It’s the sound of misfortune. She comes from heaven. It is like that of a commercial airplane, but more distant and opaque.
It goes over our heads. We know that she is launching her charge of death and that in a few seconds our stomachs will be crushed against our backs and our hearts will jump until they hurt. The first bomb. The first explosion. The precise moment in which a war breaks out.
It happened around 5:30 in the morning of Baghdad March 20, 2003.. The huge B-52 we heard and didn’t see dropped the bomb that would start the Iraq War 20 years ago. A moment later other explosions were heard from further away. Missiles launched from ships stationed in the Persian Gulf were blowing up military installations and government offices. Also buildings inhabited by innocents of everything. The surgical precision of which they speak is exclusive to operating rooms. In war it is all death and destruction.
The sound is dry and devastating.
The charge dropped by the B-52 explodes in the middle of the huge building. A ball of fire rises up to become a black cloud. The first flare is fast and flashing. The others will come as layers.
The echo continues to be heard for a few moments. The windows shake and the building I’m in moves like when I was surprised by the tremors in Santiago de Chile. Three minutes later, we are still trembling and only a ball of smoke and a terrifying silence remain at the scene of the attack. We know that at any moment another B-52 will appear and everything will start again.
The wait kills.
We were waiting all night. At any moment the first missile would have to come. Nothing would stop the infernal machinery of war that Bush had promised so much. A new bravado from the dictator Saddam Hussein would be of no use. The United Nations inspectors who had been there for weeks futilely searching for evidence that weapons of mass destruction were being manufactured in Iraq had left a few hours earlier. It was the clear signal that there would be war.
One of those inspectors Argentine Colonel Gustavo Juárez Matorras, he had told me in confidence, the night before, what was happening. They had found nothing but a few rusty missiles. The mission was over. They couldn’t do anything. The decision was political. George W. Bush, the then US president had already taken it. The weapons thing was an excuse.
The Pentagon’s ultimatum was set for midnight on March 19-20, Baghdad. Two hours before, the correspondents were already very nervous, finishing writing the latest chronicle and leaving everything ready to alert our newsrooms. At 11:00 p.m. almost all movement had ceased. Outside the only sound was the barking of dogs.. Forty-five minutes later the tension was a rope that tightened the throat. The appointed hour passed in the same deathly silence. At four in the morning no one was up. We were all in one of those hospital sleepovers. I took off my boots and threw myself on a bed. As soon as I fell asleep, “the camel” Yasser, our driver and opera singer by trade, pushed me awake. “The mermaid, the mermaid!” he yelled at me It took me a moment to listen to her.
The loudspeakers in the minarets of the opposite mosque were turned on and the litany began: “Allah u Akbar…Allah u Akbar!” Everything flared up. We ran to notify our newsrooms. Trying to connect ten or twenty satellite phones at the same time is an impossible task. The signals are intertwined. Anyway, the world already has the live CNN signal. It is the image of nothing. Something dark, a distant building. A few street lights. Baghdad is silent and semi-dark. The only constant is the barking.
The siren stops dead and silence again, like a razor to the jugular. On the street everything is stopped. There is no movement in any of the nearby houses. I look at the sky and see nothing. I look at the buildings that may be the first targets and they are all standing. Far away I see a soldier crossing one of the bridges over the Tigris River. There is a glimmer of the first sun rising from behind Zawra’s tower. Uncertainty eats me up.
The answer comes in the form of the Tomahawk missile. He explodes against a building in the south of the city that I later learned some CIA agents had marked shortly before. That was where Saddam had been with his entire cabinet. They took them out on the run a moment before it exploded.
I see the scene from the balcony of Palestine hotel room 1603, on the 16th floor with a view as extraordinary as it is terrifying. The missile exploded 20 blocks from where I am, but the bombing feels much closer. The bodies and the building were left shaking. What would be one of the most intense bombardments in history had begun. From that moment on, 20 days of permanent anxiety began, with countless moments that he believed would be the last. Bombs, destruction and death all around me.
When I was able to approach the place, the attacked building had disappeared. It was just a pile of rubble. 48 hours had passed and the war was in full swing. Some 400-ton bombs had begun to fall, which they call “daisy cutter”: they break three floors of concrete like little cookies. I’m going to Al Quindi hospital to find a survivor of the first attack. There is Hasen Ailan, a 22-year-old boy, forced soldier of Saddam. In that context, Hasan is a Muslim miracle. He says that when he heard the sound of the Tomahawk he knew it was coming. He thinks he missed to fire his kalashnikov at nothing, but he’s not sure. He heard the brrrrrrrrrrrrr over his head, he ran and fell.
Instinctively he searched for the useless trench he had dug a few hours before with three of his companions. He thinks he dove in, but he doesn’t know what happened anymore. He lost the kalashnikov and He was left with half his body covered by rubble and his head stuck to his chest. But his left arm never came. The right one cushioned his fall, the left one did nothing. In fact, he says, she didn’t feel it anymore. His body ended at the left shoulder. It was all in his mind, the brrrrrrrrrrr of the Tomahawk, the tararatata of the anti-aircraft machine gun, the tountountoun that came out of his kalashnikov or someone else’s and the great boooooooooooommmmmmm of the explosion. But of his arm and of the pain that he began to feel, he had no memory. A colleague told him that he had been thrown under a pile of earth and stone and that they found him because the blood had risen to the surface. He was rescued by several militiamen who endured the bombing from the building across the street. The explosion had thrown him some 30 meters from the hole left by the missile.
When I found Hasan in the hospital I was absolutely depressed. It was obvious that he was already dehydrated with tears. He had his entire body except that damn left arm that hadn’t been covered in time. A fragment of the missile had shattered it. The doctors had no choice. As soon as they finished with the amputation of another wretch’s leg, they continued with Hasan. They cut off what was left of that arm from his shoulder. “A butcher shop, a butcher shop, a butcher shop…”repeated a young doctor when I asked him what had happened in the hospital that first day of the war.
That night was the beginning of the next nine years of the US Army bogged down in the Iraqi desert and ravaged by jihadist groups. The crazy idea of Bush and his Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld that everything was going to end with just a few months of occupation and a fantasy democratization, was crushed by the insurgency of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the relentless intervention of Iran. The Tomahawk marked the path that had already led to failure in Vietnam and would fail again in Afghanistan.
Wars, you always know when they start. Never when they finish.
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