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Snapshots of Life and Death in Baghdad

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Posted on Jul 3, 2008
Baghdad calling

Hot wheels: One of a series of photos from Baghdad collected by Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren.

By Robert Fisk

Originally printed in The Independent.

Three bodies lie beside a Baghdad street on a blindingly hot day. The one on the right is dressed in a white shirt and bright green trousers, his hands tied behind his back. Two others on the left lie shoeless, both dressed in check shirts, dumped—how easily we use that word of Baghdad’s corpses—on a yard of dirt and bags of garbage. They, too, of course, are now garbage. The wall behind them, a grim barrier of dun-coloured brick, seals off this horror from two two-storey villas and a clutch of palm trees, the normal life of Baghdad just a wall away from the other “normal” life of Baghdad’s sectarian killings. No one knows whose bodies they are and the picture—taken from a car window—was snapped in fear by an unknown Iraqi.

It is a cell-phone picture, for now only the cell phones of the Iraqi people can record their tragedy. Another shows a young man’s body, taken from beside a car wing mirror, hands tied behind his back with his own shirt. Bombs explode across the Baghdad skyline, columns of smoke move into the air like sinister ghosts. Palm trees block off streets of fearful Iraqis. A car bomb blazes, the faint image of a US Humvee outlined against the trees. There are broken bridges, wounded friends, blood-soaked cloth.

But there are also families; even a Muslim family celebrating Christmas, all dressed in Santa Claus hats, and a graduation party where the girls wear Bedouin black dresses with gold-fringed scarves and the boys wear Arab headdress and white abayas—something quite foreign to the middle classes of what was once one of the most literate and educated cities of the Middle East.

But it is the cell phone that has captured this terrible, fearful, brave face of Baghdad. Western photographers can no longer roam the streets of the Iraqi capital—and few other cities in Iraq—and in south-west Afghanistan, the same phenomenon has occurred.


Square, Site wide
We Westerners need the locals to photograph their tragedy and their ragged, often fuzzy, poorly framed pictures contain their own finely calibrated and terrible beauty. The fear of the cell-phone snapper is contained in almost every frame. Most of the Iraqis are refugees-to-be, for the Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren, who collected 388 pages of photographs for his book Baghdad Calling, wanted to catalogue the tragedy of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are the largely ignored victims of our demented 2003 invasion and occupation.

Van Kesteren, an unassuming but imaginative journalist whom I met recently in Holland, noticed that refugees used their cell phones as family albums and decided, in the words of Brigitte Lardinois, formerly director of Magnum Photos in London, “to let the pictures of ordinary, non-professional photographers tell the story this time”. Iraqi refugees in Jordan asked friends to send more pictures from Baghdad.

Some were rejected because of their suspect provenance—alas, we therefore do not see the picture of an American soldier, apparently firing a rifle from atop a donkey, but which might have been digitally edited—but others cannot be anything but the truth. The smiling families, hiding in their homes as the killers roam the darkness outside, the young men relaxing in the safety of Kurdistan, swimming in the lakes, revelling in the nightlife, the plump nephew of one of the anonymous cell-phone photographers sitting on a bright red sports car, have to be real.

It must have been hard for Van Kesteren, a news photographer in his own right, to have submerged his own work for this brilliant amateur collection. A few of Van Kesteren’s own professional pictures appear in Baghdad Calling but they are taken in the safety of Syria, Jordan or Turkey and—save for a group photograph of courageous Iraqis captured after illegally crossing the Turkish border but still determined to escape from their country again—they lack the power and immediacy of the Iraqi snapshots.

The refugee statistics are so appalling that they have become almost mundane. Four million of Iraq’s 23 million people have fled their homes—until recently, at the rate of 60,000 a month—allegedly more than 1.2 million to Syria (a figure now challenged by at least one prominent NGO), 500,000 to Jordan, 200,000 to the Gulf, 70,000 to Egypt, 57,000 to Iran, up to 40,000 to Lebanon, 10,000 to Turkey. Sweden has accepted 9,000, Germany fewer—where an outrageous political debate has suggested that Christian refugees should have preference over Muslim Iraqis. With its usual magnanimity—especially for a country that set off this hell-disaster by its illegal invasion—George Bush’s America has, of course, accepted slightly more than 500.

This collection of pictures is therefore an indictment of us, as well as of the courage of Iraqis. The madness is summed up in an email message sent to Van Kesteren by a Baghdad Iraqi. “This summer,” he wrote, “a workman wanted to quench his thirst by putting ice in his tea. A car pulled up, the driver stepped out and began to beat and kick the man, cursing him as an unbeliever. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Did the Prophet Mohamed put ice in his water?’

The man being attacked was furious and asked his assailant: ‘Do you think the Prophet Mohamed drove a car?’ ”

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By mrmb, July 8, 2008 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another good read:

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By nefertiti, July 8, 2008 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

I (a Muslim) am Involved with Many US citizens in a forum , we talk mainly MIddle East politics and we happen to have a lot in common , anti-Neocons , bush and we support the Palestinian cause. 
I wrote to them the other day to wish them a a wonderful Independence day , and i said have a great BBQ , and fire works , and tell me all about it .
I was suprised that ALL responded in the same sad almost mourning tone , that there will be no celebrations until iraq is free and Bush is out of the whiteHouse , etc..  I was even more proud of my American friends .

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By mrmb, July 8, 2008 at 9:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


I knew you would love it. I really would like to know if others find it plausible and even a posibility that we are the number one sponsor of terrorism. Last time I checked we were. Sad but true.

Have you heard of the term dirty cops? These cops become so corrupted in their zeal to fight the mob and the criminals that they become just like them and even worse, since the carry the badge and can get away with murder. Thats us to the rest of the world. Self appointed cop that has become corrupted to the bone and is unable to distinghuish right from wrong.

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By cyrena, July 8, 2008 at 3:03 am Link to this comment


This is an excellent article for which you’ve posted the link from global research. I’m taking the liberty of posting the first few paragraphs of it here, (along with the link again) as well as on the thread for the “advertising of terror.”

Really an excellent find. The bibliography is worth it’s weight in gold. I love this site.


By mrmb, July 7 at 2:45 pm #

Must read aid=9447

State-Sponsored Terror: British and American Black Ops in Iraq

By Andrew G. Marshall

Global Research, June 25, 2008

Shining Light on the “Black World”
In January of 2002, the Washington Post ran a story detailing a CIA plan put forward to President Bush shortly after 9/11 by CIA Director George Tenet titled, “Worldwide Attack Matrix,” which was “outlining a clandestine anti-terror campaign in 80 countries around the world. What he was ready to propose represented a striking and risky departure for U.S. policy and would give the CIA the broadest and most lethal authority in its history.” The plan entailed CIA and Special Forces “covert operations across the globe,” and at “the heart of the proposal was a recommendation that the president give the CIA what Tenet labeled “exceptional authorities” to attack and destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the rest of the world.” Tenet cited the need for such authority “to allow the agency to operate without restraint—and he wanted encouragement from the president to take risks.” Among the many authorities recommended was the use of “deadly force.”

Further, “Another proposal was that the CIA increase liaison work with key foreign intelligence services,” as “Using such intelligence services as surrogates could triple or quadruple the CIA’s effectiveness.” The Worldwide Attack Matrix “described covert operations in 80 countries that were either underway or that he was now recommending. The actions ranged from routine propaganda to lethal covert action in preparation for military attacks,” as well as “In some countries, CIA teams would break into facilities to obtain information.”[1]

~P2OG: “Commit terror, to incite terror… in order to react to terror”~

In 2002, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board (DSB) conducted a “Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism,” portions of which were leaked to the Federation of American Scientists. According to the document, the “War on Terror” constitutes a “committed, resourceful and globally dispersed adversary with strategic reach,” which will require the US to engage in a “long, at times violent, and borderless war.” As the Asia Times described it, this document lays out a blueprint for the US to “fight fire with fire.” Many of the “proposals appear to push the military into territory that traditionally has been the domain of the CIA, raising questions about whether such missions would be subject to the same legal restraints imposed on CIA activities.” According to the Chairman of the DSB, “The CIA executes the plans but they use Department of Defense assets.”

Specifically, the plan “recommends the creation of a super-Intelligence Support Activity, an organization it dubs the Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG), to bring together CIA and military covert action, information warfare, intelligence and cover and deception. For example, the Pentagon and CIA would work together to increase human intelligence (HUMINT) forward/operational presence and to deploy new clandestine technical capabilities.” The purpose of P2OG would be in “‘stimulating reactions’ among terrorists and states possessing weapons of mass destruction, meaning it would prod terrorist cells into action, thus exposing them to ‘quick-response’ attacks by US forces.”[2] In other words, commit terror to incite terror, in order to react to terror.

More at the link about as posted by mrmb. It *is* a must read.

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By mrmb, July 7, 2008 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Must read

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By Jimmy, July 6, 2008 at 11:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear American Reader.  What’s happening in Iraq at this moment is genocide, just like what was practiced against the Native American Indians from the time of the Mayflower to the present.  Then they wanted the land, now, they want the land, without the people.

Genocide is a crime, punishable up to death.  There are many people in the USA who are willing supporters who benefit from these crimes of the past and the present.

In the past these Genocidal Criminals have gotten away with their crimes.  The crimes before now have been commited in the era of a good economy and with the prospects of future economic growth.

This is now changing with the USA and the leaders in business being now totally discredited by the policies of the past 30 years of mismanagement.  We are now in the initial stages of what I would call the Great Depression 2.

So much now for the background on my point.

The point is that this Clique that runs the USA is not going to give up power democratically.  This was shown in the last two presidential elections where the clear winner was in the Democrats camp.  This is not saying some democrats are not participating in this criminal operation.

The conclusion that I’m coming to is that the citizens, the real Patriots, the people who have a real love for their country, have to understand this and to organize an independent political process to cleanse the country of these Criminals who have put the politics of the USA back to the period that resembles the year 1900. 

We must prosecute this administration with no exceptions, down to the state and local level, to root out the infection that’s in our country.  The political problem is not just on the surface, it’s systemic.

We must have he attitude that if you want to appeal any verdict, it will just have to be from your cell.

Think about it: The same people who are trying to genocide the Iraq people out of existance are the same people who are using their economic model to run (ruin) the economy.  I’m convinced they all know each other.

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By Bert, July 6, 2008 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As the United States homogenizes itself into a 2nd and 1/2 world country as a byproduct of having stretched our national resources paper-thin to cover all bets, both foreign, and domestic, look for this kind of behavior on Main St., USA, coming soon, to a neighborhood near you! Complete with ghetto-gangstas in pimpy hondas with racer wings on the trunk.

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By cyrena, July 6, 2008 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

By samosamo, July 4 at 2:26 pm #

•  “I certainly won’t be celebrating anything american today. Not when I don’t see the america I used to know. And certainly not as long as those [expletive deleted] in congress, the white house and the head dicks in the pentagon keep sending our troops into wars that have no basis other than furthering agendas that allow these [expletive deleted] huge financial gains and a totally different government than what the people elect these bastards to uphold.”

Hot Damn samosamo…you took the words right out of my mouth! wink

Gave me just about the only thing to smile about today, and the day before, and the day before that.

Same here:

•  ”May every single one of them catch the blowback that they have so richly earned in their endevours for their greed and and total lack of compassion. A total morally bankrupt bunch of shit that are lower than the belly of a snake slithering through a cess pool.”

Yep, lower than the belly of a snake slithering through a cesspool sucking gully water. WAY lower!!
Anyway, just keep up the good work….  No holding back. We need to know how you really feel, and it’s great because you speak for several of us. (well me for sure)  I love the descriptive.

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By Bukko in Australia, July 6, 2008 at 12:56 am Link to this comment

We need voices like Fisk’s to tell us that all is NOT going well in the Babylon Oil Colony, despite the accepted corporate media line that the “surge” worked and it’s all pacified there.

Fisk is the greatest truth-teller I know of about the century of carnage in the Middle East. Has anyone read his book “The Great War for Civilisation”? It’s 1,200 pages in paperback, and took me almost a year to plow through. (In between the other books I was reading.) But after that, I had a much better understanding of what’s going on, and I’ve been paying attention. You hate-filled anti-Semites who infest this site will love it, because Fisk spares no harsh word when it comes to the conduct of Israel.

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By Spinoza750, July 4, 2008 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

Sad and predictable and the war mongers are planning to do Iran.

Revolution is the solution.

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By sophrosyne, July 4, 2008 at 5:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Truth is the question raised in the 2004 election used as a “gotcha” question has been reposed:  Is America better off with the overthrow of Saddam? The answer is clear.  No, America is much worse off and the Iraqi’s are much worse off as well. Bush’s war on America has had dreadful consequences.

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By samosamo, July 4, 2008 at 3:26 pm Link to this comment

I certainly won’t be celebrating anything american today. Not when I don’t see the america I used to know. And certainly not as long as those [expletive deleted] in congress, the white house and the head dicks in the pentagon keep sending our troops into wars that have no basis other than furthering agendas that allow these [expletive deleted] huge financial gains and a totally different government than what the people elect these bastards to uphold.
May every single one of them catch the blowback that they have so richly earned in their endevours for their greed and and total lack of compassion. A total morally bankrupt bunch of shit that are lower than the belly of a snake slithering through a cess pool.
As a note and a tale tell one at that, there have not been the usual fireworks going off during the day that one hears on a 4th of July. Kinda hard to justify the money output for something that lasts for less than a second much less the price of gas to go get them.

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By philawed, July 4, 2008 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

The story told by Fisk is frighteningly accurate, and certainly congruent with my experience living in the Red Zone and trying to do economic development.  On the “lighter side”, cell phones not only were family albums for Iraqi men, but also a ubiquitous source of porn and a way to order alcohol. Anybody who believes that we invaded and occupied an unsophisticated and mostly secular society has bought into the demonology and Orwellian terminology of the Administration.  Anyone who believes we can suppress the robust life of even the “few” left in Iraq has bought into the same.

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By felicity, July 4, 2008 at 10:54 am Link to this comment

Historically when a country sinks into the abyss that defines Iraq, the educated and financially better off flee.  Almost without exception out of the chaos come the Saddams of the world while those who may have effectively opposed them have left the country.

Bush and company’s only concern is that the next ‘Saddam’ will be their Saddam.

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By buffalo kaplinski, July 4, 2008 at 10:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i BELIVE this ARTICLE is BRUTALLY HONEST and HORRIBLE at the same TIME ! as we get set to WAVE OUR FLAGS and WATCH FIREWORKS TONIGHT [ written on the 4 th of JULY ] can we REALLY CELEBRATE what THE GOOD old U.S.A. has STARTED in the MIDDLE EAST ? WHERE are we GOING ? and DO WE REALLY think this can end HAPPILLY EVER AFTER ? ALL i can say is ” LORD PLEASE have MERCY on US and MANKIND send us REPENTANCE and LOVE for MANKIND ” see ISAIAH 45: 4-8

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By skulz fontaine, July 4, 2008 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

“What’s that Colombian drug courier doing in Baghdad?” He’s “couriering” drugs for the REAL drug cartel! Of course that would be the U.S. military. Besides the oil, the U.S. is in Afghanistan and Iraq for the heroin. Golly, why did you think the opium harvest continues unabated? The military gots to keep up the cash flow. THAT IS WHY Halliburton and their very own Kellogg, Brown, and Root are there in Afghanistan and then on to Iraq for that ‘transporting’ gig. The Bush’s and the Cheney’s and the Rumsfeld’s and the Petraeus’s and the Frank’s and all the trendy upper crust finance their lavish lifestyles using opium/heroin. Can’t make a buck in today’s collapsing stock market now, can you. Nope. The nightmare that has our world facing terminal sticker shock, has always been about oil and drugs. Well and that interminable Bush lying about his lying. Dead Iraqis are mere collateral damage as would be dead Afghans. The U.S. has an Israeli monkey on it’s back and that’s a “habit” that needs constant feeding. War profiteering? Drug war profiteering? Difference? Anyone? I know, let’s ask Ben Stein. Wait I know, we should ask Oliver North.

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By samosamo, July 3, 2008 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

This surely is another country. A fat man in Iraq?

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By Leefeller, July 3, 2008 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

As we the people fret about real important things like gay marriage, aliens taking jobs, abortion and right to shove photos of little bodies in our faces.  We stay divided and argue so the ignominious business of profiters continues without missing a beat.

Business is good for some.

FYI: Mike Gravel is supporting the Green Party candidate for what it is worth.  We may as well divide our votes for the business at hand will continue as is.

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By Blackspeare, July 3, 2008 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

Deja vu or what——looks like a few million Iraqis will be consigned, like the million or so Vietnamese, to the dust bin of history.  After WW II, everywhere the US went and goes death and destruction follow; from Central America to South America, from the Far East to the Middle East——maybe it’s just a bad dream?!

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