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Posted on Nov 21, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Red Bulls in Iraq – Pt. 7: A Trip to Baghdad: Pt 1

By Cpt. Fernando A Franco

The helicopter ride over the landscape of Iraq took us over the farm fields that lie between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the main water arteries that make the heart of Iraq and are the center of their farming lands. Thousands of years ago these two magnificent rivers witnessed the birth of the first civilized societies. Through the window I saw patches of fertile land with desert dunes in between. I saw the rooftops of small villages, some so tiny that I barely caught a glimpse before the chopper passed by them.

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Who could image that in the middle of this desert there could be so much green? The villagers were slowly waking up to start, going about their business as usual. How many of them were glad to see the choppers, and how many were thinking about the best way to take a good shot at us. I’ve visited some of these villages before, and many times I couldn’t tell who was friendly and who wasn’t. This was the prelude of what I thought Baghdad would be — friendly neighborhoods where people welcome the coalition soldiers’ presence in hopes of bringing back some kind of normalcy to their lives, and others where you need eyes on the back of your head to spot the sniper before he shoots at you.

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It was early in the morning, the sun rising just over the horizon and way in the distance I could see the outskirts of a city. I wasn’t sure at that moment if we were nearing Baghdad, with a population of about seven million, or another of Iraq’s major cities. Because of the fine powder sand that lingers in the air, it was difficult to distinguish in the morning haze where the desert started and where the city sat at its foot. Most of the buildings are sand color, so they blend almost perfectly with the surrounding desert and infantry’s soldier dream camouflage.

Baghdad was a small village until 762 AD, when it became the center of the Muslim world and one of the greatest cities in the entire world. This golden age lasted until 1258 AD when Hulagu, grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, conquered the city. About 150 years later, another Mongol king sacked the city again, killing thousands of their habitants. This is when Baghdad lost its worldwide importance of the past.

A few seconds later, the pilot told me over the intercom that we were just minutes away from touching down at the landing zone (LZ) in the Green Zone. I had already begun to see rooftops of the poor neighborhoods. Almost all the houses in that area have flat roofs where the residents hang their clothes to dry, where many families spent the hot summers nights to escape from the scorching heat inside the house, and where countless times enemy snipers hide and set their sites on U.S. soldiers.

I could see piles of garbage on streets, in alleys, and on rooftops, and I could smell the stench of the black, sometimes bright green, waters where human waste mixed with garbage. Early-rising kids made played joyfully running through this water like my children do back at home when the clean rain leaves some leaves some tempting puddles on the front sidewalk. I could feel the struggle of the Iraqis who live here to move ahead with their lives to maintain hope for a more peaceful country.

I could see the apartment buildings that populate the Green Zone rapidly approaching and the highways already full with the chaotic morning traffic full of Iraqis doing their daily business. We landed so quickly that I barely had the chance to snap a few photos. We touched down, quickly exited the chopper, and ran out of the LZ and into the assembly area, where we all gathered before walking to our first destination, one of Saddam Hussein’s 78 palaces.

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