Sunday, July 03, 2005

Good Boy

The brutal heat fades as the afternoon begins its slow descent into dusk. Over the crumbling rooftops the sky has turned a pale orange, gently blending into an even paler blue. In this impoverished section of town, the evening air is filled with the sound of barking dogs and the smells of spiced lamb and baking bread. Dirty, barefoot children, curious at the presence of soldiers, stop their play and watch with wide smiles. Young men squat in small groups in front of houses, smoking cheap cigarettes and trading on the local gossip. As the patrol walks by, the men stop talking and watch, taking long drags on their cigarettes.

It makes me miss home.

He stands out front of his yellow brick home in the Shia neighborhood of town. It is a 15 minute walk south of the Alamo, thru neighborhoods of dirt lanes, streams of raw sewage, and fields of rubble. It is a well-constructed home of yellow brick, in better condition than the surrounding buildings.

He is obviously a proud man.

He stands tall and straight, his large frame filling out a long flowing white linen robe. His broad, frank, weather-beaten face is partially hidden by a thick black beard, and his arms are clasped behind his back.

“Marhaba,” I smile and touch my chest in the traditional symbol of greeting.

He smiles back, revealing fine white teeth, and touches his own arm to his chest.

He has no hands.

Both of his hands are cut off before the wrist, ending in jagged stumps. Looking closer, I realize that he is missing half of his right ear, and beneath the folds of his robe, I can see long thing scars on his chest, as if he had been whipped and the wounds had badly healed.

To cover my surprise, I turn to my translator.

“Max, tell him that I am LT Adam, and that I understand that he has found something he thinks is a bomb.”

In my peripheral vision, I can see that the soldiers from the patrol are securing and cordoning off the area, keeping away curious onlookers.

Max the translator looks like a highwayman. A scarf tied around his face reveals only his dark brooding eyes. Max nods his head at my request and introduces me.

“Yes, he has found something.”

Turning, the man points to a spot on the ground ten feet in front of his house.

I glance over in that direction and stop dead. It looks like a grenade.

The squad leader standing next to me swears softly under his breath. Together we inch forward and take a closer look.

It is definitely a grenade.

And worse, the safety pin and spoon are gone.

My squad leader and I back off, and I snatch the radio from my startled RTO.

“Alright everyone back off another 20m, there is a pineapple grenade on the ground over here.”

I turn back to the man and motion him a little further away from the grenade.

“How did it come to be in front of his house? Did anyone throw it at his house?”

Max translates rapidly.

“Yes, someone threw it at his house. A terrorist threw it. His son found it and thought it was a rock and he brought it inside the house.”

With the reddened stumps of his arms, the man takes out a cigarette from his front shirt pocket and leans down down. Behind him a small boy emerges holding a bic lighter, and a white curl of smoke rises gently as the young boy diligently holds the flame to the cigarette.

The boy, neatly dressed in a pair of trousers and a red t-shirt is maybe four or five years old. He is wearing brown sandals, and is one of the first children I have seen of that age to be wearing footwear.

The man takes a drag on the cigarette and continues.

“He took it from his son and threw it outside the house, he knows it is a grenade from when he was in Saddam’s Army.”

I smile at the boy. He stands quietly behind his father and does not smile back.

“Well why would terrorist want to throw a grenade at him? Does he know why anyone would want to kill him?”

As the man answers a change seems to come over him. It is as if his light brown eyes are filled with an inner light. He grows animated, and manages to somehow stand even taller and straighter than before.

“They try to kill me because I do not fear them. I do not fear the terrorists. They cannot make me bow to them, and I tell them that. I tell everyone that. If they come here, I will fight them. They cannot take my life away.”

Max translates passionately, his voice matching the tone of the man.

With a gesture, he waves his right stump expansively over his house and his son.

It dawns on me where he might have gotten his wounds.

Saadam was not known for tolerating free spirits.

“Max, tell him that we will call EOD and get the grenade disposed of. Until then, please ask him to keep people away from it.”

The man listens to Max intently and then nods his head.

“He swears he will keep everyone away. He will guard it himself until they come to dispose of it.”

Gratefully I nod my head. “Max, thank him and ask him for some I.D. so we know how to reach him if we need him.”

With a word, the boy runs inside the house and returns with his fathers I.D. His father takes the small plastic card from the waiting boy. Holding it between his two stumps, he hands it to me.

It is not a regular I.D. It is from an organization that I have never heard of before.

Above his photo and his name reads “Humanitarian Association of Victims of Genocide of the Saddam Hussein Regime.”

My suspicions about his injuries are confirmed.

I hand him his card back, unconsciously holding it vertically so that it is easier to grasp between his two stumps. He deftly seizes the card and tucks it away into the left breast pocket of his robe.

“Please tell him that we will do all we can to capture or kill the terrorists that threw the grenade at his house and tried to harm his family.”

At this, the man’s voice drops into a low growl, and I am struck by how formidable the scarred, disfigured man is.

“They will not harm my family. They will try and I will kill them. I am not afraid of them. My family is not afraid of them. My son is not afraid of them.”

His son, standing in the shadows of the fading light is listening intently to his fathers reply. As his father speaks, the boy stands a little straighter and a little taller.

The father, noticing this, stops speaking Arabic and turns to look at his son.

And then he surprises me.

“Good boy,” he says in almost perfect English, flashing his son a proud smile.

The small brown boy, standing quietly, smiles bravely back.


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