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2004-05-14

Inside Fallujah: An Independent Journalist Returns To US After Being Captured by the Iraqi Resistance

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We talk to David Martinez, one of the few American civilians who were inside Fallujah during the siege of the Iraqi city. While he was leaving the city, members of the Iraqi resistance captured him and four other westeners. He talks about life inside the besieged city and why he was released a day later. [includes rush transcript]

Iraqis in the embattled city of Fallujah erupted into celebration two weeks ago over what they saw as a huge victory over the US military. After weeks of bloody fighting, US forces withdrew from the town, handing over control to a former Iraqi general.

But the victory was bittersweet. During the month-long siege of Fallujah, reports emerged of a massacre of Iraqis at the hands the US military. US aircraft and artillery repeatedly bombarded the town as US snipers lined the rooftops. Up to 600 Iraqis were killed and over 1,000 injured. Local hospitals reported the majority of the dead were women, children and the elderly. During a brief ceasefire, more than 60,000 women and children fled the town–US forces blocked any men of military age from leaving.

During the siege, few unembedded western journalists reported from Fallujah. One of those that did make it inside the embattled town was journalist and activist David Martinez. On his return to Baghdad from Fallujah, Martinez, along with five other activists, was detained by several armed Iraqi guerillas. They were released after 24 hours. David Martinez joins us in our firehouse studio.

  • David Martinez, independent filmaker and journalist.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: David Martinez has just returned from Iraq. He joins us in our Firehouse Studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

DAVID MARTINEZ: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, I want to start in Najaf because that’s where the most intense fighting is right now. They talk about the cemetery, the Valley of Peace, the largest in the muslim world. Can you describe Najaf, where you were also?

DAVID MARTINEZ: I was in Najaf, I should say, before there was any fighting. I was there during Ede. The cemetery actually sort of surrounds the city. And the city just bleeds right into the cemetery. Some say it’s the biggest in the world, definitely the biggest in the muslim world. It’s a veritable rabbit’s warren of small graves, large graves, catacombs, tombs, gravestones, and it’s a veritable guerrilla fighter’s paradise. I think that’s one of the reasons that the U.S. was frightened to go in there, because it’s perfect for people to hide and take snipes at each other. It’s incredibly significant in the Shia religion. It’s a massive — the graveyard is like the real city with the city in the middle of it. I don’t see how it was possible they thought they could move in there and not disturb anything religious or anything holy, because most of the city is.

AMY GOODMAN: David, how did you get into Fallujah? Very few people, actually western journalists, did. A couple were embedded with the troops.

DAVID MARTINEZ: There was quite a few journalists in Fallujah, and they were all with the Marines. We would see them every night on TV showing the point of view from the Marines. We went in with a group who was bringing medical supplies to a clinic. It was arranged through a local mosque. I and several other internationals moved medical supplies from Baghdad to a clinic which had been turned into a hospital. Because of the way Fallujah was divided once you got in there, the main hospitals were difficult to get to. One was in the American sector of town, American-controlled sector of town, and so the clinic, since it was in a neutral part of town, became the main place to take care of wounded and injured people. That’s where we brought our supplies. We found the city in a state of hell with injured civilians being brought in by truck, by car, about every ten minutes, a personal car would drive up with a wounded individual, a lot of children, a lot of women and a lot of men. And they were hit by shrapnel and snipers, hit by mainly shrapnel and snipers from mortar fire and a lot of the area was controlled by Marine snipers. They would hit just anyone who walked in the street.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. military was denying that they were killing or wounding women and children. Civilians.

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, I can say that on at least two occasions, that’s false because I found a man, a clearly unarmed civilian man, middle aged wearing a white robe dead in the middle of the street in front of his family because he had turned the wrong corner down an American sniper-controlled alley with his family. Right there when we found the body, when we were working on ambulance crew, we were able to move the body, but the poor family had had to watch him die, afraid to walk around the corner because they would have been shot as well. And there was no way you could have mistaken this man for a combatant. He didn’t have any weapon, he was easily 60 years old and he had been shot through the neck and his side. And on another occasion, I rode — I worked an ambulance crew at night — we passed out of the Mujahadin-controlled area of Fallujah to attempt to move a pregnant woman from another part of town and we were fired on by American snipers. I have been asked repeatedly, did I know for sure, 100%, they were American snipers, and I can answer no, I did not walk up to the person who was firing at the ambulance and ask them where they were from, but we know we were in American-controlled Fallujah, because the Mujahadin said once you go past this area, we can’t guarantee your safety, that’s an American-controlled area, and a .50 caliber sniper rifle took out our wheels, took out our lights, shot out our windshield. And if I hadn’t been on the floor of the ambulance, I probably wouldn’t be here, sitting here talking to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was the driver of the ambulance and how were the ambulances travelling, making it through the city? Was it that infrequent?

DAVID MARTINEZ: It was that infrequent. When we arrived there, there was already an ambulance that had been shot up. This was an attempt to try again, basically. We were able to make one successful mission and move some wounded people from a hospital that had no supplies to the clinic, which did have the supplies, but on the second mission we didn’t make it. The driver of the ambulance was a local guy who knew the roads. There was one other Iraqi and then three of us internationals.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the reaction of the people of Fallujah to you? You’re an American, too.

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, we were there doing humanitarian work. So, people can distinguish between a soldier, and a contractor, and a doctor, and people doing humanitarian work. I mean, Iraqis aren’t barbarians. I think uh, I mean that’s what eventually saved us when we were captured, and people knew what we were there for. And we had contact with the mosque, and so like everything else, you have a local contact — of course they were paranoid, that we might be spies, or we might be military, but since we were obviously there doing humanitarian work, we moved wounded people out of Fallujah that had to, the really serious cases had to be taken to hospitals in Baghdad, and so on. So, I think they understood what we were there for.

AMY GOODMAN: What about contractors, since contractors were killed in Fallujah?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Up until this man, Berg, he’s the first person, if I’m not mistaken, he is the first person that was taken captive that was not an active military soldier that’s been killed. So I mean, this is a real change in tactics. Once, when we were caught, once they found out that we were telling the truth and we were there doing humanitarian work and medical work, we were released. It was more like being arrested and checked out.

AMY GOODMAN: What about your capture? Who was it that captured you? Where were you captured?

DAVID MARTINEZ: We were trying to leave Fallujah after a second run to Fallujah delivering medical supplies. The route that we took, the Mujahadin I should say are organized somewhat non-centrally. One group will control one area of the town, another group will control another area of the town. The way we had to go, this group of Mujahadin did not know us. So, they just wondered, who are these foreigners traveling in this car, and just put us in a house, took our gear, promised us we would not be hurt, which we weren’t, and said we just have to check out your story. They were all Fallujians, I should say. I didn’t meet any foreign fighters.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean these foreign fighters?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, the ones that Rumsfeld keeps talking about, that there’s all these people from Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaida, that are all defending Fallujah. Because of course we know that ordinary people can’t defend against the United States military, when that’s what they were doing. It was a community organized defense of the town. And every single person, they talked to us a lot, every single person had some story about losing friends, losing loved ones, in-laws to the American bombing, and how it was driving them crazy, and how much they hated the situation — they hated Saddam, they hated Bush — and how strongly they were going to fight until the last American left Fallujah.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to David Martinez who iss an independent journalist and activist who got into Fallujah and was helping to bring medical supplies in. Did you have dealings with the U.S. military when you weer there, other than being shot at in the ambulance?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Actually, we did, and on a one-to-one level they were quite civil. At a certain ppint, when we wanted to retrieve this man — well, we thought he was wounded. He turned out to be dead. We wanted to move innocent people out of the fire zone, we did so by yelling to the Marines. And they would usually respond, and come down, and we would talk to them after a little bit of introduction and surprise on their part, what the hell we were doing there, and we would say, "look, we need to move these people, can you not shoot us," and they agreed. And then they, even at one point, had a group of people in a house they were operating out of, a family they wanted to evacuate, and we evacuated the family for them.

And again, on the way out of Fallujah, when we finally did leave, as you mentioned, there was a checkpoint where they were only letting women, children and elderly people leave, and so, there was a huge backup of people trying to leave Fallujah, we walked up again up to the Marines, "you put your hands in the air," if any of you were ever in this situation, "put your hands in the air and hold your passport and walk toward the soldiers." We said, "look, who can you let out here?" They told us only women, children and elderly. We said, "look, that’s not going to work. These people are"— first of all, most women in Fallujah cannot drive. You need to have a driver for these cars. And families are not going to leave their father behind. And the fathers aren’t going to let the family go to Baghdad without them. So we were able to work out a compromise where one or two men could come with each group. Men between the ages 16 and 40 or 45 was what they considered combat age and they didn’t want any of them to leave. And we said, "look that’s not going to work. You’ve got plenty of civilians that age that need to leave with their families. So once we explained that and found an imam who spoke English and worked as a negotiator, we were able to negotiate the release of people. So on a one-on-one level, the American soldiers that I met in Fallujah were paranoid, tired and pretty civil. But I mean, they believed what they were doing, they think they’re fighting terrorists, et cetera, et cetera.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet any of the insurgents who were actually fighting in Fallujah?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, yeah. That’s who took us captive. Yeah. They — they were all carrying weapons, rocket launchers, et cetera. Yeah, those are the ones I was describing that had all the stories, why they were fighting. I have seen so many people killed, I had to do something back.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you held?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Different houses. Just sort of houses they were using.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they figure out who you were? Why did they ultimately release you?

DAVID MARTINEZ: I don’t know how they figured out. They took all our documents. We told them — ask this mosque, ask the sheikh at this mosque, and apparently that’s what they did. We just waited.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to communicate with them?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Yeah. Luckily, we were captured with a translator. So the interrogation went pretty smoothly. Through a translator and then, you know, I know a little bit of Arabic, and some of them knew a little bit of English. We were able to sort of communicate.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have conversations during that 24 hours?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Sure. Yes. About just about why they were fighting, what we thought, what do Americans think of the war. Also people were asking me what— hoping Kerry would win the election, and us explaining that do you understand Kerry wants to send more troops to Iraq, and we don’t necessarily think that’s going to be such a good idea. At one point, I asked a translator how to say "same" in Arabic, I’d forgotten how to say it, then I said "Kerry, Bush, same, same." Really? "Yes, I think it’s going to be the same." And again, many stories, even I remember a guy managing to tell me just with his hands and with sounds about all that he had heard, the bombs and the explosions and sadness and how it just drove him crazy and he hated it. He just wanted the Americans to leave. Like most people in Iraq, most people all over the world, people just want to live their lives and have their families and work and love, they don’t want to have mortar rounds going off at them. They don’t want to have a entire town punished for some people that killed four hired goons.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Saddam’s former general that was put in charge, and then the U.S. military denying that they put him in charge?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well that was for what, the two days? That shows the arrogance of the American position. To say, okay, this guy was from the tribe that was in control of Fallujah. But he was from the military, the Republican Guard. So these guys don’t want him. That’s why they took him out. That’s why the U.S. said, okay, actually that’s a bad idea. They have this idea that everyone is who is fighting the U.S. must love Saddam Hussein, and the world is a little bit more complicated than that, especially Iraq is more complicated than that. And the people in Fallujah that I met hated Bush and hated Saddam Hussein. They’re not Saddam loyalists, their Fallujah loyalists, defending their town.

AMY GOODMAN: David Martinez, I want to thank you very for being with us.

DAVID MARTINEZ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: David Martinez, an independent journalist and activist. This is Democracy Now!. Democracynow.org.

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