Imagining hell


At the beginning of the week, the death toll in the siege of Fallujah, the biggest streetfight since the Vietnam War, read like this: US Troops, 38 dead, insurgents, 1000.

The city has been liberated, and while it is hard not to write that word without a cynical curl contorting our lips, for the innocents of the city an end to the fighting must come as sweet, liberating relief. Fallujah has been under siege for eighteen months. What sort of hell does this imply for the city’s hapless residents?

A year and a half ago a little over 300,000 people called Fallujah home. That’s about the same number who live in Canberra.

Think back to around eighteen months ago in Canberra. Imagine the Americans arriving in Australia to replace a corrupt and brutal government. Canberra remained calm. The city’s mayor welcomed their intervention. But then American troops began to patrol the town. They arrived at a protest outside a local school. The soldiers say they were fired on, none of them were hurt, but fifteen Australians ended up dead.

That was about the time people began to get together to arm themselves – former soldiers, local church leaders. People who objected to American APCs rolling up and down their streets. That was when the attacks started. Improvised mines and roadside bombs gave way to more sophisticated methods as ex-special forces types got involved. That was when the armed gangs started to punish people who co-operated with the Americans “ beating them, torturing them, killing them.

If you were a family living in Canberra and you didn’t want to take sides it was time to see if relatives or friends in Sydney or Melbourne would take you in. You’d be leaving behind your business, your home, everything you couldn’t pack in a car or take on a bus. Around half the people who lived in the city packed up and left, making life harder on the people who remained – people who would not, or could not, get out.

Six months ago the gangs massacred some American security guards. They were filmed dragging the bodies through the streets. For those left imprisoned in a town run by a militia, that had become a magnet to anti-Americans from every corner of Australia and far beyond, it was hard to be sorry. And if you were sorry it was probably for yourself and your family, stuck in the middle of a lawless city.

The Americans responded by rocketing neighbourhoods and shelling streets. They responded to the deaths by surrounding Canberra while rebels held out in the Parliament building. To the outside world, they called the city an insurgent stronghold. Whether you were fighting, or lying low, young or old, you were a rebel in a rebel town.

And then the word came at last that the Americans were going to take Canberra out. They rustled up a token force of compliant Australians – no-one local – but the Americans provided the bulk of the force. If you were still in Canberra, bad luck. The roads were sealed. Snipers took out anyone going near the edge of town. Rockets from Marine helicopters, cannon fire from F-18s and AC-130 gunships hit anything or anyone that moved, even the dogs stayed indoors. If the gangs were near your home, or in the basement of your building, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that was how Canberra came to be ‘liberated’. Over the dead bodies of its residents, over the ruins of their businesses, their places of worship and their homes. The Americans made a point of not raising the stars and stripes. It was an ‘Australian’ operation. They didn’t count the civilian casualties but if you lived anywhere in Australia you probably heard someone’s story about what happened in Canberra. How did it make you feel about being Australian?

Well there’s the parable. Australia is not Iraq. Canberra is not Fallujah. But commanders and their forces can’t separate good from evil through night vision goggles, and smart bombs don’t leave the innocent standing and the guilty dead. Street fighting is a dirty business, and sometimes human beings don’t get to choose which side they’re on in the war on terror.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.