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Authors: Derek B. Miller

Tags: #FIC030000, #FIC032000

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BOOK: The Girl in Green
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‘How well do you know him?'

‘In some ways, I feel like I know him very well. We've been through hell together recently. I haven't known him long, though. I'm not sure that matters.'

‘Did something happen during the war?'

‘No — afterward. Arwood was stationed with an army unit monitoring the ceasefire. He was in Third Squadron, Second Cavalry Regiment, in a place called Checkpoint Zulu near Samawah. There's nothing there. He was a machine gunner stationed at the northernmost point of the post. It was a terrible place,' Benton said, turning to look at the young people watching Magnum emerge in his swimsuit, moustache, and Rolex from the Hawaiian waters.

Märta poured them each another drink. She leaned back afterward and lit a cigarette.

‘Anyway … I was there, too, with a couple of other journalists. We weren't doing anything useful. We all wanted to get closer to the civil war itself and report on it, but we couldn't. Saddam had kicked us all out, and we couldn't legally get in. I was feeling headstrong about being manhandled all the time, and wanted to see something else. It was ironic, because the Americans rather cleverly gave us journalists what we all wanted: access. They embedded us in their military units. As a result, we saw the war up close and intimately, but from a one-sided, one perspective angle. The Pentagon outsmarted us. We'd been completely coopted, but it was so exciting that no one noticed.

‘Eventually I figured this out. I decided to cross the ceasefire line where Arwood was stationed. I wanted to go into Samawah and see what was happening. Interview some people. Take some pictures. See the war from another side. Get that other perspective. I made him think it was his idea, because he was an earnest kid. I honestly didn't think anything was going to happen. While I was there, the Republican Guard came and killed everybody. Arwood came to get me. Which he also didn't have to do. But it wasn't smooth.'

‘What happened?'

‘I don't want to go into it. Not just yet. I just …' Benton trailed off and then sipped his bourbon again. ‘I think … what happened today with Arwood … that was completely my fault. He wouldn't have been banished up here if it hadn't been for me, and he wouldn't have suffered whatever he's going through were it not for me. Also, it was useless. I dropped the film because it was slowing me down. I can't file the story for half a dozen reasons, including legal ones. So the fact is, Arwood walked through the minefield because I put him there.'

‘It can't be that linear,' Märta said.

‘It really is.'

Märta finished her drink and said nothing.

‘I'm starting to think,' he eventually continued, ‘that maybe we leave parts of ourselves behind in certain situations — some essential piece of ourselves that we have to cut off, otherwise there's no way out. The future becomes a kind of journey to discover what you might actually have left behind and what you're supposed to do about it. It's more than trauma. It's like a phantom limb, but with a piece of your soul.'

Märta watched Benton. She studied his face. She'd known dozens of war journalists and photographers. It was stunning how impressed they were with themselves. A few deserved it, but most were parachute journalists who would drop in, take some pictures, and rush out onto
Oprah
so they could tell the world about their bravery and close calls, and how committed they all were to the ideal of a free press to support an informed democracy. She liked to say to them, ‘You realise that when you're gone, I'm still here, right? Me and the rest of the girls?' And they'd laugh, as though she were speaking through strawberry lip balm.

Benton exuded none of this. He seemed sincerely miserable. It was refreshing. Maybe it awakened something in her Swedish soul.

‘Why do you do this?' she asked.

‘Do what — this job?' he asked.

‘Yeah.'

‘It's a kind of momentum, isn't it? It's a job. A set of skilled tasks you eventually know how to do, which means you don't know how to do other things, so eventually there you are. When the paper calls and sends me on assignment, this is the kind of assignment they send me on. They don't ask me to do other things like … I don't know … photograph food for the
Lifestyles
section. In fact, I think I might like working on a cookbook.'

Märta smiled. ‘Really?'

‘Well, sure. It's honest and direct work that requires some creativity and technical skill. You get to see the benefits of your effort immediately. I imagine the people who work on that sort of thing are rather easygoing, and enjoy it. It's useful, but there isn't too much riding on it, really. I wouldn't mind being in that atmosphere. Besides, after taking pictures of gourmet food, you get to eat it. That must be nice.'

‘Actually, you can't. A lot of the food is chemically treated. Much of what you see in magazines is entirely inedible. My boyfriend imports food into Sweden. I've been to photography sessions.'

‘That's disappointing,' he said.

They did not return to the topic of Arwood that night. What she wanted was proof that she wouldn't become like Arwood. Instead she learned that she wasn't alone with her fears. That recognition created an intimacy she needed. Looking at Benton, she realised that she wanted the world to contract for an hour rather than expand, and for her senses to be directed to something specific rather than to be scattered across the terrain of Kurdistan.

She put her hand on his. It covered his wedding ring. She felt it press against her palm.

He looked down at her hand. He looked surprised, but he did not resist. Instead, he laid his free hand on top of hers. Neither smiled.

Before morning they were lovers.

The crisis ended with a whimper. The Kurds wouldn't get off the mountains until they could be sure of their safety. But Dohuk was below the 36th parallel, which was the demarcation line of the ceasefire in the north. US Lieutenant Colonel Abigail manoeuvred his companies closer to Dohuk to intimidate the Iraqis so they'd pull out and the Kurds could move back in.

General Jay Garner put two American battalions close by. Two different strike scenarios were drawn up. The Marine Expeditionary Unit, backed by other coalition forces, was going to secure the high ground to the north and east of Dohuk. The idea was that the MEU's marine helicopter squadron would fly one marine rifle company to the high ground south of Dohuk, a second company would secure the road to the south-west, and a third, mounted in armoured amphibious vehicles, would pass through the second company and secure a blocking position ten kilometres south of Dohuk on the highway to Mosul. If that worked, and Dohuk was taken without a fight, 45 Commando and the Dutch marines were planning to pass through Abizaid's battalion, enter Dohuk, and secure the town proper, as they had at Zahko. That isn't what happened, though. The US National Security Council screwed it up, calling it all to a halt because they didn't understand the situation, and this signalled weakness to Saddam. He got on television and said that Iraq would fight to defend Dohuk. This meant that no one was going home and that the northern disaster was going to press on and on and on, because there was nowhere to resettle the refugees.

Washington tried to blame their field commanders, but that is what people in Washington do, because Washington is the kind of town that attracts the kind of people who do that. As usual, it was the people in the field who sorted it out, while all the members of the National Security Council went on to better jobs later.

The press never covered the real story, and the army flowered it over in diplo-speak. What happened was that an American lieutenant colonel named Dick Naab had a long talk with an Iraqi colonel named Nashwan, who explained that Saddam had already issued orders to hold the town and had said so on the national TV, so it would be an insult if they now surrendered it and Saddam had to back down. It was Naab who came up with the idea of having the Iraqis ‘invite' non-combat forces into Dohuk to start the repatriation.

Nashwan, being pragmatic, saw the logic of the manoeuvre by recognising that it was in Saddam's interests to make the coalition forces go away, which they wouldn't do until the refugees were resettled, having said as much on television in their own countries. So Nashwan took this proposition back to Baghdad, Saddam gave it a think, decided it was a good idea, and the invitation was offered.

All that was left to do was move hundreds of thousands of destitute people from the mountains, which is what was done in one of the most remarkable and unsung humanitarian operations of the twentieth century. The end of Operation Provide Comfort was not mentioned in any newspaper in the United States or Britain.

Märta went back to Sweden, and slept for three weeks. For the next several months she followed Benton's bylines in the newspaper, but after a year she stopped. She and Erik were engaged, and soon married. What she had had with Benton she considered private, contained, and over: a
tryst.

She thought the word meant the same as the French
triste
— ‘sad'. It was strange to learn, on looking the words up, that they were only distantly related.

PART II

THE LONG, COLD, HARD, AND DARK OF IT

22 YEARS LATER

8

The cragged land holds tightly to the last heat of the day. Thomas Benton's collar flaps gently in the late-summer shamal wind. He sits on the bleachers by the Domiz refugee camp, overlooking a pitted and littered playing field as the world fades to a pastel pink under an expanding indigo sky. Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian children are kicking and chasing an oblong American football up and down the remains of a once-tended soccer pitch. A well-meaning man from a US aid agency shouts instructions to them about what they are doing wrong.

A skinny boy without shoes is covered in dust. Or perhaps he is made of dust. If he is, he is dissolving before Benton's eyes, because behind him is a thick and heavy cloud choking everything slower than himself. By his speed and direction, this means most of the Eastern world. Blacked out, he is a Semitic stick figure of eyes, teeth, and feet. This boy — this genie, this pillar of fire — has somehow gained a measure of control over the foreign ball, and with tremendous timing and balance shoots from the far edge of the pitch. As the ball passes between the two broken and bent tubes that were once the posts, the children — on both teams — all cheer. The applause is as youthful and sincere as it is startling and welcome.

Benton watches the children as he opens a Kit Kat chocolate bar he bought from a cold store, and pops open a Fanta bottle scarred opaque from reuse. He is sixty-three years old. It is a poor dinner for an old belly, but its virtue lies in familiarity. He learned long ago that being a successful world traveller means little more than having the ability to eat anything without suffering adverse consequences.

A man whom Benton hasn't noticed before is sitting on a lower bench. As the ball passes through the posts, he leaps from the edge of his seat and cheers. He is an Arab. He wears shabby trousers and a blue blazer. His black hair is dirty and poorly cut. From the fit of his jacket, it seems he is wearing donated clothing. That, or he is vanishing.

He turns to Benton — the only other person in the bleachers — and smiles. It is not a smile of happiness but of pride, and in this precious moment it runs deeper than an empty well. He looks to Benton because he needs to know if anyone saw what he saw.

To Benton, it is a familiar look in the Middle East. Answering the man's unspoken plea, he speaks first. ‘That your boy?'

‘That is my son. He is better than Beckham. Better than Ronaldo.' His accent is Arabic, and his English is inflected with British intonations rather than American ones.

‘He's got talent,' Benton says through a weak smile.

‘I would like to see Beckham chase around a ball shaped like that.'

‘So would I.'

‘Fifty-two aid agencies here. Not one brings a real football for the children. Imagine that.'

‘I don't have to,' Benton says.

‘Where you from?' the man says.

‘England,' Benton says. ‘A town in Cornwall. You've never heard of it. Fowey.'

‘Is it near Penzance?'

‘Further east. Halfway to Plymouth. What do you know about Penzance?'

‘I saw the musical with the pirates,' the man says. ‘West End. In 1996. It was May. That was very nice.'

‘Ninety-six was a better year.'

The man puts up his hand. He can't talk about that.

‘Why were you in London?' Benton asks.

‘I did my master's degree in education at the University of London. When I got back to Damascus, I was made principal of the elementary school where I worked. I liked the theatre. It was too expensive for a foreign student, but there were half-price tickets in Leicester Square the day of the performance, if you weren't too picky about what was left. I was often very lucky back then.'

‘You're Syrian?'

‘I'm nothing,' he says, the smile gone. He glances back to his son and makes sure he is still there. ‘There is no Syria. There are no Syrians. For the first time in three thousand years. I am a ghost. I live in a tent. There is no work here. Nothing for the kids to do all day. I had to pull him out of school. Now he's a year behind, when he was once ahead. I teach him by myself in a tent with no books, no maps, no Internet. I have nothing but my son. But he is worse off. He has only me.'

BOOK: The Girl in Green
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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