An unprecedented wave of protests has swept across Iraq since October 1. The demonstrators want to bring down the regime and are calling for an end to corruption amongst the elites who run the country. However, they’ve been met with violent police repression. In the past month alone, 240 people have been killed and more than 8,000 have been injured, according to official numbers.
One of these bloody crackdowns occurred on October 28, when protesters gathered in Kerbala, which is located several hundred kilometres south of Baghdad. The protesters interviewed by our team described a "deluge of bullets" and "a massacre of protesters".
In a report published on October 29, rights group Amnesty International described "horrific scenes" where "Iraqi forces opened live fire on peaceful protesters and resorted to excessive and often lethal force to disperse them in a reckless and utterly unlawful manner".
Despite these reports, local authorities still claim that only one person died that day in circumstances unrelated to the protests. Amnesty International, on the other hand, says 14 protestors were killed, citing numbers from the Iraqi Commission for Human Rights. One member of the Commission, Dr. Ali Al Bayati, says the number has risen to 18 and that more than 800 people were injured.
"The army left us alone against riot police"
Ali Matir Al Khalidi, a photojournalist based in Kerbala, took part in the protest. He live-streamed videos of the demonstration on Snapchat.
Around 5pm, the protesters set up tents near the Filkat Al Tarbiya roundabout with the idea of starting a peaceful sit-in. At that point, the security forces and the soldiers were eating an evening meal right next to us. But around 8pm, they got an order to disperse the sit-in.
Riot police started throwing canisters of tear gas at us protesters. The soldiers who had been sitting right near us were also affected. Some of them were choking and struggling to breathe while others were injured by debris. The army ended up retreating to their facilities, leaving us to face the riot police alone.
"We’ve never been faced with such violence"
Dhargham Zenki, a young journalist working for satellite television station SkyMichigan, was out protesting that night. He filmed several videos that he shared on Facebook.
The situation started descending into violence after the riot police began to throw tear gas canisters at us. Protesters started burning tires on the roads to keep the special forces from advancing. Then, the security forces started to shoot at us and people were killed and injured. This bloody deluge lasted four hours, until about midnight.
At that point, we dispersed, still frightened by the bullets that were still whistling overhead.
The police also dismantled the tents that were set up next to the roundabout and arrested quite a few protesters and journalists, many of whom had taken refuge in nearby cafés and shops after curfew began at 11pm.
This isn’t the first time that riot police have attempted to disperse a sit-in, but we’ve never faced such violence. My fellow photojournalist Montadhar Adel was injured in the eye while covering the protest. I spoke with his mother, who took the photo, below. She said that he had been hospitalised at Al Hussein Hospital before being taken to Iran for further treatment.
However, our team geolocalized one of the videos filmed by Zenki right near Tarbiya roundabout. The footage shows protesters completely panicked and you can hear bursts of gunfire.
We were able to identify several shops in the video and then locate them on Google Maps on Prophet Mohammed Street.
According to the witnesses who spoke with us at the FRANCE 24 Observers, the shots were coming from a group of riot police stationed near the Tarbiya roundabout. Our Observers said that there were also a group of men wearing ski masks who showed no outward signs of being part of the police assisting the riot squads, first by throwing tear gas and then firing bullets themselves.
Amnesty International also heard testimonies about these units of men in black. Ali Matir Al Khalidi said these mysterious men also carried out the arrests of numerous protesters.
Doctors confirm that they treated people injured by bullet wounds
Even though witnesses interviewed by both our team and Amnesty International said that bullets were fired at protesters and videos, like the ones filmed by Zenki, prove that there were guns fired near the protests, there are no videos that clearly show the police shooting at protestors.
Our team reached out to several different hospitals in Kerbala as well as the local branch of the Red Cross to find out if any of the protestors had been treated for gunshot wounds. All of them refused to respond to our questions or simply repeated the official version that no protesters had been killed.
According to Razaw Salihy, a researcher at Amnesty International, and Dr. Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, the ministry of health ordered all health services in Kerbala to give no information to the media or to NGOs and to stick to the official version of events. As a result, health providers have said that there were 122 people injured, including 66 members of the security forces. They didn’t report any deaths.
Amnesty International researcher Salihy explained that the organisation managed to get more details from a doctor at the Al Hussein University Hospital:
The doctor wanted to remain anonymous but he said that he had seen protestors with gunshot wounds to the eye, the head, the leg and the stomach. He also said that people were injured by the shrapnel from grenades. He didn’t want to give details about the number of people with gunshot injuries. He also didn’t want to say if the people whose injuries he described had survived.
Amnesty International interviewed a witness who said “there was a black four-wheel drive that started to drive towards the roundabout and attempted to run over the protesters” and that, later, “there were about seven to 10 cars driving fast towards us and the men inside were shooting in the air to scare people”. The witness said that both soldiers and protesters were injured in the chaos.