Shortly after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, there was a period of joyous peace, and I, along with two others, was invited to visit Iraq. My friend was invited to start a small school there to serve children who had problems learning. It was a different world, and one not ever forgotten
From the time we arrived, we were instructed to wear flack jackets built to handle at least ten rounds from an automatic weapon, and we were guarded by Blackwater troops, considered the best in the business. If the jacket took 11 rounds, well then, we were on our own. Blackwater troops, at that time, were considered the elite guards. They were an interesting group of men. From the first time they guarded us, until we were delivered home, we were never left alone. Often these men surrounded us, and when we moved, they moved. It was as though they anticipated our every move. It was eerie. At one point we went to a palace that was Saddam Hussein’s, and we thought we had ditched the guards. When we returned, we said such. It was simply stated they knew exactly where we were, and were just coming to retrieve us.
They all looked like Rambo, and I mean this seriously, right down to the dark glasses. We were there, as guests of the Governor at the time, in the Diwaniya area. One man was an amateur ornithologist, and was tracking the migration of birds back into Diwaniya, after the war. The camp, where we stayed, had a small pond behind it that had a large number of mosquitoes, and these mosquitoes brought birds. The military wanted to drain it, and Jim was strongly opposed. When he was on guard duty, on the top of the buildings, he was also tracking birds as well as the human predators. No way could he allow them to drain his swamp.
The vehicles, we rode in, were obviously bullet proof, but beyond that, two of us sat in the back with a guard, and there were two guards in front. Being a curious sort, I asked our guard about the weaponry he carried. There was an automatic weapon in his hand, a gun in his belt in the back, an automatic weapon in the pocket in the seat in front, and a couple of throwing knives attached to his ankle.
They were wonderful to us, and we developed long-term relationships. When they came for R and R in Kuwait, they would come over for meals and we would show them around Kuwait, and the markets. However, to look into the eyes of one of these men, was to realize they were not to be trifled with — if it was necessary, and I or anyone proved a threat, death would arrive faster than thought. The eyes could be cold, hard and deadly. I looked at these men who were being so kind, and considerate of us, and had this chilling thought. There was a whole side to each of them, I could not comprehend, and a part of their mind that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never understand. And to tell the truth, I am not sure they understood themselves either. There is a certain feeling of power that is intoxicating. I could feel this when I was around them. Some would call it a significant increase in testosterone, and whatever it was, I could feel its addictive effects.
The drive from the border of Kuwait and Iraq was one of the most boring rides, as far as scenery goes, I have ever taken. There was nothing to see. It was flat, with very little vegetation or people. This was an area of Iraq where the people had displeased Saddam, and so, there was no updated infrastructure – only a road and endless stretches of dirt and sand. This was the land that had seen the boots of thousands of soldiers, and these soldiers had kicked up enough dust to create one of the most intense sandstorms I had ever experienced. I was in Kuwait, at the time, and I could not see out the window of my apartment for days, as the sand was so thick. It was like being in a snow blizzard but instead of snow, it was red sand, and dust.
We were headed to Diwaniya. And yes, we were in Iraq illegally. No one in Kuwait knew we were there,e. And most definitely, our friends at the U.S. Embassy did not know. And, as I learned later, had they known we were going, our passports would have been confiscated. I was treated to many lectures, when I returned, about the folly of our actions. Looking contrite was not easy, as I was exceptionally happy to have had the chance to take this trip. It was not possible to get a VISA to visit, and that is regretful, as it would have been wonderful fun to have stamp from Iraq. Going through customs is not fun when you have stamps from Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon in you passport. I cannot imagine what having one from Iraq would have done.
The camp for the soldiers was a trailer habitat surrounded by concrete walls. At least, when we were inside, we did not have to wear the flack jackets. We had the opportunity to visit Babylon, and here we were, the first tourists in 40 years…………and what an amazing place to be. As I stood in the middle of this relic, I realized I was at the site of the Tower of Babel. I was where Alexander the Great spent his last days. I could see where the hanging gardens had once been. I saw relics of mosaics, and statues, and I saw incredible destruction. The place had been savaged during the second world war when all of the statuary, and anything that could be carried was removed by the Germans, and placed in museums. But even so, as I stood there, I could feel the thousands of years of history. This was old – so old, and we were so very young. If you listened you could hear the chariots, the crowds, and the lions. Saddam had decided to restore parts of Babylon, so he started with creating stones with Arabic writing on them, that stated the Arabic equivalent of “Saddam was here”.
His palace was almost as grand. He built it overlooking the court of Alexander the Great, so that it would be known he was greater than this Ruler of old. The palace was on a hill. Saddam and his sons built their palaces within view of each other, as the legend goes, as they did not trust each other, and always wanted to know what each was up to. The sons and their father continually plotted to kill each other. The people did not know these palaces existed. In an amazing display of human manipulation, they believed Saddam lived in poor houses like his people. They never looked up. To do so, to look up, and to see his palace was punishable by death and so, they never did. He had fifty palaces and each was grand.
The one we were in was not finished and had been stripped of all its finery before we were there. And yet, it was still amazing. The rooms were huge and the ceilings grand and the bathrooms amazing. In each corner of each room was a ladder. At all times, he (Saddam) wanted easy access for escape and so each room had multiple exits. Some were obvious and some not so much.
We arrived in Iraq at the time of the celebration of Ashoura. It was the first time in forty years the people were allowed to celebrate this festival. Saddam forbade any celebration that singled out one group of people to the exclusion of others. He forced unity. We saw miles and miles of pilgrims all headed for Felugia, where the holy shrine was. Miles and miles of people on foot, carrying flags, and walking with no provisions — just the clothes they had on. No food, no shelter. The only one who was providing for them was Muktida Sidar. He had tents along the way giving the people food, and a place to rest. No wonder Muktida Sidar was so strongly supported by so many people. He fed them, he cared for them. There were so many people walking, walking, and all headed for Faloujah.
To say this part of Iraq was hard pressed is a vast understatement. Although we were there to look at the concept of building a school for children having trouble learning, we never saw children on crutches or blind children. We came to understand these children were kept within their homes, as they would be killed if seen in public, as Saddam had a perfect society, and these children did not represent him. It was the same for all “cripples”, as they were known. Whoever could not care for himself disappeared, literally. I heard stories of how beautiful women were kept indoors, as Saddam’s sons would kidnap women who caught their fancy, and these women were forced to engage in gruesome acts. Many of the stories were horrifying and it is my preference not to repeat, and to allow them to pass through without being retold, and thereby, hopefully, forgotten.
Iraq was repressive, and the people we saw were afraid. Their eyes told the story of an inability to stand up for what they believed. They had learned to live by their wit,s and knew voicing an opinion could end in their demise in some very unpleasant ways. Some of the stories I heard my first few years in Kuwait were horrifying, and sickening, to say the least, not to mention what was broadcast on television. On my visit to Iraq, many of these stories were retold. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with this kind of fear. Never knowing when I left the house if I would return or end up kidnapped; never daring to lift my eyes for fear I would see something I should not; never daring to speak my opinion for fear I would be heard.