In Iraq: "The Remains of War"
published in: DIE ZEIT Magazine, January 7th 2010
The first casualty, when war comes, is certainty. No day, no hour can be predicted; all experiences from previous wars prove questionable; what was once considered certain shatters, and the fragments can only be pieced together with doubt.
The car we expected to pick us up at the border checkpoint between the Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq and the Iraq once dominated by the Kurds is not just a car; rather it's a pick-up truck. And the people who were supposed to escort us to Kirkuk are not uniformed officers, but heavily armed members of an anti-terrorist police unit headed by Major-Sakran Sroot. Six men are sitting on the platform in bullet-proof vests; one of them is propped behind a machine gun; the others are carrying Kalashnikovs over their shoulders and pistols in their belts.
It hardly makes sense to ponder whether these security measures are actually necessary, whether they reduce the anxiety or increase it; we can't tell, we just have to trust. Besides, the security chief of Kirkuk had sent us the car as a gesture of courtesy, so we sit in the back seat, rigid in the massive vests we've donned., "The one I love/ has told me/ he needs me", Brecht said, "that's why I watch where I'm going/ and fear any drop of rain/ might kill me." Every so often I hear myself drumming my shielded belly to take in the soothing sound of the hard ceramic plates inside the vest. My feet are trapped because for some reason we didn't want to wear the helmets inside the car; they cramp the space behind the front seat. Only my knees keep me in balance for what comes next: the car races down the road; Nashwan, the Arabic driver who had to escape from Baghdad because he was working for the Americans cuts off the civilian vehicles, weaving past the left and right of any car that gets in his way; a small gesture of the hand from Major Sroot is enough to indicate which direction the next insane maneuver will take us, they speed towards or away from something, it's impossible to tell which. Just don't slow the pace, not even in the middle of city traffic. The car advances through the crowd like an icebreaker―cars, donkey carts, drawn carts, pedestrians ―he turns on the siren. Sroot keeps grabbing the microphone and shouting orders through the loudspeakers; those who don't jump out of the way are putting their life at risk.
Our trilingual Kurdish translator Ali Vahal grew up in America. He staggers between the photographer Sebastian Bolesch and me, and whispers: "This is what they call 'martial law'...." and you can tell he thinks it's not a very good import from the United States. Sebastian doesn't speak anymore, even if it would be a perfect moment for one of his dry classics ("relaxation looks different"). We arrive at the police headquarters in Kirkuk, which is secured with concrete blocks at the entrance like a fortress. Barely have we reached our destination when it's time to leave for the opening of a new police station. Americans, Sunni sheikhs from the "Awakening Councils" (who support the American troops), Kurds, everybody is supposed to celebrate the day together. Our unit accompanies the security chief's convoy, and so we join a column of 15 land cruisers headed for the police station.
The first shot is fired after 5 minutes. The bullet whizzes past Sebastian's window. Everybody in the car freezes for a moment. Sroot grabs the radio and asks his men in the back where the shot came from, the soldier at the machine gun on the car ahead smiles at us and waves his gloved hand. We hear an announcement over the crackling radio: he just wanted to test the weapon. Uh huh.
The sandy landscapes race past the window. Every so often there's a desolate donkey, brown or gray, the burnt-out remnants of suicide bomber cars with the same colors, a non-descript wasteland, industrialized, but deserted, empty areas, the eye searches ceaselessly for a place, for color, for life. Everything speeds blurrily past until suddenly the left lane is cordoned off. A traffic jam has formed behind it; there are roadblocks; hectic activity circulates around a calm center that nobody dares approach; a rusty barrel is lying on the asphalt, an "Iranian bomb", says Sroot. Why did they want to hit the left side of the road? "There's no logic," says Sroot, "sometimes they kill blindly, like animals." Animals don't kill blindly, I think to myself, but what do I know about killing? The car races on, just don't stop, just don't stand next to an object even for a second, next to a vehicle, and then I, too, start thinking every stop could mean death.
Is this the end of critical distance? Is that what it's like, this feeling of being "embedded" that I never wanted to experience? Does it happen so quickly that aggressiveness doesn't seem aggressive anymore, but suddenly seems necessary, just because we are sitting in the car with aggressive people, and because their aggressiveness might possibly protect us?
Again and again, we've been drawn to this region. Sebastian Bolesch and I spent several weeks there during the war in spring 2003, when the Kurdish Peshmerga fought together with the American Special Forces on the second front. We experienced the euphoria as the first cities fell, first Baghdad, then Kirkuk, then Mosul, when people waved not only the Kurdish flag, but also the Iraqi one; we experienced the hope of the refugees who had been displaced from the region around Kirkuk as a result of Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" campaign, and who dreamed of returning to their city.
We returned to Kirkuk with thousands of Kurds after the Iraqi troops had surrendered. We witnessed firsthand the first looting by marauding gangs, and observed how the Americans did nothing to intervene; we experienced how the Kurdish Peshmerga were ordered by the Americans to leave the city again, even though they would probably have been better able to defend it than everybody else who came after them. We had seen the barefoot soldiers ambling away from the Iraqi army, the losers, and we had thought the war was over.
It is now six years later, and we want to interview Brigadier General Mohammed Sarhad, the Kurdish head of security of Kirkuk city. He said he would like to speak with us, but we could not just travel to Kirkuk alone;it was too dangerous. Kirkuk has not become Kurdish; it has remained multiethnic. Many of Saddam's displaced Kurds still live in ramshackle camps and are waiting for the status of the disputed city to become clear, as only then will they be able to return. Kirkuk does not belong to the province of Kurdistan; rather it is run by the central government in Baghdad. Not the state, but the life-worlds in post-Saddam Iraq are divided: there is a thriving boom in the Kurdish provinces, and international companies are investing in the prosperous region. Despite all notions to the contrary, collaboration abounds, particularly between the Kurds and Turkey. This year 250,000 barrels of oil from Kurdish oil fields were delivered. But an easing of tension or reconstruction south of the Kurdish provinces is out of the question.
On the way back from the opening ceremony, Sroot notices a dark BMW in the rear view mirror. He orders the driver over the loudspeakers to stay further back. Nothing happens; the BMW drives up to us without reducing its speed; Sroot repeats the order again in Arabic. Again no change, so now the men in the truck bed try to signal for him to stay away from the convoy formation. It grows quiet, and everybody watches to see if the BMW reacts. Nothing. I start imagining how I'd feel if the car appeared next to my window. Sroot hollers at the men on the truck bed to make the car slow down, and then suddenly Sroot draws his Glock pistol and opens the passenger door at full speed; he rests his back against the open door opposite the direction of travel, leans way out, and aims at the BMW.
A nightmare. What if the driver behind us is shot dead now? Just like that. Because he does not keep enough distance. Because we did not prevent it from happening. I am wasting time thinking, "poor in deeds and rich in thoughts", as Hölderlin said; while Sebastian is at least raising his camera to shoot and Sroot is hanging out the car door with his Glock in the headwind. We stare at the BMW it lurches in terror and then falls back, Sroot pulls his upper body back into the car, silent and calm, and puts his weapon back.
Nobody was killed.
Maybe Sroot had never planned to do it, he seems so prudent. But I certainly would not have been able to prevent it. Maybe if the car had really driven up to my window, I would not even have wanted to prevent it.
Anyone who imagines they can just be an observer on these trips merely suppresses the opportunity these areas offer: to become complicit in the death of a human being.
In Latin there are two words for witness. "Testis" signifies a court witness, a non-involved third party who has watched an event from a distance and is able to give a report. We derive our modern notion of the task of the journalist from this term: our professional and ethical expectations for ourselves are fueled by this understanding of our role. We are taught that the distanced perspective of the observer is needed in order to give an objective description of reality, detached and from the sidelines; these are the conditions for good reporting. If you are involved and lacking distance, you will be suspected of being biased and writing propaganda.
For this reason we remove the subject from the text, to make ourselves invisible, as though there was no observer, only reality as it shines through the text. For this reason we remove the conditions of our own journey―the translators who accompany us, and who make their world accessible through language, and who we trust to accurately translate our words of tenderness or rage just as we have expressed them―and the drivers who chauffeur us day in, day out, and who stay awake, even at night after we've already crashed exhausted. We remove our disgust at the filthy, stinking squat toilets, the personal weaknesses; we remove the anger over the arbitrariness at the checkpoints; we remove the friendships that arise on all sides through gallons of sugared tea that is needed to establish enough trust for the real questions to be asked; we remove how sick we get at times, or injured; and most importantly, we remove the shame that sets in once we've returned, the shame of not having helped somebody when maybe we could have, of having left somebody behind who has nobody; finally the shame of having left, and returned to life here as if nothing had happened.
All this does not show up because as a witness in the sense of "testis" we are supposed to be a detached and distanced observer.
But in a war like the one in Iraq, which we have witnessed in the city of Kirkuk day in and day out, a war that has been declared officially over; a war that has outlived itself, but is being revived and fomented; in a war that knows no front anymore, only explosions, no armies; in such a war the sidelines no longer exist. This is different than in the battles of the Iraq war in 2003, between American soldiers and the Kurdish Peshmerga on one side, and the Iraqi army on the other; then there was a front line with observation posts, with embattled and non-embattled districts. In today's Iraq, which is plagued by terrorism, no area is free of threat; no moment exists when a bomb couldn't explode and tear everything to pieces within a 200 meter radius; no regions are exempt from violence.I In such a war, nobody can be detached, because the perpetrators seek their victims arbitrarily, because this kind of terror knows no differences, neither ethnic nor religious, because they potentially should hit everyone and everything anything: men or women, Turkmen or Shiites, Kurds or Sunni, Assyrians or Yezids - or just us.
How distanced can one be there? If a region doesn't allow anybody to be detached, one's intuition and certainty constantly are undermined. How truthful then is a description that claims to be neutral and pretends that those dissonances don't exist?
If this is one of the effects of war, that it has the power to sabotage one's sense of judgment, then how is it possible to adequately paint an accurate picture of war?
Maybe by describing the uncertainty and confusion, along with the anger and despondency. Maybe a transparent, reflective subjectivity would ultimately be a more objective representation of the vexing reality of war.
Our patrol is an ethnically ragtag bunch: Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs. During the lunch break they walk with us over the ruins of Kirkuk's cordoned-off Citadel. Ruined Christian churches with crumbling mosques create a grandiose backdrop; in the background are meter-high flames of gas that are caused by oil production, and they flare up here a surreal scene. We are taking a walk in the middle of Iraq's supposedly hostile ethnic groups, but they form a unit, and they are no exception: of the 3700 police officers in the district of Kirkuk, 47 percent are Arabs, 26 percent Kurds, 26 percent Turkmen, and 1 percent Christian Iraqis. And they crack jokes about any minority who tries to claim the city for its own, about the contradictions of the Americans (first they go to war because Saddam Hussein has committed such crimes against the Kurds, and then they don't let them back into Kirkuk, just because the oil fields are located around Kirkuk), and about the international perception of Iraq as a splintered country. They talk as if religious or ethnic differences only existed in the minds of the governments in Tehran, Damascus, Ankara and Washington, but not as if they had these differences themselves. The Iraqis in Kirkuk talk as if they knew that equality does not require uniformity.
Maybe they had known this all along. Maybe they have just learned it through this terror that is trying to make them equally worthless.
"Kirkuk is a little Iraq," says Captain Saleh Nooa of the bomb-defusing unit (Explosives Ordinance Disposal, called EOD) in Kirkuk., He sits behind his desk in a tiny office. A cot with a thin blanket is squeezed inside, and he alternately watches the TV (fittingly, "Die Hard - Part 4" is playing), and the plastic bags in front of him that contain switching units and cables from the recent bomb finding. 72 explosives experts work for Nooa in three shifts around the clock. "This is a war of explosions, since there are no more armies," says Nooa. "Kirkuk is the target for all those who want to destabilize Iraq because Kirkuk unifies all minorities." If what Nooa says is true, then ethnic diversity is not the reason for the violence in Iraq; rather the violence is making ethnic diversity its target. That is contrary to what so often has been claimed: that Iraq would fall apart because of its ethnic diversity. That is just what terrorists want to make us believe. "There are various networks of al Qaeda, the former Baath Party extremists, and fighters from Syria and Yemen who have infiltrated the country and want to prevent a democratic Iraq."
International observers discuss the withdrawal of the Americans, they debate about the reconstruction of Iraq, the so-called nation-building, the stability of the democratic state, they focus on Afghanistan - as if the war in Iraq was over. But people are dying in Iraq as much as ever. In Iraq terror rages on, every day. Ethnic diversity doesn't destroy this country, rather those whose killing is directed against diversity, whether they come from Iraq or the neighboring countries; whether they have lost something in this war or believe they have something to gain; whether they are against the American presence in Iraq or are against their own multiethnic government. It is not over yet. Maybe less American soldiers are dying, but Iraqi civilians, Kurds and Sunnis, Turkmen and Shiites are dying.
Half an hour after we had left the EOD unit, Noaa calls. "There is an alarm at a busy intersection – do you want to come with us?"
The object could be a light gas can or a tied up package; actually, it could be anything, from this distance, even with binoculars, nothing is visible. The 400 meter radius Nooa has evacuated in the surrounding access roads shows just how devastating the impact of a bomb this size could be.. Only one vehicle remains within this zone – we are sitting in it. It is a special armored vehicle for such missions; it crunches when the heavy car slowly moves. Nooa wants to position it next to the object. He pulls out his gun and only now is it becoming clear what he intends to do: Nooa wants to blow up the bomb with a targeted long range shot. Brilliant. "Defusing": I had imagined it differently.
Nooa opens the passenger door, raises his gun at a 90◦ angle, and as he aims, my eye wanders along the dashboard of the car. I see red warning signs everywhere; "Hearing Protection Required," well, great, my eyes are bad anyway, but my ears... Sebastian doesn't have a free hand to cover his ears, but I figure he doesn't need his ears as much as I do. Nooa fires…nothing, he raises his gun again and waits, I can imagine the sound of the blast wave in the silence, and wonder how they do it, this calculated ignorance, how they can stand it, this moment right before it explodes, not even that can be predicted, this expectation of an explosion, he shoots ....nothing the shell casings gather at the door, he aims, his head bent over his gun, calm, and pulls the trigger ... nothing, again, Nooa shoots the entire magazine without any noise carrying over to here, should I give it a try? I swallow the thought. Sroot looks through the binoculars and mutters something to Nooa, Vahal translates it quietly, he hit the mark, Nooa turns around while reloading, "I've shot an object 18 times, always hit it, but nothing happened. And then by the 19th shot the bomb exploded."
Nooa fires two entire magazines at the object, then he gives up. He turns to the car, opens the back door and sits in front of the control panel of "Remotec Andros II", a robot that rolls slowly out of the car on two tracks and now moves over the asphalt. For several minutes we follow it on the tiny black and white screen in the control console, the camera captures the robot's perspective, "does he have a name?" I have Vahal ask him, "Brother Mohammad, somehow reassuring, but barely does the thing have a name, I start wondering what will happen to "Brother Mohammed" when the bomb goes off, "then we'll need a new one" ... The robot is rolling towards the package and Nooa watches the images that he is sending him, then he operates the robot arm and with infinite patience he begins to turn the package, lifts it, he is looking for a fuse on the outside, which only now is clearly visible, he picks it up and shakes it, he puts it down, minute by minute goes by in which Nooa scans it inch by inch, little by little, he unwraps the package, a box emerges, it seems improbable that a bomb is inside, but as a category probability doesn't suffice.
It takes about an hour until the package is opened and deemed harmless, an hour, that offers a lesson in humility and conveys a sense that it's not only the attacks that cause victims , but all the foiled attacks, all the roadblocks that paralyze normal life, the alarms that trigger fear; that awaken memories of mutilated bodies; that make normal objects suddenly seem dangerous; that undermine all trust in the familiar environment ... that is what terror means.
Testimony, by the way, also has another sense, the Latin "superstes" also signifies a witness, a person who has lived through an event, who has had an experience which s/he describes, which has affected him or her and which s/he has survived ("superstites").
This witness is attributed no independent authority - but s/he can describe an event accurately as s/he experienced it. This is not detached, but it also doesn't pretend to be distanced, to write something from a distanced and certain pristine reality, not least because this pristine reality does not exist in such areas.
That's why we journalists usually don't go there; because it's too dangerous for us, or too difficult, and so we readers (and journalists at first are the readers of other journalist's texts) find out nothing about it. These landscapes turn into blind spots on our political maps, we know violence rules the land, that's enough for us, but the impact it has on the people who live there, that we don't know as readers or spectators, we act as if it's enough to know how many were killed in the last bomb attack in Bagdad, but what it means, how the people work who try to defuse the situation, at most we see it in the movies and think it's fiction, if only so we can bear it.
When the boy enters the room, Vahal and I freeze. We had requested a visit in prison because we had noticed the long lines of women at the police headquarters who wanted to visit the prisoners. We had asked whether it would be possible to speak with a terror suspect sitting here in custody without the guards. The prison director is more concerned about whether the terrorist would attack me, than if the prisoner might complain of abuse. We agree on guards standing outside the door and I could scream for help in an emergency. The director tells us we may not take photographs that offend human rights.
Night after night I see this scene since then: how Samir Afif Ammar is led into the room, and how he does not even dare to look at us; how he can barely walk, dragging his feet feebly forward, wearily, he is 19, as tall as I am, 1, 75m, and weighs at most 55kg, his head is shaved, on the right side there is a huge scar in the shape of a crescent under the black stubble, he is wearing brown pants and a brown T-shirt; when the officer tells him to sit in the chair, Samir obeys, even though you can see he is barely able to sit. When we are alone, Vahal suggests Samir sit down on the cot in the room with the blanket on top, it offers a softer surface for someone who was probably tortured, who had to sit naked on a bottle until it broke.
And then Samir begins to tell his story, a story I cannot verify and which sounds so unlikely that anybody who would hear it and not see this boy would assume it was a lie. Samir says he was from Syria, from a small village near the Iraqi border, he graduated from school and took a computer course when one day, nine months ago, a man named "Abu Omar" started talking to him in a cafe: he could give him work in the oilfields in Iraq, he would get a good salary. Abu Omar smuggled Samir across the border, Samir spent just two weeks in Iraq. "And then I can't remember the rest," says Samir, "the next thing I know is that I was arrested with an explosive belt around my waist, and that police officers were beating me." This is supposed to be the story? He simply can't remember? He sees our disbelief. Samir continues: "I can't tell you anything else, that's all I can remember and I've said that during all the interrogations." When Samir speaks, he only moves his left hand, the other lies limply on his other leg, " I can't control my right side," Samir explains, he was in the hospital for ten days, he strokes his left hand over the scar on the right side; once he was released from the hospital, the interrogations began, there were men in civilian clothes, maybe Arabs, maybe Kurds, who spoke Arabic, says Samir, he always looks straight ahead, only when Vahal speaks to him, does he turn his head, "Why would I do that? I reject suicide bombings. If people want to kill themselves, let them. But don't kill others in the process."
He speaks softly, as though he has to save strength, never complaining, never insistently, as if he had lost faith that anyone would listen, or even believe what he has to say. "They have beaten me," says Samir, "again and again with sticks, cables, they tortured me with electric shocks," he raises the leg of his trousers with his left hand and shows the scars on his skin, I ask him if I may approach him, he winces, perhaps for fear I might hurt him, perhaps out of terror that somebody might be interested in him. Had the Americans interrogated him? "Yes," says Samir, "but they never touched me." Does the abuse continue? No, they would show him pictures and he had to say if he knew people in them. Was it the police here in the headquarters? No, the interrogation took place at a different location by other men in civilian clothes. It is these differentiations, this caution not to make false accusations that undermine my doubts about his story.
Would a committed terrorist, an imprisoned suicide bomber, a man who had been arrested in flagranti, wearing an explosives belt around his waist; a man who has nothing left to lose, because he has already lost everything, worry about accuracy? What did the device that gave him electric shocks look like? Samir makes the shape of a small box with his left hand, "It was black," says Samir, "and the torturers called the device 'the American'."
I look at this pale boy and wonder what remained of the war. A neologism? "American" as a synonym for an instrument of torture?
Maybe his memory lapse is invented, maybe he wanted to blow hundreds of people into the air, maybe his amnesia is genuine and a result of the head trauma he suffered when he was arrested, maybe he had been drugged, as so many of those who were sent on suicide commandos. Maybe. All of this is uncertain. What is certain is that this boy can barely walk, that he has been sitting alone for eight and a half months in prison, without a lawyer, without a report that could determine whether his story could possibly be true. What is certain is that those who wish to defend democracy and human rights against terrorists do not even respect them. What is certain is that nobody cares about this kid, because nobody knows he's sitting there, because he is just one young Syrian, because the injustice that was done to him, seems trivial to most in this devastating war, because nobody wants to stick up for somebody who was wearing an explosive belt, and finally, because he does not know how to defend himself, except with one sentence: "I cannot remember."
For ten years the photographer Sebastian Bolesch and I have been traveling together. For ten years, we've been talking to each other about the landscapes of death and destruction that we've been traveling to and about the people we've encountered. For ten years we've been traveling together, but never before have we been as hideously devastated as after this trip, never before have I woken up every morning, sweating like a hunted animal, and never before has it seemed so hideously inadequate to write about the war. Never before have the concerns of my friends seemed so foreign, their concerns so narcissistic; never before was I so sensitized, never before so crass in rejecting all sorts of well-meaning invitations. We are asked whether we are fascinated by violence when we return, and why we do it, as if we had to be ashamed about it, and not those who pose such a question.
I left Samir Afif Ammar sitting there in his cell with 40 other prisoners. That's where he will remain, without visitors and without a lawyer. I did not help him. I did not go to the police chief to complain about his being tortured for fear he would be abused even more. I did not ask him for his mother's telephone number to at least let her know that her son was still alive for fear of no longer being detached and distanced. The worst is that I did not even tell him what I thought, that I believed him, and that I was ashamed for the way he was being treated. I just simply walked out of the room with the guard in front, helpless and mute.
Back in Berlin, I reported Samir's story to various lawyers and human rights activists. They listened with horror, but travel to Kirkuk? They couldn't do that. It's too dangerous.
No, I'm not fascinated by violence.
It makes me sick.
But it happens.
In our world.
And we are involved in it.
All of us.
translation: Zaia Alexander
Copyright: DIE ZEIT