Baghdad, March 2007
I didn’t want to go back.
When I began reporting from Iraq in 2002, I was still a wild and somewhat
naïve twenty-four-year-old kid. Five years later, I was battle-weary. I had been
there longer than the American military and had kept returning long after most
members of the “coalition of the willing” had pulled out. Iraq had become my
initiation, my rite of passage, but instead of granting me a new sense of myself
and a new identity, Iraq had become my identity. Without Iraq, I was
nothing. Just another photographer hanging around New York. In Iraq, I had a
purpose, a mission; I felt important. I didn’t want to go back, but I needed to—and for the worst possible reason: I wasn’t ready for it to end. After twelve months away, I had a craving that only Iraq could satisfy.
My wife didn’t like the idea. Neither did my shrink. “If you go back to Iraq
now,” he warned, “you’ll probably keep going back.” To be completely honest—and
I wasn’t being honest with myself then—part of me knew they were right.
Those are the opening lines of a remarkable moving photo essay by the photographer Ashley Gilbertson, in his article titled "Last Photographs" as it appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review. I am not a regular reader of the review and neither had I heard about Gilbertson (although I may have seen his pictures in the NY times), until I heard him interviewed on fresh air on NPR. Even without the benefit of being able to see the photographs that he was talking about I was riveted by the story. The story was not just about him but about the tragedy of war and the effects it has on those in the midst of it. In the interview, he talks about how he has gone from being pro-war to someone who is documenting a demise. You can interpret whose demise that he is documenting here, in addition to the obvious perhaps it is a metaphor for something larger.
Look at the photos in the article if you feel like and read his thoughts. Our media has hardly covered the war that way it ought to have but there are islands of excellence. This is one of them in my opinion. The part in the article that touched me..
I was winning a card game in the Kurdish headquarters when Times reporter Edward Wong rushed in to say a call had just come in from a Sunni woman in the process of being illegally evicted from her home. With no time to get our flak jackets
and helmets, we jumped into the back of a Kurdish armored truck. At the scene,
two men stood against a wall, arguing with a woman in a blue headscarf. One of
the men was armed with a pistol, the other with eviction papers. The men would
listen to the woman for a moment, then shout at her. Even after soldiers had
arrived at the scene, the men spoke and acted with conviction.
The woman in the blue headscarf was Suaada Saadoun, a widowed Sunni mother of
seven. After a year spent in Syria to escape sectarian violence, she and her
family had returned home to one of only four remaining Sunni households in the
Shiite Ali Salah section of Khadamiya. Suaada explained that the two men
claiming to be from the Ministry of Finance carried fraudulent eviction papers,
and that this was the second time since her return that they had attempted to
forcibly evict her and her family. Exasperated and with nowhere else to turn,
Suaada had called the Kurds....
The soldiers eventually concluded that the men were probably Mahdi Army
fighters. Working hand in hand with the Iraqi police, the Mahdi militia, under
orders from renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was trying to ensure that no
Sunnis or other “undesirables” entered their neighborhoods. Captain Morales, the
US officer in charge of the Kurdish soldiers, sent the suspects back to base for
questioning. Suaada sat down in her courtyard, smiling warmly at her family and
the crowd of soldiers. She looked genuinely happy, elated even. I took a picture
of the pleasant, unusual moment, and walked out to the street with the Kurdish
troops, who were heralded with clapping and cheers from Sunnis living in the
neighborhood. Many of them also had been threatened, and celebrated Suaada’s
small victory as though it were their own. Later, Captain Morales told Ed that
helping Suaada had been the most successful mission of the company’s tour.
The next morning, Suaada was shot dead in an alley near her home. A distraught
Captain Morales and his platoon drove to Suaada’s house where her hysterical
daughters and grandchildren lined the driveway. While they interviewed her
calmer family members, I stayed outside with the funeral party. It was
heartbreaking. The day before, her grandchildren were playing pranks on me,
joking around while Suaada defended their home; her smiling daughters had held
my gaze for longer than usual for Iraqi women, to the point of actually making
me uncomfortable. I felt like a bastard taking photographs of them now, framing
their pain, but I had to tell their story.
Suaada’s daughter wails after hearing her mother had been executed.
Suaada had been walking home from the market when she was shot eight times.
Some neighboring bakers said they’d heard the pistol fire, but saw nothing. By
the time we arrived, Suaada’s body had been taken to the morgue, and all that
remained was a pool of blood sinking into the soil around a tree’s roots, one
brass shell casing, and Suaada’s upper denture plate. The dentures were
disturbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, and standing there, it occurred to
me that once again I’d made the final photographs of a murdered human being.
Reporters began telling me I was bad luck. I was starting to believe them...
This murder troubled me on many levels. Suaada’s story contained a simple
truth about Iraq today: the Americans, regardless of how hard they try, are
powerless in combating sectarian violence. And the soldiers know it. Throughout
my entire rotation I’d hear a variation of the same bleak outlook from officers,
noncoms, and enlisted men. With few exceptions, American soldiers I came across
felt their mission to quell the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was pointless. “What
can you do?” Captain Morales’s first sergeant said after Suaada’s murder. “It’s
their problem. This is their country, and they need to work it out among
themselves. There’s nothing we can do about it.” The soldiers don’t dwell on
this, but after Suaada’s death, after all the deaths, I do. My photographs of
Suaada’s last hours and death might make a poignant point, but they can’t bring
her back to life.
To anyone interested...
Award-winning photographer Ashley Gilbertson has spent much of the past five years in Iraq, taking incredible photographs for The New York Times and other publications. Born in 1978, Gilbertson has captured some of the world's most dangerous places on camera. A book of his work, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War, will be published this fall.