Cheryl SealThe REAL Iraq: a Heart-rending Eyewitness AccountSat Apr 8, 2006 10:17this is beautifully, poignantly written - gut wrenching
Maine Man Witnesses Nightmare of Iraq First-hand
Introductory note: I live in the Red Zone. I train Iraqi police officers at the Baghdad Public Service Academy, also known as the Baghdad Police College. The campus shares a property line with an infamous slum, the Sadr City section of Baghdad - home of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Militia.
I am not in the military nor do I pretend to be. I have not been in combat nor do I claim to have "been there, done that." However, I have seen and heard enough in this city to know what I'm talking about when I write generally of gunfire, mortars and car bombs.
One mortar in December, fired from the adjacent swamp by "Nine o'clock Charlie," struck several rooms approximately 30 feet from my own.
On my first mail run, I did see an Iraqi police vehicle obliterated by an IED (improvised explosive device), with some of the debris raining down on the armored Chevy Suburban in which I was a passenger.
In December, I was not far away when two suicide bombers killed 43 of our cadets.
The following essay was put to paper one recent and particularly violent day here in the city. Yet it matters not what date this was written nor when it is read by anyone. Simply adjust the numbers accordingly because the news remains essentially the same, day in and day out.
This is not a political commentary, only a record of what I've seen and heard for myself.
Fifty-six people died in Baghdad today. Not from natural causes. Not from car accidents. Not from heart attacks, old age or natural disaster. No, their lives were snatched from them in seven or eight gratuitous bombings, ostensibly in the name of a deity and an accompanying pious crusade.
I heard all the explosions and saw two of them - at least the dust and the roiling black smoke of the aftermath. I lost an accurate count after the city shuddered for the sixth time. I was not close to the scene of any of the incidents, but I was shaken in more ways than one.
Fifty-six people: 21 waiting in line for kerosene; one at a Sunni mosque - a mortar attack; four at a Shiite mosque - a car bomb; and several police officers on patrol. Others I couldn't keep track of in the media. One day's violence simply blends into another. More blood, more photos and footage of funerals. Weeping men, wailing women, dead children.
Baghdad is no longer a faraway place in a newspaper or on the television anymore. From atop the flat roof of my classroom building, I watched the city reel again and again: Film at 11, commentary on the editorial page tomorrow.
I've known some of the dead; particularly on Dec. 6, when two cowards walked onto campus with vest bombs, stepped into two separate groups of police cadets, and blew everyone around them all to hell.
Forty-three was the official death toll. I think there were more. The Medevac helicopters kept coming and coming and coming - giant, powerful, temporary emergency rooms that stop only long enough to snatch up the bleeding and the twisted, then fly away again to a safer place.
And yet, in the midst of it all, day after gory day, there are still the children.
I managed to grab a photo of a little Iraqi girl one day as we literally raced through the city in a convoy, on a mail run. Her home, behind a blanket covering a ragged hole in the wall, sits at the edge of the Tigris.
As we cleared the crown of the bridge that joins the north and the south of the city, she watched the several thundering Chevy Suburbans that followed behind us with their ear-splitting sirens, bristling with AK-47s.
We move hard and fast, swooping and darting, hoping to avoid those that would lie in wait with improvised roadside explosive devices and small arms fire. For me: So far, so good.
However, it breaks my heart to be ensconced in an expensive, armored, American vehicle, protected by helmet and vest; tearing through her city streets at highway speeds, when she lives behind a blanket, stepping out onto the brutal streets, trying to be a kid. So much innocence in the midst of so much sectarian violence, kidnapping and revenge killing.
It should not matter whether she is Shiite or Sunni, she is just a little girl. But then, I am not a resident of Baghdad nor am I a Muslim. I've never lived with virulent religious intolerance, anger and retribution. I've read analysis after learned analysis about the strife, but I still do not understand.
Scant protection, that blanket.
And then there is the 12-year-old boy who spends his days at a construction site near the outer fringes of the campus. I live on a small military base within the confines of 13-foot-high cement walls, where I sleep, eat, write and listen to gunfire and bombs. Each morning, as I leave the relative safety of the walls and begin the half-mile walk to my classroom, I listen to the satisfying "clack" as I ram a live round into the tube of my automatic rifle.
The boy lives outside my walls. Several days ago, I needed some crushed stone to fill in an irritating and persistent mud hole near my billet. I got tired of waiting for the maintenance chain-of-command to fix the problem, so I took it upon myself to make the repair. I commandeered an appropriate vehicle and, shovel in hand, pulled up beside a pile of unused stone that had been dumped beside the ramshackle trailer that the boy calls home.
There was a dirty blanket lying in the bed of the utility vehicle. We use it to cover equipment to protect it from the dust. It was obvious that he wanted or needed the blanket.
Communication between people of different languages is easy if you pay attention. Hand gestures are universal. I swapped the blanket for some crushed stone over which he had no proprietary interest. It seemed like a fair trade to me. The bright patterns of the blanket were a stark contrast to the dull, dusty, gray patina of his daily life. I care not if he is going to use the blanket to keep warm or sell it to buy something else for himself.
He said "Thank you" in accented English.
Back to the wanton murder of several dozen Iraqi cadets on Dec. 6. I was 500 feet away in a cement building when the first blast hit at 12:33 p.m. About 30 seconds later, there was another, as strong as the first. We knew it was within our protective walls, and we knew it was bad, real bad.
In the next few moments, our radios began to scream. Someone was sobbing into a microphone that they needed help. I went 500 feet up around the corner. It was horrible.
I could see what I estimated as 30 bodies lying all over the place - the blue uniforms of cadets scattered about. Most of them were blackened and in grotesque positions. Instantaneous transition from living, breathing police cadets, out on a break between classes, to portions of half-clothed mangled bodies, to be photographed and measured over the next few hours as pieces of evidence lying in the dirt.
I've never smelled that much death in the air. I've never been to war. This is my war, in a manner of speaking.
Immediately after the blasts, it was chaos. Burnt, torn bodies. The screaming on the radio. The smoke. The screaming of the wounded. The slaughterhouse smell. Blood. Conflicting orders being yelled in two languages; the wailing of cadets who had escaped the blast and were trying to get to their dead classmates. I stepped on a piece of skull and flesh - about 200 feet from the first blast - on my headlong rush to the scene. The rest is more graphic than a public newspaper can print.
The uncertainty at the scene was as bad as the reality. Our experience has been that these events now come in threes. Where is the third bomber? Is there a third bomber? We do as we are trained as cops and secure the scene - forming a ring of tense, armed officers suspecting everyone who is not an American, our backs turned to the already dead.
Multiple sirens converged as ambulances arrived from the community. Orders are given not to let them in. We can't take the chance that the provocateurs have loaded a public safety vehicle with more explosives, taking advantage of the throng of frantic American and Iraqi officers to create more carnage - to send more bodies flying into the air.
What a feeling of helplessness and self-preservation, a damnable position to be in. What kind of society has created this implausible situation where rescue vehicles are suspect?
The blast near a ministry building a couple of months ago was an example: three bombs, two of them timed to get as many police and medical personnel as possible after they responded to the initial blast.
Shots fired behind the adjacent building. There was a siren there just before the shots. Nerves ratchet up another notch. Is it the third bomber?
Shrapnel damage on the walls of the adjacent building. Broken glass. Twisted auto body parts. Limbs separated from bodies. Bodies separated from heads. Unidentifiable body parts. Identifiable body parts, separate entities both.
The ground is littered with small ball bearings - a favorite destructive missile of the local vest bomber. They are referred to as suicide bombers. They are not. They are homicide bombers.
The military arrives in force. We are ordered to relinquish control of the scene. We walk slowly back to our building to regroup and decompress. We go to the rooftop and watch the unending assemblage of helicopters evacuating the wounded; the agitated dust from the makeshift landing zone on the parade ground hurled violently upward, casting a surreal pall over it all.
The next day I found two heads that had been propelled about 80 feet into the walled sanctuary of the cadet classroom area. Two headless torsos, then, had been removed the day before.
What will tomorrow bring, for all of us, visitors and citizens?
Joel Cyr is a former Dover-Foxcroft police officer who is helping train police recruits in Baghdad.
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