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AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER NINE. IRAQ: Even if You Turn This Country Into Heaven

Donovan, the gunner in my Humvee, was on his second overseas deployment in one and a half years. Shipped to Iraq almost immediately after a stint in Afghanistan, he was bitter in a resigned, almost imperceptible way. I asked him what usually happens on these patrols. He flipped a CD into his walkman, adjusted the earphones and laughed: “They shoot at us. We shoot at them. We kill them. No paperwork.”
It was about one hour before the 10 pm curfew, and Ramadi’s main street was full of children and Iraqi men dressed in white or beige gowns. Bored, Donovan started playing with the red laser beam of his sights, pointing it at random. Oblivious at first, Iraqis suddenly noticed a crimson laser point on their chests. Scared, they looked up, spotted the Humvee, and then – often shaking – rapidly scuttled away. Others simply froze, watching the red spot move up and down their bodies. Sitting atop the Humvee, Donovan was having a good time. Me too, because I almost found the whole scene funny.

By Ramadi standards, the night was uneventful. We were fired at once from behind an ice cream parlor. Soldiers ran out to find the gunman – cursing after Iraqis on the street who claimed not to have heard the shot.

Just after dawn, I left the base again, with another patrol, to sweep a riverside road – the part of town the battalion’s soldiers abhorred most. Running along a bush-covered riverbank, with plenty of abandoned buildings along the way, this was ideal territory for roadside bombs. Every few yards, a crater testified to the almost daily explosions. The previous night’s armored Humvee was taken by another unit this time, and I sat – feeling myself uncomfortably exposed – in the back of an open vehicle. A flak vest was wrapped around the backrest, providing a degree of protection against smaller blasts.

The road, usually busy in the early morning, was empty. The gunner, Aaron Deshay, was fretting while he scanned the bushes. Empty streets were a bad sign, he told me, because the insurgents warn the locals – sometimes by writing with chalk on the road – whenever ambushes are planned. Not knowing the language, American troops miss these signs. Two children peered at us from behind one wall. Noticing them, soldiers threw candy on the road ahead, gesturing at the kids to run and pick up the sweets. With children around, the attackers would think twice before setting off the explosives, the soldiers reasoned. The kids, however, stayed away. In places like Ramadi, Iraqi parents, not too sure that the insurgents would be so scrupulous, now barred their children from coming anywhere near American troops.

As we quietly moved along the riverside, Deshay noticed an old Iraqi man who was staring at us from behind a parked minibus, his curiosity getting the best of him. Rolling in his seat, Deshay trained the gun on the man. “Look at that hajji. Now, how stupid can you get?” he muttered. “Little does he know that he’s our first target if something happens now.”

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© Copyright Yaroslav Trofimov 2004. All rights reserved.

 

AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER THIRTEEN. MALI: A Ballot Box in Timbuktu

As I settled in the Landcruiser’s back seat, exhausted by the Sahara sun, a monotonous landscape of sand, rock and shrubs stretched until the horizon. There was no road – only a backbreaking desert track across scorching northern Mali, with at least for more hours to go until asphalt and the first town. It’s been over an hour since we left the last inhabited hamlet, at the Timbuktu ferry crossing on the banks of the meandering, brown-hued Niger. Since then, no other vehicle had crossed our path.

Just as I began to doze off, my fixer Sadio screamed in horror. With a bump and a clunk, the car suddenly lost steering and veered off track, spinning like a top in a cloud of sand. Knocked off the back seat, I found myself lying on the car floor, my brain registering the accident in meticulous slow motion. When the spinning ended, I stepped out of the car, shaking, into the blazing heat.

The damage was clear. All the bolts that connected the front wheel axis with the Landcruiser’s steering mechanism were gone, lost one by one in the wilderness. The SUV now rested on diagonally inclined front tires, pointing back to Timbuktu on the wrong side of the path. It was a painful sight, like the unnatural angle of a broken limb.

My driver hadn’t thought of packing a tool box. Sadio tried to improvise by tearing a blue Tuareg turban she had purchased in Timbuktu into narrow strips and then weaving the strips into a cord that, she hoped, could hold the broken parts together. Realizing this couldn’t work, she finally gave up and sought shelter from the sun inside the car. The air conditioning system gasped, and stopped working too.

It sank in: we were now marooned in the middle of the Sahara. Initially, I took comfort in the fact that we weren’t completely alone. A Tuareg nomad, his face hidden behind a black scarf, witnessed our misadventure and approached the Landcruiser without saying a word or even acknowledging our presence. For an hour, he crouched by the car, silently, looking at our increasingly desperate efforts to patch the vehicle together. Like a ghost, he then picked up, mounted his camel and vanished into the desert haze.

An hour went by, then another. Sadio sat listlessly, too tired to speak or move. Trying not to dehydrate, I drank the hot water that now smelled of burnt plastic, and cursed myself for coming to Mali in the first place. All this because of a think-tank report.

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© Copyright Yaroslav Trofimov 2004. All rights reserved.