VBIEDS ALONG THE TIGRIS |
November 15, 2006
VBIEDS ALONG THE TIGRIS
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/15/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
The boring and dangerous checkpoint missions are behind us, and once again the infantry company returns to its original mission. We are happy to be free again, with the open Iraqi countryside waiting to be explored. Except today we are not going out into the scrubgrass desert, but instead are headed to Samarra, a Central Baghdad neighborhood. We are supposed to do the usual IP station assessment, followed by a joint patrol. It's a new area for us, and we're looking forward to some fresh scenery -- if fresh is the right word, given the odoriferous nature of downtown Baghdad.
My lil Droogies, as I call them a la Clockwork Orange, are rambunctious and full of spunk this morning, and we joke back and forth on the new intercom headsets, busting on each other as we drive. The day is crisp and blue, scrubbed clean by the rains that have started to become more frequent here as we move slowly into the Arabian winter. The temperature is in the low 80's, which feels like heaven after the rotisserie hell of the summer months.
We emerge from the blasted lands, driving through a small slum pockmarked with houses completely made out of scrap metal. Kids and dogs come running out of the shanties, the children dashing with their arms outstretched, thin voices shrill above the whine of the diesel engines, wailing for infidel candy. Sure enough, the gunner in the lead truck tosses handfuls of Jolly Ranchers to them as we speed by, and the kids dive into the dust to snatch up the treats. The dogs chase us, tails wagging ferociously, barking their heads off, bravely driving away the cumbersome metal monsters. Nix veers at one pooch that is a little too courageous, and it narrowly escapes becoming the next bloated carcass swelling in the sun on Airfield Road.
We careen onto Route Wild and head north, into the city, and the civilian traffic swerves and ducks around us, diving for the safety of the curb as they turn on their flashers. Nobody wants to get shot on this beautiful fall day. The city is its usual chaotic self -- crazy traffic, faded signs scrawled with Arabic script, shoppers choking the markets. I love working with this infantry company, since we get to go to all sorts of interesting places, not just the same useless checkpoints on Route Pluto. Today seems especially alive, and even the locals seem pretty content; not too many suspicious stares are thrown our way as we manuever into the heart of the city.
The traffic gets a little thicker, and we slow down as we approach a wide traffic circle, surrounded by multi-story buildings. A green park, dotted with palm trees, graces the center of the traffic circle, with a central podium that probably once held a statue of Saddam Hussein, but which is now empty in sort of anti-climatic way.
I notice a cluster of activity to our right, just around the corner of a building, and then I see blue-shirted Iraqi cops converging on the hubbub. First there are just a couple, and then more, and now they are running, a sure sign of something wrong, as IPs never move quickly. Our convoy inches forward, and I advise Cooper, my gunner, to keep an eye on the building. I crane my neck forward, watching the area through the dusty windshield of the HMMWV.
Something dark and twisted comes into view, laying in the middle of the street, which is dirtier and more cluttered than usual. It takes a second to figure it out, and I slowly realize that it is the engine block to a small car. Beyond it are a few twisted pieces of metal, apparently the frame of the vehicle. A small ambulance is just behind the wreckage, and local people are loading burnt, mangled bodies into it. As I take in the fact that I am looking at dead people, a metallic voice in my ear announces that we have wandered into the scene of a car bomb attack. Apparently it happened just minutes ago, even though none of us heard the explosion. Sometimes I hear them back at the barracks, usually in the early morning; a sudden, deep rumble as someone's apartment block goes up in flames.
I'm immediately concerned about the possibility of secondary VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices), and ask the team leader of the point vehicle to move forward into the middle of the perimeter. I get back a sharp answer: "We are in the middle of the fucking perimeter". I look outside my window, and see that my door is a foot away from a big, 70s-style Cutlass sedan; a white and orange taxi cab. Some local guy is anxiously peering underneath it, and as I look at him, he turns his head and our eyes meet for a second. We are both thinking the same thing. I tell SGT Egan that while he might be in the middle of the fucking perimeter, but I am sitting next to a big fucking car and it is very uncool. He moves forward grudgingly.
The squad leader announces over the radio that our translator, Joey, is getting out to talk to the IPs to find out what happened. I get out too, ostensibly to pull security on him, but really because something inside, unspoken, urges me to get a closer look.
The ground is densely peppered with black metal fragments, burnt pieces of clothing, and as I squint at the asphalt I can see the occasional body part -- blackened, burnt, torn, but identifiably human, if you look at it long enough.
There is a strange feeling to this -- not of horror or terror or sadness, but quite the opposite. It feels normal. There are tiny pockets of grief or shock around the scene, but they seem incongruous, out of place, almost...inappropriate. Because boring old regular life continues in the middle of it.
A young girl, maybe 13 or 14, leans over a second floor railing and screams at the crowd below, gesturing frantically at something. She holds a dirty baby, and as I glance at her I see more children clustered around her smudged skirt, peeking out through the bars. Yet more kids appear out of the gloom of the apartment, and they line up, much like the village kids do when we make security stops in the desert. The children have blank looks on their faces, their mouths little round O's. Is that her parents being loaded roughly into the ambulance? I don't know. No one seems to pay any attention to her.
A policeman picks up a ragged bundle from the blackened street, and as I turn to look at something else it registers in my head what the package really is: a severed arm. A woman walks between two of our HMMWVs, pushing a baby stroller; one of those European types, all blue fabric and big double wheels. I look to make sure it really holds a baby (it does), and I note the look on her face -- the same level of interest you would have when you see that dish soap is on sale for a buck twenty five. She pops the stroller backwards for a second, clears the front wheels over the curb of the traffic circle, and continues on her way.
A young police officer across the circle slaps his hand across his face and wails, one arm outstretched towards the wreckage, and a comrade grabs him, holds him back for a second, and then they collapse together in the middle of the street. I can't hear his sobs, because of the wailing sirens. More ambulances are coming in.
An old man walks by, a foot away from the mangled engine block, carrying a bag of groceries. He barely glances at the scene, perhaps just once, just for a second. His face is normal, relaxed. How many of these has he seen?
The place is full of cops now, all waving their AK-47s, rushing around with great energy but no direction. A small fire truck arrives, and a black-clad fireman sprays the wreckage with an anemic stream of water. There are an uncomfortable number of men in civilian clothes clutching pistols, which makes me nervous until Joey stops a police lieutenant and we learn that they are detectives.
The lieutenant is pissed, and is also clutching a small black Glock. He yells angry words, curt orders, at some other officers nearby, but I can't see anyone react to them. Joey talks to him in Arabic, and he replies, loudly, venomously. I'm not really paying attention to them. I'm watching the rooftops and balconies for snipers.
I ask Joey if the neighborhood is Shia or Sunni. He asks the lieutenant, who stops and glares at me with intense eyes. He replies sharply; the neighbourhood is mixed, neither one or the other. He softens a bit as he talks, and then adds that this traffic circle is always crowded. Apparently whoever did this just wanted to kill as many people as they could. They didn't care who, or what sect they were, or where they came from. They just wanted the maximum amount of carnage.
Joey and the lieutenant go back to their conversation and I go back to watching the chaos, splitting my attention between watching for snipers and just looking. A policeman walks by me, his long blue shirt sleeves coated red up to the elbows with blood. I don't think he has realized this yet, and he marches by without glancing at me. Something tinkles as I brush against it with my foot, and I look down to see a scorched and scarred piece of metal. Some innard blown out of the car, and I look at it curiously for a minute, turning it back and forth with my boot. I can't tell what it is.
There is a flurry of activity off behind me, and I turn to look. Joey relays to me from the lieutenant that they think there are other VBIEDs in the area, and that someone has found a suspicious vehicle down one of the five streets that feed into the traffic circle. I point my rifle down the road and glass it with my sniper scope, but nothing looks out of place. A number of IPs get on their vehicle PA systems, and start shouting orders at the people down the road, telling them to back up.
If you want to shout frantic orders at people, Arabic is a pretty good choice. The guttural syllables sound really compelling, particularly when amped to deafening levels. The only better choice might be German. I have no idea what they are yelling, but it makes me want to move. People start going quickly, and the perimeter is pushed out further.
More coalition convoys arrive from other side streets, and they start strengthening the perimeter. Joey and the LT go back to their conversation. Apparently they know each other, or are related or something, because they start laughing, and they kiss each other on the cheek. They light up cigarettes and chatter away. The LT gives me a light. Three Arab women in traditional black robes walk past, the last one with her head tilted back, up to the sky. Her face is transfixed, eyes closed, mouth frozen open as she cries. The cigarette tastes good, reassuring. I drag on it heavily, exhaling smoke as she walks away.
Our squad leader decides it's time to go. There isn't much for us to do here. The other units have the perimeter. The bodies are loaded up and shipped out to wherever dead bodies go in Baghdad. Maybe we can go find the other VBIEDs, or maybe we get out of here before they show up. Anyway, we have a police station to get to.
Ten minutes later, we are sitting in the sun outside the Samarra IP station. We are eating fresh Iraqi bread and goat cheese, fetched for us by a bright-eyed Christian kid who speaks perfect English, taught to him for the past four years by the soldiers. Younger children cluster around the HMMWVs, begging for more Jolly Ranchers. The sun is warm on our faces; the bread is hot, straight out of the oven, flat, eye-shaped, traditional. I eat it hungrily, and think again of the policeman and his red-stained shirt sleeves.
Just another day in Baghdad, one which ends beautifully as we drive home through the Green Zone and out across a bridge over the Tigris. The sun is setting over the water, and I hand my camera up to Cooper to take a snapshot. The water is flat and golden, and the bridge is high enough that I can't smell the sharp nasal punch of the raw sewage below.
I think for a second of the people who didn't live to see this sunset; people out playing with their kids on a balcony, or stepping out of the door to grab something from the store down the street. One second they were here, and the next they weren't. I think of fresh bread and an arm lying in the street, and I am glad for the company of my soldiers, next to me in the tight metal womb of our truck. We ride back to the FOB, smoking and joking, and it is good to still be alive.