The noise of the engine rumbles steadily as we creep along. In spite of the decibels constantly bombarding the senses, the night seems quiet. The headset helps muffle some of the noise. I suppose the near total darkness tricks ears and brain into assuming it is quiet. We have been patrolling for several hours, rolling at a slow and deliberate pace through each of the varied neighborhoods in our sector. It is small relative to other sectors, but has more diversity than most. From the richest to poorest, oldest to newest, the area provides a wide range of possibilities and pitfalls.
Our patrol started in the wealthy neighborhoods. Large homes even by our standards are lit by the occasional street light and a fluorescent business sign here or there. The trash is mostly policed, the sewage is under control. In many of the upstairs rooms you can see the obvious flicker of a TV set piping in some unknown show from a rooftop satellite. Curfew has been in effect for several hours and nothing moves in the streets, not even the expected pack of dogs or stray cat. There is not enough trash to support them here, not when there is much better scrounging to be had elsewhere.
We drive to elsewhere. A cluster of high rise apartment complexes house an untold number of residents. Close to the green zone, this area has had continuous occupants, and infrequent violence. It too is largely lit. Powered more often than not by generators tied to apartment buildings rather than the city power grid, life is reasonably normal here day and night. But nothing moves outside.
Back north to Haifa Street, to the movie studio lot I mentioned previously. New shows are being produced there during the day. Medical dramas replace war flicks. Last week our partnered U.S. unit did a medical assistance visit, setting up a temporary clinic in a school in the heart of the previously abandoned area. Residents have slowly begun trickling back to the apartments. Word spread quickly and the sick and needy came for care. The children swarmed about in packs. Col. B made a statement for the cameras. I stood in the school yard, surrounded by high rises. The face of this once thriving area is pockmarked by bullet and shell. The walls above the windows are stained by smoke and flame long since extinguished. Like the eyes of a crying woman, mascara running uncontrollably. Two months ago no one dared live above the bottom few floors. Everyone we talked to told stories of gunmen roving the upper stories at night randomly killing anyone who ventured out. Today I watched a young woman on the eighth floor lower a rope to the ground and drag her belongings up to the balcony. I looked around, and found two other families doing the same in adjacent buildings. Apparently the elevators are all broken.
The activity we saw during the day last week is not at all apparent this night. Security forces patrol the streets. As do the dogs. There is much better rubbish here. By and large there is no power. But the occasional window betrays a flicker. Small generators bring hope to rooms that are heavily curtained to avoid waste, or drawing attention. We continue on to the very poorest and oldest area, in the shadows of the modern apartments.
The streets begin to narrow and twist. The houses grow increasingly smaller. We know they are packed with dozens in each tiny space. The streets here are flooded with children during the day. I joke with Col. B that he has yet to take me to see the children factory that produces all these kids. He jokes that the children factory will go out of business if we can get the lights fixed and give the employees something else to do. Electricity, the single most frustrating problem we face. We make a turn at the bottom of the street and pass our problem.
An electrical substation huddles in the shadows. A dark lifeless corpse mounted on the side of the wall to the cemetery, another unlikely victim of the war. About six months ago the oil cooling tank on the sub-station was hit in the crossfire of some sectarian shootout. The oil bled out within minutes, leaving a sickly pool that still marks the death. Without oil, the substation overheated and blew in a shower of sparks. The neighborhood has been plunged into an era of darkness ever since. The corpse lay decomposing on the cemetery wall largely unnoticed. Now, six months later, we have the forces to do something about it, but progress is painfully slow in the eyes of the locals.
The houses here are pitch black, and have been for almost six hours since the sun went down. The streets are lit by a crescent moon, but the moon can’t penetrate the warren of slums where windows are rare. It will be another several hours before the sun entices the populace back out into the street. I can’t help but wonder what they tell their children in the darkest hours. How do they give comfort when the nightmares come? How do they help the little ones overcome the fear? How do they overcome it themselves? What do they think when the sounds of our vehicles pass? Are we guardian angels? Are we death squads sent by a militia to kill them? Are we going to raid their home and snatch a loved one away? In another place and another time I would expect to see lamb’s blood lining the doorposts and lintels, biding the angel of death to pass over the house just one more night.
We drive on. Death will not visit tonight, or at least not that we observe. At the turn of the year this area was reporting 30 murders a day. Daylight would find corpses arrayed on either side of the road marking the boundary between Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. Bodies deliberately drug from the scene of the crime and purposefully staged, each side striving to instill fear in the hearts and minds of the other. January saw over 600 slaughtered. We are down now to a handful a week. Breaking the cycle of violence has been easier than we expected. But how do you wipe that experience from the minds of the locals? How do they learn to forgive and forget? That fear has to be replaced with something. We hope we can start with light, resurrecting the metallic corpse tacked on the cemetery wall.
Several days later we patrol by day. We stop at the Soviet style statue down by the bridge. We have been back here several times since that first nervous press conference. Tradition lets soldiers who are reenlisting pick where they want to have it done. My Doc just signed on for another six years. Great news for our Army. He decided he wanted to reenlist at that statue. I bring Col. B down there with us to take part in the ceremony. Partly to educate him on how our process works, but also so he could hear the words to the oath our soldiers take. He understands them, and lives by very similar ideals. I want him to see that we work to instill those values in every solder. He is pleased to participate; he knows it is important to Doc. We bring an American flag, but don’t unfurl it. Doc holds it as he reaffirms his oath and we pose for photos. The Shurta are curious. We take the opportunity to walk the street.
We no longer shuffle through piles of trash. It is not clean by our standards, but sparkles in comparison. Much like visiting New York City before and after Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as Mayor, the difference is striking. We visit a newly opened café on the corner. The owner proudly proclaims that it is the oldest café in the district, which would make it one of the oldest in Baghdad. The expansive room looks larger than it really is, due to an abnormally high ceiling and large columns that line the two open walls that face the corner of the street. The inside is painted what was once a warm mustard, but is now stained by smoke. At the back of the room is an open fireplace lined with white porcelain tiles. Old men drink chai and play dominoes at low tables. They grin toothless grins and exchange warm greetings as we enter. I could make a fortune turning this place into a Mexican cantina. Note to self: find mustard color paint.
On the way back home the radio crackles. My terp translates quickly. COl. B has stopped the convoy, but we are not getting out. That is a bit unusual. Not the stopping part, he is always stopping to make a correction on one of his security forces, or to talk to locals, or to investigate something that looks out of place. So it is very odd that he would stop but not dismount. Instead, one of his guys jumps out and darts into a local bakery. He comes out a few minutes later with box in hand. The radio crackles again "OK, we can go." We do. We eat a late lunch. Sometimes it’s just Col. B and I. Sometimes the whole team eats. Often it’s a mix. Today, it is just Col. B and my two majors. We eat back in his private room, not out in his office. We had not done that before. The conversation is light. The chai guys keep us well cared for.
Col. B loves desserts. He has been telling me about one of his favorites which has an Arabic name I can’t remember that translates into "from the sky." I have no idea what "from the sky" is made of, and neither do they. The bakers keep it a guarded secret apparently. Served on a tray of flour, "from the sky" comes in small Oreo size globs. Sticky on the inside, the flour makes it possible to hold. It is not dough, nor is it taffy. Somehow it is both, and contains a nut similar to a pistachio in it. I love it, partly because I can not figure out what it is. It is kind of like what you get when you knead a marshmallow for a few minutes, but not that sweet.
When we have eaten all we can eat, Col. B goes to his refrigerator and pulls out a bakery box, the one picked up earlier on the patrol. He grins broadly. "I have just a little thing for your birthday." A cake from Haifa Street, that is hardly a little thing, I am delighted. "Take it with you so your team can celebrate." We save it for the next day. My mother has taken to celebrating birthday weeks in recent years. I think it’s a shame she didn’t have this epiphany when I was nine. But 39 will do.
So tonight we sat out behind one of Saddam’s old palaces. In the gardens, under the palm trees are a variety of tea shops and small restaurants catering to the soldiers. We drink chai and eat cake. My team has been together for six months now. We laugh about those first few months of training, and plot the first few months of our return. Col. B’s gift takes us away, at least for a few hours, from a city still desperately in need of our efforts, tentatively embracing a few early rays of light.
Hope this finds you and yours doing well. We are.