ENDGAME IRAQ | In dust and darkness

The pair of us have been about a week on bases in and around Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace. To get out here we took a big old twin rotor Chinook helicopter from Baghdad, hopping northward up the country. They fly with all the lights out in total darkness to avoid rockets and small arms fire. All the eye can see are layers of profound black delineated by the dim neon green of the crew’s night goggles. The side gunners look out through open windows and we ride with the rear ramp ajar. Gales come rattling through the belly of the big bird. I took a seat beside a gunner, looking down over the sodium glow of Baghdad, and out over unseen sands.

Each night at Forward Operating Base Summerall, in the desert north of Tikrit, we watch as pairs of gunships land virtually unseen, appearing only at the last minute, a smudge of darker black on the midnight sky. It is one of the more sublime moments I’ve experienced, your insides shaken by the rotors overhead, staggering in the wake of these machines. Meanwhile, your eye roams the sky in search of the gunship’s moon shadow, searching for any evidence of the great invisible beast overhead. What form of absolute faith the airmen must have in their green goggles, the world rendered flat into two dimensions of bright neon and total black.

Toyota Hilux, near Baiji, Samarra Province, Iraq
Richard Mosse
Toyota Hilux, near Baiji, Samarra Province, Iraq

The sky has turned a profound shade of orange and it’s hard to see clearly past your hands. The dust has returned. At midday, my camera reads six full stops below what it should. Most confusing is perhaps the moment of transition between inside and outside. The eye is accustomed to reading blue daylight for clean white light. But when the sky is actually red, and you leave a room lit by muddy orange tungsten lights, or green fluorescents, it feels like the end of the world has arrived. And the dust rides the wind horizontally like television static. If you exert yourself you are soon wheezing to catch your breath.

Trevor and I are grounded here on a desert base until the weather clears and the army’s infrastructure resumes. We took our chances with the red weather and headed out of doors laden with cameras. Command Post advised us to wear our Kevlar, as these are the conditions when insurgents take the opportunity to move about the perimeter unheeded, planting devices or getting up to mischief. We huffed about the desert grounds, the dust caking our nose, eyes, mouth.

Stumbling through the orange fog for about an hour, we happened upon a firing range littered with wreckage. Old targets lay like swiss cheese in the sand. An empty oil drum had been shot to a fine mesh and rattled in the dusty wind. Spent bullets were everywhere. Uncertain whether the ground was safe, we tread slowly in single file and came across the wrecks of old vehicles riddled with ordinance. Beside us on the sand lay old mortar shells and the tips of rocket propelled grenades and other warheads, some of them still fully intact.

I write this late in the night from our little tin shack, a freight container surrounded by sand bags. Very occasionally I can hear the rapid fire of AKs in the distance. It makes me feel uneasy. The base’s advanced surveillance system can’t see through the sand storm.

Two nights ago I also heard gunfire. The following day I learned that an Iraqi had been killed in a fire fight at one of the gates. Poor devil. I wonder at the full story. Who he was and why he chose to go down in such a senseless way. Living on this base has made me sympathize just for a moment with what must go through the Israeli mind—how it cares to justify its hundred-fold reaction to any offensive. Living, eating and sleeping in the occupier’s house makes me a valid target for any offensive. And so, in spite of my political view point, I would hope that any attack on this base were repelled with the full arsenal at hand. Or I would rather be spirited away on the dust.

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