Friday, February 04, 2005

Why am I here?

I've been at Camp Liberty embedded with the Louisiana National Guard for over a week now. They were deployed to Iraq in November 2004 for their first tour of the Iraqi Freedom Operation. The unit I was assigned to is in charge of a sector in Abu Gharib made notorious by its prison, both before and after Saddam. My embed request was for Baghdad and to cover the American forces security preparation for the January elections. Somehow, I ended up here, and before I knew it, it was too late to move anywhere else. Things did not end up as exciting as I had hoped for, but it took a different turn for me.

The unit conducts daily missions with Bradleys and tanks. This is an area known for what the Army calls Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and rockets. You can hear them from the base and, if you are lucky enough, you can feel it and not actually get hit with one. On a normal mission, their tanks drive on some of the most dangerous roads here. In terms of safety measures against IEDs, they hardly take anything less than a Bradley . Just yesterday, an IED hit a tank. The tank commander told me it looked like they used three rounds instead of the usual one or two. However, the tank only took minor damages and was able to roll back to the base for repairs.

During the several raids and patrol missions that I participated in with Louisiana National Guards First Battalion, I've had a lot of time to observe the soldiers and Iraqis. I've also asked myself why did I come here? Why am I doing this? Why do I think this is such a critical issue worth risking my life to get a glimpse of this madness?

I am afraid the reality of Abu Gharib abuses are not far from the reality of American imposed civil liberties on Iraqis. Simply, the standards are not the same as in America. One can say this is war and soldiers with guns are targets and can take no chances. Perhaps we can argue differences in cultural issues to justify the discrepancies.

I went along on a mission that was supposed to be a search and destroy, if required. There were 10 to 12 soldiers on foot followed by two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and I. Shortly after we started, one soldier yield out “the dude over the roof….as soon as he saw us he ducked and went inside…he had on a black top”. He was pointing to one of the few two story houses on the block. We circled the house in formation looking for a man in a black shirt. Almost all the neighbors are now outside standing by their front doors. Bradleys shake the ground and are as loud as a tractor, so everyone knew Americans were in the area. As I got myself to the front door of the house, I could see a few guys doing the same things as the other neighbors; standing there looking at us. Then the soldiers grabbed two guys in black shirts and another young guy who was getting a cigarette from one of the two suspects. They were all stopped and pushed against a wall. The young Iraqi man, with piercing green eyes who was getting a smoke, looked really upset and bewildered. Before they knew it, they were being detained. A sargent approached them, pushed them against the wall and made them hold up the palms of their hands. Another solider grabbed a kit from the back of the Bradley called ‘EXPRAY’. EXPRAY is a field explosive detection test. It uses swipes from hands to determine contact with explosive agents and changes color after applying a special spray. If someone touches any kind of IED, the test would be positive. The sargent began taking swipes from each of their hands. That young Iraqi man remained somewhat vocal and seemed to be asking why he was being subjected to this. He kept saying something in Arabic with the word "motarrjem” which mean translator. Maybe he was asking for a translator to explain the situation or his rights? He was certainly not happy. The soldiers simply assumed all three men were guilty until they were proven innocent. This would never fly in the streets of any city in America. Why are the civil liberties that we respect and cherish as part of the great American democracy are not applied here? Aren’t we trying to make all Iraqis like the United States and bring our style of freedom to them? Maybe I am completely off base here, but the events of Abu Gharib prison were allowed to go on because Iraqi prisoners were assumed guilty; that they were hiding some valuable intelligence or were insurgents. Therefore, torture and physical humiliation became a way of obtaining information. The EXPRAY test came out negative and all three were let go. One of them nervously smiled and smelled his hands to try and figure out what had just taken place. The upset young Iraqi continued speaking louder as he lit up his cigarette and walked across the narrow street to his worried wife.

Most soldiers that I've gone outside the base with have told me that they've not met an Iraqi that they liked. “All we see are these people in Abu Gharib that make IEDs to blow us up” said one officer to me.

A few minutes after that incident, one solider pointed to a house with barbed wire. Barbed wire is common in this poor neighborhood. It’s often a good security system for thieves who can easily jump the low walls. Again, we circled the house in formation as one of the soldiers banged on the door flat-handed, yelling in English “American soldiers! Open the door now!” The man of the house rushed to the door without his standard Iraqi sandals and opened the door. His eyes opened wide at the sight of American soldiers with their guns trained on him. With a worried yet respectful gesture, he pointed to the inside of house to let soldiers in. The Iraqi man had no idea what we were saying, nor did we speak proper Arabic to communicate the reason for searching his house. As I followed the soldiers, I tried cleaning my boots of as much mud as possible before stepping inside the house. His wife, who standing in the middle of the first room holding her daughters like a bird close to herself, looked at me. I said "asalaamu alaikum" and put my hand over my heart, a common Middle Eastern gesture for greetings. She said “walaikum asalaam" and looked down. Perhaps she thought I was an Iraqi man and did not want to make eye contact. The soldiers tracked mud all over the house, looking for anything they thought was suspicious. As many poor Iraqi homes I have been to during these daily raids and searches, they all have the same familiar stuff. The first room consists of a bunch of blankets, foam mattresses, and hard-cotton pillows neatly stacked on one side of the room covered with a decorative bedspread. The room may or may not have a TV. Another room, reserved for guests, has sofas or seating cushions, depending on the family’s income or status. A kitchen could be a corner of a hallway or small open square with dirty dishes and teacups on the ground. Of course, there is a fully loaded Kalashnikov tucked away in the only cabinet in the house. On a raid, the weapon would be taken away as evidence and would result in tearing down every inch of the house to look for more. On a search or patrol mission, it was accepted as a normal necessity of an Iraqi man with a family. We did not take his Kalashnikov away which made him at ease. Back in good ol' America, people have the right to refuse an entry unless the officers have a court order. Here the same rules do not apply. Maybe because the insurgents do not follow the rules of war by stepping up and fighting the American soldiers head on? Or perhaps they have not been given a copy of the Geneva Convention? They have taken to hostage-taking of Iraqi and non-Iraqi nationals, suicide bombings, and setting up explosives by roadsides, aimed at any military convoy.

When do we start treating people the way we want to be treated? How can we champion freedom and democracy around the world when we allow anything but that to go on anywhere else? Of course, young Iraqi men run when they see a tank and a dozen soldiers in their backyards. Maybe it’s the same reason young black men run from cops in the ghettos of New York City? Maybe they do not have anything to hide, but are conditioned to do so; conceivably conditioned by presumption of guilt by the authorities. They all look suspicious if we all look closely. It’s the fear in which they live in. They fear both the terrorists and American military. On election day, Abu Gharib was far removed from the reality of Baghdad’s overwhelming support for the elections. A young man in his twenties, who was tending a small shack selling fruits and vegetables, asked us what was happening. He spoke broken English and seemed somewhat educated amongst the villagers. He said "people see you and run in fear. What are you looking for?" He told us that since the insurgency has gotten worse, he returned to Abu Gharib after leaving his school in Baghdad. I asked him whether he was voted or was going to vote? He said "no, nobody in this neighborhood is going to vote. They are all afraid of the terrorists." He seemed like a young man with a better future ahead of him. A future out of the slums of Abu Gharib, but stuck as a result of the current conditions. He was the first real victim I had come across all day.

Throughout that day, I could not help but to look at these people and try to figure out which one of them were the real terrorists. I tried to see which ones would not hesitate to rush a tank with an RPG. I wondered what’s it like to live under a foreign occupation after decades of wars, economic sanctions, and dictatorship. Then again, most of the Iraqis I have come in contact with do not see their misfortune as a result of Saddam’s dictatorship. That a question is now irrelevant. Saddam is gone and the conditions are as we see them. I had to come to see it with my own eyes and feel their fear first hand. I did not have to take any photographs; all I had to do was to listen and watch. I also wondered why the soldiers couldn't stop saying “hello” or “hi"!? I mean, they were being polite! Why couldn’t they learn to say "salaam" or "asalaamu alaikum"? I had to come here and see it instead of reading about it while sipping a tall coffee and reading the morning paper. Now, I am even more concerned and confused as to where this country is heading.

The privilege of this job is to see history first hand. However, it comes with the responsibility of being critical of what is right for all sides. I think about the documentary on James Natchwey about his life as a ‘war photographer,’ also the title of the film. I recall how he wanted to become a war photographer after witnessing that the images coming from Vietnam did not match the words of the US government on how the war was progressing. Then I recalled his friend Wes, the Reuters cameraman, saying “I don’t know why we do what we do!” meaning going to such places to document wars and conflicts. I guess journalists like myself, risking their life to tell a story, want to make sure that there is a record to the atrocities of war. Wars, just or unjust, are nothing but atrocities. It’s not like you take the bad guys to court, and by using evidence, prove his guilt. Then he gets sentenced to death by some sort of so-called humane punishment. No, war is not like that. You make the guilty call from bunkered-down war rooms in secret locations and bomb the bad guys. Smart bombs missing targets, civilian deaths, and false intelligence resulting in so-called lateral casualties are all atrocities too. Not to mention the fact that human flesh torn by two inch shrapnel is not humane at all, regardless of whether all wars are bad, even if you have to fight back. Without those pictures, no one could prove the abuse in Abu Gharib prison. The sword is never mightier than such photographs. The same photographs that came from Vietnam came from Kosovo. Without journalist in war zones alongside soldiers and victims, there are no checks and balances. The journalist covering the wars and conflicts is the only voice that the “other side” has. I'm not sure what I am doing here yet….I'm also not sure which is the other side. I'm just telling you what I see.

Ramin Talaie – Camp Liberty – Baghdad, Iraq.

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