The night the Americans came, Abu Saad hunkered in the little room at the back of his house in the center of the city, where he prayed that the bombs would not find him. He and his father, brother and nephew tried to drown the sound of the artillery with their prayers. Dear God, he chanted over and over, please protect us.
Describing their ordeal on Wednesday, Abu Saad, 31, recalled how the first night blurred into day, and then into a second night. Dawn broke four times while they hid. During daylight, they fasted in observance of the holy month of Ramadan. At night, Abu Saad rushed to the kitchen to cook a pot of chicken and then whisked it back to his hiding place, where he and his relatives pulled the meat off the bones with their fingers and listened to the sound of their city falling around them.
After four days, Abu Saad heard voices outside, then the smash of the front door being broken down. In the back room, Iraqi security forces found Abu Saad and his relatives, alive, blinking in the light, relieved and praising God. As the Iraqi soldiers led Abu Saad out of his home, assuring him that he would be protected, he got a first glimpse of the rubble that was once his neighborhood. Stunned by the sight of crumbled concrete, damaged mosques and shops blistered by bullets and artillery shells during fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents, Abu Saad said he felt his heart break.
"This is the city of the mosques," he said on Wednesday at a yellow-brick school near his house. "I felt sad after I saw the city, the buildings. I feel sad even talking about it."
U.S. and Iraqi officials declared last weekend that the fight for Fallujah, which began on the night of Nov. 8, was over and that the city had been liberated from insurgents who had controlled it since April. Yet on Wednesday, most of the streets remained deserted. The only traffic was military vehicles that sped through the city, wary of snipers and roadside bombs. Announcements over loudspeakers at mosques told people where to go to find food and water, and many have responded, showing up in groups carrying white flags.
During the past two days, more than 500 civilians who hid during the fighting rather than leave their homes have turned up at the school and a nearby mosque, where U.S. and Iraqi security forces are providing food and water.
"It's not a humanitarian crisis," said Maj. Jim Orbock, a soldier with the Army's 445th Civil Affairs Battalion. "I think we have a decent handle on what's going on. As the civilians are coming out, we're feeding them. We have everything — food, water."
The majority of Fallujah's 250,000 residents fled before the offensive began, and Orbock said it was hard to estimate how many stayed, probably fewer than 1,000. "We know they are out there," he said.
Abu Saad said he sent his mother and family out of the city before the fighting, but his elderly father refused to leave. "I couldn't leave him," said Abu Saad, a thin man with a neatly trimmed beard who was dressed in a dark gray cotton dishdasha, a traditional gown. "I knew God would protect me."
'It's making a difference'
The Iraqi army is responsible for running the food and water distribution points, and on Wednesday, a soldier who gave his name as Sgt. Habeeb said the civilians generally have been happy to see the Iraqi forces. "It's very, very important what we're doing," Habeeb said. "It's making a difference."
As Abu Saad waited for water and food at the school, a 12-year-old boy with a chipped tooth and shy grin came up and put his arm around the older man's waist. Abu Saad reached down and patted the boy's head in greeting. The boy, Abdullah, was a neighbor who also had come looking for something to eat.
Abdullah said his house was damaged during the battle but that he never was afraid. "I said, 'God, you're the greatest,' and he took care of me," Abdullah recalled, a blue-striped polo shirt tucked into blue sweatpants.
When Ghamer, 36, and his uncle, Mohammad, 52, walked up the street to the school, Ghamer held a wooden stock with a ragged white cloth tacked to it. He rolled up the white cloth as he came inside, and held out his hand to be dusted for signs that he had handled explosives, which security forces would consider a sign he was an insurgent. Once cleared, he was handed a white bag filled with candy and snacks and a microwaveable meal, even though the city's electricity was cut more than a week ago.
Ghamer, who declined to give his last name, said he hid in his house until it was damaged by an artillery round. He fled to his uncle's house and spent several days there until food and water started to run out. On Monday, he came to the school for food and has been coming back every day, carrying his white cloth on the stick so American forces would not mistake him for an insurgent and kill him.
The uncle, Mohammad, who also did not give his last name, said he blamed foreign insurgents in the city for forcing the battle with American forces. "If the Arab fighters leave the town, nobody can be hurt," Mohammad said. He shook his head and waited to stick out his hand to be checked.
Abu Saad picked up his box to head home, where he planned to spend the rest of the day cleaning the house and garden.
It made him feel better, he said, and eventually his mother would return home. He wanted the house to be clean.