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A witness account of Ukrainians in Iraq

 

Vadym NANYNETS, a member of the Ukrainian military mission in Iraq, shares with the WU readers some of his impressions of Iraq, and expresses his views on the role the Ukrainian troops, stationed in Iraq, played in the post-war reconstruction of that country. He dedicates his story to his fallen comrades.

 

Baghdad

In the summer of 2003 I was approached by Serhiy Khanenko, a friend of mine who was newly appointed to be a representative of the Ukrainian government at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, with a proposal to go to Iraq with him in the capacity of his assistant. I accepted his offer and soon, after all the documents had been obtained, we set off.

Khanenko had worked in Iraq before the war and left it just a week before the invasion. He said that it would be best to get to Baghdad from Jordan as there were no direct flights from Kyiv to the Iraqi capital. We did as he had suggested, and from Jordan we rode in a car all the way to Baghdad.

The road ran through the Syrian Desert, and though the trip took quite some time, we got to Baghdad without any mishaps. Later we were told that we had done right not to have joined a caravan of other cars, since there could be some people in the motorcade who would tip off their comrades at check points indicating who, among the passengers, might be worth being tapped for money at an ambush.

Upon arrival, we checked into a small hotel outside the green zone because there was no place for us there within the more or less protected green zone. Khanenko would take taxis to go to work at the Coalition Administration, and we  his another assistant and I  would go to talk things over with local businessmen. We did not have any weapons or bodyguards to protect us and had to move around Baghdad in taxis. Most of the cab drivers that took me around knew some English and my English was also sufficient to explain where I wanted to go. Each trip cost me in between two and four dollars (at the current official rate of exchange one dollar goes for about 1,300 Iraqi dinars; several months ago the exchange was one dollar for 2,500 dinars). Baghdad is a large city of five million people, and in any western capital I would have to pay much more for my long taxi rides. Sometimes the drivers asked me: Where you from? Russia? No? Ukraine? Ah, Ukraine! I know  Andrey Shevchenko, right? They all seem to know about the Ukrainian soccer player Shevchenko who plays for the soccer club in Milan, Italy. He must be a good player indeed to be known so widely internationally. As a matter of fact, soccer is a very popular game in Iraq. I learnt about this popularity in a somewhat unusual, Iraqi way. Some time in November 2003, in the evening when I was at home, that is in the hotel room, I heard bursts of automatic and small arms fire, which increased by the second. The firing went on unabated for more than thirty minutes and did not seem to be confined to our neighbourhood alone. We turned off the lights and sprawled on the floor as we were instructed to do in such emergencies. A major insurrection in the whole of Baghdad? When at last the firing died down, we turned on the TV set and learnt that the Iraqi national soccer team beat the North Korean national team, and the Iraqis were celebrating in their own, rather specific war-time way, firing into the air, volleys and volleys from their Kalashnikov assault rifles which everybody seems to have stowed away somewhere.

Walking around the streets of Baghdad was an adventure not only because of the constant threat of armed criminals and insurgents hunting for US patrols  the sidewalks were piled high with merchandise of all possible kinds, and you have to navigate through narrow paths among all these mounds of wares on sale. It seemed you could buy pretty much  everything imaginable and unimaginable there. Some of these goods were taken in for the night, but the bulkiest ones were left where they were on the sidewalks with a night watch on guard. I dont seem to have seen automatic washing machines though  probably because there was still a problem with the power supply in Baghdad. Our hotel had an electric generator of some sort which was turned on every time there was a power failure. It made noise similar to that of the falling rain.

In 2003, soon after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, there arose a great demand for dish antennas for satellite television. The dictator had imposed a fine of about 2,000 dollars on those who were caught watching satellite television  a huge sum of money for the Iraqis (a policeman earned three to five dollars a month in addition to the payment in kind  food to take home). One fourth of the blood money went to the vigilant citizen who had informed on the neighbours watching satellite television. Saddam, as all the dictators are wont to do, wanted to have a tight control over what his citizens heard or saw. He allowed in Iraq only one Internet provider, controlled by the state, to provide access to the world wide web but it was a very limited access  no news, no e-mail and no hostile sites could be accessed.

With Saddam gone, advertisements filled the streets of Baghdad, with big boards and posters advertising products from LG, Samsung and other companies rather than displaying the dictators faces. The number of cars in Baghdad also greatly increased. As there were no traffic lights, driving around the capital was a nightmare  your progress was continually disrupted by traffic jams. Even US military vehicles preferred to move around Baghdad in the middle of the night. Another increase, and a considerable one, was in prices, which went up from two to four times compared to the pre-war prices. These price hikes were caused by several factors like larger salaries and more money pouring into the country rather than by the lack of goods. The amount of goods available to the population grew manifold.

 

Hilla and As-Suwayrah

In December of 2003 I moved from Baghdad to the city of Al-Hilla. I was invited to work there by Regional Coordinator Mike Gfoeller who was Paul Bremers deputy in the Southern Region of Iraq. Mr Gfoeller, who was often referred to as Mister G, was said to know eleven languages. He seemed to be particularly friendly towards Ukrainians. I learnt that he had happened to be in Kyiv on August 24 1991, right on the day when the Ukrainian parliament proclaimed Ukraines independence. He liked to mention that occurrence. It was not only Mister G who was of a high opinion about Ukrainians. Colonel Mike Whitehead, head of the Civil Affairs, who came to know the Ukrainian liaison officers Ruslan Myroshnychenko and Dmytro Cherednychenko well, praised them highly, saying that these Ukrainian boys, the first Ukrainians Ive seen in my life, were fine officers and if all the Ukrainian officers were like them, then it was a fine army, indeed.

In October 2004, I was sent on another mission, this time to As-Suwayrah, as a member of a civil-military cooperation unit of the 7th separate mechanized brigade to help establish contacts with the local population. As-Suwayrah, a Shiite city, which is surrounded by Sunnite villages, is situated halfway between Al Kut and Baghdad. It was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in that part of the country. Our base was subjected to mortar and rocket fire almost daily. The Ukrainian troops that had been stationed at that base before us, had had to stay within the base most of the time; they even had had problems with food and other supplies being delivered to them, and had had to live on short rations.

It was the hardest for the 52th Battalion that was the first Ukrainian unit that moved into that base. Originally, it was an Iraqi military base; then US marines moved in, and stayed there for some time before the Ukrainians came. The barracks were in a bad state of repair and Americans slept in their sleeping bags on the roofs in an attempt to avoid being bitten or stung by scorpions and other vermin that the barracks were swarming with.

When it rained, the soil turned into quagmire, the liquid mud being so deep that even the armoured vehicles had problems moving around. Food was brought by armoured personnel carriers; laundry was done in big basins and buckets, but gradually, things were improved  the territory of the base was covered with a layer of crushed stone, a dining facility was opened, a laundry centre with automatic washing machines was established, a gym and a cafe with the Internet connection and long-distance phones were set up.

 

Its not our war

At one of the first meetings of officers, the battalion commander Oleg Matizhev said: Officers, it is not our war that is being fought here, and there is nothing we should die here for. It is my duty to bring all of you home, safe and sound. But we have come here to fulfil a mission  to maintain peace and stability. And we shall do it, but not the way we did it in Afghanistan. I served in Afghanistan in Special Forces and I do not want anything of what happened there to happen here.

At the very first meeting with the sheikhs of the local communities in attendance, Matizhev assured them that the Ukrainian troops would help to get life in the area back to normal and added that repairs and construction would provide jobs for the locals.

When the holy month of Ramadan began, we sent appropriate greetings and put posters in Arabic with greetings at the gate of our base and on the armour of our armoured vehicles which patrolled the highway and bridges.

The greetings worked very well, and the locals, who came to the base mostly seeking medical help, expressed their satisfaction saying that the Ukrainians respected the Islamic traditions. There were a lot of children coming with burns and scalds from boiling water or burning gas on the stoves. Our doctors and paramedics worked real hard, providing help for hundreds of the locals.

We (we  team leader LTC Roman Khomenko, Captain Vladimir Smirnov and me, (Civil-Military Cooperation in NATO terms or Civil Affairs in US Army) also had a lot of work to do, and within four months we carried our projects worth one and a half million dollars. We also prepared documentation for 70 more projects to be carried out by our successors. The soldiers of the battalion did their routine rounds of duty  patrolling the roads, protecting the bridges; when they were shot at, they fired back. When they came under mortar fire, they replied also with mortar fire, using big calibre mortars. It was the only way to hit the enemies, who were hiding behind the nearby hills. If it happened at night, then our soldiers said they were pouring out black tea. (Black tea is radio code-word for fragmentation mortar shell; Light tea was flare mortar round and mortar was code-named as stove.)

 

Also, Ukrainian officers and soldiers were engaged in training Iraqi recruits for army service. The training course lasted for three weeks. There was always a danger that there could be potential suicide bombers or persons who could kill or provoke violence among the recruits and that is why the unit commander who supervised the training had bodyguards with weapons held at the ready. Iraqi officers of lower ranks and NCO always had bamboo sticks with them which they used for whacking soldiers on the back for being slow in fulfilling commands, for negligence and other minor offences.

The battalion commander Matizhev promised to do his absolute best not to lose a single Ukrainian life but he himself and seven of his comrades in arms died in a bizarre accident which happened when they were rendering ineffective the ammunition that had been confiscated by the local police from those who were not supposed to have it. The bodies were taken to Baghdad by helicopters and from there they were flown back to Ukraine for burial.

The local elders (sheikhs) arrived at the base with condolences. They also said that they were very grateful for all the help that the Ukrainian troops were providing. There were no more deaths. In the past six months no Ukrainian units were attacked or fired at. The area protected by the Ukrainian units seems to have been pacified.

The Iraqis do not seem to look upon the Ukrainian troops in their country as occupiers or aggressors. While in Iraq, I never experienced any aggressive attitude on the part of the Iraqis towards me or towards any of my friends or colleagues. The Ukrainian troops regard themselves as peacemakers and though they do not wear the UN peacemakers uniforms (UN blue helmets), they behave like peacemakers. They even displayed the UN peacemakers symbols and accoutrements inside the base.

 

Photos by Vadym NANYNETS

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