The day Jawad saw the birds fall from the sky and the villagers lying dead at his feet

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

10 July 2004

Jawad's job yesterday was to find The Independent a new fir tree - or at least some foliage which would colour the sun-bleached balcony of the paper's office in Baghdad. The fine little Christmas fir which graced the apartment had, despite promises of constant watering by colleagues, turned into a black, carbonised tree of tiny dark prickles. So it was that I set forth for the market garden behind Palestine Street, a place that reeks of hot flowers and undergrowth and pot plants and which is ruled over by Jawad, a 44-year-old with a sharp scar on his forehead but who knows he lives in jnah - Arabic for heaven.

Jawad, I quickly discovered, has also lived in hell. When I asked about the scar, he told me that a piece of Iranian shell had cut into his head during a bombardment on the Penjwin mountain during the Iran-Iraq war. He had been a radio operator and spent 13 years in the Iraqi army. "I lost almost all my friends," he said, rubbing his hands together in a false gesture of dismissal. "What happened to us was quite terrible. And what happened to me. I can't remember the name of one of my dead friends - because the shell fragment in my head took my memory away."

Not all his memory, however. Jawad moved silently through the trees, only the trickle of water from a fountain and the murmur of traffic disturbing his journey. A white ficus tree, perhaps? Very good for withstanding the heat. A green ficus tree? The only fir trees for sale were so deeply rooted they would have taken an hour to dig up. All his life, Jawad had worked in the market garden, along with his father. The heat accentuated the smells so that the smallest rose was perfumed, white flowers were turned into blossom.

Yes, Jawad had survived the entire Iran-Iraq war - and more. He loathed Saddam yet he fought for him for eight long years. "I was at Ahwaz, I was at the Karoun river, in the Shamiran mountains, in the Anfal operation, at Penjwin. I was a conscript and then a reservist but I refused to become an officer in case I had to stay in the army still longer."

In my notebook, I put a line beside the word "Anfal". This was "Chemical" Ali's gas campaign against the Kurds of Halabja and thousands of other villages in the north of Iraq.

Jawad had crossed the Iranian frontier in 1980 when the Iraqis thought they could win the war. He had entered Abadan and Khoramshar and then after being promised the "mother of all battles" when Khoramshar was surrounded - Saddam had a habit of creating Stalingrads he never intended to fight for - Jawad had retreated out of the city at night in 1983.

"I first noticed the gas being used east of Amara. Our artillery were firing gas shells into the Iranians. I couldn't smell the gas but I soaked my scarf in water and held it to my nose. Because I was a radio operator, I had a lot of equipment round me that protected me from the gas. These were black days and we suffered a lot. After I was wounded, they insisted on sending me back to the front. I had a 35 per cent disability and still they sent me back to the war."

Jawad manoeuvred a dark green pot plant on to the path, waving his hands at the birds who sprang from the undergrowth. If heaven really is a warm and colourful garden, then Jawad lived in it.

And the Anfal operation, I asked, did he see the effects with his own eyes? Jawad raised his hands in an imploring, helpless way. "We saw everything. Would you believe this, that when they started using the gas strange things happened? I saw the birds falling from the sky. I saw the little beans in the trees suddenly turning black. The leaves decayed in front of our eyes. I kept the towel round my face, just as I did at Ahwaz."

And bodies? "Yes, so many of them. All civilians. They lay around the villages and on the hillsides in clumps, as if streets of people had gathered at the same place to die. Some were scattered but there were many women who held children in their arms and they all lay there dead. What could I do? I could say nothing. We soldiers were too frightened even to discuss it. We just saw so many dead and we were silent."

The Anglo-American invasion of 2003 found Jawad in his beloved garden. But he is not making much of a living to support his daughter and twin sons today. The kidnapping and rape of women in Baghdad means that most of his customers refuse to visit him - as always, it is the women who buy the flowers and shrubs to make their homes beautiful - but he holds out the vague hope that life must improve. "Saddam is a son of our country - he is an Iraqi - but we got nothing from him. The Americans are much better. I know what people say about the new government. But I do believe the Americans are so much better than Saddam. I try to be optimistic. It is for God to decide."

So I decided that two little trees would grace The Independent's balcony in Baghdad and doubled the pitiful price that Jawad charged me. Then he appeared with another bush as a gift and wished me and my colleagues - I hereby absolve my good friends and colleagues, Messrs Cockburn and Huggler, for killing the Christmas tree - all safety in the future. And he followed me out to the car and was still waving when I turned the corner into the traffic.