The Emerald City
Lazy slow blades cut through the air, and the chopper seemed to float above the mosque. It was a momentary illusion as we began to fall, and every one of us roiled in the roll in the pit of our collective stomachs. The RPG from the minaret swooshed above us and exploded to the right. All eyes were transfixed left.
A burly mercenary, pockets loaded with munitions took his M-16 with a mini RPG mounted on it. He sprayed tracer bursts into the minaret, and then confident he'd found his arc pressed a second trigger that led to a flooding woosh, a cloud of brown and a spirally motion that traced a tight corkscrew in the air, lazily cutting circles toward the minaret. His shot was on target, and flower of red streaks and black streamers burst out from the openings in the minaret. There is a moment of quiet, some grins from the mercenaries.
The chopper begins to turn around the mosque, when a figure pops up from inside and fires another RPG. Almost instantly there is a burst of panic fire from three of the mercenaries at the minaret. The figure staggers and falls back, riddled with bullets. I catch on a handle as the chopper lunges left.
The burly figure, climbs out and on to the landing rail of the chopper, gun cradled in one arm and firing liberally up and down the minaret. He passes back that M-16 and takes another, loaded by one of his companions, and simply lets the RPG loose again into the minaret.
"Make sure the haddi is dead."
He gets nods of agreement after he shouts this out.
The chopper does that chopper thing and starts dropping straight down, or it feels straight down, towards landing on a squarish house roof top next to the mosque. The burly merc is spraying downward, passing back and spraying over and over again. There is a sickening repetition to his actions. He's no longer killing, or shooting, he's like a woman sprinkling waves of talcum powder down just to make sure.
He takes several loaded mayonnaise jars with grenades in them. He drops the jars. The point is to have the glass break, and then the grenade will go skittering into corners and through openings and then explode later. At least that is what I've been told. I am told that he learned this trick from someone who had been to 'Nam.
Thank you for flying Air Blackwater.
"Nothing like spraying the bugs."
A South African voice, someone from the company that I nominally work for, said.
"I told you. Kaf-ir are Kaf-ir. Black, brown, yellow, white kaf-ir. It's all the same."
Kafir was the South African slur for black people, but the SA mercenaries used it generally for any para-military or civilian stupid enough to be somewhere near a combat zone and were, thus, Letow. Legitimate Targets of War.
There were smiles around.
Only I was dead calm. We had actual work to do, and this wasn't it. Generating body count was something that boys and their toys did, but my eyes were fixed on the opening across from me, and I would bolt straight through the merc, his boyfriend and a brick wall to save a few seconds. My hand tightened around my medical kit, and I tried to to coil my legs harder. My jaw set.
The burly merc looks at me, and sees a cannonball ready to shoot out as soon as we are close to the ground.
"Yaw. Give the lady room, she wants to get to the action first."
"You won't be so brave when they start taking shots at you."
"Hay now," it is the afrikaaner again, "this is Lady Mercy."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Ask her to show you the eyeball collection."
The burly merc glances quizzically at me. Before he can even get the satisfaction of a reply, I bolt past him, land, skid on my boots a bit, and am running for the fire escape stairs that cling to the side of this beige concrete building. Courage isn't grace under pressure, it is sanity under anesthesia.
There are cracks of fire from behind me as the fire team starts spreading out to "secure the area." Good the farther away from me they are, the less chance I have of being a casualty. A term I had learned from the British in Basra was "lack of fire discipline." Also put as "the bleeding yanks piss bullets."
kk. Put it however your like, but I've dug out as many of our bullets as theirs.
Three flights. The bag is biting into my shoulder by the end. With each rung down the wall around the mosque gets higher. The shadow across me gets longer. The afternoon has worn on. Was it really this morning at just before dawn that I was woken up? I had spent the night with Hampton, one of the few that we got together. He roused himself and was already showering when my pager went off. I had put the call through and was told to report. As in why-aren't-you-here-already.
And that chain of events has put me here, dropping down to the ground from about 10 feet up, listening to the crack of "small arms fire." And hoping that it isn't going to get in my way. I know that the chance of that is not particularly encouraging. But here I am.
From high above me there is a grenade explosion and moments later there is a shower of powder and pebbles as a hole that has been blasted in something somewhere up there comes raining down on me. There is the fog of rock in this alley way. The plaster and brick of the mosque wall is not far from me. I am looking for a way in. The front door is probably not going to be welcoming for me.
I straighten my medical cross, not that that offers much protection. I snuggle down my helmet again. I pop down my goggles. I look left, down one branch of the alley which spreads like a "Y." There is a scattering of sheets, cloth, parts of furniture littered down the alley way, beyond the alley broadens and turns, past a low wall there is a street. A few flames lick up from a bombed out car. Beyond that some shops, all closed, glass windows long since broken out, and shelves looted. Palms are bushy and green, the wave slowly in the breeze, the rhythm not unlike wheat from Kansas. There is a kind of melancholy peace to their bend and lift. Bend and lift.
Another classic postcard from Sadr City.
I look right, this way isn't so littered, running as it does between two walls. It just has two bodies in indigenous dress. I can tell they are bodies, and not even a prayer of saving them. I jog in this direction, because I think there is a large enough hole in the mosque wall. The minaret towers over it. Another RPG shot goes into it's top, fired from some place vaguely ahead of me. I look up and wonder what who was thinking when they planned all this. Or if they planned all of this. Maybe its just part of the "chaos has been restored."
The beige concrete punctuated with large holes blow in it, shrouded with fluttering white sheets as make shift covering gives a rhythm to my quickening steps. OK. I run like a girl. I am just beyond a large palm that grows up on the residential side of the alley and covers this whole section of the alley like an umbrella.
On my left there is a more staccato pattern of gashes of blown out plaster and exposed brick beneath. Graffiti in Arabic lines both walls. I'm pretty sure some side of the sectarian divide had something scatological to say about the other.
Or words to that effect.
I keep scanning. The gaping hole in the wall is indeed there. It isn't all the way through, but it is, I think large enough to crawl through. I shift from one side to the other. I don't see anyone in the courtyard of the mosque. I look up to make sure there is no one moving along the top of the wall, fingers of light stretch through the alternate rising and setting sun designs cut into the top of the wall. I look through a gain and swallow hard. It is a good think I look. A man with a blue towel over is head, and a worn plaid shirt is lugging a black RPG launcher with a gold painted grenade on the end of it. He is crying out in Arabic. He has the scrub of beard that is the de rigeur fashion among militia members.
He turns in every direction, scanning about. He is clearly an intruder based on his body language.
I can see beyond him and to my left that the entire front wall around the mosque has been blown out, and I can see the street out beyond that. There is fire coming from behind some of the clumps of downed tree or rock. The mosque is set at a roughly 35 degree angle from the grid of the streets. The whole structure is small, it is only 15 meters or so between me and the round mosque itself.
The intruder turns and looks straight through me, his eye doesn't catch a detail, he just sees the hole. I duck back out of his view. That was a mistake, the motion draws his eye and there the floom of an RPG. It hits the other side of the wall and sends a billow of dust and fragments through the hole. Some bricks from the top fall down, the top of the wall bends a bit.
The smoke starts to clear and I see his head and torso pop out. He slumps forward as several bursts of fire rip him to pieces. Well that cancels going any place. Just because someone didn't like him, doesn't mean they will like me any more. I am back down the alley and behind a dent in the wall in moments.
Not long there afterwards his body is yanked through the hole. I see a head pop through it, bullets spray down both sides of the alley way. I am not hit. The marine, because I can see the US flag on the side of his helmet, satisfied that the alley way is clear, pops back in. That means I have to hurry.
I'm not here on a mission of mercy, exactly.
I rush down to the hole and cautiously glance in from an oblique angle, there is a down marine, the other is firing at a figure racing back for the mosque, I swing my field of view enough and see a black robe fedakeen wannabe hit the ground. I look at the down marine, I see blood.
"Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!"
He swings around and levels his M-16 at me, sees my blue medical bag with the US flag, my blond hair and ruddy complexion, and decides I must be OK.
"Get here and work on him. Jesus Christ what took you so long?" He hasn’t even called yet, but instants feel like hours when your buddy is down.
I am by the writhing marine in an instant, my bag open and I have fast morphine injection needle, my mouth holding on to the plastic seal as I pull apart the antibiotics package. I aim and make a dart throwing motion, hit the vein exactly on his arm that has not been hit. I split open the morphine and get ready to put it in. I begin my patter cooing to him.
"There's help on the way, you are going to be fine, I am about to give you some morphine, so just relax." I want the morphine and the opiates his body is already releasing to work together.
I pull the walkie talkie close to my muth and begin calling it in. He's taken some bullet fragments and there is bleeding and it almost certainly stings like a hive of bees. But he's probably going to be fine if it hasn't cut any nerves or soft tissue. I then shift and call to the chopper.
"I've got a pick up."
From the other side into my earphone. "What of?" It is the voice of the chopper pilot from Mumbai.
"We have a wounded marine here. I need him medivaced out."
"It's your call, but any reason why?"
"Because I said so."
"Is that your call?"
"Yes, it's my call. That or I tell the nurse you are bricking who you spent last night with." Beat. Beat. Bet. 'And that he has cute buns."
"It is your call." That's right.
It isn't long before the chopper is settling down over us. My guess that the area had already been cleared out was right. I turn to the other marine who has been watching me bandage the wounds.
"I need direct pressure here."
I show him where to put his hands down.
"These aren't official military, I need you to go with your buddy and make sure he ends up OK."
The young earnest face, with its hollow cheeks and its skin just barely used to shaving, he takes his eyes of me, off my breasts and then down at his wounded comrade, who is already drifting off to discomfortable sleepiness. He finally gets his hands down in the right place. The chopper settles.
"Get these two out of here."
I don't want any interruptions.
I pick up my pack and pick my way the 10 meters to the mosque proper, which is not particularly large. I am through the entrance way, and into the dust and quiet. There is an almost physical sense of transition as I go out of the open air, filled with noise, in to the dark enclosed circular space. There are holes in the roof, from which stream beams of yellowed light, reflecting off of the evenly distributed dust. There are no swirls of turbulence, or indeed anything to mark the presence of another human being.
I can the inside of the room, the dull, but ornate, tile work, the patterns on the floor in a series of concentric circles with verses of the Koran in blue against what was once a white back drop. Then over on the far side I see something which is out of place, a heap of boards, perhaps from packing crates, and the barest suggestion of boots. I am across the floor in soft even steps as quickly as a walk will take me. I am kneeling beside the body of an Arab man, well not quite yet a body, but with his shallow breathing and heavy loss of blood he will be soon.
If I had kept the chopper here, he might have been saved. But I am not here to save him.
I quickly search his clothes and find a brown cloth wrapper. I open it, and inside is a gold embossed leather bound book, it is an old old copy of the Koran itself. An artifact, one that has a buyer in Dubai waiting for it. I continue to search, I find another brown cloth wrapped object, and this is a jackpot: a small gray stone with almost illegible carving in it. It is old. I don't know how old.
But it was not mentioned in my instructions, and therefore I slip it into my medical bag, a prize that Hampton will be able to sell off for however much these things go for. Tens of thousands of dollars. Yes, this is what this team is in Iraq for, to find, and smuggle out, valuable objects. Or rather, that is one of the purposes. The purpose is profit. And this is one of the most profitable businesses in Iraq.
I get on the walkie-talkie, I call it in.
"Is it even worth trying, there is another fire fight going on in that area right now."
"I'm stranded here. By the time the ambulance gets here, I may need it."
"We've got a military medical chopper available in about 30 minutes."
"Too late, too long. He needs plasma stat."
"Routing to you, but don't be surprise if they are pronouncing him DATS. He sounds like he is a sure DOA."
I begin working him, now that he is a patient, pulling him back from the brink is my sole focus. I turn my face over vaguely to the walkie-talkie that I have put on the medical bag.
"We can still pull this one out."
Not long there afterwards, Allah smiled on this pour guy. The ambulance arrived early, and we had blood flowing into him. Of course he would say he had both pieces, and I would say I found one, and everyone would assume that some one had raided one piece and not found the other.
Chaos has been restored.