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The Unsung Victims of the Emerald City

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Posted on May 29, 2008
AP photo / Maya Alleruzzo

A civilian contractor is treated at Ibn Sina Hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

By Sarah Stillman

2 a.m.: As soon as a Blackhawk helicopter deposits me in Baghdad’s palatial Green Zone, I’m welcomed by four Peruvian checkpoint guards: “Buenas noches, señorita.”

The men slouch beneath a grove of towering date palms and wave me closer with their dust-flecked M4s—so close, in fact, that I can see a small photo of a guard’s child dangling from his neck like an amulet. Can they point me toward the U.S. Embassy? No. Can they offer me a map? No. It turns out the guardsmen don’t speak a lick of English, which leaves me to my threadbare Spanish to patch together my fate: I’m not allowed to enter my accommodations until I flash a laminated media badge, and I can’t get my hands on a laminated media badge until I enter my accommodations.

Welcome to the Green Zone, señorita—though it’s been said to moonlight as the Green Zoo.

3 a.m.: An excitable National Guard specialist from Boston, known to the Peruvians as “Chorizo,” spots me from his massive SUV and offers me a ride to the official media badging office, with a preliminary stop at the late-night chow hall. Driving his unarmored vehicle like a souped-up Mustang—Chorizo couldn’t be older than 23—he speaks rapturously about the garlic potatoes and French toast that await us in one of Saddam’s former palaces.

The guards in front of the facility share Chorizo’s youth, but not his enthusiasm; their chafed expressions say, “Did I really travel 2,390 miles from Uganda to the world’s most dangerous city so I could police the late-night munchies of Americans?” They were recruited by a private contractor based in Lenoir City, Tenn.—a multimillion-dollar enterprise named Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology—but they approach their job with the improvisational spirit of a generic East African checkpoint: First, they chat among themselves about whether or not to take our passports while we eat, and then, when they reach a vague consensus (why not?), they joke about how they’ll try not to lose them.


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Chorizo gets pissed. “But that’s never been the rule before,” he protests. “And I’ve eaten here a million times.”

“Well, then you should know how often we change the rules,” one Ugandan says with a wry smile. 

6 a.m.: Just when I’ve finally nodded off on a vacant mattress for the night—courtesy of the media badging office—an earsplitting blast jolts me from sleep. An Army escort grabs me, shoves me to the concrete floor and takes position over me as loudspeakers crackle with belated advice: “Duck and cover! Duck and cover!” 

After a stunned stretch of silence, Chorizo’s voice busts through the wall that separates us. “Whooooeeee!” he hoots. “I mean, holy shit, that was a close one!” He’s right: Two rockets just collided with our compound—one exploding against the rooftop, another smashing into a blast wall 50 meters from my window. The impact was enough to catapult a small hedgehog from his burrow and onto our gravel driveway. Chorizo scoops the shocked critter into a silver bucket, elects him our mascot and allows me to christen him “Sonic.”

We’re officially under attack. The barrage of artillery continues for more than 14 hours and nearly 20 blasts, constituting one of the fiercest and most systematic assaults on the Green Zone in over a year. Rocket shrapnel carpets the road outside the badging office, and KBR workers collect the opalescent hunks in Styrofoam cups to save for their grandkids or sell on eBay. Smoke rises over the four-mile compound at random intervals, prompting civilians to run frantically for bunkers within the U.S. Embassy complex at least three times—some wearing designer suits, others wrapped only in bath towels. 

We don’t know it yet, but the daylong barrage that’s commenced at dawn on Easter Sunday will soon morph into a weeklong attack, which will evolve into a monthlong fusillade. With renewed currents of vulnerability coursing through the highly fortified compound—at least 114 rockets and mortar rounds would crash down here in the coming month—an important question emerges: Who bears the brunt of all this Green Zone-bound hellfire?

At the top of the Most Vulnerable Player list sit Iraqi civilians. At least 13 perished in the Easter Sunday attack, when a cluster of rockets fell short of the Green Zone’s gates and ripped through the homes of everyday Iraqis. Civilian casualties also have surged at the hands of U.S. forces, as they struggle to retaliate against rocket-lobbing Shiite militiamen. On April 29, for instance, a 2-year-old boy named Ali Hussein was photographed within the rubble of four homes destroyed by wayward American missiles in Sadr City; he died that same day in a hospital crammed with other wounded civilians.

The second most susceptible group, I’m willing to guess, is made up of the private military contractors working inside the Green Zone: the Peruvian guards who stand watch near the airfield, the Ugandans who guard the well-stocked chow halls, and a host of foreign contractors known as “third-country nationals” (TCNs) who work as cleaners, cooks and construction workers. These men—and a handful of women—perform their duties in the open air without the most basic safeguards of body armor or Kevlar helmets. At night, they fall asleep, or don’t, inside flimsy metal shipping containers known as “tin cans,” where several contractors have met fiery deaths over the past two months (including Paul Converse, an American working for the special inspector general).

According to the Ministry of Interior, at least 14 non-Americans have died in the Green Zone since the March 23 attack—mostly due to wounds incurred by indirect fire. But my experience here on the ground, comparing official news releases with firsthand casualty reports, has taught me to assume much higher death rates for TCNs than make it into the mainstream media. The U.S. Labor Department’s body counts are based on the number of families that file for death benefits, despite the fact that non-Americans don’t conventionally submit such claims—and may not even know that the option exists.

For weeks to come after the Easter Sunday attacks, the media chatters about the ugly semiotics of the rocket blasts: Did they definitively take the “green” out of the Green Zone? Televised pundits dispute what the bursting of America’s would-be bubble in Baghdad portends for the U.S. presidential elections, and U.S. presidential contenders debate what the possible Iranian origins of the rockets mean for the future of American foreign policy.

But no one bothers to mention the dead and wounded TCNs. No one prints their names in the papers or digs up their family photographs. Their conspicuous absence functions as my introduction to a sour truth of combat reporting: “If it bleeds, it leads” may be the tacit motto of the genre, but, apparently, most war reporters are checking passports at the gates.

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By Vermonter, June 2, 2008 at 12:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Creative and witty, in a sick, sad way.

Well done.

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By DC Guy, June 2, 2008 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A Ugandan friend of mine was recently recruited by a sub-contractor of EODT in Kampala to work in Iraq as a “security guard”. The rate of pay was $700 per month, and the work week stipulated in his contract “ends at 2400 hours on Sunday and begins at 0100 hours on Monday.” And the work day in the contract was for 12 hours. I imagine EODT is charging the D.o.D. quite a bit more than the $1.94 an hour that comes out to. After reading things like this:
...we talked him out of going.

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By jane, June 2, 2008 at 10:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

According to Jeremy Scahill who wrote about Blackwater,Black Water staff who worked in Iraq made 600.00 a day. I wonder how much Black Water billed the government (using tax of course) a day?

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By Been There, June 2, 2008 at 2:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The majority of material that US forces require enters Iraq on convoys, on unarmored tractor-trailers driven by TCNs. Uncounted (best guess: several hundred) TCN truck drivers have been killed by IEDs, small arms fire, etc. They earn $600 to $800 a month.

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By Mauratina, June 1, 2008 at 6:55 am Link to this comment

Bushesis 1

In the beginning Bush wanted to invade Iraq.

And Iraq was at peace while under the thumb of Saddam Hussein.  And U.S. Air Force planes moved over the land.

And after 9-11 Bush said, “Let there be war.”  And there was war.

And Bush saw the war, that it was good.  And Bush divided the truth from the lies.

And Bush called the truth Lies, and the lies he called Truth.  And 2003 was the first year. 

And Bush said, “Let the war be in the midst of the American people, and let it divide those who support me from those who protest.”

And Bush made the division, and divided those who supported the war from those who did not.  And it was so.

And Bush called the protesters un-American.  And 2004 was the second year.

And Bush said, “Let the diplomats in Baghdad be gathered together in one place, and let an enormous embassy appear.”  And it was so.

And Bush called the place the Green Zone; and the gathering together of the diplomats he called Progress.  And Bush saw that it was good. 

And Bush said, “Let Iraq bring forth unrest, and car bombs that kills hundreds, and terrorists that bring forth terror after their kind.”  And it was so. 

And Iraq brought forth unrest, and terrorists yielding terror after their kind, and car bombs that killed hundreds.  And Bush saw that it was good.

And 2005 was the third year. 

And Bush said, “Let there be lights in Iraq to light the darkness in the streets of Iraq.”

And Bush made the light to light the darkness a little.  He made severe electrical shortages also. 

And 2006 was the fourth year. 

And Bush said, “Let the military bring forth abundently armored vehicles, and tanks, and planes that fly above the earth.”

And Bush created great chaos, and policies that abundently brought forth confusion.  And Bush saw that it was good. 

And Bush said, “Implement the policies, and fill Iraq, and let the military multiply in the land.”

And 2007 was the fifth year.

And Bush said, “Let Iraq bring forth oil after its kind, money, and gasoline for SUVs.”  And it was so. 

And Bush said, “Let us make Iraq in our image, after our likeness.  And let us have dominion over the Middle East, and Iran, and Syria, and every country that dwells therein.” 

And Bush said, “I have taken every land, which is in the Middle East, and every oil-producing country.  To us it shall be for oil.”

And Bush saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.  And 2008 was the sixth year. 

Thus were Iraq and American foreign policy throughly messed up.

And in the seventh year Bush ended the work he had made, and he rested in the seventh year because he had been replaced.

Thank God.

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By msgmi, May 31, 2008 at 7:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Anyone wonder what are these third world employees are being paid for working in the Green Zone when U.S. employees earn 100K plus.

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By Leefeller, May 31, 2008 at 6:21 am Link to this comment

Become the truths in the minds of the liars. Of course truth was never allowed to see the light of day, for lies are used to prop up special agendas. 

So we have a stack of lies for going to war in Iraq, 911, weapons of mass deception, and spreading our capitalist democracy, in the name of death and maiming.

Knowing what is good for others is what our leaders do, built on a mountain of lies. Some of us know this others wave the flag.

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By Purple Girl, May 31, 2008 at 3:13 am Link to this comment

This ‘Truth Speak’ coming out of Mac’s treasonous Mouth must be Counteracted upon by the media.A clip of his lastest Speech followed immediately with the latest Reality on the Ground.
Also the lastest ‘Revelations’ of the Mcclellan Book should be seriously analyzed for it’s failure to delve into th eReal reasons for this Invasion- procuring Oil Rich lands , Not for US but for the Inc’s and their Foreign sponsors (Saudi’s). I must admit I began gobbling Up this psuedo “Tell All”, but have realized it is also just a Crumb to keep US somewhat content.So now we ae expected t be happy with -‘we went to war for the pleasure of the Pres’s idealism’ More BS!This Book is a Farce and Diversion to lessen the charges agaisnt any in this Adminstration- Reason they are only throwing ‘Soft Balls at it and Him. Scotty is still a Loyalist, reason he went on th e’Liberal Media ’ shows like ‘Countdown’ If we sing is Praise, buy his BS excuse for the Admin, they get off ‘Scott Free’.
Sorry Scotty & Cheney Inc, Your crumb does not suffice. You conspired to drag US into a War as part of a Conspiracy for Oil Seizures. Lied to US then , LYING TO US NOW!His book is just another ‘Rovian ’ Tactic. How bad of Punishment would be levied for ‘Misguided’ ‘Reconstruction’ as oppsed to Corporate Imperalism- Sorry Boys and Girls, I still see the truth of your Malice and Betrayal towards US for the benefit of your Cohorts of Industry and their sponsoring foreign Regimes. Treason, War crimes and Crimes Agaisnt Humanity! Scotty is still trying to save your ASSES!

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By Leefeller, May 30, 2008 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment

Disappointing low number of posts on this article, while the Hillary and Republicans dominate the campaign posts. if so called progress is in Iraq, this means we can bring the troops home tomorrow, oh I forgot we can only accept victory, what ever that means. 

When Exxon has it’s oil and Iraq has Wallmart in Iraq that would be real victory, not for those that died, but the opportunists who promote war and their greed for money and power.

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By Trevor, May 30, 2008 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Who the hell are you and why does the assylum let you have internet access.  I hope they took away the scissors.

Why do we keep hearing this, that we’ve broken the enemy’s will, and yet then things get worse?  If things are so great, how can the Green Zone come under not just random attack but concerted assault? If you people woudl just admit that you screwed things up royally to begin with we MIGHT be willing to follow you into a longer engagement in Iraq. 

But you’ve lied to us so far, so we aren’t following like the sheep you think we are.  It’s not surrender to pull our troops out of a country they don’t belong so we can bolster our defenses at home.

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By Leefeller, May 29, 2008 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment

Well we should let the so called wold leaders foot the bill and pay the price and send in their troops.

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By StepenL, May 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment

Today, World leaders including the UN Chief have praised the progress that has been made in Baghdad as a result of the surge.  Admission that a bad situation is getting much much better as the Iraqi government stands up, political reconciliation is occurring and the Irqi government is pushing out Al Qaeda with US help.

It’s going so much better that being a surrender monkey is getting downright embarrassing and the Obama surrender policy is gradually slipping into obscurity.  He may soon be forced to go to Iraq and announce a new policy based on a “changing” situation, blah blah blah.  In other words, being a surrender monkey in the face of victory may not be electable so he’s willing to acknowledge success if forced to.

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By Bill Blackolive, May 29, 2008 at 7:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sarah, exactly right, all which would not be happening could half the US public have listened to engineers and pilots and witnesses. Or, sad, the US media were too chickenshit to report on, confirm, these statements. Ignored building #7, such incredibility in US history….Good Germans forever….What a phenomenon. So, Iran is greatened, back-patting with the Iraqui Shia government, and Turkey fights with the Kurds who want their country returned to them, and the schizoid/sado/masochist(born in sin, remember) US government looks to blast Iran who can sink the airplane carriers, oh well.

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By Expat, May 29, 2008 at 7:46 am Link to this comment

^ quit following the yellow brick road?

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By Leefeller, May 29, 2008 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

Article provides a small taste of the instantly of war.  War is nothing more than chaos without end.  Since our presence in Iraq was premeditated by those who promoted their personal need to enhance the coffers of their friends and special interests, and let the people be damned, we have what we have.

War is death, nothing less.  Oh, they try to make war something noble or patriotic, only the ignorant accept it as either.  Wave the flag.

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By tomack, May 29, 2008 at 5:19 am Link to this comment

X 000’s when you add them all up. We still do not see this coverage on mainstream tv news yet. Toward the end of Vietnam we saw a lot more blood & guts coverage that we do from Iraq coverage. Does that mean we are not nearing the end?

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By jhm, May 29, 2008 at 5:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article.  My only disagreement lies in your characterization of the media’s treatment of the recent spate of rocket attacks.  Far from chattering about the attacks, they were barely mentioned, let alone focused on to the exclusion of TCNs.  I’m not sure which set of trivial inanities the MSM were focused on at the time, but the most nearly relevant that I can remember was the idea that Mr. Sadr, and Iran were involved with more violence on American soldiers.  This segued into the triumphant response of Mr. Maliki to prove that the Iraqi government was in control.

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