In Iraq for 365

About my experiences in Iraq... the frustrations, the missions and this country... and the journey home

Saturday, August 14, 2004

New shirt for my interpreter

Over the last six months, I've seen my interpreter come to work every day with the same two shirts. He'll wear a bright read and navy blue shirt on M-W-S and a plain red polo on T-T. I felt sorry for him, because I know he probably doesn't have an extensive wardrobe, so I purchased him a one-of-a-kind Wal-Mart special. He wore it today and was so proud of it.
Everyone he ran into, he commented about his new digs. I know it's not much, but he sure loved it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Iraqi interpreters

The unsung hero in this war is the Iraqi interpreter. We work with a dozen native Iraqis who provide linguistic support to our public affairs operations. From translating our stories for local release to interpreting conversations between soldiers and Iraqi reporters, we could not effectively tell the story to the Iraq population without their help.
Although they are well compensated, they don’t work for us just for the money. They work to combat the mindset among their people established by Saddam Hussein and so their families can enjoy freedom.
Despite their love for Iraq and its people, interpreters are hunted by the same people who want to see this historic country fail and turned into another dictatorship. Three weeks ago, terrorists followed one of our translators home and fired three bullets in her back as she stepped out of a taxi cab. The terrorists target the families, too. They learned of one interpreter, who belonged to a high-profile, well-off family. These criminals waited until the translator’s mother and father were home alone, walking into their large house with AK 47s. The details of what they did are too horrific to explain, but I will tell you that the couple’s daughter still works for us.
Just as I am motivated to help the Iraqi people through words and photographs, our interpreters do not let death threats affect their determination to make Iraq a better place.
Despite the dark rings outlining their eyes from lack of sleep and constant fear, they get to work at 8:30 a.m. and do not leave until as late as 9:00 p.m. Why?
One interpreter, who wished to be unnamed for security purposes, told me: “God bless America for sending their soldiers to help the Iraqi people. I thank them. I believe they are truly doing good work here and that by working hard, I am contributing to the future of Iraq. I am helping my wife and my baby.”
He’s also making a lot of friends. There’s not one person in uniform who doesn’t relate to our interpreters. I’m doing the best I can to learn Arabic, a very difficult language, and the translators are improving their English by talking to us all the time. But, the most interesting aspect of our relationship is the fusion of two very different cultures. For example, they are afraid of Microwaves. Popcorn is popular among the soldiers here, and when we place a bag in the Microwave, the interpreters take off running for cover as if the bag contained nuclear explosives.
In meetings, they will leave to pray. They break five times a day to pray. At first, I didn’t know how to react to somebody sitting on their knees kissing the floor. But, now I appreciate their faith and most of all I appreciate their friendship and dedication to rebuilding Iraq despite the constant danger.
That’s why I call my Sadikis (Arabic for friends) Batal (Arabic for heroes).

June 24

June 24, 2004, is a day I’ll never forget.

7:30 a.m.
I wake up, yawn, take a shower and walk to the palace, for what I thought would be an uneventful day of downloading the past day’s photos and writing a couple of stories. Little did I know, this day would be anything but boring.

9:00 a.m.
I am told that a car bomb exploded outside of a police station in southwestern Mosul. They wanted me on the scene to photograph and document the carnage caused by terrorists who kill children and innocent civilians with every bomb they plant.

10:00 a.m.
I stand over a 5-foot deep crater where the explosion occurred. People wrapped in blood-drenched bandages are walking to and from the area. I counted seven cars with severe damages. I photographed them all, grabbed my gear and headed back to the humvee. The temperature at this point was about 98 degrees and climbing. It would eventually reach 115, but as the day progressed, I didn’t even realize how hot it was.

The police station was now documented and I was on my way to download my photos and send them to the Pentagon and media news services. As we drove over a bridge, I noticed there were no people standing on the sides of the road, which is odd. People are always on the road, watching the cars pass by in Iraq. Then, I hear gunfire. We stopped the vehicles and see Strykers ahead of us engaging a large enemy force. We set up our defensive firing positions, and I of course have my camera along with my M-16 ready. Bullets were flying every where. Tracers could be seen bouncing off the Strykers’ thick armor. And loud explosions echoed off every building in sight.

The fire fight lasted 40 minutes, without a single American casualty. The bad guys, however, suffered quite a few.

The Strykers move closer to the objective and out of our sight. Fighting is still going on, but very little. We didn’t feel the need to stick around any longer, so we were preparing to redeploy back to the palace. Then, I hear a ping, ping, ping. They were 7.62 rounds from AK 47s bouncing off the pavement. We quickly returned fire and then I see a rocket propelled grenade flying in between our humvees. It was a dud and did not explode. It felt as if time had frozen from the moment I saw this baseball bat looking thing with a tail of fire to when I reentered the humvee. My heart pounded like a race car engine and I felt relieved that we were leaving the scene, but the day wasn’t over.

We were heading toward our Mosul home just after minutes of intense combat when I heard a familiar ping. We’re being attacked by a different set of terrorists. Nobody was hurt and we eventually returned home to the palace, where everybody wanted to see my pictures.

The rest of the day
People of all ranks asked to see my photography. I was the most popular soldier among the men in uniform for a few hours. Then, when all the excitement settled, the press wanted interviews. So, we set up live interviews with soldiers involved in the fire fights and with the Mosul Governor. My part in this? I guarded a cord to make sure nobody unplugged it during the live interview feed. You might wonder how somebody can go from documenting combat to dodging bullets to guarding a cord. Well, I’m a soldier. And I’ll do anything my country asks of me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Iraqis love tea

The Iraqis love tea, but they won’t serve tea in just any cup. If it’s not in a crystal clear cylinder-shaped glass the size of a shot glass, you know the tea maker is a rookie. The tea is about the temperature of your average pot of coffee, although I have drunk a few cups so steaming hot that it could take the hair off of a buffalo.
The more Iraqis like you, the more sugar they’ll put at the bottom of the glass. I typically receive two and a half teaspoons. Once, I asked for no sugar and the man said, “no, you must take the sugar.” They take it as an insult if you say no to their bread, tea or mystery meat. Needless to say, I’ve randomly disappeared when the mystery meat arrives at the table.
In Iraq, tea is really just a vehicle for conversation. They talk about their families, how much they love Americans and how great their country used to be before Saddam Hussein took over. I frequently drink tea with a colonel from the former Iraqi army, who fought in the Iraq-Iran War but not against the Americans, which he always reminds me of. He’s also Kurdish, an ethnic group that has been through a lot of turmoil.
The Iraq population is about 15 percent Kurdish. Most of them are Muslims, and they were considered second and sometimes third-class citizens by the Arabic population despite their similarities in religion and language. Saddam killed thousands of them in the 1980s and there are still hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people unaccounted for from his tyranny. The colonel believes they are all buried in the desert somewhere.
Now as the leader of a Kurdish fighting force, the good colonel works side by side Arabs, Turkmen and Americans. He always tells me how tough his Kurdish soldiers are, then he sips his tea. He starts every sentence with “Yes” or “This is the fact.”
But when he talks of the many battles he’s survived and the brutality his people have lived through, he sets the tea down and you can see the pain on his rugged face and in his tough, brown eyes.
He tells me the Kurds were forced to move or be executed. Most of them moved to the mountainous areas of Iraq, which are near the Mosul area. They established villages, but were forced to move again by Saddam’s people. They were cut off by the Iraqi society, forced to drink bacteria-infested water from the Tigris River and had to find food in the not-so fertile land. Sixty percent of the newborns were dead after their first year of life, and the men could not find work because they were Kurdish.
The colonel wraps his story up with, “but we survived, because the Kurdish are strong, resilient people.” That’s when he smiles, finishes his cup of tea and asks if I’d like another cup. Then he talks about how the Kurdish and Arabs are working together, and how he’s sure that Iraq will be a great country once again.
After about four cups of tea, the conversation is typically over and I’ve usually had enough. He insists I have another cup, so I oblige. Thirty minutes later, as I lay in my bunk trying to fall asleep with my eyes wide open from the caffeine, I tell myself that tomorrow I won’t drink so much tea.
Who am I kidding? I’m starting to like this Iraqi custom of drinking tea. Maybe I’ll buy a tea set before I return to Milwaukee.