A relative of mine was forced as the millions of Iraqis to serve in Saddam’s army. He was poor and peaceful and couldn’t stand the humiliation and the torture that service meant. He lived in Baghdad and served in Basrah. He was paid about 10 thousand Iraqi Dinars a month, which equaled about 5 US $ at that time, while the ride from his place to his unit cost about 2 or 3 thousand Dinars. Above all he had to bribe the sergeants and the officers only to avoid the hell they could make his life there, as they could’ve made it a lot worse. Others more fortunate paid money to the officer in charge to stay at home and the officer would arrange it to look like they are serving. This may amount to 250-300 thousand Iraqi Dinars a month, and it was a very common practice at that time. And as tens of thousands of Iraqis, he decided to run away. He remained a fugitive for years, hiding from the eyes of the military police. He couldn’t see his family more than 2 or 3 times in the year. We helped him find a job and a place to hide where they couldn’t find him.
Few days ago I was visiting his family to pay our respect in the 1st annual anniversary of his father’s death.
When I saw my relative, and despite the nature of the occasion, I felt happy. Here’s a free man. I smiled as I said, “you must be very happy to be free again, and not fear the MP”. He said, "you can’t imagine! It’s like being born again. I’ve never felt so free before”. “But what are you doing for a living now? I hope you’ve found a job”. I asked. He smiled as he said, "I volunteered in the new army". “Really! I thought you’d never wear a uniform after that terrible experience” he replied "Oh no, this is entirely different". I said, “ I'm sure it is, but who convinced you to do so!? And when did that happen?” "A friend of mine who volunteered before I did told me some nice stuff that encouraged me to do the same, so I volunteered about a couple of months ago". He replied. “So tell me about it, are you happy with this job?” I asked. "You can’t imagine! It’s nothing that we’ve learned or knew about the military life". He answered. “I expected it to be so, but can you tell me about it” I asked and I didn’t have to ask anymore, as my relative started talking excitedly without a stop. He said:
The most important thing is that this army has no retards or illiterate in it like the old one. Now education is an essential requirement when applying to serve in the new army and anyone who hasn’t finished high school at least has no place there. In fact most of the volunteers are college and technical institutes graduates.
Everything is new, no more worn out dirty uniforms that only God knows how many people used before you, and they never minded about the size. This time they took our sizes and handed each one of us a new elegant uniform that’s worthy of an officer! It was a common scene, you know, that soldiers wander near their halls in their underwear after training hours. Some of them did that because they didn’t have much to wear when they wash their uniforms, but the majority did it out of custom. Now this is unacceptable, and everyone received a nice comfortable suit to wear after the training hours.
One of the officers said to us “you know what? One of the reasons you lose your wars is the boots you were wearing” He then handed each one of us a pair of those brand new boots that we could only dream of buying them in the old times, and said “Put these on and you’ll feel like you can fly” and it did feel almost like that!
I knew exactly what my relative meant, as I had to wear those boots at Sadam’s times when they forced us to do a month of military training during our summer vacation in college, and they warned us that anyone who refused to do so would be expelled from his college. Wearing those inflexible rigid boots in that heat was more like a torture. They were my worst memory of that camp and caused me multiple painful sores that needed weeks to heal.
My relative’s face was glowing as he continued, "you can’t imagine how much valued we are and how much our religion and traditions are respected. When we pass by a mosque, the officer in charge shouts “no talk” until we pass the mosque by a considerable distance, and when one of the officers enters our hall, if he sees that one of us is praying he remains silent and order us to keep quite until our comrade finishes his prayer.
For the first time in my life, I feel I’m somebody. I’m not a trash as Saddam and his gang tried to make me believe” as he finished his last words his voice went faint as if he was chocking. I felt his pain and tried to change the course of our talk, “how much do you get paid” I asked, “Oh, pretty much, more than enough, thank God” “and what about your meals” I added and he said with a smile, “Oh you won’t believe it. Everything that we couldn’t get in our own homes before and that we only saw when the officers in the old army made a feast to honor a guest! I mean we have everything; meat is essential in every meal, vegetables, fruits apples and bananas. It’s still unbelievable to many of us!” he went on,
“One of the most important things that the Americans concentrate on in our training is physical fitness. A month ago I could hardly jog for one kilometer before falling to the ground exhausted and out of breath, and now I can run 4-5 kilometers without being exhausted.”
A frown crossed his face as he said “ I remember when they used to train us at the most hot hours of the day for hours without allowing us to rest for a while under a shade or drink any water, and when we get almost killed by thirst, we would be forced to drink from the dirty contaminated ditch water. Now we don’t even drink tap water! Each one of us gets more than enough an amount of that healthy bottled water everyday”
To some people this may mean little if anything, but my relative looked at it as something huge, and indeed, before the war, drinking bottled water was really a luxury that a very small percentage of Iraqis could afford. In my house we used to boil the tap water and cool it before drinking it, because we knew it was not safe and we couldn’t afford buying bottled water everyday.
“I feel I’m somebody now. I’m respected and get all what most people get. Do you believe that they threw one of the Iraqi officers out of the army because he used us to do him personal services, like carrying his bags, and when we complained about his behavior, they told him “ Do you see any of us, American officers use our soldiers? You can go home. You still have the mentality of the old regime and you can’t fit in this new army!” imagine that! They listen to our complains, we the soldiers, and bring us justice even if it involved the higher ranked officers. This had never happened in the old army.”
“But what about the dangers you are going to face when you graduate? You’ll face it everyday, and you’ll probably have to fight Iraqis. Have you thought about that? And how do you feel about it!?” I felt some regret as I asked this question, but it was too important to ignore. My relative said, “Of course I thought about it!” He sighed as he continued, “Dangers were there since I was born; wars, MP chasing me for years, chaos…etc. These will not stop me from going on with my life, and I have a feeling that those thugs are the same people who oppressed me along with all the poor Iraqi soldiers. No, I’m not afraid of them and I’ll do my job. At least this time I know I’m doing the right thing and that my services will be appreciated” I looked at him admiringly as I said, “They are appreciated already! Congratulations, brother, for the new job and for being the free and new man you are”
When I left, I felt real hope in the new Iraqi army. Despite its terrible performance till now, one cannot be pessimistic after hearing the way this army is being formed and the way the soldiers look at it. I’m sure it’ll take time, but I’m also sure that we’ll definitely have an exceptionally efficient, small army with great morals and respect for the law and the institution they represent. An army that can preserve peace and order, and protect the constitution once the Iraqi people agree on one.