Orphans of Tall Afar
- What 15 seconds did to the Hassan familyand to the men of Apache
Orphans of Tall Afar
Owen Matthews, Newsweek
Newsweek March 28 issue - Army investigators in Iraq have cleared
Apache Company's soldiers of any wrongdoing. The men did what they
were trained to do under the circumstances. Yet that's small comfort
to the Hassan orphans. "If it were up to me, I'd kill the Americans
and drink their blood," says Jilan, 14. Her 12-year-old brother,
Rakan, was discharged from Mosul General Hospital this month.
Doctors said his best hope of walking again is to seek treatment
outside Iraq. At least he can move his legs. As far as he knows, his
parents are in the hospital, recovering from the shooting. No one
dares to tell him the truth.
The Hassan family might have vanished into the war's statistics if
Chris Hondros hadn't been at the scene that evening. The Getty
Images photographer had spent the day on patrol with Apache Company.
Readers have been asking NEWSWEEK about the Hassan orphans ever
since we ran their picture in our Jan. 31 issue. We finally managed
to find the youngsters in Mosul, sharing a three-room house with a
married sister, her husband and at least three members of his
family. It's hard to see the Hassan shooting as anything but a
horrible accident of war. Nevertheless, the story offers some
insight into why Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on
earth two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and why the United
States has had such difficulty winning Iraqi hearts and minds.
The whole incident took barely 15 seconds. Night was falling on Jan.
18, and Apache's men had almost finished their day in Tall Afar, a
rundown city of 200,000 near the Syrian border. Insurgents
practically own the town after dark. Even in the daytime, U.S.
soldiers routinely travel in convoys of at least three Strykers.
That evening, Apache's armored vehicles had pulled over near the
town's main traffic circle while the men patrolled on foot. As they
stood by the road, a set of headlights swung into the boulevard and
accelerated in their direction. "We have a car coming!" shouted one
of the men. Away from their Strykers and on foot, they were perfect
targets for a suicide bomber. They gestured frantically at the
driver to stop. He didn't. Someone else yelled, "Stop that car!"
Hussein Hassan was hurrying to get home. His wife, Kamila, sat
beside him in the family Opel; their five youngest children, 2 to
14, were squeezed in the back seat with a 6-year-old cousin. They
had been at his brother's house, but now curfew was 15 minutes away,
and Tall Afar's streets are no place for a family after dark.
Hussein turned off Tall Afar's main traffic circle onto Mansour
Boulevard. Rakan was first to spot the soldiers in the deepening
dusk. They were waving their arms and raising their assault rifles.
The boy jumped up in the back seat. Before he could open his mouth
to warn his father, a storm of gunfire struck the car, killing both
parents and covering the children with their blood.
The silence was broken by the sound of children wailing .
The Opel rolled to a stop, its engine blown out, headlights somehow
still shining. The silence was broken by the sound of children
wailing. One soldier moved warily to the car and pointed a light
inside. What the beam showed was anything but
insurgents. "Civilians!" a squad leader shouted. The soldiers ran to
Jilan scrambled out of the back seat with her hands up. "No,
mister!" she yelled. "No, mister!" Most Iraqi children have learned
at least a little English. Rakan tried to follow her, but he fell to
the pavement. His legs wouldn't work. Their sisters Rana, 6, and
Samar, 7, were screaming, their hair full of blood and smashed
glass. Baby brother Muhammad and cousin Rajhda made scarcely a sound.
A man in an American uniform approached. His face was wrapped in
khaki cloth. Apache Company's interpreters try to hide their
identities, to keep insurgents from targeting their families. The
masked man said something in Arabic, but the children, ethnic
Turkomans, didn't understand. The Americans offered water and
pistachios to the kids. "We threw them in [the soldiers'] faces,"
recalls Samar. "We wouldn't talk to them." Medics dressed a bloody
gash in Rakan's back. In the darkness, they couldn't see that it was
an exit wound. Bullet fragments had entered Rakan's abdomen just
above the bladder and blasted out through his spine, damaging his
three lowest vertebrae. One of the soldiers carried him in his arms
as they rode to Tall Afar's General Hospital. The rest of the kids
were driven home by a relative, an ambulance driver. Muhammad, not
yet weaned, cried all night for his mother.
The soldiers headed back to base. Partway there, they pulled over
for a huddle. "This is bad," said the unit's commander, Capt. Thomas
Seibold. "But I will protect you. There's going to be an
investigation. The only thing we can do is to be honest. We did
nothing wrong." He asked who had fired. Six men spoke up. He asked
who had shot first, and he got no response. A couple of men said
they fired the second shot. They climbed back into their Strykers
and drove on.
Back on base, the men filled out sworn statements. Apache's officers
and NCOs hurried to reassure them. "Put yourself there," says Maj.
Dylan Moxness. "You're an 18-year-old kid from Tennessee. You don't
even understand why these people don't speak English anyway, you're
shouting 'Stop!' and the car's still coming at youyou've got to
It's an admission that suffering has occurred
The next morning, Maj. Brian Grady set out for the Hassans' home,
escorted by a dozen soldiers. As the 2-14 Cavalry's civil-affairs
officer, he makes cash grants to build schools and clinics in Tall
Afar. (The funding is disguised as money from the Iraqi government
so insurgents won't target the projects.) But most of his budget is
devoted to compensation offered, with few questions, for civilian
deaths, injuries, property damage or false imprisonment. "It's not
an admission of guilt," says Grady. "It's an admission that
suffering has occurred, and it's an expression of sympathy." The
standard sum for a noncombatant's deathand the maximum for a motor
vehicleis $2,500. Claimants can still file for the full amount of
material damages to property, like houses and cars, but solid proof
is required, and processing can be slow.
Grady paid $7,500 to a family elder named Abdul Yusuf, who promised
to take responsibility for the orphans. But the children ended up
with their eldest sister, Intisar, 24, and her husband, Haj Natheer
Basheer, 50, in a tiny, rundown house in Mosul. Haj Natheer says he
visited the base in early March with Jilan and Samar. He says
Captain Seibold broke into tears talking to the children. Natheer
thought it was a charade, and launched into a diatribe against the
occupation. The translator finally warned the Iraqi to be quiet or
risk getting locked up. "They are only tolerating you because the
kids are here," the translator said. Natheer hasn't seen the
Americans since. Captain Seibold declines to comment on the incident.
Most of Apache's men were on patrol again the day after the
shooting. "The mentality of the cavalry is, 'Put it in a box and go
back to battle'," says Capt. John Montalto, 34, a psychologist from
Manhattan's Upper East Side. "The repercussions happen later." The
Reserves called Montalto up last June to treat combat stress-cases
in Tall Afar. He says the 2-14's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Mark
Davis, has spoken to him just once, with a warning: "Don't ruin my
combat power." None of Apache's members went to him after the
The men can only shake their heads over the incident. "The car
seemed to be speeding up," says one. "Ask them why they were coming
on so fast. They should have stopped." The unit's chaplain, Capt. Ed
Willis, says there's no reason to feel guilty: "If you kill someone
on the battlefield, whether it's another soldier or collateral
damage, that doesn't fit under 'Thou shalt not kill'." "You don't
want [your men] second-guessing their actions," says Moxness. "You
want them to keep themselves alive." The sleepless nights can wait
until the men get home safe. For whatever peace of mind it may offer
anyone, a Seattle businessman and evangelical Christian named
Malcolm Mead has set up a Web site in the name of relief for the
Hassan family. If the money reaches the right hands, Rakan might
someday walk again.
With bureau reports
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
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