Karzan Sherabayani / The Observer – 2007-05-07 00:37:53
(May 6, 2007) — One cold London morning in January, I received a phone call from one of my brothers. Uncle Kakarash was dead, killed by American soldiers at a checkpoint. He was my mother’s brother, 75, and like most Kurds had suffered greatly under Saddam and welcomed the Americans as liberators.
Civilians in Iraq face everyday hazards beyond the snipers and the insurgents’ bombs – hundreds have been run over by tanks or hit by stray bullets or shot at checkpoints. There are no records kept of the numbers of civilians killed during the war or by coalition troops.
I had been back to Iraq several times since the war, reporting for More4 News. But this time I had a personal mission to return to Kurdistan, the homeland I fled 27 years ago.
My cousin Sabah took me to the checkpoint where his father died, not far from his home on the outskirts of Kirkuk. Kakarash had gone out first thing in the morning, before breakfast, to get petrol before the queues built up. As luck would have it, I found several eyewitnesses who had seen the whole incident.
One of them was an Iraqi soldier who had been on duty at the checkpoint. ‘When the Americans are here we have to stop all the cars, but your uncle was distracted and kept driving,’ he told me.
‘The Americans shot a bullet into the ground to warn him – he didn’t stop but tried to turn away and the Americans started shooting at him, thinking he might be a suicide car bomb.’
A group of local men, clearly distressed by what they had seen, told me the soldiers kept on firing after my uncle had turned around and tried to get away. ‘They obviously shot to kill him,’ one man told me. ‘If not, they could have stopped after the first shot, they could have given him a chance to see what was he going to do next, but they just shot him dead.’
I went to see the car in a local garage. I counted 86 bullet holes. The rear windscreen had been shot out – the front windscreen was intact.
The doctor who had certified my uncle’s death, Dr Ahmed Mansur, told me there were three entry wounds in his body – two in his back and one in the palm of his hand as it gripped the steering wheel. All three came from the back. ‘We call these high-velocity missile injuries’, he said. ‘Their entry is small but the exit makes a big hole and inside it tears apart all the tissues … even if you try to save the victims they still die.’
Kakarash Ali Khalid was a family man. He had recently retired after working all his life as a lorry driver, a job which took him all over Iraq.
Like most Kurds, he suffered under Saddam, with many relatives – myself included – imprisoned and tortured.
He had eight children and was still helping to provide for the family by doing odd driving jobs. Sabah remembers him telling the young ones to be careful at checkpoints – although he was not hostile to the US presence.
‘He was happy they took Saddam away from power, and was saying we will finally have a good life,’ Sabah told me.
‘Before, I too was very happy about seeing the Americans here, but not any more. Anyone submitted to this injustice will dislike them. Have they come here to save us from Saddam or to kill us?’
In 2003, the US military set up a system for compensating victims of what are termed ‘wrongful deaths’. This involved creating 31 Foreign Claims offices around the country, with power to offer compensation to families of anyone killed in error by US forces.
The office in Kirkuk is supposed to be open one morning a week, on a Monday, but the Monday I went there, no one turned up.
At the main US base at Kirkuk’s military airport, I was given the number of the local public affairs spokesman, a Major Chang, who agreed to meet me next morning.
When he didn’t show, or answer his mobile, I called him from a different number, and got through.
He said his commanders had ‘concerns’ about my interviewing him, but insisted soldiers had followed the rules of engagement.
‘When they find themselves in a situation and they recognise there is a credible threat there, then they will act accordingly … if the vehicle was approaching at a checkpoint and all other vehicles have stopped, and that one vehicle keeps coming at them – what would you do in that case?’
But my uncle did not keep coming at them – he had turned his car round.
And despite the major’s defence of the soldiers’ actions, the Foreign Claims Commission did classify my uncle as a ‘wrongful death’.
In return for signing a pledge not to take any action against the US military, Sabah was given $2,500.
In my week in Kirkuk, I met families of 10 other victims of ‘wrongful deaths’.
Like my cousin Sabah, they have lost faith in the Americans as liberators.
If the soldiers are not held to account for their actions, what is to stop it happening again and again?
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