The News From Planet Falluja
Tariq is an upper-middle-class Canadian medical student of Palestinian origin. He is a Muslim, fluent in Arabic and English, very smart, very young, brave and a bit naïve. He is an obsessive computer geek with a tendency toward pedantry on matters technological. Over the past two years he has spent several months in Palestine doing solidarity work.
In late June--against the advice of even a pro-resistance ex-army officer--Tariq went to Falluja, a city under siege and controlled by the mujahedeen. In early May the US Marines had essentially given control of the city to the insurgents. But on June 24 fighting flared up again when US planes bombed several houses and the Marines tried to enter the city. That was the day that Tariq headed to Falluja; his goal was to work in a civilian hospital.
Once in Falluja, he called in periodically over the next few days to myself and two other journalists with whom I share an otherwise empty hotel. After forty-eight hours with no word from him and just as we were about to hit the panic button, Tariq showed up at our hotel looking gaunt, smelling bad, wearing somebody else's clothes and totally freaked out. His description of Falluja, tinged with Stockholm syndrome rationalizations, painted a picture of what can only be described as collective insanity. This is his story:
Tariq took a bus to Falluja, and before he could find the hospital he was intercepted by two mujahedeen fighters and taken to the US-trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, made up of Iraqi army veterans, many of them former Baathists. The ICDC--renamed the Iraqi National Guard after the June 30 transition--asked him some questions, then deposited him with two "plainclothes" guys who turned out to be leaders of a mujahedeen cell. In Falluja, everyone is mujahedeen: the ICDC, the US-trained Iraqi police and most of the people. More than anywhere else in Iraq, Falluja is tribal, religious and insular--it is a unique piece of the bigger picture.
The two men took charge of Tariq, telling him they had to "check him out" before he could do any medical work. For the rest of his days in Falluja he was in the custody of a resistance cell made up of about ten local Falluja boys who had military experience but very little education. They had started their organizing and training a year before the US invasion.
Tariq repeatedly requested placement in a hospital or clinic but was instead held by this cell and given a tour of life among the fighters. Every few hours he was moved from house to house in cars packed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and what seemed to be modified Sidewinder missiles (originally developed in the United States as air-to-air missiles, they had been taken from Iraqi warplanes by the mujahedeen, who now used them as shoulder-fired rockets).
"They were really nice guys," says Tariq. At first the nice guys were convinced that Tariq was a spy. The group tried to check his encrypted, Linux-loaded laptop but couldn't get it working. To save face, the local muj computer expert pretended it was all clear, but then snagged it for safekeeping.
On the first day that Tariq was held--but "not as a hostage," as the muj cell kept telling him--they ran into a wounded fighter who had been grazed by a bullet. Tariq was able to patch him up with no problem. The cell began to trust the med student, plus they were very impressed that he had a stethoscope.
"They really are simple people. Really," says Tariq, unwinding his tale in our hotel. "It's all about trust and family. They have no idea about security, technology. It is just God, kin and the nation. It's Alabama in Arabic. It really is."
Even though Tariq gained the trust of the cell, they lied to him and manipulated him every day, taking his passport and his computer, never delivering him to the hospital as promised and often taking him to the frontlines against his will.