10 September 2003
“Hey Mister! Hey Mister!” These two words I suppose I will forever associate with Iraq. These are the words uttered by ragged, little children as we roll up to our objectives in our Humvees. They run beside us flashing two-fingered peace signs and gentle little waves. When we stop and dismount onto the dirty streets, they cluster around our vehicles, with bright eyes and big smiles, shouting “Hey Mister! Hey Mister!”
Past bomb-damaged buildings through garbage-strewn gutters under an unforgiving sun they tramp barefooted just to get a touch of the Amriki. They are fascinated by everything we have brought with us on our Mesopotamian adventure. Our body armor, our sheathed bayonets, our Motorala Talk-Abouts, and especially our sunglasses (rumored on the “Arab Street” to be able to see through clothing). “La, la, dearbollick, dearbollick” we say gently when they reach to touch our rifles. “No. No. Be careful. Be careful.”
“Hey Mister! Hey Mister! Any candy? Any candy?” Sadly the answer is no. A few months ago some kids got hit by a truck as they darted across a busy thoroughfare in pursuit of bag of Skittles and a couple of Tootsie Rolls. The army soonafter made it a rule that no soldier was to give out any more treats. “Hey Mister! Hey Mister! Any candy? Any candy?” “Muta essef. Muta essef. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t.” It breaks my heart to deny a simple pleasure to a child who has known nothing but hardship. But rules are rules and I know it’s for their own good. “That’s okay, Mister,” one child said to me recently. He then reached into his pocket and handed me a piece of gum. I accepted the offer with a laugh. Soon other dirty hands were extended into the Humvee, bearing half-eaten apples and dusty potato chips.
“Thwak!” goes the hand of suddenly-present adult against the back of a little head. Shouting at them in their native tongue, he tells them to get back and let us be. Whether he does this as some misguided act of old-world courtesy or because he does not want them associating with a stranger, I do not know. I bristle with anger and guilt every time, knowing that it is my presence that has caused the reprimand. “Don’t do that!” I yell in English. “There’s no need for that!” But the adult just smiles weirdly, seeming not to understand.
Another stop. Another group of kids. Pull out a camera and they go nuts, crowding each other out and mugging for the lens. Afterwards, they all gather around as I cup my hands over the digital view screen so they can have a peek. One time a bead of sweat rolled from under my helmet and off of my face, staining the dirty cheek of an upward-looking angel down below. I was so embarrassed by how gross that was, but the little one just smiled and gently touched the spot as if he’d been presented with a special treat that none of the others had received.
And then there was the time I was out on a mission with a female specialist. The children greeted me with their usual clamor, but when they saw her, they went silent. A look of confusion came over them. They knew that “Hey Mister” didn’t fit. They huddled together and whispered scraps of known English into each other’s ears. A congress of little legs and arms quaking with childish nervous energy. After it had been decided, they turned back towards us and shouted, “Hey Sister! Hey Sister!”
These are the children of Baghdad. In all the time I’ve been here, during good days and bad, their warmth has not faded. We cannot fail them. And we can only hope that their memories of the Americans will be happy ones, thereby avoiding another generation of martyrs.