The sparsely trafficked six-lane highway from Baghdad to Falluja is a welcome change to the clogged streets of Baghdad, where it can takes hours to cross the city. For most of the one-hour trip, I am lulled by the open road, staring out into the plastic bag littered desert and the flat horizon occasionally broken by villages of cement. Occasionally, we pass by stacks of crates, lined up four of five in a row, that are piled with oranges, bananas, and bottled water. Boys of about 10 years of age stand on the road and wave cars to pull over and buy their produce.
Outside Falluja, we stop at a gas station to wait for out escorts, the so-called Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, the American allied militia-turned-police force that now runs the city. The weather is hot. As we sit in the car, I see a man approaching, his figure initially obscured by the orange, dusty air. His face is wrapped in a red checkered kafiyya and he’s dressed all in black. My heart pounds and I brace myself as he nears our vehicle, looking in our direction. As he passes the front of the car, he turns and waves, continuing up to the highway to flag a ride toward Baghdad.
We drive with our escorts through the countryside. Crumpled up car frames, the remains of exploded vehicles, lie amid the tall brown reeds that line the river. Families pick barley and wheat in the fields. Sparse cows nibble on grass. The dusk buzzes with the sound of generators.
In the city, my colleague and I get out of the car. Next to me, people ride bikes across the bridge where American security contractors for the company Blackwater were burned and hung in 2004. A building across from it is crumbling over itself, bombed during the American siege of the city in 2006. We approach a group of people standing on the corner, our armed escorts standing guard across the street. We introduce ourselves as journalists, and someone steps forward from the crowd, “Journalists? Why haven’t you come until now? Why weren’t you here two years ago?” Our Sahwa escort steps forward, pulls him out of the crowd, and hands him to the nearest police officer, who puts him in a car. “I don’t like that kind of talk,” he tells me later. It is clear who controls Falluja now.
Another man steps forward. “This is the city of martyrs, the city of the dead, the city of men that were patient and confronted what was put upon them.” He shakes his finger in the air as he bellows. “This city was pounded a number of times because its people resisted the occupation. This building in front of you was bombed by the enemy. The Americans need to leave in a hurry. This is not their land, nor their country.”
Down the road, two carpenters walk us through the upper floor of their building, a hole in the ceiling and pulverized blocks of concrete on the floor. “About three quarters of the city was destroyed. Hardly anything here has been rebuilt. There is just an unfinished hospital. We get electricity for two hours during the day.”
His friend adds as we walk through the rubble: “The Americans are going to be gone and we are going to be left with problems. Everyone is putting money in their own pockets. The Sahwa, the contractors, the politicians. The only things that have been built in Falluja are a bridge and a hospital, and neither are finished.”
We go downtown, to talk to shopkeepers. Each person, one after the other, refuses to speak to us on the street. Our escort buys us a soda, and we leave the streets before sunset.