(AP) In the weeks before the crushing military assault on his hometown, Bilal Hussein sent his parents and brother away from Fallujah to stay with relatives. The 33-year-old Associated Press photographer stayed behind to capture insider images during the siege of the former insurgent stronghold.
“Everyone in Fallujah knew it was coming. I had been taking pictures for days,” he said. “I thought I could go on doing it.”
In the hours and days that followed, heavy bombing raids and thunderous artillery shelling turned Hussein’s northern Jolan neighborhood into a zone of rubble and death. The walls of his house were pockmarked by coalition fire.
“Destruction was everywhere. I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come and help them. Even the civilians who stayed in Fallujah were too afraid to go out,” he said. “There was no medicine, water, no electricity nor food for days.”
By Tuesday afternoon, as U.S. forces and Iraqi rebels engaged in fierce clashes in the heart of his neighborhood, Hussein snapped. “U.S. soldiers began to open fire on the houses, so I decided that it was very dangerous to stay in my house,” he said.
Hussein said he panicked, seizing on a plan to escape across the Euphrates River, which flows on the western side of the city. “I wasn’t really thinking,” he said. “Suddenly, I just had to get out. I didn’t think there was any other choice.”
In the rush, Hussein left behind his camera lens and a satellite telephone for transmitting his images. His lens, marked with the distinctive AP logo, was discovered two days later by U.S. Marines next to a dead man’s body in a house in Jolan.
AP colleagues in the Baghdad bureau, who by then had not heard from Hussein in 48 hours, became even more worried.
Hussein moved from house to house dodging gunfire and reached the river.
“I decided to swim … but I changed my mind after seeing U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river.”
He watched horrified as a family of five was shot dead as they tried to cross. Then, he “helped bury a man by the river bank, with my own hands.”
“I kept walking along the river for two hours and I could still see some U.S. snipers ready to shoot anyone who might swim. I quit the idea of crossing the river and walked for about five hours through orchards.”
He met a peasant family, who gave him refuge in their house for two days. Hussein knew a driver in the region and sent a message to another AP colleague, Ali Ahmed, in nearby Ramadi.
Ahmed relayed the news that Hussein was alive to AP’s Baghdad bureau. He sent a second message back to Hussein that a fisherman in nearby Habaniyah would ferry the photographer to safety by boat.
“At the end of the boat ride, Ali was waiting for me. He took me to Baghdad, to my office.”
Sitting safely in the AP’s offices, a haggard-looking Hussein offered a tired smile of relief. “It was a terrible experience in which I learned that life is precious,” he said. “I am happy that I am still alive after being close to death during these past days.”