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