The day the music died

Laith Mushtaq on the night his friend and camera assistant was killed in Karbala.

    Rashid Wali, an Iraqi working for Al Jazeera, was killed in Kerbala five years ago

    Al Jazeera's Laith Mushtaq was one of the few unembedded cameramen working in Iraq during some of the fiercest clashes between American forces and anti-invasion fighters.

    In the early hours of May 21, 2004, both Laith and his assistant Rashid Wali were filming during intense fighting in the Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala.

    I want to introduce you to my friend Rashid. Rashid Wali. He was the man of Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau. Officially, he had been hired as a driver, but he soon did pretty much everything.

    Above all, he always made me laugh. Even on the worst days of the war, he'd still be able to crack some black jokes about what had happened to our country and our people.

    Often, I'd smile just from watching him. He used to carry this huge ashtray around. He was smoking all the time. Whenever the reporter went to pee, he would start smoking.

    During the war, we spent every day together. In his car, we were travelling through Iraq, from Baghdad to Samarra, from Mosul to Karbala.

    We'd always fight about the right temperature for the air conditioning, but otherwise these journeys were like a break from the war.

    We had lots of CDs in the car and sometimes we would sing along. Most of the time, we listened to southern Iraqi music. Lots of sad love songs. Sometimes the reporters asked us to play happier music, but that was difficult.

    A layer of sadness covered the country; people were grieving, smoke rose everywhere, cars and tanks lay burned on the side of the road.

    So Rashid played the kind of music that went with it. He chose the soundtrack of the war.

    Rashid was from southern Iraq and southern Iraqis are specialists for sad love songs. But if you had seen him, you wouldn't imagine he'd be the guy who listens to love songs. He looked like a guy who works in the special forces of the army.

    When you stood next to him, you felt safe.

    When I started working for Al Jazeera, I was nervous, but he put his hand on my shoulder and said: "I know you can do it. I trust you."

    I turned my face to his face and I suddenly felt this power inside me because, for the first time, I felt that somebody believed in me as a cameraman.

    The only person who said "you will be good" - that was Rashid.

    From that time on, until today, when I am nervous about a job, I think of him. And when I do a good job, I thank him for trusting me before anyone else did.

    Karbala battle

    A couple of weeks after the first battle of Fallujah, there was a lot of fighting between the Americans and the al-Mahdi Army in Karbala. Rashid and me were sent there with a couple of others from the Baghdad office.

    Every night, I went to the rooftop of our hotel, held my camera and tried to listen. I have been a soldier myself, so from what I hear, I can guess what is about to happen.

    I can guess what's coming next from the sound of a missile, an RPG, or an AK-47 being used. From May 20 to the following day, I could hear tanks moving closer to the main mosque, where the al-Mahdi Army was hiding.

    Al Jazeera cameraman Laith Mushtaq attended Rashid's funeral in Baghdad
    My colleagues were in the lobby watching a football game, I went downstairs and said: "Hey, I think something big is going to happen."

    They followed me on the roof. I changed the iris on the camera, because it was night and we needed to get the best quality. I recorded as Rashid stood beside me.

    I was the only one wearing a bullet-proof jacket and so I said: "Please go down. Leave me alone, I'll take the pictures."

    I was hiding behind a small wall but when the others left, Rashid was still there. I said: "Please, Rashid, go down."

    He stayed.

    Then I screamed: "Go down. Hide."

    He said: "No, I will never leave you alone." And he put his hand on my shoulder.

    The next moment, I saw bullets flying towards us. You can see bullets because they glow in the dark.

    A second later, the wall falls down. I fall, try to hold the camera and see Rashid falling as well. I couldn't move. There was only one metre between me and him, but I couldn't move.

    I felt his hand leave my shoulder as he fell, but I thought he was just trying to hide somewhere. Then I got hold of his leg; I touched him and shouted his name.

    No reaction.

    Then louder: Rashid! Rashid! He didn't answer. I couldn't see much, it was so dark. I touched his hand. Then I saw that three bullets had hit his head.

    'River of blood'

    There was a river of blood. I screamed, because all the others were downstairs. I screamed: "Rashid is killed."

    I took a shot of him with my camera.

    Some people ask: "How can you film the dead body of your friend?"

    I say that I wanted the world to know what had happened. And I didn't know what else to do.

    I think I also wanted to say: "Rashid, tell me this is not true, you said you'd never leave me alone."

    We couldn't take his body from the roof, because we would have been caught in the crossfire. From midnight, until six in the morning, Rashid was up there. We hid downstairs while the fighting continued.

    We called the Baghdad office and they called Doha [Al Jazeera's headquarters]. Someone in the Baghdad office tried to call the Americans and told them: "Stop shooting the hotel. There is someone who died."

    A couple of hours later the fighting calmed down a bit and we called the hospital to get an ambulance. Four times the driver tried to get to us, but four times the ambulance couldn't get through. When they finally managed, we took Rashid to hospital and finished the death papers there.

    I took Rashid's car keys and put his body on the roof of his car. It takes a little over two hours to drive from Karbala to Baghdad. The others stayed behind, but somebody had to bring Rashid's body to his wife and his children.

    So, in his own car, I took his body back to Baghdad. I think it was the longest drive of my life. I remembered every single time we had travelled together. I heard him say: "Make the AC high, make the AC low, change the CD."

    But on that day, there was no CD to change. That day, I stopped listening to southern Iraqi love songs. 

    Interview compiled by Stephanie Doetzer

    Laith Mushtaq is from Baghdad and joined Al Jazeera's Arabic channel in 2003. He is now based in Doha, Qatar.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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