Haunting Image of War: A Dead Woman’s Dentures in the Dirt

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By: Greg Mitchell

Two days ago, The New York Times published a plain color photograph of a set of dentures, the eleven white teeth set off by the pink plastic. You don?t expect to see a row of false teeth in the International section of the Times ? or anywhere else there ? but there they were, right at the top of page A10. This part seemed especially odd: They were resting on the ground next to some pebbles. What?s this all about?

Returning to the front page, anyone who overlooked the accompanying story at first ? its headline was rather too typical, ?Iraqi Widow Saves Her Home, but Victory is Brief? ? might discover that the dentures were just about all that was left behind when the widow in question was carted off to the morgue last Wednesday in Baghdad, after she ?was shot dead while walking by a bakery in the local market.?

Also left at the scene: a bullet casing and a pool of her blood. The false teeth, it turns out, were uppers.

And so began one of the most haunting and important stories, with pictures, of the entire war: an up-close look at what can only be called ethnic cleansing. The reporter was Edward Wong, a veteran Times reporter, and the photographer Ashley Gilbertson, who won the Robert Capa Gold Medal prize for pictures from Iraq.

But my question today is: Where are the fallen dentures in the online version of the story? The Web article is accompanied by a slide show, which includes all of the remarkable pictures that ran with the Friday piece, plus two others, but absent one: the dentures shot.

It has been replaced by a dull picture of the bullet casing. Why?

Given the incredible work by Wong and Gilbertson, and the Times? decision to run it on page one with three photos even before the jump, I don?t want this to sound like nitpicking, but: It was the shot of the dentures that was the most disturbing of all the images, in fact, it was one of the most gut-wrenching of the past four years.

Newspapers have been criticized for running precious few photographs that reveal the true carnage of the war ?- and let?s not forget the ban on returning coffins. But here was a picture that literally got inside the war. Few things are more personal than this piece of dental work — now all that was left of Suaada Saadooun. It was all the more haunting in print because at the top of the Times? front page we could see her talking to a group of Kurdish and American soldiers, dentures presumably in place, less than a day before she was blown away in this revenge killing.

In fact, the entire Times? package might represent the first time a reporter/photographer team chronicled one death with so much prescience (or luck if you will): They were there to hear and picture her complaints to the authorities, then witness the men who came to evict her from her house, and then, on the following day, portray the grieving relatives — and the false teeth on the ground.

I can?t do justice to the story in a few words here. The link is at the end of this story, although you won?t find the false teeth photo there (unless the Times reverses course). Take it all in, then consider Sen. John McCain on Sunday offering a cruel April Fool?s joke ? flying into Baghdad and a few minutes late declaring all?s swell with the ?surge,? following the most violent week in Iraq in months. Which included the execution of Suaada Saadooun.

Here is an excerpt from the article. Link at the end.

The two men showed up on Tuesday afternoon to evict Suaada Saadoun?s family. One was carrying a shiny black pistol. Ms. Saadoun was a Sunni Arab living in a Shiite enclave of western Baghdad. A widowed mother of seven, she and her family had been chased out once before. This time, she called American and Kurdish soldiers at a base less than a mile to the east.

The men tried to drive away, but the soldiers had blocked the street. They pulled the men out of the car. “If anything happens to us, they?re the ones responsible,? said Ms. Saadoun, 49, a burly, boisterous woman in a black robe and lavender-blue head scarf.

The Americans shoved the men into a Humvee. Neighbors clapped and cheered as if their soccer team had just won a title.

The next morning, Ms. Saadoun was shot dead while walking by a bakery in the local market?.

This reporter met Ms. Saadoun when the Kurdish soldiers he was accompanying helped arrest the two Shiite men on Tuesday.

The final hours of Ms. Saadoun?s life reveal the ferocity with which Shiite militiamen are driving Sunni Arabs from Baghdad house by house, block by block, in an effort to rid the capital of them. It is happening even as thousands of additional American troops and Iraqi soldiers have been sent to Baghdad as part of President Bush?s so-called surge strategy?.

Captain Morales heard the news about Ms. Saadoun the next day around noon. She had been shot in the market earlier that morning, just northeast of the base and within spitting distance of the same checkpoint where the two Shiite men had been stopped. The captain paced around the hallway inside his command center. His face was ashen.

?What can you do?? his first sergeant said to him. ?It?s their problem. This is their country, and they need to work it out among themselves. There?s nothing we can do about it.?

An American patrol rolled out to Ms. Saadoun?s home at 2 p.m. More than a dozen women dressed in black sat wailing in the backyard, awaiting the arrival of Ms. Saadoun?s body from the hospital.

?I told you, ?Don?t go out, they?ll kill you,? ? one daughter cried out. ?I told you, my lovely mother, ?Don?t go out, they?ll kill you.? ?



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