Monday, February 23, 2009

72 Hours



















It is possible to sign out from the unit one is embedded with for 72 hours. A nifty rule I recently learned. Granted a 72 hour
 window to get something done in isn’t something you can coun
t on in Iraq. The 72 hours can be extended until ones’ mission is completed if you keep in touch and stick to the proposed plan. Sand storms, cancellations and inexplicable delays make it hard to predict how long something will take. Phin and I signed out from Camp Shield last Sunday and didn’t get back unit Saturday. What was meant to be an overnight trip to Basra in order to visit Rota Village in the Marshlands, turned into six days. 

Our first diversion wasn’t transportation relate. After completing the first leg of our journey to Camp Victory, I Checked my email at the airport. I found out, the pinning of the first African American general from Louisiana would take place on the Tuesday we were meant to return, an event we had planned to film. Making it back on time from Bassra seemed iffy so we cancelled our flight with the blessings of a PAO (public affair officer) and rebooked to leave for Basra after covering the ceremony. We spent the next two nights on Camp Victory at the JVB Hotel where we met the Buffalo Bill Cheerleaders. We interviewed Brigadier General Owen W. Monconduit after he was promoted and got the story off to the networks before departing for Basra. 




In Basra we were the guests of General Muhammad Jawad, the Basra operational
 commander. Cpt. Saad picked us up from the airport after some confusion. Our flight arrived late and we weren’t ready to role until after 5:30 AM. On the ride to the Shat Al Arab Hotel (a
 shell of what was once a first class hotel), now part of the BAOC (The Basra Operation Command Center) we stopped at the site of a bus crash. A story that made international news later that day. 
The bus was carrying pilgrims returning from Karbala when it smashed into a British tank that was stopped on the highway around midnight. Seven were killed on impact and another twenty-six were injured. While taking pictures we heard the Iraqi side of events. Once 
on the base, we heard the British side. The Brits blamed the speeding bus, while the Iraqi blamed the 35-ton tank sitting in the road that they claim had no lights on. The incident is still under investigation.Arriving a few days after we planned worked to our favor. A Coalition mission we had been trying to go on during out first visit had been cancelled twice and now was scheduled for the day after we arrived. The mission’s objective - choosing a site for an school/ community center in Rota Village. We went in a convoy with General Muhammad, General Azziz, Capt. Lansden(CMOC), Col Stanford (British Forces), and numerous Iraqi military.
 Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s were stationed every few feet along the entire hour-long route. Rota Village is still known as being in the marshlands, though it is more of a desert then a marsh now.
 Sadam Hussein drained the area starting during the Iran/Iraq war and did further damage after the gulf war.The population dwindled, and only 10% of the area remained a marsh. The indigenous people's way of life was destroyed by Hussein’s acts of echo terrorism. Shortly after Saddam’s regime fell many of the dams were broken, flooding the area, restoring part of the marsh haphazardly. The eco system and the people are still in danger of loosing an ancient culture and many species even though restorations efforts have began. The coalition forces and the IA are trying to raise the people’s standard of living and bring them in to the larger Iraqi community, by building schools, handing out essential goods and restoring the environment. Befriending the Marshland Arabs is one way the Iraqi Army and the coalition hopes to get them to stop smuggling weapons and letting insurgents into Iraq from Iran.
When we dismounted the vehicles all the villagers gathered around. A site for the school was chosen and goods were handed out before we drove on to Rash Al Emara Village. The elders of the village met with the generals in a Mudrif (a sheik’s meeting place). While the meeting was going on, Phin and I photographed the outdoor kitchen.
 Blood soaked the ground where the goats and sheep had been slaughtered not long before. Workers artfully laid out the food on numerous platters before carrying them around the block to the Mudrif. A feast was served in honor of one the elders who past away.
I thought twice about eating (visiting the kitchen 
isn’t always a good idea before a meal) but couldn’t refuse.After taking a few bites, the servers piled enough meat on my plate for at least five people and then plopped an animal’s head next to me.


 I got away with not eating much by moving the food around my plate with the ample bread supplied. I was more excited to shoot the feast then consuming it. After lunch everyone gather around for a funeral ceremony where locals started singing (almost rapping) about the deceased and then broke into a whirling free form dance called Aartha. We both had to take care not to get knocked over by flying dancers while shooting. Just in the nick of time, our group got back in to our motorcade and headed back to the base and then on to the airport. 

We were be delayed another day at Camp Victory due to a dust storm, Once again we got to stay at the VBC (Victory base complex), the best transient residence to get stuck in that you can find in Baghdad. The 39th MP’s picked us up at while out on a mission the following day and got us back to Camp Shield late night via MRAPs, the bumpiest ride in town. It felt good to get back and get into some clean clothes after a shower. Camp Shield is the closet thing to home for us now, till we move on to Ballad in a couple of days, joining the 244th airbrigade, also members of the Louisiana National Guard.




6 comments:

  1. Incredible images Julie...the feast, the funeral dancing....your images and your stories. Thank you!

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  2. wow! these are amazing pictures. thanks so much for sharing.

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