The man was lying in the middle of the road. I didn't see him at first, I just heard a soldier cry out, "There's a body in the road, other side!"
And there it was.
He was young, possibly in his early twenties, and he'd been shot three times. It was hard to tell at first, because of his clothes, but I could see the small bullet hole next to his nose. Funny how the entry wound often doesn't look like much, it's the exit wound that tells the real story of how much damage that bullet has done. That's where it gets really messy.
We weren't allowed out of the vehicle — "Sergeant says no way," his lieutenant told me. "It's way too dangerous here, this is where the Iraqis got hit by an RPG and one of them killed and there's always IED's along here". So that was that — forced to make television through the armored glass of the humvee, pushing the lens to try to overcome the distance and objects in between the camera and the action.
I could see the Iraqi soldiers running with a black body bag — moving as fast as they could to get the body inside before an attack. We were on the main road running through Ameriya, the most dangerous Sunni insurgent neighborhood in Baghdad, where these mostly Shiite Iraqi soldiers are constantly targeted — and hated by the local community. It got messier as they tried to lift the body into the bag but they managed, just the four soldiers, exposed while everyone else watched from inside the vehicles and the gunners up top scanned the surrounding area for any sign of movement.
It seemed heavy, and took forever to heave the bag into the trunk of the vehicle, but eventually it was done and the armored top of the trunk slammed down over its bloody human cargo.
As we started to move away, I stared at the chunks of human remains and the long trail of blood smeared across the pavement. He'd traveled quite a distance along the road, 'they must have been going really fast when they threw him out', I thought to myself. 'I wonder if he was already dead when they opened the car door… I hope so'.
Only a few minutes later we pulled into an Iraqi police station in the next neighborhood over — it's too dangerous to have a police station in Ameriyah itself. There I watched as the Iraqi soldiers pulled the body bag out of the trunk and laid it down on the floor. A policeman stepped forward as soldiers and police crowded round. He unzipped the bag, and for a moment, everyone just stared, not really saying anything.
Then the American and Iraqi soldiers got down to business, examining the body for cause of death and signs of torture.
I was fixated on his mouth. I couldn't look at anything else – just the tape, wide, clear Scotch tape that had been wrapped over his mouth and around his head, over and over, so many times. It was suffocating and tight and starting to seep with blood as an Iraqi soldier began unwrapping it slowly. I don't even know why. It was too late, of course.
There were three gunshot wounds, the one to the face that was easily visible, and then as they cut away his clothes, two more to the side. Small, meaty lesions that marked where the bullets had entered his body. Someone suggested turning him over to check the back and find the exit wounds — 'oh no, I instantly thought, 'I'm not sure I can bear this, it's going to be messy'.
Blood was already seeping from various wounds, and chunks of brain and intestine were scattered on the bloodied plastic of the body bag. He was a young man, but not slight, and his small, dark eyes were open, staring at me every time I walked round to the side where his face was looking up. I noticed he was wearing sweatpants over his trousers, like so many Iraqis do when it gets as cold as it is right now in Baghdad. The sweatpants were down around his knees, and for some reason it was that detail that broke my heart.
Here was somebody's son, probably someone's brother, possibly someone's husband or lover. I didn't know anything about him or why he'd been killed or who may have done it. That's part of the strategy here with these murders — remove all identification, obscure the facts and make it that much harder to find the truth. If you're lucky — and most of the killers usually are — then that will be enough to make sure no one even looks for you, let alone finds you and holds you accountable.
The Iraqi policemen and soldiers around me had no doubt about why he was killed. "He's Shiite," they told me, "all of them we find here like this is Shiite". And they find a lot. In the previous week in Ameriyah, the American commander told me later, they'd found 17 bodies dumped like this one, and that's not even a bad week for this area.
The U.S. forces have given killings like this a name — and therefore an acronym, EJK's, or Extra Judicial Killings. They happen on both sides of the religious divide here — Sunni and Shiite. They can be random or targeted, and the numbers just seem to keep going up. In fact the numbers are so incredible — 67 bodies found bound and executed in Baghdad one day, over a hundred the next, 80-something the day after and on and on until the morgues are overflowing and mass graves are filling up with the unknown — that you wonder if humanity has lost sight of what this means here.
It's not that I'm not used to seeing bodies in this war, after covering it for almost four years. It's just that it doesn't matter how many you've seen, each one should count.
And so I've been living with the face of that young man for the past week, since I saw him. The dark eyes open, those worn-out clothes, the old, tattered shoes, and that tape wrapped so tightly around his mouth, slowly soaking with blood.