JimSpiri ”THE LAST LAP #6”
The latest journey called, "The Last Lap" - IRAQ, 2015
© Jim Spiri 2015
July 14, 2015 Today would be a very interesting day. It would remind me much of my early journeys nearly 30- years ago to El Salvador. In those days I would just get on a plane and land in a war zone half a day later. Then, I would meander among the people and see with my own eyes what life in what we called, “third world countries” looked like. Today, I would go to a place here in the Dholoyia area close by to where I used to work at what is formerly known as, Camp Anaconda. It is even closer to a FOB that was known as, MeKenzie. Here I would see before my own eyes refugees in their own town. Now for all intents and purposes these folks are known as “Internally Displaced People” which is a euphemism for what most people would call, people that were basically run off of their land due to war. I’m always amazed at what new words we all come up with to describe horrific injustices to one another. But here’s the deal….these folks were living just across the river in their houses doing their farming and carrying on with life just like they’ve done for decades. Then comes this group called ISIS in 2014 and sets up shop in their side of town and take over everything. Eventually, ISIS is run off by the local area defenders in Dholoyia after a 7-month battle that cost lots and lots of lives. Now, after the battle is over, what is known as, “The Civilian Defense Forces” which is another euphemism for what we in the west know as, Shia Militias, have control of the land that belongs to the local Sunni population. But now enter in to the real problems facing this area. The Shia Militias (which is what I shall call them) are not about to give the land back to the rightful owners. They have said that they, the Sunni inhabitants of the land, might be ISIS supporters so they cannot let this be. If you ask around here in Dholoyia, everyone will tell you that this is not the case. And, remember, the people in Dholoyia are the ones that fought for seven months against ISIS and made sure they were “kicked out of Dodge” so to speak, at a heavy price. Herein lies the seriousness of why chaos is king here in Iraq most of the time. It is a well known fact that the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia is just that...a big chasm. In the immediate forefront is the fact that the couple thousand folks that were living there are now living in a makeshift “tent city” that we know in the west as a refugee camp. What I saw with my own eyes is this...it’s a slum beyond belief that no one can really live in, in a healthy condition. There are at least 1500-2000 people that I saw in this place. All of them are Sunni locals from across the Tigris River. The conditions in the tent city are simply atrocious. Remember, it is well over 120-degrees these days here in the summer. It’s hot. In most tents there are at least half a dozen inhabitants. There are about 300-tents. What I saw as far as a bathroom was something that looked like a “porta-potty” and I saw a grand total of 6-of them. One can do the math. It’s awful. On this day, the locals from Dholoyia gathered at the mosque and had collected water, food and clothing to be distributed. Right now we are nearing the end of Ramadan and this is a custom to care for the poor. In the west we would call it something like, “faith based charity” which is a good analogy. I has asked to attend this event and I’m glad I did. Water, food and clothing had been collected and was to be distributed at the camp. We followed the caravan to the destination which took about 30-minutes all up. As proceeded down the road my host showed me the road where the former FOB known as McKenzie was located. I had been on that road many times in the past back in 2004-05. The big air base which was known as Camp Anaconda was also in very close proximity. Is a matter of fact, the big event of the landing of four F-16 fighter jets for the Iraqi Air Force had just taken place a day earlier with much fanfare controlled by internal media operations. I was in familiar territory but I was about to enter into a world unknown to most. As we approached the tent city I saw rows and rows of blue tents. I was told they were supplied from the United Nations. I did not see any officials such as camp managers and the like. There were just a lot of tents with a whole of people all around. We parked our vehicle a ways down from the place as this would be sure we would not get blocked in. Crowds were gathering. I hopped out of the car and began taking photos. Little pick-ups full of supplies began to get swarmed by the residents of the tent city. The drivers had to convince the folks to go to their tents as the trucks would drive down the rows and distribute things in a kind of orderly fashion. This is exactly what happened. As I became immersed in the current experience I recognized a local media guy from the Dholoyia area whose name is Shalaan. I’ve watched his work on facebook and he is no doubt among the very best at what he does especially in the documentation of Dholoyia. I had met with him a night or two before for several hours and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. Shalaan explained in detail to me about how the tent city came into being and why it still exists. Another local media person with a video set up said hello to me and commented to me, “see what your country left behind for us”? He said a few other things and then began to say to me that he was sorry. I explained to him not to worry and that I understand his frustration. It is a mess. The truth be told, there is no need for this tent city to house these folks. Their homes were less than half a mile from where we were standing. The militias refuse to let them go back home. It is a power play upon the Sunni population. Now what has happened is the agricultural economy of the area is thrown into complete disarray. Subsistence is a problem now. What was once grown here, which was able to supply the regional population with all kinds of foodstuffs, was now laying waste while the inhabitants of the land are held at bay as pawns in a political chess game. As I finished touring the tent city and taking photographs and a video record of what I was seeing, I was approached by the TV crew. Through an interpreter I was asked if they could interview me. I agreed and in short order, I was now on the other side of the camera and audio. What was asked to me were simple questions about what I was seeing how it made me feel and what did I see through the view finder of my own camera. The questions were good and I answered as best I could. Nothing political was asked. Nothing political was responded. It was simply humanitarian to humanitarian. I figured once this was seen by someone somewhere monitoring things, perhaps that could be a problem. But I did not come this far and do the things I’ve done for so long to not say the truth. And that is what I did. We’ll see who’s watching and listening. The visit to tent city was over now and we soon departed. I was thanked by some for coming. No other American journalist had been there in the past nine months. That’s how long these folks had been there. I barely had been there a couple of hours and I had my fill. I promised I would tell whomever was listening what was going on here in this area just few miles from one of the largest military bases in the country where I know Americans to be. Later that evening I was invited to Iftar meal at the home of a man named Bebu. He and I are about the same age. He’s a really cool guy who worked for the Americans as an interpreter for a long time. At one point in time a false accusation was made about him concerning another Iraqi contractor. He was arrested and detained by the Americans and sent to a place known as camp Bucca. It is a prison in the far south of Iraq that still exists. After one year of detention he had a kind of hearing and it was determined that all was a misunderstanding. However, he was not returned to his home for another year. At the end of over two years, he was returned. That was 2011. Bebu is a former old regime officer. He also has a masters degree in engineering. He and I talked at length about life back in the times of the 1980’s. Many times during my visit here I had such conversations. It is a common thing to reflect back on times past. I have enjoyed receiving a history lesson about this place first hand from those whom I sit down with at a meal and have chi with throughout the night. Time after time I am thanked for just being here and having a cup of tea. It amazes me to be here. I really do enjoy the experience. Bebu has a son, who is 23-years old. He and my host have had many discussions in the past couple of years about things. The name of the son is Jihad. Yep, that’s right, that’s his name. I thought about what that would come across when I met him but, that’s just his name. This young man attended university in Tikrit. During this time of study he was attracted to the “other side’s” way of thinking. What is meant by this is, he was leaning heavily towards the philosophy of those we now call ISIS. He would come home on weekends and have discussions with his family. He and his father disagreed heavily. But, in a respectful manner as is the custom in family here. Nonetheless, it was a definite divide among father and son. Jihad was about to join ISIS. His father had told him, wait, things are about to happen and you will see that what you hear is not what you will end up seeing. This was in June of 2014. On July 13th of that same year, ISIS attacked his hometown of Dholoyia. Jihad soon found himself standing side by side with his friends and neighbors and even his father fighting for his own life. I conducted an audio interview on this young man as his father listened while we and the rest of the crowd sipped chi at the same time. It was a very unique perspective. No doubt he explained to me that he has uncomfortable feelings towards the American policy makers that made war with his country. One has to understand that from the perspective of those here, they were invaded, no matter what causes are. Most everyone on the ground here agrees that life before the invasion was better than it is now with chaos all around. It is a civil war in Iraq and that is blamed on the invaders. Yet, all also welcome the Americans back to help stabilize the place. The people feel there is a bit of responsibility that should be borne by America. On many occasions I have been told by the people that although war came to their town up close and personal in 2003 and lasted through most of the next then years, many encounters with American soldiers transpired. Some were quite negative even down right horrific yet others were eye opening and became a kind of window into the people who were seen as invaders. All concur at separate times for separate reasons that for the most part the Americans were not animals like ISIS. They did understand some of the human side of things. This made an

The Last Lap #6

Truck load of humanitarian supplies destined for those at the "tent city" Supplies for "Zakat al Fetar", which is donating to the poor during Ramadan. Bottled water destined for tent city. The first photo I took of "tent city" for the internally displaced people who are refugees in their own town. The young man named Jihad who decided to stand and battle ISIS with the people of Dholoyia. Me and the Sheik.
Truck load of humanitarian supplies destined for those at the "tent city"
Supplies for "Zakat al Fetar", which is donating to the poor during Ramadan.
Bottled water destined for tent city.
The first photo I took of "tent city" for the internally displaced people who are refugees in their own town.
Rows upon rows of blue tents
Home for the displaced.
Home for the past nine months.
Passing out supplies to the displaced people.
Waiting for distribution of supplies.
Water, the most precious item in the 120-degree heat.
Another displaced family
There is just children everywhere I went
This is four of the six bathrooms for all the people.
Going back towards home.
At a local checkpoint operated by Iraqi Army.
The young man named Jihad who decided to stand and battle ISIS with the people of Dholoyia.
Me and the Sheik.
impression on the people. These people here in Dholoyia are among the highest educated folks in the country. The percentage of university level educated ones is astounding to me. I had been inside hundreds of Iraqi homes since 2007 with my camera while embedded with infantry units over a long course of time. I always wondered what was going on in the minds of the folks whose homes we were occupying at the end of a gun. I have been listening first hand to those experiences and taking it all in. It is a fascinating thing to hear, feel and reflect while having a meal and drinking chi with the people who now are the ones standing up to ISIS and yet, are still suffering at the hands of the militias. Sometimes, it is just too much to take in and digest all at once. But, I can say for sure, I’ve been there and done this when no one else would. I have no agenda, I just have another hill or two to cross and see the view from. What a blessing to experience such things. Later, I was taken by my host to visit with the Sheik of the Joubury tribe here in Dholoyia. He is Sheik Munir, a 44-year old man who is also on the provincial governing council. For those that don’t understand the culture, things in Iraq usually get done in the tribal manner. Yes, times are changing but old school things still exist in a very high tech fashion. At the home of the Sheik, we partook of chi with about 60-other folks who were there. I also saw the same TV crew I had seen earlier at the tent city. Because it is nearing the end of Ramadan and the charitable acts of kindness to the poor took place, the event was a bit of a story for those that cover such things. At the same time, the I on the other hand was now more interested in speaking directly with the Sheik without any audio or video. I just wanted to openly speak with him man to man. And, this is exactly what I got to experience. I found that just chatting over chi was more indicative of reality than an interview. With my host as translator I spoke candidly and openly as the Sheik responded to my inquiries. He informed me that for the past year he had discussions with several high ranking US folks both military and civilian. All along the way he has been promised this and that yet as of now only empty words. We talked much about the current situation in his area as well as the matter of the tent city inhabitants. That is a tough situation to get to the root of without upsetting the applecart of those who are currently in control of the fate of the internally displaced people. In time, they may be allowed to go back to their homes. But in the short term which now has lasted nine months, life kind of sucks for them. After a while, my host and I departed. I thanked the Sheik for his hospitality and welcoming me to his abode. My host and I then drove home. We talked a bit about the day that had just transpired. It had been a big day for a small journeyman once again. As we once again sipped chi at the home of my host his mother joined us. She informed us that one of her friends wanted to stop by and visit. They asked me if I was ok with that. I was completely exhausted but leaped at the chance to hear older females, moms, about my age, as to what they had to say. I did not record it, although I should have. I did not take a photo, and once again, I should have. But, just listening and conversing with my host, his mother and her friend in the middle of the night in this land that is called the heart between the ribs over chi under the stars above on a hot summer’s night in Iraq near the banks of the Tigris River was just impossible to convey anyway. So, in words as best I can I write as the Last Lap stretches on for this man known as “Jim” the visitor to Dholoyia. `