This blog entry doesn’t say much about the environment and relates very little to my work, but I think it’s a series of stories worth telling. They provide cultural context and a window into the mentality of the local populous. They also answer the questions I’m sure many people interested in my travels here are asking themselves: “What is it like to be a local in Iraq these days?” and “What is it like to be a US soldier in Iraq post-American occupation?” (I’ll be funny and back on topic next entry, I promise).
Somehow I keep stumbling into conversations about war and fighting with both Kurds and Iraqis alike. These conversations have not yet included the word “USA” (surprisingly), but I have nevertheless found myself awkwardly searching for the right thing to say as the conversations trailed off into sorrowful silence, on my part and sometimes on theirs.
The first time this occurred, I was sitting in my apartment watching “The Island” on TV while my Iraqi houseguest typed away on his computer. He stopped typing and looked up at the sound of gunfire aimed at Scarlett Johansson as she scrambled to escape the evil cloning compound. Then, in his best broken English, he asked me, “You like these action movies?” I said, “No, not particularly, but there’s nothing else on.” He then explained to me that Iraqis don’t watch action movies anymore: “There is already too much action in Iraq, we don’t want to see it on TV.” I felt ashamed at my oblivious insensitivity. Thankfully, he eased the painful moment for me. “We like comedies,” he said, smiling. “We like to laugh.”
In my second experience, I sat with two other colleagues, one Iraqi and one Kurd, in an odd lunchtime conversation about the times one of them was kidnapped and the other one was almost executed. This was a light-hearted conversation, at first. The Iraqi was telling me about how he and his environmental assessment team were kidnapped in the then-dry marshes in 2005. They were essentially ambushed by a gang of random criminals, unassociated with the war or any particular politic or faction, just thugs taking advantage of the country’s mass chaos. The kidnappers immediately released the team’s two females (who says chivalry is dead?) and took the several remaining men to a house to await payment. They ransomed them for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which were eventually paid by private entities after several days.
My first thought was, what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks were you doing surveying the desert in the middle of a warzone in 2005? Simple answer: biodiversity survey. If nothing else, this illustrates their dedication to environmental work… but it also confirmed a theme I have come to understand from many people here: war happens, but life goes on. These people have experienced so much fighting for so many years that they have simply decided to carry on the best they can within it. They are not ambivalent, they are not ignorant… they are resolute. They simply refuse to stop living their lives.
My second thought was, “That must have been terrible.” But no, apparently it wasn’t really that bad. He told me that, aside from holding them against their will with compelling weaponry, his captors were pretty nice. They fed them and housed them and chatted with them, I think they even drank tea together. My two colleagues joked about it being “like a mini vacation.” This is when I began to sit awkwardly searching for what to say next because all I could think of was that Army aviators have had very dissimilar experiences with kidnapping. Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything because the two men started talking about how, after you’ve been through it once, you really don’t worry about it anymore because you know how to handle it if it happens again (which it could).
At that point, my Kurdish lunch mate started talking about the time he was held at gunpoint at an al Qaeda checkpoint in Syria. This was fairly recently, so again my first thought was what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks were you doing crossing through an al Qaeda checkpoint in the middle of Syria’s civil war?! Simple answer: taking pictures. My colleague is a very passionate photojournalist (obviously), so he decided to go to Syria to chronicle the fighting. But, just to clarify, he—like everyone else I’ve talked to here—is not an adrenaline junky or even particularly careless with his life; he just chooses to continue living his life and doing what he loves instead of cowering under the weight of war. Inspiring.
Long story short, this wasn’t the first time my colleague had passed through this al Qaeda checkpoint, so he had some experience with the “system.” All I could think was, “How is al Qaeda considered part of the ‘system’? How do they have legitimate checkpoints?!” This swirled my soldier-brain into an anger-ball of confusion and disbelief, but of course it’s true. Moving past that, he told me about how he had transited through the same checkpoint on his way to somewhere about a week earlier and that he was trying to leave that somewhere, but had to pass through the same checkpoint again to do so. The first time he passed through without a problem, but this time they recognized him as someone who didn’t belong – so he was held at gunpoint by one of the al Qaeda fighters. “They don’t care. They just shoot you.”
He said he could hear the man’s finger applying pressure to the trigger when someone suddenly came running toward them shouting. It was an al Qaeda operative who was there when he passed through the week before. “I know him!” the man shouted – so they stood him up and sent him on his way. I began awkwardly searching my brain again, but decided most of my thoughts were probably inappropriate, so I just sat quietly with a sickened look on my face. But, yet again, I didn’t have to say anything. My colleague laughed light-heartedly and repeated the lesson of the previous story: “Once you’ve been through it, you don’t worry about it anymore because you know what to do if it happens again” (which it could).
Whether they realized it or not, the overarching theme from both of their stories was, “I refuse to be afraid.” But, then the conversation turned dark. One of them began telling a story about someone who was kidnapped and killed and found later with obvious signs of torture and dismemberment. At this point the two of us listening shifted uncomfortably in our seats. As usual, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I accidently muttered something about how Army aviators are trained that if we are captured we will likely suffer a similar fate – not the “mini vacation” kind of capture. We all fell silent studying our chicken and rice and I couldn’t tell if it was because of what I said or what he said, or both. As the elephant in the room trundled up to the table, I began to sense that the silence was because of what I said, and not because it was horrible, but because they felt bad. I don’t think I imagined this because I would never have anticipated such a response. They looked like they felt saddened by our losses. Maybe I’m wrong and they were really thinking terrible thoughts like “You Americans never should have been here in the first place,” but my spidey-senses didn’t pick up on that. Either way, I thought about trying to lighten the mood by joking that “the conversation just got ‘real’ real quick,” but the gravity of this conversation was well beyond humor. Instead, everyone did the sorrowful trailing off thing and stared awkwardly past each other until one of my colleagues politely excused himself to clear his plate. Conversation over.
My third and final experience to share occurred while riding in the car with one of Nature Iraq’s logistics officers at the wheel. As he drives me to and from work each day, he teaches me Kurdish and I teach him a mix of English and Italian (long story). Using his best broken English and my best amalgamation of Kurdish and hand signals, we try to chat about our families and weekend plans, etc. We have genuinely become friends and it is easy to tell that he feels somewhat responsible for my wellbeing. On one fateful drive we began talking about our previous work experience. He told me how he has worked as a logistics officer for several companies and universities in the area before joining Nature Iraq, but before that he was a police officer. He told me he quit after 15 years on the force because “things were not good here.” He tried to figure out the word for “war” and I sensed there was much more he wanted to add to his explanation, but that he couldn’t think of how to say “human rights violations” in English. Like so many others, he then trailed off into a sorrowful silence.
When he came ‘round, he asked me what I did before school. This has been a tricky question for me because I know it’s not necessarily in my best interest to spread it around that I was/am in the US Army. But, I have come to realize that it is safe to tell people whom I can trust and that it is pretty easy to tell who those people are. Still, I had my reservations about telling him after what he had just said. I cautiously told him the truth, and his face brightened immediately. “I like Army,” he said, “very good!” He was smiling so big I could see all of his teeth. “How long?” he asked. “Eleven years,” I answered. “But you are a small girl,” he said, sounding surprised and a little confused. I laughed and agreed, because it’s true and because I get that a lot. “What rank?” he asked. I told him I am a Captain, and he seemed very pleased and a little proud to know me. This conversation was reassuring, but a little puzzling too. From what I could tell, “war” = “not good” but “Army” = “very good!” I’m not sure if he feels that the US Army is very good, or if simply being in any army is very good. Either way, I was glad to have pulled him out his dark place and relieved that my uncomfortable wariness was unnecessary.
In the end, my observations lead me to realize that, after decades of war waged by various internal and external actors, these people have a strange relationship with violence and conflict. It both upsets them and intrigues them. Some avoid it on TV and some seek it out across borders. Some are able to laugh it off – to a point, while others, like my driver, cannot. Still, the overarching moral of their stories is that they unwaveringly carry on; they are inspiring in their resolve. They refuse to surrender to fear.