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Gary Younge
Grief and pain in broken heart of Texas

Head up Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway and turn left on to Patriot Freeway, on the western tip of Texas, and you will find them in angst, determination and mourning. This base has borne the brunt of the American casualties from Iraq, with 12 soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company missing and believed captured or dead after they were ambushed on Sunday by Iraqi forces.

Just before Sunday lunchtime families with relatives in the troop were called together to be told the company had been in an incident and between 10 and 12 soldiers were reported missing. With much to worry about from such little information all they could do was wait.

Those with family members who were missing or wounded were taken out of the group and spoken to privately. But for the bereaved there was yet more heartache. They were told there would be no death notifications, but that an officer would visit them at home to break the news instead.

Then they went back to their televisions with mixed and conflicting emotions and considerable frustration to see if the cable networks could tell them what the military officials would not, or could not.

Crystal Lizarraga told the El Paso Times that she cried tears of happiness when she learned that her husband was safe, but she grieved for the dead and captured soldiers. The wife of one soldier said, on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the army, that she had been told nothing more than what they had heard on television.

But the information was as partial as it was painful, pushed by media globalisation and pulled by national interests. One mother had all the information she needed. Anecita Hudson saw her son, Joseph, on a Filipino satellite channel giving his name, rank, number and his home state to Iraqi officials. "They tried to ask him questions and he said he was just doing his job... I looked at him... he looked so scared."

The pictures were broadcast by the Arab satellite station al-Jazeera with footage from state-controlled Iraqi television, along with shots of the bodies of Americans who had been shot. But the pictures were pulled from American screens after the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that if American prisoners were shown on television, "those pictures are a violation of the Geneva conventions".

CNN showed still images of the dead bodies but did not reveal their identities. A press conference at the base scheduled for Sunday afternoon was abruptly postponed.

By yesterday the identity of four of the five captives was made public after their relatives had been notified.

Along with Mr Hudson, there was Shoshawna Johnson, 30, a chef and single mother of one from Texas, Edgar Hernandez, from Texas, and Patrick Miller, a welder and father of two from Kansas. "I'm now trying to stay optimistic," said Mr Miller's brother. "At least he's been captured and we know he's alive."

His sister, Kimberley, said: "My brother's a fighter and always has been."

Fort Bliss sits in the heart of Tex-Mex territory, where everything comes in two languages (Spanish and English) and breakfast is served with tortillas rather than toast. It is a military island amid a sea of civilians: front gardens display the names and ranks of those who live there.

On Sunday night the fate of the captives was the subject of many sermons at the city's churches. "Evil exists," said the Rev Gib Allen, of Mountain View Baptist church. "When evil men seek to do harm on others... it behoves those who are good and righteous to resist that and stand up and fight."

Out in the street news of the PoWs and the deaths hardened views on both sides. "It is sad to know some of our local boys are dying under these conditions," Willie Terrazas told the El Paso Times.

"I really don't understand the political motivations of this war," said Melanie Sinclair. "This is to take everyone's mind off Osama bin Laden. Maybe this will make people think again."

Fort Bliss is home not just to thousands of military families but to many Patriot missiles, providing more cause for concern as they try to discover whether it was one of their missiles which brought down an RAF Tornado in friendly fire.

"All I can tell you is that every damn Patriot unit here is over there," said Sergeant First Class Felix Vallone.

But attention on the base was focused at the weekend on the dead rather than the deadly.

"When [we] heard the news was true the reaction was shock and disbelief," Christopher Mulrooney, a member of the Arizona national guard told the El Paso Times. "When we found out it involved people from here it definitely brought the morale down. But knowing the post we will band together."

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