The missing

It’s hot. I’m inside a trailer buried in a sea of identical trailers under on the bottom floor of a monolithic parking garage built for the government of Saddam Hussein. It’s 2006, early in the year. This is Baghdad, Iraq, and I live and work inside the seat of the occupation government, working side by side with the newly birthed, endemically corrupt Iraqi government. Things blow up around here every day, because while some call this the Green Zone, it’s not really green, in color or in any other way. I live inside a bullseye for every jihadist in the region.

We’re warned about grenades and sneak attacks by insurgents constantly. The entry zones are blown up frequently, and this is the biggest target in Iraq. Rockets, mortars and sometimes rains of small arms fire are a fact of life and death.

One might think it would be cool in the shade of the parking garage. That would be as far from the truth as possible, because someone set everything up so that the window unit air conditioners of the trailer park blow into narrow enclosed spaces that radiate heat outward and make the underbelly of this place into an oven. Inside the trailers, it ranges anywhere between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the serviceability of the air conditioner in each. Because we need to constantly move from trailer to trailer to accomplish our work, we’re forced to spend a great deal of time moving about the garage itself. The temperature there often reaches 140 degrees at midday. Stepping out of a trailer is like stepping into hell.

Stepping out of the garage itself means risking death. We’ve just witnessed a colonel get shot in the arm by a bullet falling out of the sky from somewhere nearby. The Iraqis love shooting up in the air, and all of our vehicles have bullet holes in them from this foolishness. We also worry about the constant threat of VBIEDs, which are basically cars and SUVs which have been turned into bombs. They come around often, and sometimes they blow up and shake everything in the area. We’re only a few meters from the “Red Zone” where six million or so angry Iraqis live under curfew, suffering constantly from a budding civil war that we unleashed with short sighted governance policies.

I try to concentrate on my work as a public affairs specialist. The phone rings. Not unusual. This time though, the voice on the other end is an Iraqi with a very cultured British accent. That IS unusual. Most of my calls are from journalists seeking information about the government’s positions on the progress (or lack of progress) of this war, or perhaps dead coalition soldiers.

“How can I help you sir?” I ask. “My son is missing.” He’s clearly extremely upset. I can hear the panic and desperation. “They took him away in the middle of the night. The Americans I mean.” He means my brothers in arms, the people who wear the same uniform that I do. “My son is not an insurgent. He has done nothing wrong. Can you help me find him?” I want to help. I believe him, although perhaps I shouldn’t.

All I know is that if my son were missing, I’d want him back. I don’t have a son, but I understand family.

“What’s his name sir?” I take down the information and promise to call him back as quickly as possible. A few hours later, I’m almost as frustrated as the desperate father. No one has any idea how to find missing people in Iraq. I have spoken to my chain of command. I’ve made numerous phone calls to the numbers I was given. “He’s not on our list.” That’s what I get from the voices on the other end. “We don’t have him” or “No information about that individual” or “Can you spell his name again? Nope. Nobody by that name.” I hit a wall. Resigned, I call the father back and apologize profusely. He is polite but I can tell his heart is dying a little. His son is now among the hundreds of human beings who go missing each month in this city.

Later in the year, the numbers of missing mount and the monthly tolls of dead and injured rise into the thousands. I don’t know how many disappeared in the middle of the night never to be seen again. I never helped locate any of them, although I would have liked to. I wonder what happened to that father and his missing son, and often, I dream that I am picking up the phone and wishing I could tell him where to come pick his boy up. I hope both of them are well, happy and together, but those are extremely long odds.

I often wonder what they dream about, if either of them is still alive. Perhaps, like me, they dream of  a sense of safety and security that never ever comes back once you’ve been to war. To the man whose boy was taken, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you find your missing son. When I dream about your phone call, I always try harder than I actually did to help you find him. I hope you know your phone call changed my life forever. The missing and the lost are never just anonymous posters to me anymore. They haunt my every hour.

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