Saturday, April 09, 2005

Female Soldier Reporter's Iraq Blog from the Army Times

Army Times - News - More News
This one blog entry by Gina I am posting here in it's entirety so you can read the whole entry, but there are others on the site linked here and I urge you to read them.

""Military Times staff writer Gina Cavallaro and photographer Rick Kozak are in Iraq, covering U.S. military operations. Gina is filing occasional updates to this Web log.

Iraqi kids swarm when U.S. soldiers hit the streets
Baghdad —March 5

There seem to have been many photos early in Operation Iraqi Freedom of soldiers surrounded by Iraqi children, handing out candy to them, shaking their hands or patting them on the head.

Lately there seem to be fewer, perhaps because the media covering the ongoing events in Iraq can only stray so far from the safe areas without fear of being abducted. Of course, it hasn’t been the safest environment for the soldiers, either.

With all the images of spectacular car bombs, transfer of authority ceremonies and political activity, there isn’t as much time or space for the smaller touches. In fact, I can’t even count how many times I’ve gotten an earful from soldiers of all ranks about the negative coverage of events in Iraq.

The past couple of days I went on dismounted patrols with the infantrymen and tankers of 1-64 Armor in the 3rd Infantry Division, who are back in Baghdad after 18 months at home.

Out on the streets in these impoverished areas east of the Tigris River, they are like Pied Pipers, leading a trail of dozens of children behind them within minutes of arriving in a neighborhood.

I don’t think it’s because they are special soldiers, even though their mothers would say they are. I think it’s just because they are soldiers. Period. The children go absolutely bananas over them and get so close to them in such large numbers that it almost gets scary.

It’s a mixed blessing for the soldiers. While they know the presence of the kids in such large numbers can lower the threat level, and the kids sometimes tell them where the bombs are planted, the little ones are relentlessly curious, exceedingly friendly and have no clue about personal space. It can try anyone’s patience.

On one such patrol, we went into a neighborhood the soldiers call “Sh-t City,” because it is literally submerged, covered like a lake, in raw sewer water. It smells so bad there that you want to gag. Yet, here are all these children running around in bare feet after the Humvees as if they were ice cream trucks. I mean, killing themselves to catch up.

They shout “Mistah! Mistah! Mistah!” over and over again, running, smiling, waving and giving the thumbs up. The throng of children is predominantly male, because the girls mostly hang back near the gates of their homes with their mothers, who step halfway out to watch the spectacle.

These bad-ass soldiers finally stop their vehicles and dismount, pulling security on the street while their commander and his entourage go into a medical clinic to talk with the doctor there.

There they stand, tall, rifles in hand, shielded by their protective gear and dark sunglasses, scanning for danger, eyeing the men in the crowd but melting into Uncle Soldier as soon as the first kid approaches.

There must have been a hundred pre-teen children there. And, they have all these phrases they’ve learned in English, like “What’s your name?” or “Give me watch,” which they say while pointing to a soldier’s Ironman Timex. They want to know if the soldiers are married, do they have babies and are they American.

They want things, always, and they look up at the soldiers and repeat the names of what they want until they become like a swarm of flies that keep landing on your nerves. Chicken. Chocolate. Pen. Glasses. Money. Water. Camera. Chicken. Chocolate. Pen. Glasses. Money. Water. Camera.

They stand inches from the soldiers, surrounding them, staring at them and smiling, checking out their warrior gear. The soldiers try to answer them as best they can, but uttering a quick phrase in Arabic only excites the kids more. The kids comment among themselves, punch each other and laugh. And they don’t get bored. They stay and hang out, hoping to get something. They’ll even take a mark on a hand from a soldier’s pen.

When the soldier can’t take it anymore he waves his hand toward them and commands “Ishta! Ishta!” which means go away or get back. It’s like a magic wand and the kids move back in a wave. But it’s like pushing sand uphill. They just rush right back and the whole routine begins again, except now they’re laughing because it has become a game.

Everybody was standing on the block in front of the medical clinic, a piece of the street that was relatively dry, but we were surrounded by treacherous pitfalls. There was sewer water in a deep trench on one side, and a shallow lake of it on the other. On the next block was a man with a back hoe who was scooping out the foulest-smelling piles of jet black muck you could ever imagine, so everyone was concentrated on this one island of muddy asphalt when the inevitable happened. A kid went into the trench and all the other kids laughed uncontrollably.

“Oh, man,” the soldiers within my earshot muttered, and we watched the boy, who took it pretty well, try to shake off the water and the embarrassment. I guess someone must go into the trench every day. It seems unavoidable.

There wasn’t enough candy in the world to hand out to this crowd, so the soldiers left without giving them any, but the kids kept smiling and many ran after the Humvees through the rest of the neighborhood to another area that was worse.

Again, they crowded around, oblivious to the squalor around them, happy to have the U.S. troops in their neighborhood, standing too close, vying for attention.

The kids eventually do get stuff, but they don’t get it on these visits because there would be total mayhem if there weren’t enough for everyone. They will rip one another to shreds over a pen. I’ve seen it happen. So, the soldiers occasionally go out on missions where they’ll hand out things like toys or shoes.

The next day, we were in a much nicer neighborhood. Clean, dry, neat streets and tankers putting boots on the ground so they could talk to people and see how things were going. Again, the kids came out of everywhere, slowly at first, but in a short while there were dozens and they were giddy with excitement, jockeying for position to get closer to the soldiers.


But they come back. They’re hard to resist and the soldiers really do like them. One boy showed them his English study book and they read a few words together. They moved in too close and a few got slapped by other kids for reasons that are unclear to me. It was a different crowd on a different day, but it was the same crowd and always will be.

Chicken. Chocolate. Pen. Glasses. Money. Water. Camera. Chicken. Chocolate. Pen. Glasses. Money. Water. Camera.