Thursday, June 23, 2005

These Kids Desrve a Future

This is my op-ed piece from the NY Post on June 12, 2005.

AS the first swelter of summer breaks over New York City, my mind wanders back to the town of Ad-Dujayl. By this time last year, midday temperatures were breaking 100 degrees there in the Sunni Triangle. It’s the same heat every year I’m sure, in the impoverished burb of several thousand, 50 or so miles north of Baghdad. But last year I was sweating it, with A Company of the Army National Guards 2-108th Infantry Battalion.
And now Ad-Dujayl is in the New York papers — as the site of the mass murders that will be the subject of the first trial of Saddam Hussein. As it happens, A Company played a key role in gathering some of the evidence for that trial. And several dozen of the company’s 140 soliders live in the metro area — so New Yorkers helped build the case against Saddam.
Here’s how.
We spent 10½ months working with and talking to the citizens of this city. One soldier, Segun Frederick Akintade — born in Nigeria, but a New Yorker by choice — made the ultimate sacrifice just a few miles south of Ad-Dujayl.
My fondest memories are of the kids we befriended.
In Iraq, kids are a great barometer of the local mood. If they’re afraid to talk with you, it indicates a hostile community. And if they’re suddenly not around, it’s a real bad sign.
The kids in Ad-Dujayl were almost always around, with a friendly smile and black-market merchandise for sale. Hijacked from trucks or stolen off U.S. bases, knives and sunglasses were always offered at half-price or less. It was sometimes hard for soldiers to resist the temptation, even knowing that the money might be funding insurgents, or criminals.
Sayif — “The Artful Dodger” — was the best hustler in the bunch. He was 12 or so when we met him, just on the cusp of puberty — he grew over two inches in less than a year. He’d been the favorite of the prior U.S. commanding officer, and wanted to stay the favorite — so he lobbied hard. ¶
Since I was the new CO’s driver, I got to know him pretty well. He was always around, wherever we stopped in town. He was attuned to the sound of the hummvees; if any convoy stopped within walking distance he’d approach, hoping to make a buck.
Barak and Hussein, the half brothers, were another pair. They were the junior gangsters, the muscle to Sayif’s hustle. Neither was any older than 10, but both were willing to fight anyone, of any size, and one would always back the other. They were my favorites, mainly because they could be bribed to chase the other kids away when necessary.
Ad-dujayl is not on most maps — because Saddam had tried to eradicate it, after an assassination attempt on him there in 1982. For a months, that was just background information to us. But in the heat of late July, an old man asked to speak to our commander.
The man recounted his family’s story, and offered it as witness testimony. He told of the assassination attempt, and of one son’s involvement. He told of the dogged pursuit of his family by Saddam’s thugs thereafter. They hunted down his sons, killing one by suffocation in a Baghdad prison. Eight years later, all the women in his sister’s house were all raped and dismembered. This was part of a systematic campaign of terror against that lasted for years. Houses were razed. Date-palm groves, a regional cash crop, were uprooted, impoverishing most of the community.
This man was our first witness.
The citizens of Ad-dujayl were luckier than some victims: Our commander is a lawyer by trade, so he began collecting testimony. The citizens, surprised that someone cared about justice, came forth to speak. By summer’s end, we had dozens of accounts.
We forwarded a summary report through channels (the Army’s JAG office in this case) and for a time it seemed nothing more would happen. But chance struck again around Thanksgiving: In a chow-tent on a base in Baghdad, someone mentioned knowing a soldier attached to our unit — and was overheard by a member of the Regime Crimes Team, who got on the phone.
A few days later, we met with the commission and turned over copies of our witness statements and notes. We escorted federal prosecutors and agents to interviews. We took them to meetings in town, and helped them get witnesses on base. We had three or four days where a platoon was devoted to supporting their mission, and when we left at the end of December they were in contact with our replacements from a Wisconsin Guard unit.
By February we knew the case was going forward against some of the principle henchmen. Now Saddam himself is charged in these crimes.
Those kids in Ad-dujayl deserve a future. Their families deserve justice. Like every other soldier home from Iraq, I’m constantly asked two questions. “What was it like?” And “Was it worth it?”
It’s hard to answer the first one. How do you describe a year of blood, tears and lots of sweat? Of fear and excitement and boredom, sometimes separated only by seconds?
But as to being worth it, I tell them about Sayif and Barak and Hussein — who may now be growing up in a country where the courts punish murder. I tell them about the trials of men who committed murder 2½ decades ago. I tell them about the old man who wept after telling his story — not from unexpressed grief, but from joy that someone finally cared.
Those people who cared were New Yorkers citizen soldiers from Queens, from The Bronx, from Westchester and towns all along the Hudson. Many others played a part, but it was a New York unit that helped bring justice to Ad-dujayl, and helped bring Saddam to trial.

John Byrnes is working on a book about Iraq.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article jrb

Thu Jun 23, 02:45:00 PM 2005  

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