A Place of Tears

On the first morning of the Iraq Sanctions Challenge, after our meeting with Dr. Hashimi, our delegation met in front of the Al-Rasheed hotel in downtown Baghdad. We gathered our gear together and prepared to go to the place that for many, including myself, was one of the most disturbing and emotionally distressing parts of the ISC itinerary, a place that left nearly everyone in tears–the Amarijah bomb shelter.

On February 13, 1991, at 4:00 in the morning, during the height of the U.S. air war against Iraq, U.S. Stealth fighter-bombers dropped two laser-guided 2,000 pound bombs on a bomb shelter, killing hundreds of civilians and evoking world-wide outrage. The U.S. military claimed there was a military communications center under the shelter, but when a reporter asked to see the evidence, the military refused to provide it.

When we arrived in front of the bomb shelter we were greeted by a large number of Iraqi children from the surrounding community. They were playing in the street when they had seen our bus pull up and they wanted to meet the new visitors. I saw only a few adults and they were keeping their distance from us. I was the last one out of the bus and by the time I got out, the children were quietly standing in front of the entrance gate in a large group and the delegates were standing around them, taking their pictures and trying to communicate with them. One of the delegates in particular, Jennifer Brigham, seemed to be interacting especially close with some of these children. There was an interesting bond taking place between them that was nice to see. I was immediately touched by a special beauty in these children. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but they seemed to glow. Maybe it was all the attention they were getting. Possibly, it was my very strong feelings for the children of Iraq. After all, I had traveled thousands of miles to come to this place. It may have been my imagination, but these were the most beautiful children I had ever seen. They seemed so quiet and well-behaved–so innocent. There was something very special in their glowing faces and benevolent smiles; I’ll never forget them.


From the outside, the bomb shelter appeared as a large, single story blockhouse made from concrete. Our guide pointed out that the Iraqi government had built forty-four of these shelters around the city. They were designed to withstand a nuclear blast as well as chemical and biological attack, but unfortunately for the women and children hiding inside, they were no match for American ingenuity and “smart” technology. There is no mistaking what these shelters were designed for. The Amariyah shelter was located in a poor, working-class neighborhood made up mostly of apartments. There is a school across the street. There are no nearby military facilities or installations. The U.S. military knew exactly what this structure was for (they even admitted it) and they must have known that at 4:00 in the morning the shelter would be packed with sleeping civilians. U.S. intelligence specialists later admitted that, months before the attack, they consulted with the designers and contractors who built the shelter so they could more effectively penetrate its defenses. The attack was very successful with devastating consequences for the little bodies inside. It is chilling to think about what occurred in the shelter that morning.

As you follow the guide into the shelter, the first thing you notice is the large, circular hole in the ceiling where the first bomb came through. You see thick slabs of concrete and a grotesque tangle of twisted, steel bars hanging down. A large pillar of sunlight penetrates through the gloom of the ruined shelter. There is a huge crater in the concrete floor and you can see the ripped open water pipes hanging from the ceiling. There are rows of 8×10 black and white photographs of the victims arranged along the blackened, pockmarked walls. It looks like the photos have been arranged to show the families together. For some of the victims, there were no photographs available, so their names were written in Arabic in the space where a photo would have been. With few exceptions, the photos are arranged in place to show a young woman and a few children–one family. There are no adult males–only young women with their children and siblings. There are old bouquets of flowers covered with dust lying on the floor beneath some of the photos.

As you go through the tour, you look at a row of photos and move on with tears in your eyes. You examine another row. The next group reveals two young women; they look like sisters; there are five children. The next shows a woman and a little boy–just a toddler. You stare at the pictures and you see dreams that were destroyed in a violent instant. You see children that never got to grow up and experience what life was all about–the joys of marriage, or falling in love or graduating from the university. You see rows and rows of these pictures and after awhile you can’t even look at them anymore. It just becomes too painful. You know that if you look at one more picture, one more smiling face, you’re going to start sobbing and you might not be able to stop. I look around. Everybody has tears in their eyes. My roommate, Wil, has lost his composure. He’s hunched over crying with his hands covering his face. A woman comes over and hugs him. People are taking photographs. We ask the guide questions:

“How many people died here?” someone asks.

“Four-hundred and eight,” she replies.

“Were there any survivors?”

“Fourteen–most were badly burned,” she points to a vague handprint on the wall. “This is where a survivor–a young boy–stood up after the blast and touched the wall. He burned his hand from the heat…and then fell down over here.”

I try to piece together exactly what has happened here. There is some debate. I wonder if the guide has accurately translated our questions. I spent some time conferring with some of the other delegates, and although some people are going to question my version of the events, this is my conclusion based on what the guide has told us along with a later follow-up investigation:

At 4:00 in the morning, most of the victims were probably sleeping. They slept in bunk-beds stacked along the walls. The first 2000 pound bomb carried a shaped charge that, according to Time magazine, “cut through 12 feet of reinforced concrete and exploded, peeling away the protective cover.” It left a large hole in the roof of the shelter and destroyed the electrical system. The chaos inside the darkened shelter must have been unimaginable. The bomb shelter doors were electronically controlled, so the doors were sealed shut. The remaining survivors were trapped in the shelter. There may have been a fire at this point. “Neighborhood residents heard screams as people tried to get out of the shelter.” There was nothing they could do to help. Six minutes later, the second bomb traveled through the hole made by the first bomb. “The explosion from the second bomb shattered doors and windows in homes around the neighborhood.” The screaming immediately stopped.

The flash of the explosion was hot enough that we saw foot and handprints seared on to the walls and ceiling. Human remains and clothing shreds hung from the ceiling. Everything combustible–clothes, hair, blankets–caught on fire. The heat from the ensuing fire caused the water in the underground storage tank to boil. It expanded and spilled out from the ruptured water pipes on the ceiling, spilling over the victims and flooding part of the top floor with boiling water. The water ran down the stairs and flooded a small portion of the basement with about two feet of water.

Because of the intense heat, it took nearly two hours for the rescuers to open the doors to the shelter. A CNN camera crew was on hand to film the rescue attempt. Although the American public saw a heavily-censored version of the bombing, a reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review saw the unedited version, and gave the following description:

“This reporter viewed the unedited Baghdad feeds…They showed scenes of incredible carnage. Nearly all the bodies were charred into blackness; in some cases the heat had been so great that entire limbs were burned off. Among the corpses were those of at least six babies and ten children, most of them so severely burned that their gender could not be determined. Rescue workers collapsed in grief, dropping corpses; some rescuers vomited from the stench of the still-smoldering bodies.”

The television images were devastating. Riots and demonstrations broke out around the world. The U.S. and Egyptian embassies in Jordan were surrounded and attacked by stone-throwing demonstrators. Western Journalists were assaulted. The Pentagon’s reaction spoke volumes:

“From the military point of view, nothing went wrong,” Brigadier General Richard Neil coldly and blandly stated at a news briefing in Saudi Arabia. “The target was hit as designated.” As far as the Pentagon was concerned, no mistake had been made. They blew up a bomb shelter packed with sleeping women and children. It was justified. No apology was ever made. That was the end of it–period.

According to Time Magazine, the military “preparations for the strike on the bunker began months before the bombs actually fell.” The article claimed that U.S. intelligence satellites had collected evidence, including radio transmissions that showed that the Amarijah shelter was a military communications facility. Conveniently, “missing from the accumulated evidence were any photos of civilians entering the bunker…” The U.S. military also refused to present any of this evidence when reporters asked to see it. Personally, I find it impossible that any person could believe the Pentagon’s version of the event. The intelligence officials admitted to planning the attack months in advance (even before they had any evidence that the shelter was a communications center.) They pointed to a mountain of evidence to back up their claim, and yet, despite all of this, and despite the fact that the shelter had been under 24-hour surveillance, they missed the fact that hundred of women and children had been going in and out of the shelter during the air-war.

Three days after our original visit, a small group of us returned to Amarijah to gather more facts and answer unanswered questions. During this time, we thoroughly inspected and photographed the underground basement, and found nothing to indicate a possible military usage. We saw an aid station for the doctors and nurses, a dressing room, a water-tank room, a room for the electrical generator, toilet facilities, but there was nothing else there–absolutely nothing. I wondered what kind of communications center could have been placed here. First of all, there was no extra room for such a center–not unless the civilian facilities had been removed. Second of all, what kind of communications center could have been here–an officer with a transistor radio? What kind of transmissions could have been coming from the basement? None of the photographs I’ve ever seen have indicated an antennae or radio transmitter in the vicinity of the building, and even if there was a communications center in the basement, it would have remained intact because the basement of the shelter was completely untouched by the blast. And yet the Pentagon claimed that “the target had been destroyed as designated.” The military simply killed all the women and children upstairs, then claimed the mission was a success and never returned to bomb the site again. The intelligence planners also had interior photographs and blueprints of the entire shelter (you can download the photographs off the internet) including the basement, and yet no effort was made to destroy the basement, even though, this is where the Pentagon claimed the “command center” was.

The only people who truly know what exactly took place and the motives behind the bombing are the military planners who devised this attack. But, there are obvious and glaring deficiencies in the Pentagon’s official version of events. Ultimately, the burden of proof lies with the Pentagon since they are the ones responsible for carrying out this horrific bombing. This issue could be clarified in a day, but the necessary information remains classified.

Of all the things I saw during my visit to Iraq, the Amarijah bomb shelter was the most troubling. It saddens me when I think about how all those young, beautiful people were killed in such a wanton and senseless manner. I think of the dreams that were smashed apart, the families that were destroyed, the neighborhood that was devastated. It angers me when I think that the people responsible for this despicable crime will probably never be brought to justice.

After we finished examining the shelter, I walked back to the bus and saw a group of children playing across the street. There were some adults and several of the kids were chasing after a red ball, kicking it around. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future would hold for them. I wondered if they had had relatives killed in the shelter. I wondered if they would ever again be forced to experience the nightmare of U.S. bombing and what had occurred here ten years ago. In a way, I felt responsible for them. I watched them for a few minutes, wishing I had brought a camera, then I joined the other delegates and climbed on to the bus.

MICHAEL WOLFF can be reached at: writewolff@hotmail.com