Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The innocence of children...

FALLUJAH, ANBAR, IRAQ - One of the things that I have the found most striking during several weeks in Iraq is the children. The young children in particular are oblivious to the war around them. They don't know or care whether they are Sunni or Shia. They don't know whether or not their father is an insurgent. They view American soldiers (and reporters dressed like American soldiers) with curiosity and openness not fear.

Older children are more aware of what is going on around them, but they still don't grasp the gravity of the situation. They tend to see American soldiers as some odd blend of Santa Claus and dim witted uncles. They run up to you any time you stop calling "Mista, mista! Chocolat? Pen? Futball?" If you don't give them anything I have heard some reports of rude gestures or even thrown rocks, but this was definitely not my experience. Instead they would adopt a sort of hurt puppy face, and following you around, cataloging the other possessions that you might be willing to give them.

Numerous children asked to see my watch (a Tag-Heuer given to me by wife as a wedding present), and then asked me to give it to them. One boy in his early teens asked me to give him one of my cameras. When I said no he said he could give me money for the camera. I said no before we got to discussing what he would consider a fair price for a Nikon D200 and telephoto lens.

The camera boy left, and I thought I had seen the last of him, but a few minutes later he reappeared carrying a rabbit by the ears. He wanted to trade the rabbit for my camera. This attracted the attention of one of the soldiers I was patrolling with, and between the three of us we were able to determine that the rabbit had a name, and that it was probably the boy's pet. The most interesting part of this whole exchange was the perceived value of a rabbit to a young boy growing up in a small impoverished village outside Fallujah.

Several days later while visiting the local water plant, I met a boy of about 10 named Whalid. I know his name because he came up to me and proudly introduced himself, and wanted to know my name. I tried to ask Whalid his age, but I couldn't get the point across. We were however able to determine that Whalid could count to ten in English. I thought that this was a worthy accomplishment, and I rewarded it with pen.

Whalid, in the black and white striped shirt, wins the lottery with a new soccer ball, and can of soda. Courtesy of they US Marine Corps.

Generally, the children would stick together in groups, but occasionally one of them would approach us on his own (boys only). The most memorable of these was "sling shot boy". On this occasion there was a group of about ten older boys who were watching us from a little distance. They were doing the usual "Mista, Mista!" routine, but they weren't coming forward to interact with us. This was a little unusual, and I'm guessing that they had very specific orders from some village elder to keep their distance, because we were meeting with the sheik.

Slingshot boy was probably only five or six, I'm guessing that one of the men we were talking to was his father, and so he felt much more comfortable to come forward and interact with us. He might have been a little too young to have learned the whole "Mista, Mista" routine, because he didn't ask for anything, he just wanted to quietly see what we were doing. He was rewarded for his politeness with a spinning top, and his first Pop-Tart.

Children also serve to bridge the gap between adults in this war. I was standing near three Iraqi men in their 20's and 30's while I was taking pictures of Slingshot Boy. They weren't openly hostile, but they definitely weren't being particularly friendly either. It's a safe bet that in this part of Anbar province, a strongly Sunni tribal area, that one of these men was probably an insurgent, and they were probably all at least somewhat sympathetic to the insurgents, if not openly supportive.

We were all enjoying watching Slingshot Boy's excitement at his first bite of a PopTart, and I had a flash of inspiration and pulled out a picture of my family to show the Iraqi men. I quickly had a cluster of cheerful Iraq men all gathered around to check out the picture.

This exchange of a picture led to a ten minute conversation carried out in very broken English and makeshift sign language with multiple pictures and maps scratched in the dirt. From this we were able to determine that all of us were married, and all of us had children. I assured them that I was not from New York or California, and drew a map of the United States to show where Minnesota was. Yes, this was a television camera, but I was not from the BBC. The fact that one of my cameras was worth more that $3,000 US was fairly staggering.

The day started with mistrust, and ended with friendship, all because of children. I'm left with some new found hope that there is always common ground to be found between people even in situations as divisive as the Iraq War. Hopefully these men will think twice about planting an IED along the roads leading to Camp Fallujah, or even better will be willing to call the hotline to report one.

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Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)

Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: