Wednesday, October 04, 2006

'I Learned to Handle Myself'

[posted by Callimachus]

Part two of three in a series written by my friend Kat, who was a contractor's employee in Iraq for almost two years.

She refutes the media's excuse for not covering the Iraq reconstruction. The introduction to the series is here. The series hinges on an interview with Dexter Filkins of the "New York Times" in which he says the media can't cover the reconstruction work ongoing around the country because doing so would be too dangerous to the media.

Her post about that drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating she was just pushing "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.

This is her response. Part one is here.

[by Kat]

You're apparently upset that I come down hard on Dexter and the NYT. That's understandable, but stay with me a little here.

I didn't have lots of guards. I had Iraqi nationals working for me who had to worry about being shot. I had to help them figure out safe lies, figure out safe ways to go home. I had to teach the girls working for me how to do their jobs because they'd never had a really good job before. I also had to try to protect and watch out for them. Girls working for us sometimes also needed support with lies about their jobs, travel information, and occasionally security for travel.

The lying extended to producing false job-related paperwork for their cars and to carry on their persons. From three different offices we "sold" orders for detergents, orders for cell phone batteries, and sandals, and produced an array of paperwork to support those claims.

And that's not about me taking care of myself, Bob. That's about my people, my employees, who half the time couldn't get their jobs done unless I was there to help them.

So what did I do for my security? What did I do when I needed to move? Well, my bosses got us security, kinda. And we had pretty good trucks, even if they weren't armored. My security for much of my time in Iraq was a 19-year-old kid who more than anything needed a job and owned his own gun. He was a big kid for an Iraqi and I'm more than sure he was hooked up on the street, so he was actually pretty safe to have around (unless you were one of the younger women in my office, but that's a different story).

My other guy was in his mid-40's and Iraqi army. He wasn't suitable for regular duty. But he was filling Iraqi obligations as the coalition began handing over government responsibilities to the interim Iraqi government. He was a true sweetheart, but nothing like U.S. soldiers or the Iraqi soldiers you see on TV today.

You wonder about what I saw, in terms of blood. That appears to be, beyond my pierced belly-button, what will provide for your comparison of me to Dexter and the "Times" crew. Okay.

  • We had one Iraqi subcontractor whose son and wife both worked with him. I saw him and his son at the morgue dead after both of them were found shot in their truck. I tried my best to comfort his wife, but there wasn't much I could do.

  • During the same year, 2004, we lost another 14 American, Iraqi and third-nation —i.e., neither U.S. or Iraqi — nationals in the various crews we worked with: some shot, some hit by IEDs, but some also through robbery and murder. I didn't see all of those bodies because of our locations, but I saw enough of them, and as a group we knew what the deaths meant to the families.

  • We lost two managers from one company back-to-back, one killed the day after the other. One was shot up sitting in his car; the other was just unlucky enough to be buying food when a car blew up, killing him and eight Iraqis. I knew both of them, and that both had families back in the U.S.

  • Another time, we came up behind a patrol that had just been hit by an IED that took out a humvee and one soldier's arm and part of his face. He lived, but I know his life has changed.

    That experience was crazy because we came up on them fast and they didn't recognize our IDs and we came very close to being shot. We nosed the truck to the side of the road, had to get out of it, and lie on the ground while we and our vehicle were being looked over. We had come up on the fast, immediately after the explosion, and that's a no-no.

    On this occasion I was in Iraqi clothing, my security was in civilian attire, and it was too confusing to get myself identified. Fortunately, our soldiers are pros, we obeyed their signals, and we didn't get shot. You just lie face down and wait until they're ready to deal with you, but it's difficult to live through that time. On the other hand, if they'd shot me by accident, you can bet your life you'd have read about that in the news. Those guys have zero room for mistakes, and their lives are always targeted.

  • In another situation, we were finishing dropping off food and candy at an orphanage when another IED popped off half a block away. We later learned it killed one Iraqi who was my brother's age and severely injured two others. Some gunshots were fired, and it took two hours for U.S. troops to arrive and things to settle down enough for us to be able to leave.

    As we were leaving, more rounds started going off; I didn't even know what was going on until we were suddenly swerving and my security person was yanking me down to the floor in the truck. One of our (American) soldiers caught a bullet in his thigh and another in his knee and was close to dying from loss of blood when they got him out of there.

    We spent the next hour huddled against our truck with it wedged up next to the outside wall of the orphanage until two hummers drew up next to us and escorted us out of the area. It's only by chance that they even saw us, because of where we were, and if I'd been veiled at the time we might have been shot instead of rescued because we both had our guns in our hands.

Our first office was west of Baghdad, along the highway to Fallujah. That was a prime killing ground for several months, but it was better than Fallujah itself, which was close to one of our primary projects at the time. For my bosses and other contractors going in or out of the area, it was just as dangerous as it was for any Army or Marine personnel -- and certainly as dangerous as it was for news crews.

Western contractors and supply vehicles were targeted much more regularly than were military vehicles. They were softer targets, and insurgents often could see what materials were being delivered, and they usually knew what they were being delivered for. The insurgents understoood that halting the reconstruction work we were doing was an essential part of their plan to win in Iraq. The biggest prizes were, of course, major military vehicles. But trucks and materials could be taken out with less trouble and explosive materials, as could key workers if they could be identified.

So the least-safe circumstances involved a contractor hauling materials for rebuilding. As things got worse in the area, my bosses moved my office further north and east into an area that at the time was safer but ultimately proved to be just as violent, though for entirely different reasons.

There, instead of having to worry about myself or others I worked with being blasted by a IED or RPG, we had to worry about snipers and kidnappers, rapists and thieves. I began dressing “local” more consistently and wearing a veil more at this time. And you are right: It is easier to blend in when this is done.

On the other hand, adopting the look and dress and manners of locals also subjects a woman to a different set of scrutiny usually reserved for Muslim Iraqi women. If you intend to blend in, you must accept that there are certain things you may do and things you cannot do. Wearing the clothing brings certain expectations, and it does not pay to let people know you aren't who they thought you were and then hang around long enough for them to feel foolish. In the wrong neighborhoods, the entire event can become a highly complex theatrical act, particularly if you have something important that you must accomplish. This is true for men, but it is especially true for women.

Ultimately, I learned to handle myself, as myself, around some very hard people. I also learned to appreciate the softer people who were trapped there alongside the hard ones. And in doing so I gained a rather deep appreciation for the situations that existed in certain areas. In those areas, people sometimes died for what seemed to me to be nothing, but in truth there were reasons as complex as you could imagine.

Regardless of the reasons, I shared some of the pain, and I certainly saw a good deal of the blood. In doing so, amongst other revelations, I could understand the limitations of our military and realize the depth of their responsibilities. And, Bob, this is where the differences are.

Continued tomorrow: 'I Wasn't Chasing Blood'