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
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 8x10 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 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
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
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, 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 hundreds 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, 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 were 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
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.
Wolff is a San Diego activist and writer who works for the International
Action Center and A.N.S.W.E.R. He writes for television and radio. In
January of 2001 he traveled to Iraq with Ramsey Clark's delegation to
witness firsthand the effects of war and sanctions on the Iraqi people.