Evan Osnos / Chicago Tribune / KRT – 2005-02-08 22:53:55
BAGHDAD, Iraq (January 26, 2005) — Santa Claus lumbered into the chow-hall tent in combat boots and a faux belly. He ho-ho-hoed through rows of plastic tables, leaning to sniff trays of colorless Christmas turkey and doing his best to divert attention from the fact that he and thousands of other young men and women around him in the sterile desert of northern Kuwait would soon be going to war.
But other than the setting, Christmas Day 2002 — three months before the US invaded Iraq — was anything but bleak. The soldiers radiated confidence. The Kuwaiti badlands were alive with energy, a growing sliver of America fed by adrenaline and optimism. They were there to wage war in the name of American-financed freedom. For all those I met on that cold, clear evening, the sacrifices so far seemed a small price to pay to be part of history.
My mind returns to that night whenever I stop to take stock of all that has happened in the last two years, all that has been won and lost. In Baghdad this winter, finishing my last month in Iraq for a while, I can’t help but be most aware of the losses — how little of America’s painful encounter with Iraq has matched the expectations from that heady Christmas in the desert, how little remains of the hope we had for that country and it had of us.
Memory is marked less by the public calendar — the day the Saddam statue fell, say, or the official return to sovereignty – than by a more private timeline, the moments of insight and elation and despair.
This is not a story about policy, about what went right and what went wrong. This is a story about what it feels like to watch a nation and a people in turmoil. It is written in moments no weightier than a wisp of conversation or an expression on a face.
South from Baghdad
Days after Baghdad fell, I headed south from the capital, still clad in grimy clothes from weeks embedded with the Marines. I squeezed into a small dented sedan with another reporter and an Iraqi translator and driver. We were looking for stories, but mostly just absorbing the images of a city pillaging itself. Boys waved gleefully at US tanks and armored vehicles, while pushing carts overloaded with computers and copper wiring and whatever else they could strip from unguarded buildings.
On the capital’s dusty edge, we turned onto a narrow dirt road. I had been here a week earlier, I realized. I had bumped along in a Marine troop carrier, winding among the charred hulks of Iraqi army vehicles still smoldering from a brutal fight. The Marines swerved to avoid the body of a dead Iraqi in the road, but gave up swerving after the first one. A week later, the road was clear and quiet.
The driver stopped to ask directions from a man in a plaid shirt. The man had silver streaks in his black hair and swollen, bloodshot eyes. He asked if we were Americans. We proudly acknowledged that we were. His brother had been killed by the Americans on this spot, he said. He wanted to know why. We had no answers. He grew agitated, putting a large callused hand on the lip of the driver’s open window. We should stop and talk with him, he implored, to hear of his suffering. It was getting uncomfortable.
The driver cut the conversation short and pulled away. I turned to see the man still standing in the road, staring at us through billows of dust.
The Fury of the Survivors
These days, confrontations like that are common, and as reporters we’re almost inured to them. But on that morning, still flush with a swift invasion and the promise of an easy reception, I was startled by his fury. He was enraged at Americans for what they had done to him — not to Iraq, but to him, to his family.
I left the country soon after that, swooping out of Baghdad in a Marine helicopter across the flat, placid plains toward Kuwait. Through the gunners’ doors, I watched leaden plumes of smoke still rising from the horizons.
When I returned six months later, my colleagues had moved into a house. It had an address, but I never memorized it — by then, it wasn’t wise to tell others where you live, even if you liked to believe you lived on neutral ground.
A House without an Address
I grew to love and hate our squat, two-story, dust-brown home with the covered driveway and the soaring palm tree that dropped fat yellow dates inside the front wall separating us from the world outside. Now and then, one of the guards would shinny up the slender trunk to pluck the ripest fruit and we would eat them for weeks. There was more than enough for the guards and eight drivers and translators who made our life in Iraq possible.
A fellow reporter had found the house in the weeks after Baghdad fell. He had pulled out most of the furniture except the wooden beds and filled the home with sturdy desks and utilitarian furniture, all laced in a web of computer cables. Someone had spruced up the place with cheap colorful carpets, tropical houseplants and floor lamps.
The lights inside blinked on and off throughout the day, as the power failed and restarted, but you soon stopped noticing. Conversations hardly paused when the room went black. The walls were white and scuffed, and we never bothered to hang many pictures, except the maps that reminded us where we could no longer visit. There was a large detailed road map of the country, and I would trace with my finger which routes I could travel and which ones I could not.
Our block was filled with quiet families, whose children squealed and played in the street at dusk. I used to take a cup of coffee outside at sunset, to sit in the anonymity of our walled front yard and listen to the sounds of children. I could not see. We never spoke. It was unwise for each of us to know too much about the other.
US Reporters Become Casualties
For a while, reporters from the Los Angeles Times lived next door. But on New Year’s Eve 2003, three of them and five of their Iraqi employees were wounded in a suicide bombing at a restaurant in the neighborhood. Chicago Tribune reporter Stephen Franklin and I had spotted their wrecked white Mercedes in flames and combed Baghdad’s wretched hospitals. When we reached them hours later, they were in an American military hospital.
Franklin and I got home not long before dawn, and we typed out a short story about the bombing. It was like so many others we would write: “A car packed with high explosives ripped through a popular Baghdad restaurant. …” It felt absurdly inadequate.
The bombing killed eight people and injured 35. It earned a day or two of headlines and was all but forgotten. The Times reporters moved out a few weeks later to find another house. They no longer felt safe in the neighborhood.
In the months that followed, I spent many nights far away — in the guard shack of an army base in Tikrit, on the hood of a Humvee in the silent western desert, in hotel rooms in Najaf, Basra, and Mosul. But most of my nights were spent at our small, worn house, behind windows covered in plastic in the hope that it would prevent the glass from shattering in a bomb blast.
Night after night, I slept to the clatter of an old air conditioner that generously drowned out the booms and gunfire in the night sky. I knew I might miss the sound of newsworthy bombings that way, but I didn’t care; I savored a few hours of deafness.
When an Iraqi reporter once asked a US military spokesman if helicopter gunships need to fly so low over residential neighborhoods at night, the American told the roomful of journalists that sleepless Iraqi children should take heart — those noises “are simply the sounds of freedom.”
One Year In
Last February I headed south to measure what had changed in the year since the invasion. I traveled with our translator-driver team of Nadeem Majeed and his brother Arfan. Engineers by training, the brothers were level-headed and precise, and they had worked with us since the fall of Baghdad.
We covered hundreds of miles in their white Toyota sedan, visiting Shiite clerics in the holy city of Najaf, squatters in the border town of Safwan and newly-minted businessmen in Basra. On the road home, we stopped in Nasariyah, Nasiriyah, a tattered town beside the Euphrates River that had witnessed some of the heaviest fighting with American troops a year earlier.
We found ourselves in the barren living room of Khalid Yunis, a 42-year-old father whose face was fixed in an absent gaze. Nearly a year had passed since his wife and five of their children died in a shower of American bullets when their truck sped unknowingly toward a US checkpoint on a dark night. He and his two remaining children had recovered in an American hospital. But now he had the empty eyes of a man drifting from reality. He seemed intoxicated by pain.
“I tell you honestly,” he said, seated on the floor of his drafty home. “If I didn’t have responsibility for Mohammed and his sister, I would like to be a suicide bomber, to kill even one American soldier.”
Time was not softening men like him. On the contrary, Iraq itself seemed to be hardening around them, growing a bit more brittle under every month of military occupation. Americans were becoming the fixation of a nation’s anger.
Oddly, I never felt threatened when sitting with men like him. But after all, the target of his anger had no face. Americans, for him, were an idea. He dreamed of killing Americans like me even as he and his nephew offered cups of steaming tea and stoked up their small electric heater in honor of the cherished guests. To him, Americans were as anonymous and remote as the Iraqis beside the road who whom Marines and I once watched from the open window of a Humvee.
The WIdening Gap between Foreigners and Iraqis
That distance is not unique to Iraq. I had watched the gap steadily broaden between Americans and Arabs throughout the Middle East over the past two years. I had stopped being surprised when a gracious Saudi host would explain that Americans must expect to be attacked overseas if their government supports Israel in its battles with Palestinians.
I had learned to expect that more than three years after the World Trade Center attacks, executives in Dubai would still spout the Internet fiction that hundreds of Jews had stayed home from work on Sept. 11, 2001, because, they confided, Israel was behind the attacks and warned Jews in advance. I was no longer too timid to tell him them that he was they were embarrassing himself.
But this was different, sitting in someone’s living room watching him sink into madness. The only emotion I could summon was sadness.
Caught between Bandits and US Troops
Two weeks later, Nadeem, 30, and Arfan, 31, retraced our route with a photographer, to take pictures of Yunis and others we had met along the way. On the highway near Basra, a Toyota pickup truck loaded with gunmen raced up to them from behind and opened fire at the sedan. Arfan sped away, but the attackers kept up, shooting wildly.
Frantic, the brothers glimpsed a US convoy ahead and for a moment they considered racing up to it for help. But they realized that could be disastrous — a car that surprises a convoy of tense American soldiers runs a good risk of being shot. The brothers were trapped — with a band of their countrymen trying to kill them on one side, and a group of Americans who had learned not to trust on the other. It was an apt reflection of the no-man’s-land in which Iraq’s silent and weary majority was trying to make a life.
Arfan spotted an escape route off the highway and before long they were out of reach. They reached Baghdad unhurt but demoralized. After months of escalating violence, Iraq, for us, had changed in an instant.
Until then, it had been easy to compartmentalize the bloodshed, to explain it away as something avoidable if you were careful enough. But that was a fiction, and we knew it. There was no logic to the killing. And, day by day, we were increasingly unwelcome.
The Curtain Rises on Abu Ghraib
None of us gave much thought to the big prison known as Abu Ghraib. And then one day it became the symbol of everything.
I had never been inside the prison until one morning in May when the generals decided to throw the gates open to the world. Photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners had been circulating for days, and the generals wanted everyone to know that changes were being made. The past was over, they said.
Two busloads of journalists set out from Baghdad. We were escorted by heavily armed Humvees, but we had also been warned to wear our flak jackets and helmets on the ride because the road out of the capital wasn’t safe.
The tour promptly veered out of control. As the buses wound into the vast prison courtyard, waves of men surged toward the barbed-wire fences.
Thousands of them poured out of the canvas tents where they lived through summer and winter. Those waiting in line for makeshift toilets and showers broke away and scrambled toward the fence, in sweat-soiled clothes, to shout for attention from the arriving buses.
This was the medical recovery area, home to those who had been hurt before they arrived or, like many, had been wounded by the waves of insurgents’ mortars that rained down on the tented areas inside on in the mistaken belief that US troops lived there.
The prisoners went wild at the sight of outsiders. Dozens pumped their crutches in the air. Others peeled off their shirts in the baking midday sun and twirled them over their heads. One man pulled off his Caucasian-colored prosthetic leg and waved it back and forth.
“Where’s the freedom, Bush?” the one-legged man shouted. “Is this freedom?”
Another prisoner, reading in English from a seemingly prepared statement, used a bullhorn to call out his message: “Iraqi prisoners need freedom, their dignity and their rights.”
The scene had undermined the generals’ effort to show things were improving. No doubt some things had changed — other parts of the tour showcased refurbished prison wings and a gleaming medical unit — but the disorder outside spoke to a more essential fact: This was not why America was here.
Nobody involved in the Abu Ghraib prison wanted to be there — not the sweating soldiers standing in the watchtowers, not the enraged prisoners down below and not the overwhelmed commanders holed up in their offices.
The notion that more than a year after the invasion, the United States would be arresting thousands of Iraqis a month had never been in the Pentagon’s blueprint for war. And yet, the military had no choice but to scramble in vain to curtail a growing insurgency.
Standing there in the courtyard of the prison, hearing the shouts of the prisoners and anxious efforts of the soldiers to usher us back to our buses, I was watching a system in crisis. I thought of a man punching water to hold back a flood.
Evan Osnos has spent much of the past two years in Iraq and Kuwait. He is scheduled to leave Iraq in early February.
© 2005, Chicago Tribune.
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