apartment is relatively undamaged: plates sit on a scratched white table, an exercise book with children's drawings lies on the floor, three pairs of slippers are lined up next to a sofa. One pair is for a child who could not have been more than three or four years old.

Back outside, standing by the shell of an incinerated car, Jamal al-Fauz says: "I saw someone driving this; I don't know what has happened to them. There was an oil tanker here, I think they hit that." He hands me some shrapnel that had gone through the outer wall of his home. A man pushes forward, desperation as well as anger in his eyes. "They are animals, why did they do this? They have taken away my wife, my daughter. Why do they like to kill like this?" His name is Safar; his daughter was nine years old.

The journalists follow as the injured are taken to Al-Khindi hospital. Here a little boy whose arm has been amputated stares at the television cameras, and asks for some water. One of the hospital officials asks us: "Do you think he will ever forget, or forgive?"

I step outside, into the dark brown rain. The bombing has started again.

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