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9 Oct, 2008 01:02

Leaflets for the illiterate

Leaflets for the illiterate

Ukrainian military officer and journalist Dmitri Timchuk spent more then a year in Iraq with the Ukrainian troops stationed there. RT is the first to publish his observations of daily life in the Middle Eastern country in English. (Part IX)

No one has as much authority with our contingent as the reconnaissance men. Reconnaissance means timely identification of the disguised mortar emplacements of the militants from which the attacks on the Delta camp were planned (which means saving the lives of our guys).

It means piles of confiscated arms and ammunition, and terrorists who’ve been stopped and referred to the local security officers. It means the guys leaving quietly at nights to comb out the expanse of the Wasit province and returning several hours or days later.

But there is another way of not just identifying threats at the early stage but preventing them as well, mainly by forming a positive image of Ukrainians in the eyes of the Iraqis.

Colonel Vyacheslav Gusarov, commander of the 7th Infantry, the structure for working with the locals, told me: “Our work is targeted at all the population levels. First of all we intend to reach the leaders of the political, secular and religious parties, movements and organisations; the representatives of educational institutions (the university in Al Kut first of all); the leaders of governmental structures.

“During the time of the contingent’s work in Iraq we’ve formed quite a good database of the parties and their leaders, including assessment of their influence on the situation in the province. Based on that, we can work with each of them separately to maintain contacts, to receive information about the moral and psychological situation in the region and to predict its changes.”

Today the communist party is the first among others in Iraq. When it was just “imported” from the Soviet Union it had been in deep disgrace with Hussein and his party, Baath, for a long time.

But nevertheless it had survived, and it’s been thriving today. The High Council of the Islamic revolution and Badr Corps are the leaders of the religious movements. Our experts work with them first of all.

But it’s not sufficient to be “friends” with the local leaders. We have to tell the local citizens who the Ukrainians are and what their purpose is in this country.

The materials prepared by journalists of such famous channels as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia, and of Nagreyne, the local TV channel and radio station (which translates as Two Rivers and which belongs to the abovementioned Badr Corps), and the Al-Kut local radio station and Wasit Alayam newspaper (Wasit Echo), play a crucial role in this issue.

And we have to say that today the local population knows quite a lot about Ukraine and the Ukrainians, which as a result produces good attitude towards our guys.

But the leaflets were a mistake in the beginning. They were prepared according to all the rules of our campaign, but it turned out they made no sense here, as they contained text only, even though they were in Arabic.

The locals could not understand the printed appeals as the absolute majority of them were illiterate. So the leaflets had to be altered immediately.

Today the leaflets distributed in the Wasit province look like colourful comic strips, with pictures of Ukrainian military men helping the wounded and distributing humanitarian aid and so on. Everyone understands such leaflets.
Road to Babylon

Being in Iraq and not going to Babylon is the same as visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. However, not all our guys are that lucky. In order to get there one has to be either one of two dozen of the Ukrainian officers working in the headquarters of the multinational division “Centre-South” located on the territory of the Alfa base camp, or to become a part of an escort convoy which gets here from the Ukrainian Delta camp.

Convoy in Iraq is the life for the coalition forces; it means food supplies and ammunition, arms and equipment; and during the rotation it is also a long-awaited replacement and the first step on the way home, to Ukraine.

The reconnaissance men thoroughly check out the routes before the journey begins. Even before our departure, two land mines were found. The militants had mined the roads as they were obviously waiting for us.

The convoy heads towards Babylon, towards the Alfa camp, early in the morning. Principally, there is no strict schedule of the convoy journeys, so that the “ali babas”, or the militants, would not be able to track them. But mostly the journeys take place during the daytime.

The road through An-Numania and Scania to Babylon, honestly speaking, has nothing interesting for a sophisticated eye. All the same unattractive Arabic adobe huts and scarce plants on the clayey soil; one may see seldom groves of scraggy date-trees.

Arab women are crowding around the numerous shallow puddle-like lakes. Using their feet and some tools looking like our choppers, they bank silt.

These are the salty lakes which never dry even in the strong heat. The top layer of silt is pure edible salt. Small villages have mosques, flaked houses and colourful portraits of the Muslim imams on slabs near the road, which are traditional for these areas. Here they replace the more common monuments which we are used to.

Actually, even here there are some monuments. A huge statue of King Hammurabi stands at the entrance to Babylon. He points at the city with his outstretched arm, somewhat resembling our monumental sculptures from Soviet times.

The name Babylon, which the Sumerian used to call Kadingirra, came from the word “babilu”, which means “God’s gates” in Akkadian. (The Akkadians is a general name for such nations of Mesopotamia, as Babylonians and Assyrians.) The first mention of it is found in the Legend of Sargon of 2369 BC.

It was captured by the Hittites and the Kassites; it was destroyed by the Assyrian kings twice; and starting from 732 BC it became a part of the Assyrian State. In 689 BC it was completely destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib as a punishment for rebellion, but it was rebuilt nine years later.

And 300 years later it was it was invaded by Alexander of Macedon. At the dawn of civilization Babylon was the largest political, cultural and economic center of the entire Southwest Asia. It had maintained its significance till the 2nd century AD, which means for more than four thousand years.

No tanks beyond the Ishtar Gate

Babylon (the old city is located in the outskirts on the modern city of Hillah) is located in a splendid oasis on the banks of the Euphrates. In the past the residence of Hussein’s family was located there, but today Saddam’s palace is empty.

Only a coalition forces subdivision of communicators is stationed here. The Euphrates doesn’t look impressive either; it’s no less dirty than the Tigris, and it’s no wider than a medium highway. It looks like a small brook compared to the Dnepr. However, the palms on its banks look beautiful and lush.

The Polish lieutenant-colonel, Artur Domansky, the head of the divisional press-center, meets us. And he makes an offer which we cannot refuse: to visit the old city.

We have to clarify that Babylon is located on the territory of the Alfa base, but entrance on the territory of this historical memorial, surrounded with the barbed wire, is strictly forbidden for the coalition forces militants!

However, the Arabic mass media keep accusing the Ukrainians and the Poles of hiding military equipment behind the walls of the ancient city to protect themselves in case the militants attack, and thus of holding Babylon “as hostage”.

I saw with my own eyes that there were no strangers here other than the Iraqi archeologists and three Polish scientists helping them with digging.

By the way, since the Ukrainians are present in the division, our scientists could also participate in this work. Sometimes organised excursions are arranged for the soldiers accompanied by a Polish tour guide, archeologist Agnieszka.

However, the militants feel free to shoot at both Alfa and Babylon. Thus, before our arrival, the camp was attacked from the nearby hill by the “phantom” terrorists in a pickup truck.

Having launched 14 mines from the mortar, the militants disappeared. Five coalition servicemen were wounded.

We are in front of the Blue Gate, or the Ishtar Gate, which is familiar to us from school history books. It is named after the goddess of life, love and fertility in the pantheon of Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians.

The cradle of the most ancient human civilization is located behind them. According to the Bible, the Garden of Eden, or heaven, was located here. One can see the walls with colourful murals of ancient kings, and the palace alley.

However, these constructions have been built in our times under Saddam on the ancient foundation; sometimes they were even based on the author’s imagination.

This makes archeologists very angry, as they say the builders had destroyed a large part of the ancient culture by building a “cartoon town” for the dictator.

However, there are quite a lot of true ruins left; the ‘House of the Dead“ where the corpses were being immured into the walls in the process of rituals; a fragment of stela with the code of laws of King Hammurabi; a massive monument to the Babylon prostitute being eaten by a lion (our ”experts” insist that it actually portrays sexual intercourse between a prostitute and an animal. Scientists say it looks like that too.)

We have to believe Herodotus

Today it’s hard to tell how Babylon used to look thousands of years ago. However, the general features are clear. Three rows of watchtowers forming a large stretched triangle had eight gates (they were called after the names of gods; the Ishtar Gate is the only one well-preserved today).

The Euphrates was flowing through the city centre. Wide streets were leading to the gates from the centre, and according to local scientists, they were mainly intended for religious marches. The main street, paved with large slabs and surrounded by walls, was leading to the Ishtar Gate.

The street united the Ishtar Gate with the main temples of Babylon in its centre: the temple of Esagila (the so-called House of Raised Heads) and the Etemenanki Ziggurat (The House of Connection of Earth and Sky).

Also the pride of Babylon is located here: the large and luxurious palace of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second, with the “hanging gardens” on its vaults. It was one of the main sites of the city, and people would travel from far away for days and weeks under the scorching sun to look at that palace.

Archeologists say that they are finding only some evidence of the historical data. Most of the knowledge about Babylon has been obtained from the accounts of ancient Greek writers, such as Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus; and on the basis of the diggings in the beginning of the 20th century.

Under Hussein no one was serious about scientific work; scientists were not allowed on the territory of Saddam’s residence located here; and Babylon was pleasing the sight of the dictator’s relatives only.

The latter, as it’s been said before, were chasing not after historical truth but after beauty. With their construction works they had destroyed the city remains which were priceless for science.

By the way, the so-called Babylon Tower in the Babel province, often portrayed on Iraqi postcards, has absolutely nothing to do with the real biblical tower. This is yet another “creation” of Saddam who’d built it “out of the blue”.

According to scientists working in Babylon today, they have an idea of where the real tower could be located, but they have to work hard to verify it.

Where did Alexander of Macedon die?

I am wandering among the ruins of Babylon. My goal is, with the help of the city plan from an historical encyclopedia, to determine where the Etemenanki Ziggurat was actually located according to the configurations of the destroyed foundations.

That temple construction of 90 meters high was the real “Tower of Babel”, because of which, according to the Old Testament, God had divided the human languages. Suddenly our senior lieutenant, the Ukrainian, appears from nowhere and asks me: “Do you know that Alexander of Macedon was murdered here?”

I start mumbling something about the fact that this great commander was not murdered but he died from fever, but actually I don’t know for sure. The senior lieutenant looks at me with pity, as if I was crippled (obviously, according to him, it is unacceptable not to know such common historical facts).

We talk for a while, and I start feeling really proud. This young officer, my fellow countryman, is quite well-informed about the history of Babylon and about the fact that this very city was made the capital of the great empire by Alexander of Macedon.

I immediately remember the so-called “military tourism” harshly criticised back home in Ukraine. This is what they call our peacekeeping mission, seeing it as striving to travel around the world at the expense of the Defence Ministry.

I don’t know about others but I am pleased that our guys travel around continents, not just looking for adventure and money, but they know a lot about the places where they serve!

According to my experience with US citizens, they know very little about the historical value of those places where they end up being, by the will of fortune and by the decisions of the White House.

A message in English on the slab not far from the palace, in the form of the reconstructed ziggurat in Babylon, saying “Bill loves Tiffany”, looks very piquant. No comments.

By the way, later I checked that Alexander of Macedon actually did die in Babylon, but he died from malaria; he was never killed by anyone.

If you want to get something to remind you of your visit to Babylon, you should go to the Arabic market in the outskirts of the Alfa camp. Here the loyal Iraqis tested by the authorities sell the same things as usual: household appliances, carpets and pottery. However, loyalty to the new authorities does not kill their commercial inclination. At the very entrance to this noisy little place (where everyone advertises their goods as loud as they can in Arabic, even though the visitors are the military coalitions only, who understand one or two words at the most) you will be offered figurines of ancient gods, made of clay with fragments, in strict secrecy under-the-counter.

According to the sellers, those figures are more than three thousand years old, and they are very cheap. You can buy them without any doubts of the legality of this deal. And the Arab sellers will not feel guilty for selling the cultural heritage of their homeland. If they run out of the “rarity” supplies they will easily produce a new homemade batch.

Story and photos courtesy of Dmitri Timchuk

From Baghdad to Kiev (Part X)