Orphans of Tal Afar

Audio: Chris Hondros on Iraqi Orphans. CLICK ON PHOTO TO VIEW GALLERY. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Editor's Note: Award-winning photojournalist Chris Hondros died in Misurata, Libya, on April 20, 2011, along with his colleague Tim Hetherington.

Army investigators in Iraq have cleared Apache Company's soldiers of any wrongdoing. The men did what they were trained to do under the circumstances. Yet that's small comfort to the Hassan orphans. "If it were up to me, I'd kill the Americans and drink their blood," says Jilan, 14. Her 12-year-old brother, Rakan, was discharged from Mosul General Hospital this month. Doctors said his best hope of walking again is to seek treatment outside Iraq. At least he can move his legs. As far as he knows, his parents are in the hospital, recovering from the shooting. No one dares to tell him the truth.

The Hassan family might have vanished into the war's statistics if Chris Hondros hadn't been at the scene that evening. The Getty Images photographer had spent the day on patrol with Apache Company. Readers have been asking NEWSWEEK about the Hassan orphans ever since we ran their picture in our Jan. 31 issue. We finally managed to find the youngsters in Mosul, sharing a three-room house with a married sister, her husband and at least three members of his family. It's hard to see the Hassan shooting as anything but a horrible accident of war. Nevertheless, the story offers some insight into why Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on earth two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and why the United States has had such difficulty winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

The whole incident took barely 15 seconds. Night was falling on Jan. 18, and Apache's men had almost finished their day in Tal Afar, a rundown city of 200,000 near the Syrian border. Insurgents practically own the town after dark. Even in the daytime, U.S. soldiers routinely travel in convoys of at least three Strykers. That evening, Apache's armored vehicles had pulled over near the town's main traffic circle while the men patrolled on foot. As they stood by the road, a set of headlights swung into the boulevard and accelerated in their direction. "We have a car coming!" shouted one of the men. Away from their Strykers and on foot, they were perfect targets for a suicide bomber. They gestured frantically at the driver to stop. He didn't. Someone else yelled, "Stop that car!"

Hussein Hassan was hurrying to get home. His wife, Kamila, sat beside him in the family Opel; their five youngest children, 2 to 14, were squeezed in the back seat with a 6-year-old cousin. They had been at his brother's house, but now curfew was 15 minutes away, and Tal Afar's streets are no place for a family after dark. Hussein turned off Tal Afar's main traffic circle onto Mansour Boulevard. Rakan was first to spot the soldiers in the deepening dusk. They were waving their arms and raising their assault rifles. The boy jumped up in the back seat. Before he could open his mouth to warn his father, a storm of gunfire struck the car, killing both parents and covering the children with their blood.

The Opel rolled to a stop, its engine blown out, headlights somehow still shining. The silence was broken by the sound of children wailing. One soldier moved warily to the car and pointed a light inside. What the beam showed was anything but insurgents. "Civilians!" a squad leader shouted. The soldiers ran to the car.

Jilan scrambled out of the back seat with her hands up. "No, mister!" she yelled. "No, mister!" Most Iraqi children have learned at least a little English. Rakan tried to follow her, but he fell to the pavement. His legs wouldn't work. Their sisters Rana, 6, and Samar, 7, were screaming, their hair full of blood and smashed glass. Baby brother Muhammad and cousin Rajhda made scarcely a sound.

A man in an American uniform approached. His face was wrapped in khaki cloth. Apache Company's interpreters try to hide their identities, to keep insurgents from targeting their families. The masked man said something in Arabic, but the children, ethnic Turkomans, didn't understand. The Americans offered water and pistachios to the kids. "We threw them in [the soldiers'] faces," recalls Samar. "We wouldn't talk to them." Medics dressed a bloody gash in Rakan's back. In the darkness, they couldn't see that it was an exit wound. Bullet fragments had entered Rakan's abdomen just above the bladder and blasted out through his spine, damaging his three lowest vertebrae. One of the soldiers carried him in his arms as they rode to Tal Afar's General Hospital. The rest of the kids were driven home by a relative, an ambulance driver. Muhammad, not yet weaned, cried all night for his mother.

The soldiers headed back to base. Partway there, they pulled over for a huddle. "This is bad," said the unit's commander, Capt. Thomas Seibold. "But I will protect you. There's going to be an investigation. The only thing we can do is to be honest. We did nothing wrong." He asked who had fired. Six men spoke up. He asked who had shot first, and he got no response. A couple of men said they fired the second shot. They climbed back into their Strykers and drove on.

Back on base, the men filled out sworn statements. Apache's officers and NCOs hurried to reassure them. "Put yourself there," says Maj. Dylan Moxness. "You're an 18-year-old kid from Tennessee. You don't even understand why these people don't speak English anyway, you're shouting 'Stop!' and the car's still coming at you--you've got to fire."

The next morning, Maj. Brian Grady set out for the Hassans' home, escorted by a dozen soldiers. As the 2-14 Cavalry's civil-affairs officer, he makes cash grants to build schools and clinics in Tal Afar. (The funding is disguised as money from the Iraqi government so insurgents won't target the projects.) But most of his budget is devoted to compensation offered, with few questions, for civilian deaths, injuries, property damage or false imprisonment. "It's not an admission of guilt," says Grady. "It's an admission that suffering has occurred, and it's an expression of sympathy." The standard sum for a noncombatant's death--and the maximum for a motor vehicle--is $2,500. Claimants can still file for the full amount of material damages to property, like houses and cars, but solid proof is required, and processing can be slow.

Grady paid $7,500 to a family elder named Abdul Yusuf, who promised to take responsibility for the orphans. But the children ended up with their eldest sister, Intisar, 24, and her husband, Haj Natheer Basheer, 50, in a tiny, rundown house in Mosul. Haj Natheer says he visited the base in early March with Jilan and Samar. He says Captain Seibold broke into tears talking to the children. Natheer thought it was a charade, and launched into a diatribe against the occupation. The translator finally warned the Iraqi to be quiet or risk getting locked up. "They are only tolerating you because the kids are here," the translator said. Natheer hasn't seen the Americans since. Captain Seibold declines to comment on the incident.

Most of Apache's men were on patrol again the day after the shooting. "The mentality of the cavalry is, 'Put it in a box and go back to battle'," says Capt. John Montalto, 34, a psychologist from Manhattan's Upper East Side. "The repercussions happen later." The Reserves called Montalto up last June to treat combat stress-cases in Tal Afar. He says the 2-14's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Mark Davis, has spoken to him just once, with a warning: "Don't ruin my combat power." None of Apache's members went to him after the shooting.

The men can only shake their heads over the incident. "The car seemed to be speeding up," says one. "Ask them why they were coming on so fast. They should have stopped." The unit's chaplain, Capt. Ed Willis, says there's no reason to feel guilty: "If you kill someone on the battlefield, whether it's another soldier or collateral damage, that doesn't fit under 'Thou shalt not kill'." "You don't want [your men] second-guessing their actions," says Moxness. "You want them to keep themselves alive." The sleepless nights can wait until the men get home safe. For whatever peace of mind it may offer anyone, a Seattle businessman and evangelical Christian named Malcolm Mead has set up a Web site in the name of relief for the Hassan family. If the money reaches the right hands, Rakan might someday walk again.

For more of Tim Hetherington's work, click here.

Orphans of Tal Afar | World