Iraqi farmer leaves life of fear behind
Remembering the paranoia: 'I didn't even trust my children'
By Art Harris
In our 'War Stories' series, CNN correspondents tell the story of war from the perspective of one person living through, recovering from or fighting the war in Iraq.
KUT, Iraq -- On a dusty country road outside this city of 350,000 on the Tigris River, a man in a white robe flagged down a U.S. Marines light armored vehicle. "There are weapons," he said in broken English, "many weapons."
Marines dismounted, and followed close behind Faez Shamran el Yaseri, 51, as the farmer scurried down a bank, past a stash of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) in a ditch, through his garden, then to an outbuilding with hundreds of gas masks, canisters and chemical decontamination kits littered on the ground.
Whoever was here left fast.
"Republican Guard," he said in broken English. "They left on April 3 and went back to Bagdad. Much bombing." He also said the 34th Artillery Brigade split, too, from this once heavily defended city where the U.S military expected much more of a fight. Left behind: so much ammo and explosives in bunkers dotting fields like anthills that it could take days, or weeks to blow it all up.
Next, Yaseri led them to his house, used as headquarters by the Iraqi commander, and a room a foot deep in documents, including dossiers on hundreds of soldiers. "This says his mother was Iranian, and this one says he has an uncle with the CIA in America," said Faez, shuffling papers he later turned over to the Marines.
Across from Faez's farm, a bulldozer pushed giant levees of dirt between bunkers and the farmers' mud and brick homes. Demolition experts rigged C-4 to piles of deadly RPGs, 120 mm artillery shells, machine gun rounds and advised families to leave. Then, boom after boom shook the ground, sending giant black clouds over the fields.
"It took Saddam 20 years to build all that up, and a few seconds to make all go away," smiled Faez. "It makes me very happy. Inshallah. (God willing)"
'So many stories, so many secrets'
Faez walked into Kut with thousands who turned out to welcome the Marines with a lovefest last week. "It was like a celebration," he said. Still, troops remained on alert this week after reports of a menacing crowd and paramilitary fighters still in the area. Faez said he had seen outside terrorists in Kut, but most had gotten the message from locals they were not wanted.
"I saw someone I know was Pakistani," said Faez, who echoed intelligence shared with CNN of some 3,000 terrorists from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere, many with al Qaeda training.
Overjoyed at the demise of Saddam, Faez said there are "so many stories, so many secrets, it will take years to tell them all."
For Faez, life under Saddam was living paranoia. "I didn't even trust my children," he said. "Teachers would ask them, 'What do you talk about at home? What does your father say about Saddam?'"
And if anything was perceived to be negative, "They could shoot you," he said. When one son was recruited for terror school at 14, Faez says he sent him away to live with relatives.
"Many people disappeared into prisons and families don't know what happened to them," he said.
Bribes for every service
Flanked by teenage sons, he portrayed life in Iraq as struggling for the basics. "When we needed water for our crops, I asked the irrigation director, and he said it would be done, but it never was," he said, detailing fees poor farmers had to pay to local government for land and extra water for crops.
He grew up as the son of the Communist Party leader in Iraq who was assassinated in the late 1970s. Faez served in the Iraqi Army in the Iraq-Iran war, when many friends were killed by Iraq's chemical weapons blowing back on its own troops. Back home, Faez kept reading about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and now George Bush. "You know how you say, Uncle Sam, now we say, Uncle Bush.'"
For Faez, to get along meant getting along with everyone from Baath Party officials to bureaucrats, begging for services like power when it was turned off, and paying bribes. "Look over there, very poor," said Faez, explaining the plight of a family of 11 living in one room and facing fees to irrigate a small amount of land.
Unlike others he could afford it. "I am what you would call in the middle," he said. "I have 10,000 hectares of land." Growing wheat, sunflowers and watermelon, he makes $1,000 a year, and gets by with government food subsidies of wheat, tea and sugar.
'This used to be my village'
Standing on the dirt road, young and old stop to greet him. He seemed to know everyone; and know the latest news -- that a Baath Party security official was just gunned down by locals. "He had killed many people," said Faez, who said not all party members were bad people. "But this one was."
As for Iraqi soldiers, Faez said he found only three dead after the bombing because their commander told them to leave. "Many of them were from Kut and just went home." he said.
Now home is where the explosives are, as Marines trot out bulldozers to push back earth and build giant berms to protect the farmers and their mud and brick houses virtually on top of fighting holes packed with abandoned ordnance.
"No mines," said Faez, trying to reassure two Marine scouts who jumped out of an armored vehicle nicknamed Young Guns.
Faez waved his hands about flatlands of mud and fertile fields. Date palms shaded houses made of brick and mortar. Dogs barked and donkeys brayed. Tractors chugged up the road. Farmers waved and asked if they could pass.
"This used to be my village," he said wistfully, "but many people moved when the army came here."
No expectations of miracles
Sgt. Herbert Phinney, 24, of Great Falls, Montana, had to walk fast to keep up. "This is going to take a while to blow," he said.
Faez said he didn't expect miracles overnight from the Marines. "I can haul water on my back from the river," he said. "It will all come in time."
As for the Marines, he supported them -- except he objected to the way they searched some people. "They really don't need to put people [spread-eagled] on the ground," he said. "If I am on my abdomen, I am ashamed and I cannot face my people."
'I'm not touching that stuff'
Neighbor Abood Mhedi, 52, looked on with his four sons from across the road as a Marine ordnance team approached a giant bunker 50 yards from his home. A master sergeant looked inside and ruled it too dangerous to move. "I'm not touching that stuff," said one corporal, "not even if they order me to do it."
But blowing it up in place could destroy Mhedi's home. Not that he'd mind if the Marines built him a new one. After all, he only makes $1 a month teaching arithmetic in grammar school nearby, and feeds his family by growing crops, raising chickens and milking his one cow.
He said he had returned home from staying in Bagdad and was happy, "very very happy. All we want is to live happy and free."
The Marines came back the next day with bulldozers, dug a trench, ordered him away and blew up the ammunition. Afterward, his house was still standing.