Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bridge Carnage Stuns Baghdad

IWPR reporters witness scenes of torment and despair in the aftermath of the stampede tragedy.
By Duraed Salman

The thick crowd of women and children looked like marching ants as they headed across al-Aima Bridge towards the Kadhimiya mosque.

Prohibited from celebrating religious holidays under the Saddam Hussein regime, the droves of devout Shia were determined to commemorate the death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, one of Shia Islam’s holiest figures.

The crowd was already a bit nervous and on edge. Earlier that day, August 31, three mortar and rocket attacks on the Shia killed seven people.

In the sweltering afternoon heat, the throng began to squeeze onto the bridge, when someone shouted a warning.

“Move on, move, a suicide bomber will explode himself," a person yelled.

Immediately, there was panic as people desperately tried to get to the other side. Many were trampled while others jumped into the Tigris River, even though they couldn’t swim.

"I jumped form the bridge into the water," said Ali Shaniyur, a pilgrim who miraculously escaped death but his back was seriously injured because the water was shallow.

"Pass me the children, I'm here," he said to a women who started throwing her children into the water. Shaniyur ended up rescuing 28 youngsters.

Because of the force of the crowd, part of a fence along the side of the bridge collapsed, causing more casualties. An army patrol fired into the air to try to control the crowd, but that caused even more chaos.

"Who should we rescue, one or two?" said Fadhil Sattar, 25, who was running around looking confused, hoping to do something that might save a life.

"Oh mom, what a catastrophe," screamed Sajide abdul-Wahid, 31, as she beat on her face and sat in front of her mother's body, which was wrapped in a black abbaya.

In the end, about 1,000 died and hundreds more were injured. Bodies were scattered on the bridge and nearby streets. Local hospitals scrambled to handle the massive number of casualties, but rescue operations were hampered because of the many blocked roads in the area that were meant to enhance security during the religious holiday.

The injured sat in hospital corridors because of the lack of beds. At the nearby Al-Nu'man hospital, women wept for their loved ones.

"It seems that the wounds of Iraqis won't recover and they will keep bleeding," said Dr Sa'ad Mazin, 31.

At the scene of the stampede, Ahmed Hashim, 37, could hardly speak as he stared at the body of his 4-year-old son, Hasan. His lips had turned blue and his ears were bleeding. The boy had suffocated after he fell from his mother’s arms and people walked over him.

"I lost the person whom I hoped to see grow to complete what I have started," he said.

IWPR trainee Yaseen al-Rubai’i had told his brother, Yehia, not to attend the procession, but he refused to listen. Later, Yaseen received news that his brother was among the victims.

The father of 13-year-old Allawi had fainted when he learned of his son’s death. “I cannot live with out him. He is the eye with which I see,” he said.

Others looked for relatives among the scores of dead bodies. The smell of death overwhelmed the area.

Ali Hussein, 29, was searching for one of his brothers and his friends. “What did they do wrong?” he asked. “They came out before me and I don't know if they have been martyred or not.”

Imad Sattar, 26, a river police officer, said he and his colleagues did not have the ability to handle such a huge tragedy, but did manage to rescue several people.

"Our boats are small…but we did our best and done a good job," he said.

Many blamed security officials for not doing enough to prevent the tragedy and there were calls for the ministers of defense and interior to resign.

But army commander Abdul-Jalil Khalaf insisted that once the rumour about a suicide bomber had started the crowd panicked and little could be done.

"What happened was not a security breach,” he said.

Some said they thought the rumour was started by those wanting to spark a civil war.

"It was an attempt to instigate a sectarian feud among the sons of this country," said abdul-Amir Shakir, 39, a follower of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The tragedy did bring Sunnis and Shia together - many of the former in the neighbouring Adamiya district helped to rescue victims and distributed food and water.

“We are all Muslims,” said Jamil Wahab, 45, a retiree. “We stand by each other in time of hardship.”

Duraed Salman and Meethaq Marzook are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.