On Monday, we visited the village of Mansur, a Kurdish town in FOB Bernstein’s area of operations. Mansur is much like many of the villages in the area: mud huts lining streets which serve as thoroughfares for people and poultry. A murky creek runs through the village. It is redirected into channels to provide water to wash kitchen utensils and to water the herds of sheep and goats. The sewage collects in another channel which runs down the center the same streets in which the children play, before its black waters joins with the creek.
The muqtar for the village has a luxurious home by local standards, with a concrete courtyard, a small grass yard with a few trees, and a meeting room in which he has recently installed air conditioning. After we arrived, one of the villagers, Noman Najim, came to see Spc. Guyton (aka “Doc”), the medic for the platoon. Noman’s leg had been hurting, and Doc could tell at once that it was broken just above the knee. When he asked when this happened, Noman explained that he injured it in an auto accident 10 months ago! The bone was not healing properly, and would require re-breaking and possible surgery. Noman explained that he had previously gone to the hospital in Tuz, but he was told that they could not do anything for him. This is not the first time I have heard of this happening in Iraq. When I rode with the medevac unit, Spc. Patterson explained to me that the thing he found most surprising about his time in Iraq is the utter lack of medical services. For example, he had seen a girl of three sent home to die without treatment by local doctors, with burns over 65% of her body. Given the ethic and religious tensions in this region, the question regarding Noman’s failure to receive treatment is whether the hospital could not do anything because they lacked medical equipment and training, or whether they simply refused him service because he is Kurdish. After Doc had given Noman some pain killers and made a referral, he met with a few other locals, who were suffering from skin and eye conditions.
The last time we went to the village, we did not have time for a full meal. The muqtar would remedy that on this visit. He served chicken and rice, schwarma bread, green onions, tomato and cucumber salad, an eggplant and tomato dish, chicken broth soup, and chai tea. Before lunch, Lt. Naum discussed plans to refurbish the local school: replacing broken windows and doors, and fixing a leaking roof.
After lunch, we went to meet a sheikh in the village who was a Kurdish tribal leader for much of north central Iraq. The topic of conversation was land disputes—which is the issue in this region. Saddam Hussein instituted an Arabization program beginning about 30 years ago, in which he sent Arabs into this region to occupy homes and seize chattels from the local Kurds. When Saddam was removed, the Kurds came back to reclaim their lands, displacing the Arabs who had occupied the same for an average of a couple of decades. As a result, there is a tent city of Arabs displaced by Kurds just outside of Mansur—with the attendant level of distrust and animosity which you would expect. In this case, the sheikh’s concerns included not only claims against participants in the Arabization, but encroachment by other Kurdish tribes. These controversies are old, as was evidenced by the decaying map he used to plead his case—a map which dated from 1929.
Lt. Naum explained that there was now a Land Dispute office in Tuz to address these controversies, but this kind of centralized, governmental method of resolving disputes is not customary to the locals. Much of Iraq still operates fundamentally on a tribal and familial basis. A good deal of the violence is predicated on past wrongs between families and tribes which make the Hatfields and McCoys look like rookies in the grudge-match business. This tribal/familial model of conflict resolution even transcends the Iraqi military ranks. Iraqi officers are afraid to punish subordinates by, for example, taking away their pay because the subordinates will threaten them and their family with retaliation by the subordinate’s family. These disputes have been complicated by the proliferation of larger conventional weapons—which occurred when the Iraqi Army fled, leaving stockpiles of weapons to be looted by the locals prior to the arrival of Coalition forces. Inter-family and inter-tribal disputes which previously would have been resolved with pistols or rifles are now being resolved with rocket launchers and grenades. The idea of a state monopoly on the use of force is foreign, and as long as it remains foreign, it will be somewhere between difficult and impossible to create consistently safe and stable conditions. Understanding the tribal nature of conflict, the Army’s current caretaking role inevitably involves serving as a moderator between the feuding tribes. Lt. Naum therefore procured an agreement from the Kurdish muqtar that the next time he came to Mansur, they would go together to sit down with the leader of the Arab tent village to discuss their respective grievances.
After meeting with the sheikh, we went to observe how the village’s well project was proceeding. The Army has provided a grant to drill a 100 meter well to provide fresh water for the village. The project was proceeding apace, and the drilling would be finished in a few days. This is the kind of work that constitutes a good deal of the time and effort the soldiers which gets little or no attention in the state. For example, driving through Tuz on Wednesday, I saw two new parks which had been built with Army funding and assistance. The cheerfully painted walls, manicured grass, swings, and other equipment looked like a playground oasis compared to the trash strewn streets of Tuz where the children would otherwise play. I have been told that the base has provided something in the neighborhood of $8 million in the last month toward projects in and around Tuz. But this is not what makes the news in the states. Rather, in the rare moments when the soldiers at Bernstein get news updates from back home, they witness the drumbeat about soldiers killing children or torturing prisoners. It is disconcerting to these men that the lion-share of their effort goes unnoticed, while the wrongs of a few are falsely characterized as common.
As is the norm for Mansur and the nearby villages, the troopers were swarmed by children as soon as they entered the village. Walking down the street, the troopers look like pied pipers, with throngs of little people following them. One young lad of around four adopted Cpl. Clark, holding his hand and following him wherever he went throughout the village. Indeed, it is difficult to drive through the towns because the kids will run around the Humvees without due regard for their own safety. They ultimately had to have the muqtar order the children to get back just so we could actually get out of the village.