We then arrived at FOB Bernstein on the outskirts of Tuz, which will be my home for a bit. There I met up with the 196th Cavalry Unit, which includes elements from northern Ohio, and from North Carolina. Among the members of the unit is Lt. Barry Naum, who I have known since college. Lt. Naum is a member of the Ohio National Guard. He was in the middle of his last semester at Ohio State School of Law when his unit got called up to go to Iraq. Within days of being called up, he found out that his wife Olivia was pregnant with their first child, who was born just last month. Because of problems with Internet access, it was a few weeks before he could see a picture of his new son. Lt. Naum’s story is a testament to the sacrifice of the men serving over here: men who left their families at important times, and left their careers at important times, to serve their country at a critical time.
Tuz is where tradition says that Abraham was born, and there is a large mosque commemorating the birthplace. It is a relatively diverse city, including within its boundaries Kurds, Sunnis, and Turkoman. Many of the surrounding villages are extremely poor. The dominant structures are mud huts—which nonetheless sport satellite dishes. FOB Bernstein itself is a former Iraqi airbase. The men live in the bunkers, and eat their chow at one of the hangers. (Having now seen it at two FOBs, I can tell you that the brown egg concoction appears to be a staple at the Forward Operating Bases.)
In the first two days here, I have gone out on missions with Cpt. Bumgardner and Lt. Naum to view the local villages and to meet with their Muqtars, which essentially are village mayors. The children in the villages are instantly drawn to the soldiers and swarm around them. The response is particularly emphatic in the Kurdish villages such as Changalawa, the first village I visited, where the soldiers handed out toothpaste and toothbrushes to the kids, and gave them a hygiene lesson on brushing. The children ask for common items from the soldiers such as water bottles (which many of the children already have), just to have something which they can show off as given to them by an American soldier.
The next village we visited was the Arab village of Davaj. Despite being another small, poor village with mud huts, it was one of Saddam’s favorites--one which he is known to have visited regularly. Prior to the 196th coming into the region, one of the prior units drew fire from a tent in Divac. They returned fire, but after the fact it appears that the shooter must have been firing from some place near but not in the tent. As a result, a boy of about nine became his immediate family’s sole survivor. The captain over the unit took it very hard, and began supporting the boy (who came under the charge of the Muqtar) out of his own pocket. When Cpt. Bumgardner inherited the region, he requested that his wife send a couple of boxes of clothes for the boy, who happened to be the about the same age as the Iraqi child. At each of the towns, we met with the Muqtars to assess the needs of the community, and examined facilities such as wells and roads.
Today I traveled to three cities in the area with Lt. Naum. We visited the schools, and chatted with the Muqtars about conditions in the villages. We started in Albu Najm, a village consisting of a population of 700 that is about 50 percent Arab and about 50 percent Kurdish. One man explained to me that under Saddam, the soldiers would come in, hit people, and take their money. As a farmer, he was forced to pay a selectively applied tax of 500,000 dinars per year to Saddam. He was enthusiastic about the conditions now: “Everybody has freedom. I can go wherever I want.”
In Mansur Agur, another Kurdish village of around 2,100 people, we spent a considerable amount of time with the Muqtar. He explained that under Saddam, people in his village who fell out of favor were simply moved to northern regions. One of his key complaints to the Coalition had been about the power blackouts. When I asked him if power access was better under Saddam, he explained that even if there was “No water. No power. Still better life now that Saddam gone.” He then went on to explain that there was in fact more power available now as well.
We were then invited to a local political party leader’s home for lunch. There were 15 people in our group, and on short notice he prepared a feast for 50. The food was quite good and plentiful, including chicken, schwarma bread, two kinds of rice, squash in something like a tomato soup, chicken broth, and topped off with chai tea. Again, the children were drawn to the soldiers, and swarmed around the vehicles so much so that it was difficult to actually maneuver the Humvees to leave the village.
Internet access has been difficult here—and in fact has been down the last three times that I have tried to get online. I hope to be able to get online more often in the next few days, and I will try to post some of the pictures (and maybe even video) from my recent travels soon.