The Associated Press
Sunday 30 March 2003
Bruised and bleeding, in need of medical care, the Americans stranded in Iraq's western desert approached the mud-brick town and found the hospital destroyed by bombs.
"Why? Why?" a doctor demanded of them. "Why did you Americans bomb our children's hospital?" Scores of Iraqi townspeople crowded around.
The American peace activists' account was the first confirmation of a report last week that a hospital in Rutbah was bombed Wednesday, with dead and injured. The travelers said they saw no significant Iraqi military presence near the hospital or elsewhere in Rutbah. The doctor did not discuss casualties, the Americans said.
U.S. Central Command said Sunday it had no knowledge of a hospital bombing in Rutbah. The U.S. military has said it is doing its best to avoid civilian casualties in its campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
For the battered band of peace activists, recounting their nerve-jarring exit from Iraq on Sunday, it was one of the worst moments in 10 days of war.
That exit had begun at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, when a dozen foreigners - eight American and one Irish member of the Iraq Peace Team, and three unaffiliated Japanese and South Korean activists - set out from Baghdad on the 300-mile trek to the western border with Jordan, through a nation at war.
Members of the antiwar group have shuttled in and out of the Iraqi capital for months to take part in vigils, small demonstrations and other activities to protest U.S. war plans. Since March 20, they have borne witness and compiled reports on the U.S. bombing of Baghdad.
Some who left Saturday had been ordered out by jittery Iraqi bureaucrats for a minor infraction - taking snapshots in Baghdad without an official escort. Others said they left to get out the story of the Baghdad bombing.
The journey was a straight shot through the gritty western desert, the Badiyat ash-Sham, over a divided superhighway eerily empty of traffic. American special forces and warplanes have been staging raids and air attacks on isolated targets across the west.
"I'd say we passed up to 20 bombed-out, burned-out vehicles along the way," said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 22, a student from Devon, Pa. Four were Iraqi tanks and other military vehicles, he said, but the others appeared to be civilian, including a bus and an ambulance.
"We had to detour around a bombed-out bridge, dodge lightpoles down across the road," said Shane Claiborne, 27, a community organizer from Philadelphia.
Three times the group - in a big white GMC Suburban and two yellow taxis - spotted bomb explosions nearby. The last, in early afternoon, occurred near the far-western town of Rutbah. Their Iraqi drivers' nerves were fraying as they sped toward Jordan at 80 mph.
"He kept going faster, faster," Betty Scholten, 69, of Mount Rainier, Md., said of her driver.
Suddenly the lagging taxi, pushing to catch up, blew a tire. It careened, spun out of control and plunged down a ditch, landing on its side. "It was a heavy hit," Claiborne said. All five men inside were hurt. "We pulled each other up through the side doors."
A passing car eventually braked to a halt. The Iraqis inside got out, helped the injured into their vehicle and drove back toward Rutbah and a hospital. Along the way, Claiborne said, he spotted the contrails of a jet streaking toward the car. The Iraqis frantically waved a white sheet out a window, and the plane veered off, he said.
In poor, remote Rutbah, a burned-out oil tanker truck sat in the road, and the customs building and communications center had been wrecked by bombing. When they reached the hospital, they saw it, too, had been bombed, its roof caved in.
Claiborne said an English-speaking Iraqi doctor took them to a small nearby clinic, and 100 or so townspeople then gathered around the building. The men were worried, but the doctor told them, "We'll take care of you. Muslim, Christian, whatever, we are all brothers and sisters,'" Claiborne recalled.
The staff tended to them, stitching up a scalp laceration for group leader Cliff Kindy, 53, of North Manchester, Ind., and doing their best for the worst hurt, Weldon Nisly, 57, of Seattle, who suffered cracked ribs and similar injuries.
The two other carloads, missing the third, eventually doubled back and found the men in Rutbah. All then ventured onward the final 80 miles to the Jordan border, and then Amman, where Nisly was admitted to a hospital early Sunday.
As they left Rutbah, said Wilson-Hartgrove's wife, Leah, 22, the villagers "said to us, `Please tell them about the hospital.'"
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