It’s a hot day. Not the kind of hot you know. The kind of hot only Satan could have dreamed up. The air is dry. No breeze. Everything outside is baking. Eight in the morning and the temperature is just creeping over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ll hit 130 in the shade later. If only heat was my biggest problem.
Today, I’m going outside the wire. To the place where all the abuse happened. They call it Abu Ghraib. A prison. A place of hopelessness. The generals want me there to show that we don’t beat and torture people there anymore. That progress is happening. A prisoner release with media coverage. That’s my job today. I’ll take pictures and sing them a happy song made of words. About how great and beneficent we are. I’ll be fascinated by the truth beneath the pastiche and hate my role as the troubador of bullshit.
We will be driving through the most violent place on earth. An occupied city called Baghdad. One of the oldest settled places on the planet, where millions are currently involved in what the leadership of the occupation calls a “low intensity civil war.” I wonder how the thousands dying in that war each month would feel about the description of their murders.
I am a coward scheduled to ride inside an armored bus they call “the Rhino.” Tons of steel and air conditioning with convenient gun ports for shooting comfortably at any attackers. The ride will be more than an hour, on roads that are swept daily for evidence of bombs. Yet I am afraid. I know from personal experience that no one is immune to the numerous types of bombs that the occupiers are constantly being attacked with. I am an occupier to most of Baghdad. The ones who don’t actively hate me are mostly indifferent to whether I live or die. They have their own survival to worry about, and none of them live inside a protected, fortified perimeter like I do.
No, the average Iraqi lives in a city full of gangs, bandits and murder squads. They are subjected to a dusk to dawn curfew where uniformed gangs roam and terrorize. Some of the gangs are trying to make things better and others are just there for revenge. Sunnis were in charge for 30 plus years. The ethnic minority, they had all the privileges. Now the Shia are in charge, and they want revenge for being oppressed. If the Americans don’t break down the door and take away all the fighting age males in your house it might be one of the other gangs. If you’re Sunni, the Shia might come and take your brother or father away. They’ll tie his hands behind his back and put a power drill up to his skull and start drilling holes in his head. Take whatever information they can and then put a bullet or six in him. Or if you’re Shia, the Sunni might blow up your car while you are on your way to work. It’s a back and forth. Both sides hate each other passionately. Both sides pay lip service to the occupiers and make bombs to attack the foreigners with.
The convoy leaves on schedule. Schedules are important to us. We are sandwiched into our armored box on wheels. In the front and in the back are Humvees with machine guns mounted in the turrets. I would hate to be one of those guys. Bullet magnets.
We drive through the maze that exits our “Green Zone” and enter the world most who were born here have to live in. We call it the Red Zone. They call it hell. Eyes take note of us. Thousands of eyes. Dark eyes. I can feel them boring into the armor and penetrating the thick glass that is designed to stop projectiles. The hate is palpable. It settles onto me like a heavy weight. My chest sinks. My heart beats faster. I wonder if today will be the day. Every day feels like it might the last day here.
These people are fatalistic about death. I am not. I do not want to die. I do not want to be torn apart by a blast. Two days ago I was knocked down by one while in the shower. The concussive force of a car bomb a mile away rattled the trailer I live in so much that it was lifted up and then slammed back down. When I got back up from that, I found myself trembling. The aftermath made it worse. A thick column of black smoke outside attended by the attack helicopters that always swarm like angry bees to watch over the rescue responders on the ground. They told me after that explosion was a targeted attack on policemen waiting to collect their monthly pay. Many of them were ripped to shreds. And I am afraid it is my turn now.
The others on this bus annoy me. Some pray. I do not believe praying will make any difference. Sometimes I do it anyhow but only because it is an old ritual. Some talk to avoid introspection. I avoid them. I do not want to make small talk to pass the time while waiting to die. I sit in the back, with the interpreters. If anyone on this bus is hated more than the occupiers, it is the people who speak for them.
One of the men talks to me. “Where are you from,” he asks? I tell him I am from everywhere. It’s true. I have lived all over the world. I claim no place as my own. He tells me about his family. How his brother, father, uncles and cousins have been killed since the occupation begins. He wants to leave Iraq. That is his only goal. To get a visa to go to Europe or the United States. He wants to get away from his city. He wants to leave his country. I understand. Not everyone here is a fatalist. He doesn’t want to die for nothing. Like all the males in his family have.
I give him my e-mail address and tell him I’ll try to help. We arrive at the prison. Behind rusty barbed wire and chain link fences, hundreds of men are milling. They are quiet, calm and carefully watched. The air crackles with their energy. It stinks of their sweat. I see a man in a wheelchair. He has no legs. I wonder what he possibly could have done to be locked up in this sweltering hell. Hundreds of eyes watch me. Some are guarded, some are cold, but all are interested. They see my camera. Many turn their faces away, to avoid being captured in the lens.
Guards around the perimeter hassle me. “No cameras,” says one. He has a Mossberg shotgun. I show him my badge authorizing the camera. He grimaces but shuts up and walks off. I walk the fence line trying to shoot through the fences, trying to focus on the eyes of the prisoners. I am frustrated. I climb into a guard tower after making small talk with one of them. He becomes accommodating when I take his picture. There are always some like him. They want to be recognized. They are proud of the freedom they bring to foreign lands. Of the bad guys they stop.
A politician begins speaking. Then some generals. The foreign general goes first. Then the Iraqi general. I don’t know what they are saying but I know it is mostly bullshit. I take a few pictures. That is required. The commanding officer will want at least one photo of these people to make himself look good to them. I can hear him ingratiating himself now, in his deep drawl. He believes Jesus wants him here to help these ignorant people who are too stupid to manage their own country.
The gates of the prison open. The guards tense, ready for any trouble. Men begin to emerge from the pen. They stink. The temperature has risen to near 120 degrees now. I am sweating freely and drinking water non-stop. Running around with my camera. One man is clutching a Quran, his fingers spasmodic, his lips pursed in prayer. The legless man is pushed awkwardly through the double gates by a fellow prisoner. I wonder if they are friends, or if some guard just said, “Hey you, push the legless guy. Now!” I wonder if he had to wave a shotgun around to get taken seriously. I wonder what these guys did to get locked up in a sandy cage where the heat cooks them all day every day. And I remember the pictures. Of the ones my fellow soldiers beat and tortured and made into human pyramids covered in their own excrement. I am sad, but I keep snapping the photos and taking my notes so I can write a story about how great we are now at freeing prisoners who have promised not to rabble rouse anymore.
I see haunted eyes among the faces. Other men have hopeful eyes. A few look desperate to get away from this place. Some are fighting their own urges to run to the waiting buses. I am getting dizzy from the heat. Many of them are wearing towels on their heads but I have to wear a Kevlar helmet. It’s heavy and doesn’t allow any airflow. Eventually, I am finished photographing and taking notes. Four hundred men are distributed onto buses that will take them to different parts of the city where they will meet family members and be reunited. I wonder how many of these men have no family members left. Then my retinue is back inside our armored, air conditioned bus. The recently freed prisoners get to ride in non air-conditioned, unarmored charter buses that look like should have been put in a junkyard 20 years ago. The temperature is nearing 130 degrees. I am spent. I sit in the back of the bus again, and prepare to cross the world’s most violent city back to my bubble of unreality where we can swim in a dictator’s pool and sing karaoke at night while the life flight choppers bring the injured and dying in over our heads from all around.
I am somber. I hear a bomb go off somewhere far away. Gunfire punctuates the moments all around us. These sounds have been my normal for months. I look at Ali, the interpreter. His eyes are sad, haunted. He goes to sleep. I wonder what he will dream about. Maybe his dead uncle, whom he said was very funny. His favorite person in the whole world. Murdered with a gunshot to the back of the head and dropped off in the street in front of his house, a piece of rotting meat.
I drink water.
The bomb goes off unexpectedly, ripping the world to shreds. Dozens die in the 130 degree heat. But today is not my day. And the target is not my convoy. Instead, one of the buses full of prisoners is attacked by a suicide car bomber as it pulls into the depot where waiting family members stand. Men, women and children are blown into pieces. I see the pictures later and wonder if the legless man was on that bus or another one. I’ll never know. I see him in my dreams sometimes. His thick glasses falling down the brim of his brown nose and the scars on the nubs where his legs used to be. I sobbed for him once. And for myself.
Now, years later, all those prisoners are blurring in my mind. They are becoming faceless ghosts who haunt me everywhere I go. I wish I could tell you each of their stories, but I can only tell you mine. Sometimes I wonder if Ali the interpreter made it out alive. He never e-mailed me.
Also published on Medium.