The end of week #3 for me here in the Gulf, and the end of the story for a lot of the CNN folks. Half a dozen of the long-timers are on their way home tomorrow morning, and things will be changing here because of it. My new-found friends of the past ten days are leaving, and a few newcomers have arrived to fill a gap or two. With my shooter Jane among the ones leaving, it means that my assignment is now up in the air. I'll be strictly editing for the next day or two and then Mike Haan will trade places and I'll be in the field with a different cameraman.
So for our farewell performance, Jane and I teamed up with Dick Blystone for a return to Iraq and Checkpoint Charlie.1 It was a reprise of our visit on Thursday, and we were warmly greeted by the American soldiers we had met on the last trip. We went in hope that the long-awaited Kuwaiti hostages would finally be released, but this did not materialize. Instead, we saw the usual assortment of would-be deserters and defectors trying to get out of Iraq. It became rather pathetic, listening to their pleas--some in attempted English, the rest in Arabic but perfectly understandable just the same--to take them to America, send them to prison, put them anywhere as long as they don't have to stay behind and be killed. But the answer was always the same: go back to Iraq. It was like watching someone try to shoo away some poor stray dog. So they would slink off into the no man's land between the American and Iraqi guards, to hide out and wait for darkness, when they would try for better luck going one way or the other.
I was also struck by another sad realization--I had begun looking on these men with covetous eyes, checking them mentally for possible trophies and souvenirs: a relatively new beret with eagle pin, an interesting patch or insignia, any bit of military paraphernalia they might be willing to trade for a pack of cigarettes or a few granola bars. I never got a chance to make any offers, since they were carefully guarded until they were sent away. But I embarrassed myself that I would even want to take anything from these poor, miserable men who clearly had nothing else left to give anyone.
On the way home we slowed to pass through the crowd of beggars in Safwan, and Fawzi gave them our leftover pita bread. I atoned with a pack of Kools, handed to an old man who didn't appear to like menthols. I wondered about all these desperate people and how they would survive. Beggary is just one step away from thievery, and thence to banditry. The means for armed activity is already scattered across that desert; the only deterrent right now is a better-armed American occupation force. The soldiers told us of their fear that they may soon be fighting again in Iraq; I fear it won't be against the Iraqi army.
|At the end of the war there was a rush among westerners to seek out Iraqi 25-dinar notes.
We were so sure that Saddam's days were numbered, and his picture on Iraqi currency would soon become a collector's item. When I asked Fawzi to find me one, he snorted in contempt. Then he came through. Still, he insisted on autographing the bill for me. Back then I was disappointed, but now I'm glad he did it.
1Editor's note, 2011: The checkpoint on the Iraqi border was manned by Charlie Company. It seems every battalion has to have a Charlie Company, and every disputed barricade has to have a Checkpoint Charlie.