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Authors: Derek B. Miller

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BOOK: The Girl in Green
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‘What?'

‘We be da force,' Arwood said.

Rob shook his head. ‘Word is that the Iraqis are dropping leaflets from the helicopters, telling the Shiites that if they don't stop the rebellion they'll drop chemical weapons on them.'

Morgan ignored him. ‘France says the rebellion is Iraq's problem to solve. Saudi Arabia said they won't touch this. Morocco. Egypt. Canada. The Brits. This is from the
Washington Post
yesterday,' he said, flipping to another piece of paper. ‘“There is no stomach in this administration, in the coalition, or in the region to undertake the kind of military involvement that would be necessary to aid the rebel groups in toppling the Saddam government. Such involvement in the internal affairs of another nation” — I'm quoting here, people — “would have enormous, enormous implications for what we are trying to do in the region overall and would, in addition, label the rebels ‘lackeys of the United States', making their success more difficult.” The guy then says, “We don't want our fingerprints on anyone involved in the rebellions,” unquote. More or less.'

Morgan looked up. ‘That's coming from Dick Cheney, our secretary of defense. If America gets involved, we undermine the integrity of the revolution.'

‘Why?' said Rob Husseini.

‘Why what?' said Harvey.

‘Why would they hate us if we helped them?'

‘Because Arabs always have conspiracy theories about the West being involved.'

‘But we would be involved. And it wouldn't be a conspiracy. They're asking for help.'

‘They don't really want it. They think they want it. What they really want, even more, is a reason to blame us. So we need to avoid giving them one.'

‘Aren't we giving them one by not helping?'

‘No. We're staying out of their business.'

‘You're not making any sense, lieutenant.'

‘It's not me, it's Dick Cheney. The State Department believes that if we help these people now, they will hate us later.'

‘Right.'

‘And if we leave them alone to die, we'll be on better terms with them in the long run.'

‘Got it.'

Arwood looked at Rob, who turned to watch the helicopters launch rockets at a tent community.

‘This sucks,' said Rob. ‘We should help these people, or get the fuck out of here.'

‘I second that,' Ben said.

‘I third that,' Arwood said.

‘No one asked either of you. And you can't third something.'

‘And yet,' Arwood said, ‘it happened.'

A kid Arwood didn't know came up, saluted the lieutenant, and said, ‘Refugees are coming in to Checkpoints Alfa and Eagle. And there are Iraqi ground forces coming from the north.'

‘Refugees are coming here, too,' Arwood said, looking across the desert at people on the move, and at troops emerging from Ural troop transports. ‘Looks like if we don't go to them, the civilians are gonna come to us.'

Seeing motion in the distance, he manned his weapon again. The rear sight of the M60 created a tall and narrow rectangle that was cut through the middle with a pin for a front sight. Through his sight, they came toward him as though framed by a doorway they would never enter.

Some ran. Some were walking wounded, and hobbled. Others couldn't walk at all, and were carried by those who would rather risk death than leave them behind.

Morgan used binoculars to scan the approaching refugees.

‘We're to receive refugees and patch them up. We take POWs. We do not fire unless fired upon. And then we send them back when we get the pull-out order.'

They came for hours. Arwood had never seen people look like this. He had never seen terror on people's faces before.

Because he was one of the first people they saw, he was among the first ones they'd talk to. It was shocking to him how many of them spoke English. The whole country seemed to be bilingual.

One man carried a dead eighteen-month-old baby. Whoever had shot it in the chest had done so at such close range that there were powder burns on its T-shirt and nappy. It was limp, and looked like rubber.

The situation was chaotic. Their lines were being overrun by people — hundreds at first, and thousands later — who gathered around the remnants of the oil refinery inside the American perimeter. Young soldiers started handing out their own Meals, Ready-to-Eat, and people ate like they had never seen food.

Not all were refugees. Some were Iraqi conscripts and Republican Guard soldiers who'd surrendered. There were six of them behind Arwood, at a tent, and under guard. One was shirtless, wearing boots and beige standard-issue trousers. He was unshaven, and his head was pressed to the ground in either prayer or despondency or fatigue. Whatever it was, Arwood had no trouble interrupting him.

‘Ben, watch this thing for me,' he said, and then walked away from the machine gun to tap the guy on his shoulder.

The Arab looked up, tears in his eyes.

‘What the hell have you got to complain about?' Arwood said. ‘Here you are, all safe and cozy, about to get some food and water, protected by all kinds of laws and nice guys looking out for your welfare. You should be the happiest sonofabitch in the Middle East. Meanwhile,' Arwood said, and then flicked his butt into the cloudless sky, ‘I've been meaning to ask one of you fuckwits a question that's been on my mind: What the hell is wrong with you people? I mean, seriously. Who shoots a baby? Who does that? Did you do that? Was that your idea? Do you think there's a God that wants you to shoot a baby? What's going on over there? What's going on in your heads?'

‘Saddam. He said the city is unclean. He is giving us 250 dinars to kill babies and women, and up to five thousand dinars for adult males. He said we can kill up to one hundred a day. That's the limit.' Then he said something in Arabic with the word ‘Allah' in it, and that was when Arwood switched off.

‘Ben,' he said, hopping up over the sandbags, back to his position. ‘I've got to do something. I need you to cover for me. I could be a few hours.'

‘What could you possibly need to do?' Ben said.

‘There's a guy — an English guy. He went into town. He went there to take pictures before the attack. It was sort of my idea. I've got to go look for him.'

‘Are you out of your mind?'

‘Look, man, I'll zip over, pick him up, and zip out. It's Samawah. It's not like it's Moscow or anything.'

‘You'll be AWOL.'

‘Honour before orders.'

‘You'd better haul arse.'

‘Save Ferris.'

4

Less than two kilometres away to the north, Benton lay prone behind the pharmacy countertop with another random victim of the attack. The pharmacist was dead in the middle of the floor. A flying cinder block from a nearby explosion had cracked open his skull.

Benton and the other survivor stayed on the floor for hours. To call it cowering would be to demean their sincere effort to live. All they could do was hide and hope.

They did not talk. They did not share words of fear, anger, or remorse. They were two human beings controlled by circumstance, with nothing in common except everything.

Benton sweated profusely. The man handed him a bottle of water that had been lying next to them on the floor. Benton drank it all. He placed the cap back on top and set it aside.

There was no telling whether hiding on the pharmacy floor behind the service counter was a good idea or a bad one. Moment by moment, he told himself he should make a run for it. And yet, with each arriving moment he did not, because fear has an inertia of its own.

The windows had already been blown inward, so there was no proper separation between ‘in here' and ‘out there' anymore. It was a linguistic pretence sustained by convention. Either way, he could not hear the Republican Guard's assault anymore.

He heard distant shots and screams and yells, and the wailing grief of loved ones. Soldiers, Benton had believed, didn't do this. Murderers did. It was odd, as he pressed his head to the floor, to think he didn't even have a vocabulary to name the people who might be his killers.
What are they, these people?

During a lull in the shooting, Benton found the courage to unclench his muscles. He was surprised to find they were as stiff and sore as they'd become after long days trekking with camera equipment on assignment. The fear had made him exhausted. He lifted his head above the countertop and looked between the Halls Mentho-Lyptus drops and the reading glasses. There was smoke. There were dead in the street. There were people sitting dazed and walking slowly, and others running and crying. But there were no killers and no helicopters. They seemed to have moved off.

‘Let's go,' he said to the man in the floor.

‘Go where?' he replied in English.

‘The American base is less than two kilometres away.'

‘I have to find my family,' he said.

‘Maybe they're already there. I'm sure people are running there.'

‘Americans don't like Shiites.'

‘You're a non-combatant protected by international law. They won't give a rat's arse whether you're a Shiite, a Sunni, or a Martian.'

‘America hates Muslims. America kills Muslims.'

‘I'm going. Come.'

‘I must stay.'

‘Why?'

‘You don't understand. You're not from here.'

‘I'm going.'

‘Go with God.'

Determined, Benton abandoned his hiding place, stepped gingerly over the detritus on the floor of the shop, and cast himself into the harsh sunlight of the Iraqi revolution.

Samawah had 28,000 residents. It was not a large city. He was only half a kilometre into it, and he knew how to get out again. Route 8 cut through the town from the north, and then turned south-east toward Nasiriyah which, according to the pharmacist, was under the same kind of assault as Samawah. This was not going to be his road. In fact, any road that could accommodate a tank was a road he planned to avoid.

South of the al-Sharika road there was a wide-open stretch of land. Benton figured that the troops would be targetting large concentrations of people, and might therefore ignore stray individuals like himself, but that was a comforting speculation only. Also, if he was alone he might be able to yell loudly in English and identify himself, which might stop them from shooting him. In a crowd he'd be an object, not a person.

Benton slunk low, and made for a patch of palm trees near a smouldering truck riddled with heavy machine-gun fire. A young girl in a green dress was curled into a ball by the back wheel. He didn't want any more company between where he was and the covering fire of Arwood's M60, but the girl was in the spot he needed to get to, and few other choices remained. The truck was the first destination in a route from here to there.

Benton looked east. He could hear the Mi-24, but couldn't see it. Shots were being fired in the city. He knew there were ground forces going from door to door, killing every male over the age of twelve and many others, just for the experience of it, or the pay. But they seemed to be behind him or off in the distance. If he dropped the camera bag and kept only the few rolls of 35mm that he'd taken until now, he could easily jog the rest of the way.

Benton stripped the remaining film from the Pentax and tucked it into his front pocket. He paused before his sprint to check for new movement and — momentarily confident — started running.

There were concrete buildings to the east about three hundred metres away. It was not until the gunship rose above the walls that he had any idea of how well they masked the sounds of the rotors.

He ran faster.

When he reached the truck and the girl, he paused by the front wheel to pant. He hadn't covered much ground, but he was winded and scared. As the truck was already smouldering, he figured it wouldn't be a target, but the helicopter pilot was blowing families to pieces with an anti-tank Gatling gun, so perhaps there was a different logic at play.

The girl looked at him, and he at her. They regarded one another like strangers at the
souk
.

She was slender and very young. Her head was not covered, though it was possible that in the commotion her scarf had come loose. Her gently tanned skin was flawless and healthy, and her sandy hair was full and lush, the way that women's magazines promised it would be if you used their products. Her eyes were a very light brown.

Her accent was thick, and he didn't know whether it was English or Arabic she was speaking when she said, ‘America?'

‘Britain,' said Benton. ‘Going to visit the Americans, though. Perhaps you should come.'

The helicopter was now starting to move in their direction. Whatever water Benton had consumed at the pharmacy had become sweat again. The need to decide whether to stay or run vanished when the helicopter sped toward them faster than the speed of choice. The pilot did not shoot. It may have been because he already had a destination that was fifty metres farther away. Also, his line of sight was blocked by the truck, and it was unlikely he saw Benton and the girl.

BOOK: The Girl in Green
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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