The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

You know it’s time to leave when… (5)

December 28, 2005

It was a publicity stunt, pure and simple—a photo op, a silly event, but it got me out of the office, and well, I’d had a few when the embassy guy called me up the night before to see if I would go and cover it.

So there I am, at 8am on a frigid morning, a bit hungover, waiting in the Green Zone to be picked up to watch the US ambassador and the marine corps hand out gifts to little children as part of the marines’ longstanding “Toys for Tots” campaign.

I hate the word “tots”. In fact, not just the word, hate tots in general.

But I only have a few days left, and I can’t stand to be in the office typing up the daily death tolls anymore (for those counting 24 died on Wednesday, 11 on Tuesday, about 20 on Monday), so why not?

I soon meet with up the mostly Iraqi media that were roped into the event—I don’t think the international media would go near this one—as well as an imposing looking soldier in helmet, camouflage and flak jacket, that turns out to be the correspondent for AFN, Armed Forces Network, a little flashback to my days growing up on army bases.

He was a nice enough fellow once we get talking, from LaCrosse, Wisconsin (started describing in detail, how pretty the coulees and river is out there, apparently the place wasn’t glaciated, which is important for some reason), doing a year out in Iraq, has a 16 year old daughter at home and a six year old son, who he’s afraid doesn’t really understand why dad’s gone all the time.

He was Navy reserve in Wisconsin until suddenly he found himself active duty in Iraq and now he’s about had it with military life. “Next year I’m getting out,” he said.

So we pile into our SUVs, drive around the Green Zone until we come to the appointed kindergarten. Naturally the toy giveaway featuring the ambassador is going to happen on the Green Zone. I later found out that the embassy’s detail of crack private security guards (Blackwater) will take care of toy distribution in schools in the “Red Zone” (the rest of the city).

A few Iraqis actually live in the Green Zone, there’s a cluster of ugly apartment buildings that has a small local kindergarten and nursery school. So we troop over there and set up.

Six fresh faced Marines are there, together with a bunch of five year olds. The Marines put out distribution boxes in the embassy to collect toys, something Marine reserve units do in the States and in embassies around the world.

Weirdly enough, they ended up collecting about a thousand toys to give away. “It was kind of strange, I mean you wouldn’t believe how much stuff we got,” said one marine. “Not just lots of stuffed animals, but remote control cars and other things—why would embassy employees have that?” Why indeed. Makes you wonder how those employees are blowing off steam.

So the ambassador arrives and the teacher starts beating a drum and blowing a whistle and the kids all start marching around and chanting “we learn! we progress! we are the children of Iraq!” I had a weird feeling they were going to start saluting Saddam.

Luckily they didn’t, and the rest goes off with out a hitch. Children line up, stuffed animals are handed out, ambassador leaves and press follows after. Phase one accomplished and press were careful not to take any pictures of the teachers who are afraid of being targeted if seen associating with the US military.

Then it’s off to the nursery school where the three year olds are. Marines line up, cameras line up, ambassador gets in position and they lead in the little ones who… promptly burst into tears when confronted with the full horror of a media event.

One little girl, crying, turns in panic and then runs over and throws her arms around, well, me, who had been kneeling down to take a picture and so was about the only thing remotely her height in a room full of big marines, cameras and ambassadors.

So I dropped my notepad and camera and gathered her into my arms, and then picked up her up and took her out of that big scary room into the hallway, where it was a bit quieter and comforted her and got her to stop crying. All I could think was, thank god for the practice I got with nieces.

The ambassador’s personal assistant (Heather) came running out of the room with a teddy bear to make sure she got her stuffed animal, but the little girl didn’t seem all that interested .

So me and the little one hung out for a while, a bit away from all the hullabaloo until I realized that I should probably be getting a quote from the ambassador about… something, I dunno, the political crisis? Accusations of fraud in the elections? The torture-prone interior ministry? So I eventually gave the little girl back to a nearby teacher, recovered my notepad, and got back to business.

I later got a big smack on the back from my new Wisconsin friend who insisted on calling “daddy”, and the embassy folk thought it was quite funny. For the Iraqis, of course, it was cool. Facility with children is a sign of being a human being for them.

Later, waiting at the checkpoint on the edge on the Green Zone, I started thinking that on the whole event. In front of me were several dozen ex-veterans of Saddam’s army demonstrating for back pay, new jobs or maybe just respect. They were blocking the road and a convoy of white Iraqi police pickups, bristling with ski masks and machine guns were honking their horns trying to get through.

On the way home, there was some traffic problem in front of the hotel, the guy with the gun wanted us to wait, we drove ahead anyway, and he leveled his assault rifle at us before we managed to explain that we were just taking a right into the hotel.

And I just got this really huge lump in my throat about the whole thing.

So the moral of the story is, you know you need a break when you get all choked up over a media event.

DispatchesAbu RayIraqComment