Diving Into Falluja: To Hell and Back

March 23rd, 2005 - by admin

Nick Welsh / The Santa Barbara Independent – 2005-03-23 23:52:56


‘They said Saddam Hussein committed mass murder, torture, mass arrests without cause. But they see the Americans as doing all of these same things.’ — Mark Manning

(March 17, 2005) — Deep sea diver turned documentary filmmaker Mark Manning asked if I had six minutes to spare – a strange request, considering we’d already spent two hours talking about Manning’s recent trip to Falluja, the heart of Iraq’s bloody Sunni triangle. Six minutes more was nothing, so Manning queued up a short video of footage he’s shot in Iraq and hit ‘play’.

Accompanied by the Tom Waits lament “Day After Tomorrow,” the screen filled with images of bombed-out buildings, dead animals, uniformed men with guns, twisted metal, heaps of rubble, and everywhere children – a Greek chorus of flat-eyed Fallujan kids, bearing not so much silent witness as unspoken accusation.

Manning said it was the searing looks from the kids that disturbed him most. More than once, recounted Manning, he had to look away — and this after traveling thousands of miles and risking his life to look at the war in Iraq through their eyes.

Disregarding howls of protest from concerned friends and family members, Manning set out January 10 on a three-week journey that took him from sunny Santa Barbara to the burned-out remains of the insurgent stronghold of Falluja, where four American civilian contractors were dragged from their cars in March 2004 and killed on the bridge spanning the Euphrates River.

The assembled crowd then burned their bodies and hacked them to pieces, hoisting their blackened body parts into the air for the world to see. “I wanted to talk to the hardest, worst-case guys,” Manning explained. “That’s why I went to Falluja.”

Sandbagged at Home
For the past two years, Manning has been making a documentary, American Voices, crisscrossing the United States and asking hundreds of Americans if they could explain why, exactly, the US is at war with Iraq.

He was profoundly disheartened, he said, by the lack of facts and accurate information out there. Very few of the people he interviewed could back up their opinions with facts. Even worse, he realized, neither could he. That’s when he decided he had to see what life was like on the receiving end of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“As an American citizen,” said Manning, “I felt personally responsible for what happened to the people of Falluja. We live in a democracy. In our democracy, my government is conducting a military operation over there in my name. To me, it doesn’t get more direct than that.”

Manning is perhaps the only American citizen, outside the employ of a major news agency, to have embedded himself in Falluja for the sake of information. It’s not the sort of thing most people — crazy or not — would contemplate, but as one friend noted, Manning “is crazy brave.”

One longtime diver buddy said, “Mark’s always had big ideas and big balls, but to go to Falluja, unarmed? That’s crazy.” Manning’s own assessment of his Falluja mission amounted to a shrug: “I don’t know what you know about diving for the oil industry, but sometimes it gets a little hairy down there.”

Life in Iraq, by contrast, is always hairy. Manning spent most of his time in Falluja holing up first in a vacant house formerly occupied by American snipers, then on a farm outside town with Fallujan refugees. Manning traveled to Baghdad during the country’s historic election, then spent five days in Jordan.

He credits both his ability to get around the region — and his daily survival — to Zarqa, a remarkable Iraqi woman who served as Manning’s guide through the war-torn country. (For her protection, Zarqa is not her real name.)

Manning was shot at three times, detained twice, nearly kidnapped once, and said he had guns pulled on him so many times he lost count.

He grew a beard, dressed in a kafia, and learned to live life as an Iraqi. “You learn that when you wake up in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll live long enough to see the sun set,” he said. “I came to peace with that.” Manning decided not to carry a weapon, instead relying on Zarqa and his stated mission of relief work to see him through.

By delivering medical supplies to Iraqi refugees, Manning said he was able to conduct dozens of interviews — videotaped clandestinely — amassing some 25 hours worth of tape. Speaking with Iraqi citizens — men, women and children — who’d witnessed firsthand the fury of war, Manning asked: “What do you want to tell the American people? How can there be peace between our countries? What has your life been like since the war began?”

Their answers, Manning said, were nearly always the same: Peace was possible, the Iraqis told him, but time was running out. American citizens, said the Iraqis, need to wake up to what their government is doing.

Manning was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops.

Manning said he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja that described American forces deploying — in violation of international treaties — napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and “bunker-busting” shells laced with depleted uranium. Use of any of these against civilians is a violation of international law.

Shocking stuff, but Manning’s biggest surprise came after he’d returned home to the United States.

Government Agents behind Mysterious Break-in?
Arriving in San Francisco late on the night of February 11, Manning and Natalie Kalustian, a close friend and filmmaking partner, crashed at the Oceanside Motel on 46th Avenue. The next morning, after a stroll near Baker Beach, they returned to their car to find one of the windows smashed.

Expensive camera and computer equipment lay in plain view, but only Kalustian’s purse was gone. Inside the purse, Manning said, were keys to their motel room. And when Manning and Kalustian returned to the motel, he recounted, someone had broken into their room. Even though there was jewelry and more film equipment lying about, he said, none of it was touched. In fact, said Manning, none of the suitcases had even been opened.

The only thing missing, Manning said, was the big bowling-ball shaped bag containing his camera — and all his taped interviews.

At that time, Manning had not been back in the United States for more than 10 hours.

The next day, Manning said, a mysterious man contacted them to arrange a meeting, claiming he had the stolen purse. Manning and Kalustian went to a spot near 6th and Mission as instructed, where they were met by a man who appeared to be a “full-on street bum,” Manning said.

After returning the purse, the man pulled Manning to one side, opened his wallet, and flashed what Manning estimated was $5,000 worth of $100 bills. According to Manning, the “bum” winked at him and said, “Look in my eyes. I have the eyes of a former sniper. You thought you had the goods on George Bush, didn’t you? You’ve been sandbagged, boy.”

Manning said he has received more phone calls and mysterious emails from the man since returning to Santa Barbara, but holds out little hope of getting the missing tapes back. He’s most worried, he said, that whoever stole his tapes might seek to make examples of the Fallujans who spoke to him. “I risked my life to get those interviews,” he said, “and I saw the level of fear in the people I talked to.”

Diving Into Problems
Manning is a sturdily built, quiet man with brown hair, brown eyes, and just enough sideburn action to convey attitude. And he has a dimple on his chin that would give Kirk Douglas fits. The youngest of four children, Manning was born and raised in San Francisco. His father, who saw action in the Pacific during World War II, was a successful coffee importer and exporter; his mother was a housewife.

Manning took to sports, football especially, playing both tight end and defensive end. But family life was less than ideal, and Manning moved out on his own by the age of 16. He traveled to the Gulf of Mexico to find work in the oil fields there. “Someone told me there would be palm trees and white sandy beaches there,” he said. “It was a stupid mistake, but that’s how I wound up getting into diving.”

To obtain his diving certificate, however, Manning moved to Santa Barbara to attend SBCC’s Marine Diving Technologies program. Santa Barbara was a great place to be a diver in the 1980s. The region’s rich offshore oil reserves were touted as second only to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, and there was no shortage of highly paid work for those with the skills, the training, and above all, the nerve.

It was not uncommon, Manning said, to dive from an oil derrick in the middle of the night, going 300 feet down into stormy seas miles from shore. “It’s dark, it’s deep, it’s cold – it’s not an environment meant for humans – but it’s exciting,” he said. “There’s an element of death that keeps you on edge, and you feed off that edge,” he said. Very quickly, divers must learn who they can trust and who they can’t.

To an uncommon degree, they are forced to make snap judgments based on instinct and intuition to stay alive. “It’s basically a no-bullshit zone out there. You wind up with a core group of guys who you trust with your life,” Manning said. He said that over the years he had at times refused to work with people simply because of the way they walked or the look in their eyes. “I’ve always wound up being happy with those decisions,” he said.

Among Santa Barbara divers, Manning enjoys a considerable respect. Lad Handelman, the founder and chief executive officer of Cal Dive and Oceaneering International, was generous with his praise. “Manning was a strong-minded, lone-wolf kind of guy – a man’s man and a diver’s diver,” he said. “He always told it like it was and was not given to political bullshit.”

Manning did well enough by his oil-field diving — and a second career as an urchin diver — to purchase a home in Santa Barbara. But diving is typically a young man’s profession. Being under water for so long can exact a serious toll on the human body. Aside from the bends, some divers develop necrosis of the bone marrow, causing their bones to snap.

Others suffer the loss of fluid to their joints, causing symptoms similar to advanced arthritis. Manning managed to avoid these pitfalls and takes pride in the fact that he still has all his fingers intact. But in 2000, he quit. “I just got tired of it,” he explained. “I lost the edge. I was bored, and you can’t do really dangerous work and be bored.

As Manning looked around for a new line of work, he seized upon the idea of making documentary films, and set about learning the technical requirements and mechanics of his new craft from Santa Barbara filmmaker Russ Spencer.

What otherwise might have been a typical midlife career shift was injected with new direction and urgency by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Prior to that day, Manning said he had been fairly indifferent to politics, rarely bothering to show up at the polls on most Election Days.

The attack on the World Trade Center changed all that. “When I saw the extreme lengths these guys were willing to go to get us,” Manning explained, “I wanted to find out why they hated us so much.”

‘As an American citizen, I felt personally responsible for what happened to the people of Falluja. We live in a democracy. In our democracy, my government is conducting a military operation over there in my name. To me, it doesn’t get more direct than that.’ – Mark Manning

Through Iraqi Eyes
For anyone not in the military — or a reporter traveling officially with the US forces — just getting to Iraq can be a challenge. You don’t just hop a jet and fly in. Manning volunteered to help deliver a shipment of medical supplies targeting Iraqi refugees, sent courtesy of international relief agencies. That got him as far as Amman, Jordan. There he met Zarqa, an Iraqi peace activist fluent in numerous languages, who had come to pick up the cache of supplies. The two clicked, and Zarqa invited Manning to join her and aid in her delivery of the medical supplies.

Because of the humanitarian nature of Zarqa’s work, all factions trusted her. She was scrupulous to align herself with no one. This allowed her to deliver medical aid where it was needed. Still, Zarqa had been shot at many times and hit once while driving an ambulance during the second siege of Falluja.

Manning and Zarqa formed a plan: He would live life as an Iraqi in order to see the war as an Iraqi citizen would, and to tell America the story from the Iraqi point of view. To film openly would invite certain death, Zarqa warned him. And because he was American, few Iraqis would trust him.

All interviews, Zarqa told him, would have to be conducted secretly. Manning first changed his looks, growing a beard and donning the native dress. He learned quickly that he also had to change his terminology. “If I had talked about ‘the coalition,’ instead of ‘the occupation,’ I would have been killed,” said Manning. “If I talked about ‘Operation Freedom,’ instead of ‘the invasion,’ I was dead. The same was true if I said anything about ‘terrorists.’ The Iraqis call ‘terrorists’ the Mujahedeen, or ‘freedom fighters.'”

Traveling with Zarqa and her driver, Manning arrived on the scene two days after the second siege of Falluja had ended. Residents were being allowed to re-enter their city, but access was strictly controlled by the US military and no one was allowed back in without first being photographed, fingerprinted, retina-scanned, and given a bar-coded identification card.

The line of people approaching the checkpoint into Falluja, Manning said, was easily 500 yards long. Zarqa told him to get out of the car and go talk to the Marines, and to be careful not to look at anybody as he passed – because he might be killed. Manning likened the experience to swimming past a row of sharks. “It was pretty nerve-wracking, all those eyeballs on me.” The Marines, he said, greeted him warmly, but with concern. “They said, ‘Who the hell are you, man? What the hell are you doing here?'”

Over time, Manning came to regard most of the Marines as his buddies. They interceded on his behalf in disputes with the Iraqi National Guard on more than one occasion, allowing him to make medical deliveries that otherwise would have been blocked. They helped prevent Iraqi National Guardsmen from seizing Manning’s driver.

And although Manning said he had a few Marines jam their rifle barrels into his neck when they thought he was an Iraqi, he expressed nothing but sympathy and respect for “the guys with their boots on the ground.” Theirs was a lamentable lot in life, Manning said, having to worry that every woman and child they saw might be plotting to blow them up. “No wonder they drive down the streets with their fingers always on their triggers,” he said. But for the most part, Manning reported, the Marines he encountered were enthusiastically supportive, yelling, “Hey California, go get ’em! Rock out with your cock out, dude!”

Manning said his daily routine involved getting up and making medical deliveries to the hospital. He, Zarqa, and their driver would take their 1980 Opel to the checkpoint, get out, and walk a mile or so down a dirt road bordered by barbed wire on both sides in full view of possible snipers.

Always, the deliveries were made one box at a time. The boxes included prosthetic limbs, pain killers, antibiotics, and other valuable medicines. Although the Iraqi National Guard harassed them frequently — especially their driver — no one, Manning said, ever tried to rip off their medicine. “The Marines and the resistance both knew what we were doing, and pretty much supported it,” he said.

When Manning wasn’t delivering supplies, he and Zarqa were either interviewing people, or trying to set up interviews. “Every interview I did,” said Manning, “required at least five meetings in advance. We’d get together and drink tea. Nobody trusted that a Westerner would try to tell the truth, so we had a lot of meetings and we drank a whole lot of tea.”

In the Army of God
Over the centuries, Falluja has garnered a hard-won reputation as an extremely rough, independent, and devoutly religious city. Known as “the Mosque City,” some claim the name translates to “Army of God” — others suggest it means “Division.” During the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Mosque City was home to numerous members of Hussein’s Baathist Party, and prior to the war, American military analysts suspected it was the site of at least two chemical weapons plants.

Since then, popular wisdom held that Iraqis sympathetic to the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — himself considered to be connected to Al Qaeda — were responsible for much of the violence erupting out of Falluja. This perception of Falluja was echoed by major American news outlets, and it appeared vital that Falluja and other hotbeds of Sunni resistance had to be quelled in order for Iraq’s recent elections to take place.

This picture is one that Manning strongly disputes. Many Fallujans, he said, took a dim view of Hussein, and he noted that there was little looting or unrest in Falluja following Hussein’s downfall. Manning said that most of the people he spoke with said they had been willing to give the occupation troops a chance, but after six or seven months with no running water, no gas, no electricity, no order — they were fed up.

They were likewise fed up with armed foreigners peering into their homes with binoculars or walking down their streets with guns.

In April 2003, several hundred Fallujans held a protest march, demanding that the occupation forces withdraw from Falluja. Initially, the demonstration was peaceful, but when protesters began hurling rocks at American troops, the troops opened fire on the crowd, killing 15.

After that, said Manning, all bets were off, and the armed resistance grew exponentially. The situation came to a boil with the bloody killings of the American contractors on a Falluja bridge, which led to the first siege of the city in April 2004, which was later aborted. Responding in part to international outrage over the treatment of Fallujan citizens, the US negotiated a temporary ceasefire, which held until November. It was an uneasy truce, marked by almost daily violence. And with the elections looming, a second siege was launched, on a much larger scale than the first — and at greater cost to the Fallujans.

“There were 500,000 people living in Falluja at the time, not the 250,000 that the media reports. They were given one week to leave home,” Manning said. “After three days, they were told they had to walk out. Then after a week, the US forces sacked the city and killed anyone that was left.”

Manning expressed outrage that no provision was made for the mass exodus of refugees. “There were no refugee camps. Families were living in chicken coops, tents, and cars. In Iraq, the winters are very cold and very wet. And these are people who left with pretty much just the clothes on their back.”

Napalm, Radioactive Weapons Were Used in Fallujah
Manning said he interviewed doctors who told him that the first target during the second siege was the hospital. That’s because televised images of the casualties incurred during the first assault proved so damaging in the court of international public opinion.

“If you were a male between the ages of 14 and 50, you were considered a terrorist. Troops went into the hospital, dragged people out of their beds, and evicted them. The hospital was sealed. No one was allowed in during the four-month seige. If an ambulance went out to pick up the wounded, it was fired on,” Manning said.

By the time Manning arrived in Falluja, he said the dead bodies had been disposed of. “You could smell them, but you couldn’t see them,” he said. Doctors he interviewed told him that chemical weapons had been deployed because they handled many dead bodies bearing no evident sign of trauma.

As to the evidence of napalm, Manning said he saw — and has in his possession — photographs of the dead, whose clothes had been melted into their skin. As to the uranium-tipped shells, he said there was evidence everywhere. “The heat generated by these is so intense that they can basically burn through three layers of concrete to get to a target.”

He said that one family showed him where the shell from a Bradley Tank went through the front of a house, through four walls, and killed their son in his bed. “The whole town is radiated,” said Manning. “We are poisoning the whole country.”

Over the course of his interviews, Manning said, he spoke with a mother who saw her son killed in front of her. He talked to a father who had lost his wife, brother, and daughters. “I talked to a 17-year-old girl who saw her father and mother shot by Marines,” said Manning.

“She was hiding under the bed with her brother when her parents’ bodies dropped on the ground in front of her them… Her parents’ brains were on the floor. The girl and her brother stayed under the bed for three days, until the Marines came back, and this time they found her and her brother. They shot her brother in the head and they shot her three times, in the chest and the legs. When she told me about it,” said Manning, “I had to look down. I felt I was personally responsible. And she did too.”

Because of incidents like these, Manning said, the resistance has grown from about 5,000 to 250,000. “Everybody’s in the resistance. You don’t ask them directly; that wouldn’t be wise. But everybody’s in the resistance,” he said.

Kidnappers’ Tea Party
Manning said his time in Falluja convinced him that the war is not winnable as it’s currently being fought. “There are kids everywhere over there. It’s like Jimboree at lunchtime. So when we make a mistake and drop bombs on the wrong location, it’s kids we’re killing. Can you imagine the hate and anger, the desire for revenge these people have? It’s just not going to work.”

The Iraqis he spoke to, said Manning, were critical of both Saddam Hussein and George Bush. “They said Saddam Hussein committed mass murder, torture, mass arrests without cause. But they see the Americans as doing all of these same things.”

Since the hostilities started, Manning said 28,000 Iraqis have been killed. (American military officials do not track Iraqi civilian casualties, relying instead upon the Iraqi Health Ministry, which reports only 3,500 civilian casualties. A British study — now several months old — placed the figure above 100,000.)

If Americans have any hope of being regarded as anything but an occupying force, Manning said, they need to show respect.

“This is a very traditional country. You don’t shake hands with women, but Americans are not only shaking the women’s hands, they’re frisking them in public. They’re detaining the sisters of suspected terrorists and sending them to Abu Ghraib where they are systematically raped. They are kicking down doors and walking into mosques with their boots on. You have no idea how profoundly disrespectful this is to the people there.”

To highlight the Iraqi sensitivity to slights perceived or real, Manning described how he was almost kidnapped.

He was sipping tea with an Iraqi family in their home, hoping to persuade them to agree to an interview when a group of eight men showed up. “They said I was a spy, and they were going to take me away,” Manning said. Zarqa came to his aid, as she often had, but so did the family he was visiting.

“They were infuriated at the lack of respect the kidnappers were showing. They shouted at them. If they had kidnapped me, it would have been such a huge insult to this family.” In the end, the kidnappers were invited to tea and they accepted. Manning said he spoke to them at length, but never asked what they would have done with him. “I stayed away from that,” he said, adding, “Everybody has tea over there. Even if you go to kidnap people, you have tea.”

As an American in Falluja, Manning said he had to be careful about playing the devil’s advocate in interviews by arguing the Bush administration’s case. He did repeat Bush’s argument that the United States needs to fight terror in Iraq to keep it from coming to America. “They just laughed,” he said. “They asked, ‘How are we going to get there? Look at us.'”

Manning, Zarqa, and their driver traveled next to Baghdad, where they witnessed the recent elections.

“The big story about those elections is that nobody really knows what the story is,” he said. Manning said that the United Nations observers never left the Green Zone during the elections, adding that observers were stationed at only five of Iraq’s 90-plus polling places. In addition, he said, Al Jazeera, the Arab news organization, had been kicked out. “Iraqis were told that if they wanted food rations, they had to vote. Everybody over there is on food rations,” he said. “And the food ration guys were at the polling places to make sure people voted.”

Manning took specific exception to some of CNN’s coverage of the elections. “They showed a long line of people in Falluja waiting to vote, but it wasn’t a voting line. It was the checkpoint line, people waiting to get into the city.”

While in Falluja, he said he only encountered other reporters once. It was an embedded CNN crew. “They came in with two Apaches, four Bradleys, and eight Humvees. They sealed off the block. Then they brought in a tank and soldiers who tossed candy to the kids. Then eight guys dressed in orange jumpsuits got out and started sweeping the streets,” he said. “It was a staged event.”

During his stay in Baghdad, said Manning, gun battles happened regularly outside his hotel. He estimated he heard about 50 car-bomb explosions a day. He tried filming street scenes of the election from a rooftop but had rifles pointed at him at least twice for his efforts.

He was detained twice, as well, but Zarqa intervened and he was let go. Manning said he was shot at a few times in Baghdad by the Iraqi National Guard. “You don’t know whether they’re trying to miss you on purpose,” he said. “But you do realize they have every right to kill you.”

From Baghdad, Manning flew back to Amman, Jordan, where he waited five days to interview one of the sheiks, who, between the first and second sieges in Falluja, had attempted to negotiate with the Marines. The sheik told Manning he believed that peace was possible, but that time was of the essence.

“He said that if we don’t wake up soon, there will be blood running in the streets in the United States,” Manning said. The sheik added that most Iraqis want the United States to withdraw to their military bases and leave the peace-keeping efforts to United Nations’ troops.

Now back in Santa Barbara, Manning is still going through the cultural shock that comes with making the journey from Disneyland to hell and back again. Since returning, he’s shaved his beard. He can once again enjoy the private pleasures of modern sanitation. And the threat of imminent death has receded.

Now, he is left to mull over what it all means. Manning holds some hope — however faint — that regardless of the United States intentions, some good might still come to Iraq. And though he opposed the war from the beginning, Manning said, “We can’t just pull out. That would be a disaster for the Iraqi people. We need to be there now, for all the reasons we said we went in there in the beginning — to help the Iraqi people.”

He’s less ambivalent about why Americans are so hated. “We want to say it’s because they’re evil, and because they’re jealous of us. But the real reason is a lot simpler. We’re killing them. And they want to fight back.” Manning knows that whatever he does, he has no choice but to speak out on behalf of the Iraqis.

Adding urgency to his mission is a profound sense that there is no longer a functioning free press in America. “And without a free press, there is no democracy,” he said. Even though his taped interviews were stolen, Manning said he managed to download many video images of Falluja onto his computer, as well as many still photos.

With these, he hopes to make first a 10-minute DVD, and then later a full-length documentary. He also said he’s in the process of creating a new organization to deliver humanitarian aid to Iraq, where he hopes to return. But in the meantime, his immediate challenge is how best to confront the indifference, despair, and exhaustion many Americans are feeling about Iraq. “We’ve reached the state where apathy has become a war crime,” he said.

Manning can be contacted via his Web site at conceptionmedia.net

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