The green dump truck stood out against the brown mud-brick homes and shops in the bustling market, and then in a flash everything was dust and blood and thunder.
The Iraq war had just blown into one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country, and nothing would ever be the same again.
The truck bomb two Saturdays ago in the remote northern village of Emerli killed at least 140 people, wounded hundreds more and dragged a peaceful minority community into the maelstrom of civil war.
Emerli’s inhabitants are Shi’ite Turkmen, a minority within a minority, fearful of the Sunni Arab communities round about, which they believe shelter insurgents and sectarian extremists.
Among the ruins, the scale of the disaster is apocalyptic, the village transformed into another haunted battlefield in a war that is creeping outward to Iraq’s unguarded hinterlands.
“My house was right here,” says Abbas Abdullah, a 33-year-old carpenter, pointing to a pile of crumbled bricks next to a pockmarked palm tree. “I have no house, nothing, and most of my neighbours are dead.
“This was no car bomb. It was a nuclear weapon, like what was dropped on Hiroshima,” he says.
Days have passed since the bombing but the town’s traumatised residents still wander listlessly through a sea of dirt mounds, homes and shops collapsed into tombs in a storm of dust and fire.
“The children are scared,” Zeid al-Abdin says as he leads his son and daughter through the rubble.
“They think it was a storm, and they keep asking me if there’s going to be another one. They are so nervous they haven’t slept since the explosion.”
Down another crumbling street a bearded old man with the white shawl of a martyr draped over his head leans against a wall and trembles, his red eyes filled with tears at the loss of his four sons.
In this town of 11Â 000 people — whom many residents believe sprang from a common patriarch — the losses are not measured in individual friends and family members, but in the deliberate murder of an entire community.
“This was not just a bomb, it was total destruction. If something on this scale had happened in New York or London or Cairo, the deaths would have been in the millions,” says Faisal Abbas, a 33-year-old schoolteacher.
By a cruel feat of Ba’athist cartography the mostly Turkmen region that includes Emerli was added to the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Salaheddin province, ensuring that its people would be excluded from the state’s wealth as Ba’athist officials did not spend public funds on minority communities.
“The town was completely ignored by the previous regime because we are Turkmen,” says Abu Zeinab al-Bayati (28), who heads a local aid organisation.
Decades of neglect have left Emerli with less than two hours of electricity a day and running water only once or twice a week. There is no doctor in the tiny local hospital, and only one ambulance showed up at the blast site.
But the town has always been at peace. “Even in the days of the former regime we were always peaceful people. We never broke the law and there were never any differences between us,” Abdullah says.
In the years following the United States invasion, as the flames of Iraq’s sectarian conflict licked at its frontier, Emerli remained secure in its anonymity, a cluster of dun-coloured buildings lost in sprawling arid plains.
But earlier this year when US and Iraqi troops surged into Baghdad and surrounding provinces, residents say displaced al-Qaeda fighters crept into the remote areas around their town.
“Since the Americans have moved into the Diyala province the terrorists have come and set up camps in the Hamrin mountains,” a ridge of low, rolling hills to the north, says Major Zeid Khalaf Mohammed, the new police chief.
On the day of the bombing there were only 13 police officers in town, with two cars and a few weapons, and no idea how to fight an insurgency.
“This threat goes beyond my capacity as a local police chief. We don’t have enough police and we don’t have the right weapons to fight a war against terrorism,” Mohammed says.
He has asked for reinforcements from the national police and army, but in the meantime Emerli’s residents have vowed to take matters into their own hands.
“Our tribe is going to fight the terrorists, and for every one of us they take we are going to kill one of them, without the police and without the army,” Abdullah says. “We are going to defend ourselves.”
Just as Baghdad’s residents once considered it rude to speak of Sunnis and Shi’ites, so the residents of Emerli insist there is no sectarian divide.
“Shi’ites from southern Iraq are different from us, but in this area we are all the same. Here it does not matter if you are Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian, or even Jewish. There is no division,” says government worker Essam Jumaa.
But when he and others are asked who could have carried out Saturday’s massacre’ they do not look to the desolate hills north of town, but to the next village over, where Sunni Arabs live.
“The biggest terrorist village in the area is Ushtepa, 7km from here. They all support al-Qaeda,” Jumaa says. “After Saddam Hussein was executed they marched in the streets and vowed they would have their revenge.”
Emerli’s men will one day have theirs as well, perhaps, but for now the survivors can only grieve, and wonder how a once distant war could so suddenly have crashed into the heart of their quiet town.
Near the blast crater a 12-year old boy notices a reporter jotting down notes and runs over to him, trailed by a crowd of other children.
“Write Hussein Amin Samin,” he cries out, his large almond eyes beaming up at the notebook.
“Is that your name?” the reporter asks.
“No, it’s the name of a man who died when his house fell on him,” he replies. “Now, write Hussein Ali, Salam Ali, Wali Hassan.”
As the brown village dissolves in the glaring midday sun he summons an unwritten roster of the dead, each name hovering in the still, dry air until it is silenced by the next. — AFP