Prisoner in the Desert Ali Wakes Up

In the POW camps the Americans are practicing peace with yesterday’s enemies.

There are no iron bars in Captain Arthur West’s prison — only sun, sand, and barbed wire. Using bulldozers the engineers have leveled an area equal to 15 soccer fields in the middle of Iraq’s central desert, piled up walls of earth, creating a couple of dozen parcels. These are filling up with more and more men and are guarded by American MPs. “Within a week we’ll have about 6,000 POWs here,” says the stocky Captain West, wiping the sweat from his brow.

POW (prisoner of war) is one of the many U.S. Army abbreviations that can drive non-military laymen crazy. The POWs in the parcel to the left were members of the regular Iraqi armed forces. Some 30 men squat in the sand under the open sky. They protect themselves from the fine dust with red- or black-patterned cloths. The dust never settles because of the many vehicles operating in the area. It remains suspended for days as far up as 300 feet in the 120 degree heat.

The prisoners are wearing civilian clothes; they crouch close together as though trying to form a human fortress. The hot wind blowing through the barbed wire produces a singing sound. “Suddenly they were all standing outside the camp and surrendering,” West says, shaking his head. “We didn’t even see them coming. But they didn’t want to fight any more.”

It isn’t clear yet when the prisoners will be released. They must not be photographed individually; that’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention. West doesn’t want any trouble. Without being asked he says, “Each prisoner gets three quarts of water a day and two MREs.” MRE stands for “meal ready to eat” — U.S. Army food packets sealed in black plastic. The food is heated chemically. “The Red Cross is coming in a couple of days,” West says, and he somehow sounds relieved.

“How are you?” a Kuwaiti interpreter named Saud calls out to the prisoners in Arabic. “We’re thirsty,” replies an Iraqi who looks to be about 30. Others indicate to the MP guards that they are hungry by putting their fingers to their lips. “At first they didn’t trust me,” Saud says. “But when they realized we’re treating them well and won’t kill them they were glad.”

The Americans also took prisoners at the airport in Baghdad. “They were taken completely by surprise,” says an officer who participated in the assault, “they thought we were still in Nasiriya.” Then, pensively, he says, “The Iraqis attacked our tanks with small arms near Karbala. They didn’t have a chance. Thousands died.”

Ali has two bullet wounds and a sorrow that won’t go away. The 27-year old Shiite is lying on an upholstered cot in the MASH unit, the only mobile army surgical hospital the U.S. Army has set up near the POW camps. Ali is a deserter. He and his family wanted to flee from Baghdad by car. He was able to avoid the checkpoints manned by Saddam’s henchmen. Then he saw the Americans who were shouting something at him. Ali didn’t understand what they were saying. He was afraid and stepped on the gas.

Ali speaks hurriedly in broken English; tears run down his cheeks. “My older sister, shot. My younger sister and my parents, in the car. The tank.”

Ali’s car was rammed by an American tank after he himself was hit by bullets and his older sister was shot to death. His parents and a five-year old sister were run over by a tank. Toward the end of the war the Americans used tanks against any cars trying to break through the checkpoints, cars that might possibly be loaded with explosives and driven by suicide bombers.

But Ali didn’t know that. How could he? He just wanted to get out of Baghdad. Colonel Kevin Canestrini is the head of the MASH unit; the doctors on his staff saved Ali’s life after American Marines killed the rest of his family. Canestrini listens to Ali’s story and remains silent. Ali asks incredulously, “What happened?” The officer, seemingly embarrassed, checks Ali’s readings on a digital readout screen next to the bed.

“I don’t know how to console the man,” says Canestrini whose unit is stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany. “Nobody will be able to do that very soon.” Outside the air-conditioned tent Canestrini takes a deep breath, but the dust in the evening air makes him cough.

An Apache helicopter lands close by, swirls fine sand three hundred feet up into the air. A few soldiers carry a stretcher with a black plastic bag on it. There is a dead body inside the bag.

“KIA,” Canestrini says. “Killed in action.”