God created us as superior creatures and provided us with five wonderful senses but he also gave us another wonderful gift, a built-in system that allows us to forget stressful and frightening experiences. This important system allows the mind to forget, almost to a degree of amnesia, and we have a set of ‘delete buttons’ that remove memories of unwanted events. Over the years I came to understand this phenomena taking place when one is under stress and upset. I think that is why I do not remember anything of my journey firstly to the military recruitment centre in Baghdad and then to the training centre in Kut.
It was early in the morning of the first day of January 1970 and I had spent a sleepless night, every so often switching on my little transistor radio and listening to the happy New Year celebrations across the world. I was in a state of self pity and I am sure that my parents in the next room were not sleeping too. That night, before going to bed, my mother had prepared the only belongings I was allowed to take with me the next day when I joined the army. She prepared a bed roll consisting of a pillow, blanket and kleem, shoe polish and brush, a shaving set and because of the cold, some warm vests and underwear. Everything was rolled up and tied together with rope.
My parents must have been very low in spirits that night. One son had gone north to become a peshmerga in Kurdistan and now their other son was being taken into the army and sent south.
I cannot recollect anything about being issued with the ugly, stinking uniform or how I was taken from Baghdad to Kut, which is located some 160 Km to the south, and where our training would take more than 6 weeks. Kut, situated within a loop of the river Tigris, was the place of the famous Kut Al Amara siege of the First World War when the Turks took some 8,000 Indian and British troops as prisoners of war after a long siege which had resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides. Historians have described the Kut Al Amara siege as “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.’
Now, some 54 years after the siege of Kut Al Amara I arrive, Talib Murad Faili, recently graduated doctor of veterinary medicine, very physically and mentally tired and fed up! The army training center in Kut was not far away from the battle site and had been created to accommodate a few hundred Iraqi conscripts who had no formal or little education. Now Saddam used it as a ‘training’ camp for a thousand university graduates and an opportunity to humiliate and demoralize educated Iraqis. The camp had only three toilets for the use of its 1,000 trainees, each toilet consisting of a hole in the ground surrounded by corrugated iron sheets. The washing facilities consisted of a few cold water taps with no sinks or troughs to collect the water. The amount of mud around and under the taps was so great that it reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the battlefields of the First World War. Forced to use such facilities one felt degraded and it was impossible to keep clean in the muddy conditions. To humiliate us further the army rule was that our military boots (poostal) had to be always clean and shiny or you were punished. How could you keep military boots made of thick, grained leather clean and shiny when you walked in mud every day? We spent hours and hours brushing and polishing our boots and removing the mud from our clothes. We graduates, the future of Iraq, were humiliated systematically on the orders of a tyrant in Baghdad who had had no formal education himself let alone obtained a recognised university degree.
The training we had to undergo was farcical. The majority of the non-commissioned officers, from the rank of corporal up to warrant officers, could not read and write and they were like children with new toys to play with, only in this case the toys were one thousand university graduates the majority of whom had no affiliation to the Ba’ath party. It had already become the norm for those few graduates who supported Saddam to be quickly appointed to governmental posts and the mud of Kut was not for them. As for the rest of us, we had to endure the monotony of the mornings spent marching around the muddy camp in the cold rains of January followed by the daily instruction on taking apart, and then putting back together, the few Siminoff, single shot rifles that were available to our battalion.
In addition to the daily marching and rifle dismantling our officers devised the ‘worthwhile’ exercise of ordering us to fill pre-dug pits with the camp’s rubbish, which was mainly food waste. The following day we would be forced to move the rubbish to another hole. This was the in the days before black plastic sacks and the rotting waste was stinking and muddy. Over the years I have seen many movies depicting army life and our training seems to have been unique, the closest comparison I have seen has been punishment duties. In addition to these demeaning tasks every day we had to endure ‘moral lessons’ from the sergeant major. He was a little strutting cock of a man who had a half a dozen gold teeth and a face that had been ravaged by small pox. I remember that one of his lessons, repeated on many occasions, involved him telling us that he was able to summon the jinns (demons) and that we, with our useless university degrees, definitely were not as talented as he was. At first we thought that this man was joking but as time went on we realized that he was serious and believed that he could conjure up these mythical beings!
In 1967 the Arab armies had suffered the embarrassing, big defeat at the hands of Israel in the 6 Days War. This humiliation and defeat ultimately lead to a series of suspicious coups d’etat and brought to power Assad , Qaddafi and Saddam. They all came into power by promising the Arab nations that, in no time at all, they would turn this defeat upside down with their modernised armed forces. So, here we were, in the mud of Kut, moving dirt from pit to pit, lunching every day on onion soup, and listening to our sergeant major’s daily criticism that we were failures who could not to communicate with the jinns. Was the sole purpose of this to prepare us to defeat the aggressive enemy of the Arabs? I never heard of a single trainee who succeeded in contacting the jinns but there were several who could have had a promising career in waste transport! One could say however that this experience had prepared me for the hardship I would have to face in the years to come.
When we completed our training we were told that we were all going to be transferred to active units. I was told that I had to go to the Second Mountain Transportation Company in Mosel. The next morning, together with my friend Monaf Hussein, I wrapped up my bed roll and set out for Mosel under the escort of a Kurdish sergeant. The sergeant was given a short home leave in order to deliver us to the company headquarters in Mosel and he turned out to be a very easy going man and even allowed us to stay for a night in our homes en route.
It was in this way that in February 1970 I found myself once more in Mosel as a veterinarian, not in the university but this time in the army’s Al Ghazlani military camp. I now had a vital role to play in the modern army; I was the newest member of a logistics company, comprised of five platoons, and which could truly be said to have the biological weapon of the day. Mules! Six hundred of them!