The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

THE ROADBLOCK |

November 09, 2006

THE ROADBLOCK
Name: Adam Tiffen (AirborneJD)
Posting date: 11/9/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

The sky has turned a striking shade of purple and red as the sun begins to set in the west. To the east of the Alamo, the tall blue and green minaret of the Shia mosque is lit up with a single string of white lights. The mosque, standing alone in "no-mans land", has only been partially completed, and the unfinished sections of brick wall look ominously down over the crumbling city in the fading light.

Across from the mosque, in a small woodworking shop, a man has just been murdered. An hour ago, three insurgents entered his shop and shot him in the head. The weapon was held so close that the muzzle blast burned and blackened his ear. Only 300 meters from the Alamo, he was left to die, four AK-47 shell casings lying next to his body. He is the second man to be executed within sight of the Alamo in as many days. The city is restless tonight.

In front of the Alamo, in the falling darkness, a squad of soldiers works to improve the fixed defenses. A single HUMMWV sits on the road, its hood stacked high with concertina wire, a soldier crouched low in the turret, scanning the surrounding darkness with his night vision. The soldiers work quietly. Triple strands of razor-sharp wire are stretched across the road, and weighed down with sandbags. Concrete barriers are maneuvered into place. Spike strips are laid across avenues of approach. All designed to stop a suicide car bomb.

As I walk out from between the concrete barriers and onto the main street in front of the Alamo, I can see a soldier with a flashlight waving at oncoming traffic. As his squad erects the barrier, he is signaling cars to turn off onto a side street. Every one of those cars is a threat.

Further out in the dark, a blue van stops for a second, its driver confused by the roadblock. The soldier with the flashlight tenses, and raises his rifle up to cover the driver.

On the corner sits a white and orange taxi, its lights turned off. The taxicab driver shouts helpful directions at the driver of the blue van, and the blue van pulls down the side street. I can see the soldier relax, his shoulders slumping beneath his heavy body armor.

It is a Thursday night, and this type of traffic is normal. In the twilight, the local men walk from house to house for a cigarette or a cup of tea with their neighbors. Cheap tobacco smoke permeates the air as they cluster on doorsteps smoking French Gallouises.

Across from the Alamo, a small convenience shop is doing a brisk business, and a crowd of men has gathered outside. Signaling two soldiers to accompany me, I walk across the street and up to the group. One of the men is older, with a careworn face and a full white beard. He is wearing a flowing white robe, which contrasts sharply with the darkness of his skin. His eyes are dark and shadowed in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulb hanging from the wall of the shop.

Touching my hand to my chest, I give him the traditional greeting. "Salaam Alechem." The old man returns the greeting with a slight smile.

Beside him, a young man gets up from a worn wooden bench. He is strangely pale and overweight, and his hand nervously grips plastic prayer beads. The small red beads click together quietly as he methodically counts them.

The old man begins to speak in Arabic, and my interpreter, Tornado, listens to him politely before turning to me to translate.

"He is asking about the hurricane Katrina." This was the last thing that I had expected to hear.

"Really? What does he know about Katrina?"

The old man's face grows solemn.

"We heard that 10,000 people have been killed, and that the city is destroyed. We have heard that there is disease and fighting." Behind him, the younger man smiles at me. In the shop behind him, I can hear the muted sound of a strident Arabic voice on the radio.

"And how did you hear about this?"

"We have a satellite. It told us all about the hurricane Katrina."

"Do you have such hurricanes here in Iraq?"

The younger man's smile widens. It seems that he wants to tell me something, and as he leans forward, his hands briefly touch as he makes a dusting motion. "No, we do not have such things as hurricanes in Iraq. We do not have them because we are protected by Allah. We have the shrines of the Prophet, and Allah does not permit such tragedies here."

He leans back as if he has gotten something important off of his chest. He has made his point. It sounds like a theory out of the dark ages. As if on cue, the sound of automatic weapons fire erupts in the northern sector of town. It is a series of sharp reports, one after the other. In response, another automatic weapon opens up, its higher pitched whine audible over the lower, more guttural single shots.

Turning around, I scan the low hulking shadows of the houses across no man's land for any sudden muzzle flashes that would indicate the shooter's position. There is a gun battle going on, no more than 400 meters from the Alamo. The sky and the buildings to the north remain dark.To my left, one of the soldiers, a young private, flips down his night vision and scans the darkness of an alleyway for movement. He is fidgeting nervously from foot to foot. Anybody could be out there tonight.

Turning back, I face the younger man. "Are you saying that America had a hurricane because there are no shrines in America to the prophet? Because most Americans do not follow Islam?"

He nods his head, pleased that I understand him. "Yes, it is God's will. In America there are no shrines so Allah does not protect Americans. Here there are no tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes or hurricanes. If there were more of Islam in America, such things as hurricanes would not happen."

The gunfire in the north sounds as if it has doubled in intensity. This man is telling me that Iraqis are protected by God because of their faith in Allah, and that America, because of a lack of faith, deserves to be hit by a hurricane. With the gunfire in the background, the irony of his statement has not escaped me. The comment has also pissed me off.

I take a step forward.

He takes a step back.

"So God protects Iraqis from hurricanes? What about the violence? The fighting? The murders and executions? The poverty? Look around you! A man was murdered a few hundred meters away tonight! If God is protecting Iraq, why does God permit such violence here?"

Tornado hears the passion and anger in my voice, and he echoes my harsh language in his translation. The young man goes pale in the fluorescent light. He begins to speak, falters, and then goes quiet. He looks as if he has swallowed something unpleasant.

To the north, the gunfire has tapered quickly off. The stillness is only broken by single, sporadic shots in the distance. We stare at each other in the darkness.

The old man, pulling contemplatively on his white beard, takes a hesitant step forward and gently pushes the younger man back. Then he turns towards me and smiles apologetically: "In'Shallah. All of that is in God's hands. It is for Allah to know who lives and who dies. It is not for us to question or explain the will of Allah. He gives help to those that ask, but in the end all of our fate is in his hands."

He touches his right hand to his chest, turns, and without looking back, quickly ushers the younger man, still pale, prayer beads clicking in his hand, into the shop.

Taking a deep breath, I turn and stand quietly in the darkness, watching the armored HUMMWV slowly roll past in the shadowed street. I need a second to cool down.

The hood of the HUMMWV has been emptied of concertina wire, and the two soldiers escorting it are taking off their tough, rawhide gloves. To the west, I can see that the wire roadblock has been stacked three strands high, and tied tightly into the rusted steel bars of a power line. Any vehicle trying to drive thru that is going to come to a sudden stop,tangled up in a mass of steel razor wire.

At least it is something.

Turning away from the now quiet shop, I walk over to the roadblock to finish inspecting the reinforced obstacles. A few feet behind me, I hear the young private that was pulling security during my conversation mutter quietly under his breath. "Well I'll take his help if he is offering it, but I am not leaving anything that I don't have to in Allah's hands."

Pulling on the concertina wire and checking for any gaps in the defenses, I can't help but smile. Those are my thoughts exactly.

Comments

Thanks for the images--keep writing and stay safe.

i really enjoy reading your words, you are a great writer. thanks for sharing. take care.

Thank you for your bravery, and for writing.

The cheap French cigarettes, they are Gauloises. The blue box with a weird helmet on it, right ?

The Gaulois were our ancestors (and perhaps yours too, depending from where in Europte your ancestors emigrated to America). They resisted fiercely the Roman occupation, as any people has resisted any occupation. If one wants to win when occupying, one has to kill all the natives. Otherwise the natives will fight till their last drop of blood, as the gaulois did against the Roman, as the french resistants did against the Germans, as all the African colonies did against the french, Dutch, British, or whatever invaders.

The Europeans had understood that when they arrived in America. The French in Canada or Louisiana, the Spanish or Portuguese in South America, the Irish or British, all the Europeans, they killed next to all the natives, with weapons and bullets, or with new diseases, or by destroying the buffalos.

I think you guys in Iraq are great guys who really deserve to come back home safe and as soon as possible.

Thank you so much, Adam. Please, please take great care of you. Stay focused, do your job, take care of you and of your platoon. Please come back home safe. Same to all of your buddies.

With much admiration for your great courage,
francoise

Adam,

Thank you for your sacrifice and keep your head on a swivel.

I enjoy your writing and hope you come home soon and continue living your life. Remember, regardless of faith, we were all given 2 ears and 1 mouth. Be cautious of those that speak more than they listen.

Keep writing and be safe.

JC

Pity the one who can't tell when he is in the middle of the "hurricane"...

Dear Adam,
I just wanted to tell you how wonderfully this piece was written and how well I can understand your sentiments. I have traveled quite a bit in Arab countries such as Algeria, Morrocco and Egypt. I have had a few similar conversations. The beauty of these places stood in stark contrast to the every day misery of the inhabitants. It may be true that there are no Hurricanes in Iraq, but Allah sure did not protect them from decades under a dictator.
Keep writing. I am flagging your blog and passing the information on to my friends,
Happy Veterans Day, and thank you for all you do.
Sincerely,
Katia Kelly

The ending of your post reminds me of a very wise Arabic saying, "Trust in God, but tie your camel at night."

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