Soldier say this Baghdad neighborhood has cleaned up a lot in the past two months. (photo by John Goodman)
When making the rounds to check up on the various projects they're involved with, civil affairs units typically don't announce plans to visit a site unless a meeting is planned. Part of this is for security -- so potential attackers won't know when and where to find them -- and also to maintain the element of surprise that most inspectors like to have pretty much anywhere you go. Earlier this week, soldiers from Alpha Company, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion had scheduled a meeting with Major Jumaa Saed Jasim and the Iraqi Red Crescent regarding the delivery of humanitarian supplies, to be followed by visits to six separate locations that were recipients for diesel generators refurbished by the Coalition-funded, Iraqi contractor-run job training program. It was going to be a long day, but everyone was ready to plow through and get it done.
Everything started off on the wrong foot when the representatives from the Iraqi Red Crescent were an hour late. The troops looked mildly annoyed, but nobody was all that surprised. Iraqi time is what it is. The leaders of Civil Affairs Teams One and Two -- Lieutenant Colonel Tom Downey and Captain Shawn Tobin -- talked with Major Jumaa while most of the other soldiers from A/403 took advantage of the lull to get some much needed time at the firing range. Apparently, it's much easier to go to the range at an Iraqi base -- where there's a lot less red tape to deal with -- than at an American base. All they had to do was check in with the Iraqi commander, set up range safety procedures for the session, and go for it.
Surprisingly, this was one of the only days they've been able to practice firing their weapons since they've been in Iraq. Even though there haven't been any attacks, it struck me as odd that people who may have to rely upon marksmanship for survival don't really get many opportunities to practice. They certainly don't do it on a regular basis. I was told that it's very difficult to schedule range time at Camp Liberty. Regardless, everyone seemed to know what they were doing, although some comments were bandied back and forth about someone or other's aim being a bit off. Staff Sergeant Justin Godfrey found out that his 9mm pistol was broken, remarking that it's a good thing he found out then instead of during a life and death situation outside the wire.
Visits to the six recipient generator sites seemed to follow a pattern. In north Ghazalia, the streets were crowded, vendors bustling about between booths selling brightly colored produce, bread, and even ice cream. The smell of cooked meat wafted through the air as cars traveled unevenly up and down the street; one or two occasionally honking while making a mad slalom through the throng of pedestrians and slower moving vehicles. We moved up the street on foot, and it was interesting to see flocks of trash-grazing sheep juxtaposed against the urban backdrop. The sheep were flanked by a couple of dogs, but they weren't herding -- the hungry-looking mutts were using the sheep as detectors of the choicest morsels of trash. Despite this poor, but vibrant street life, the gate at the municipal office had a padlock on it -- the place was deserted. A generator was supposed to have been delivered there, but hadn't been. As a matter of fact, none of the sites had generators yet, and it was difficult to find anyone around at most of the municipal buildings we went to. On the plus side, concrete slabs -- the bases upon which the generators would eventually sit -- had been poured at two of them, which was at least one step in the right direction.
A Speck of Green
When you're jostling around in the back of an MRAP, you get accustomed to seeing the same scenery all the time, as if it were on a roll of paper spooling continuously past the mud spattered windows. Colorful markets, people haggling, men wearing red and white checked keffiyahs, women dressed head to toe in flowing black hejab, and of course the endless piles of trash; all set against a tan backdrop. When I saw it, I thought maybe it was a mirage. The view only lasted for a few seconds, but then I saw it again as our vehicle rounded a corner. It was a garden of some sort. A green field, about an acre in size -- without refuse or broken-down cars on it -- was nestled behind a small village, behind a low, crumbling brown wall. It stood out in such sharp contrast to the dust covered palms that were the only manifestation of plant life I had seen thus far in Iraq. Perhaps it was the modern day Garden of Eden, I thought. Perhaps it would become a benevolent growth, covering the countryside as the water infrastructure slowly began to improve. Insh'allah.
Typically, what you see is not pleasant to look upon or inhale into your olfactory canals. "What are those black things in the water?" a voice on the intercom squawked as we drove past yet another road median drowning in rubbish-infused stagnant water. "They're the size of fly larvae, but they're darting around like tadpoles." Oily dots covered the water's surface, giving it a yellowish hue. If the nighttime lights outside Company headquarters are any indication, mosquito season is beginning to kick into high gear. Turning around a couple of buildings though, the trash disappeared and my green mirage presented itself once again.
The little green field turned out to be attached to one of the neighborhoods we had to visit that day, where a medical clinic was to receive a refurbished generator. Bakriya, as it was called, was without a doubt the cheeriest place I had yet seen in Baghdad. People in the semi rural hamlet were cheerful, without the desperation encountered in some of the more run down sections in A/403's area of operations. Children were playing, which was a common enough site elsewhere, but they didn't mob us demanding candy and money. I gave a little boy named Mohammed a Santa Barbara Surfrider sticker and his face lit up, becoming pensive a moment later. He reached into his pocket, fished out a peppermint candy, and thrust it toward me. I tried to decline, but giggling, he insisted, jabbering something in Arabic that must have meant trade. Behind us, sheep and chickens ran about in the field, which looked to be full of alfalfa. A hen weaved back and forth through the rows of plants, her brood of chicks following closely behind. The clinic -- a tidy, well appointed building, had not yet received it's generator. "Insh'allah," said the man who came to the gate, shrugging and offering a friendly smile.