Careful what you wish for (8)

March 28, 2006

I came back from my latest break in Cairo and then spent an entire week cooped inside the Baghdad hotel where the office is.

Outside Iraqis wondered whether full blown civil war had broken out as the tide of tortured corpses mounts, while inside I was wondering why I always had to ask for the damn Nescafe at the breakfast buffet.

Just as I was going completely stir crazy, I had to get out of there. And then I had one of those careful-what-you-wish-for moments, or in more apocalyptic terms, I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one.


It was mid-afternoon when the phone call came, “Paul Schemm? This is Lieutenant Colonel Withington of the 4th infantry Division, sorry for the short notice, but would you be interested in an embed, starting this afternoon?” How does he know my name? Sure, I said, what’s it all about. “Can’t tell you that, just have to find out when you get here.”

So I grabbed my helmet and flak jacket, stuffed my lap top and a portal satellite receiver into a backpack with a change of clothes and was off. Turns out it was an mission with a brigade I’d been embedded with before, in a mud-filled odyssey back in January.

This time around, happily, the weather was clear and warm and all seemed good until I found out that the operation would begin at 1am (several hours past my bed time these days) and continue for 24 hours. A bit of a tall order after a full day’s work.

Operation Northern Lights would supplement Operation Scales of Justice (where DO they get these names?) which was taking place in Baghdad. Our mission would involve troops being helicoptered in to lay down a cordon while our unit would search some 50 houses in a village well west of the capital believed to contain “high value targets”, otherwise known as bad guys.

So at 1am I piled into a humvee with what were, as far as I could tell, a bunch of heavily armed teenagers (“dude, you suck—no man YOU suck—you are so gay”) and we roared off into the night to go conquer a village.

The job of our humvee, which probably had something to do with the presence of what everyone called “the reporter” was to just sit there and watch some house while the other units began searching the area. I frankly couldn’t see a thing and was feeling pretty cold, but everyone in the truck had their “nods” on, or night vision goggles and apparently it was all clear as day for them.

And so we sat for the next few hours while I drifted in and out of sleep, having given up on trying to take notes of the conversations in the dark.

Earlier, while at “Firebase Courage” before we deployed on the mission, I sat in the makeshift chow tent, drinking coffee and listening to the platoon lieutenants shoot the shit before the mission, telling stories about parachuting school.

The thing is, they are really nice guys and some of them were quite funny and they were easy to get a long with.

I laughed at their jokes, told them I had a dad in the army and made sure not to tell them I was with the French news agency. After a few of these embeds, I’ve figured out that everyone in the US military hates the French.

At 4am I was shaken from my semi-slumber in the humvee and told I could join the mission in progress and see what was going on in the village. The soldiers were now unrecognizeable in flak jackets, helmets and weapons as I walked into a house where detainees from the whole area were being kept.

In one room, with a pile of flip flops outside, were about two dozen women and children pearing out wide-eyed from the doorway at the midnight invaders. The men were kept upstairs, hands cuffed behind them. They were led, bleary eyed, one by one in to a room and questioned by the THTs, tactical human teams.

As the sky lightened more and more men were being brought in from the sweeps and there was no room to put them all, so everyone was marched to a nearby school where they sat in desultory rows, hands cuffed behind them along the walls.

And still they came, until there were 148 men, pretty much the whole male population of the village, sitting there waiting to be questioned.

It was funny to think that the last time this many adults were in this school yard was probably three months ago when they went to vote here in parliamentary elections. Except this time their fingers weren’t going to be stained purple. After they were questioned, the soldiers took a permanent marker and put an ‘X’ on the back of their neck.

The hardest part was looking them in the eyes. As someone dressed differently, I was assumed to be an interpreter or at least something that wasn’t a soldier that they could appeal to. I just hid my face and shuffled off somewhere else. “We’re hungry, we have to pee, my cuffs are too tight.”

It was strange to think that these soldiers, that were so easy to get along with, were the same ones bullying around a whole village.

It wasn’t exactly 2003, however. No one got a bag over their heads, and there were no human pyramids of naked men. The cuffs were eventually cut off and replaced in front (in the 12 hours they were detained, they were always cuffed). And everyone received a special halal MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) for lunch and then dinner.

The army learns.

The interrogators were not happy. “Who’s idea was it to arrest an entire village?” one asked as they went through the tedious process of talking to each man—though in some cases they were mere boys who looked to be 14.

In the beginning there was a real effort to find something out, earn their trust and then slowly ease over to the subject of suspicious activities in the area. By the end it was blunt, “name, tribe, sect, know about any terrorists? Nope? Okay you can go.”

They came in all shapes in sizes, some innocent, some incredibly dodgy, some graying old men, more than few who seemed a tad simple. They were mostly Sunni peasants in the farmlands outside the city and all of them said they never talked to their neighbors, just went to work each day, and had no idea about terrorists.

One slight fine featured young man, who said he was 20 years old but married with two children, started in this vein before finally leveling with them—of course our village is dangerous, everywhere here is dangerous. My uncle and I joined the police force, then they kidnapped my uncle and murdered him and threatened to do the same to me. So I quit. I feel like everyone around here is suspicious of me because I joined the police. They don’t understand that some of us are just trying to make a living.

While the interrogations went on, other units were combing the fields in the area looking for weapons caches, this ubiquitous goal of the army. Saddam, it seems, sowed the fertile fields of Iraq with weapons because everywhere the US army is looking for these caches, filled with assault rifles, mortar rounds, machine guns and plenty of ammunition.

The problem is they trumpet the success of each of these finds as though this is really going to end the insurgency. It smacks of the Vietnam bodycounts. Winning the war through numbers.

And so the day wore on. At this point every had been up for 30+ hours and it was hot and it was annoying and none of this was really going anywhere, but the soldiers, to their credit, held it together.

At some point I curled up on the concrete in my helmet and flak jacket and grabbed an hour’s sleep.

By evening the questioning was finished, the searches through the fields were finished and we were ready to go. But the helicopters weren’t ready. The flight window was wasn’t for another three hours because helicopter pilots must receive 8 hours uninterrupted sleep between each flight—a consideration not extended to the infantry.

And so we sat there and stared at each other as it got darker and colder—there was naturally no electricity in the school. Most of Iraq only has a few hours of electricity. We couldn’t let the detainees go, not while we were stuck here. And they wanted their guns back, the 42 AK-47s we’d confiscated from them, which they were legally entitled to keep.

Every Iraqi family is entitled to the house Kalashnikov and one clip but if we gave them all back, we would be outnumbered and outgunned. So we locked the guns in the principal’s office and told them they could pick them up tomorrow, preferably after school.

One of the lieutenants made a speech to all the detainees before we left. He apologized for the inconvenience but told them that if they wanted this area to be secure, if they wanted the US soldiers to go home, they would have to start saying who the bad guys were.

In other words, start informing on each other. The kind of thing tightly knit farming communities like to do.

And eventually it was time to leave and we cut their cuffs and peeled out of there in a cloud of dust and what seemed like several hours later, made it back to base. It was 2:30am before I went to sleep after being awake for about 42 hours.

What was the result of the mission? Two “high level” detainees, a few other suspicious characters arrested, and one guy offered to be an informant. I talked to colonel who passed by in the afternoon to inspect proceedings at the school and he explained to me that with all the questionings they were building a “Michelin guide” to the area, learning all the names and relations between people.

He also mentioned in an offhand manner that three Western hostages had been rescued that morning. After he left I called the news into the office, turns out it hadn’t been announced and AFP, thanks to me, was the first to break the story.

So that was the big news of the day, Western hostages rescued and no one probably read the little story I wrote that day about a whole village that was a hostage for a day.