17 July, 2011

IRAQ -1970: Militatry boots (Poostals)

My arrival, at the second transport company (Sareyah Jablee'ah) in Gazlani camp Mousel, resulted in irregularities in military discipline and regulations. The Iraqi army inherited regulations from the Turkish and British armies and conscript soldiers had no rights whatsoever and were mainly poor people who had no formal education. One knew that the soldiers came from poor families because a soldier could buy their release from army service ‘badel’ for 100 Iraqi Dinars. At one time a graduate and a qualified veterinarian would be given the rank of captain on joining the army, at a later date this was reduced to the rank of second lieutenant. In 1969, we graduates, the non Baathists, irrespective of our qualifications were all common soldiers and, in addition, we were not allowed to pay the badel and gain our freedom.

This situation led to confusion in the camp as to how I should be treated treated me and where did I fit in. Should I be regarded as an officer with all the benefits of that rank or as a common soldier and quartered in tents next to the mules’ stables? As I mentioned before I was given a bed in the room next to what had been the veterinary clinic, a palatial residence with walls of sundried mud bricks, an earthen floor and a corrugated iron ceiling. This room, and three others, opened on to a large dirt yard which separated them from the stables while to the left were the yards with the long drinking troughs where the animals were watered twice a day. The large dirt yard was always covered with flies and the dust that rose from it was a mixture of mule dung and dirt. The insects in the ever present dung attracted a lot of wild birds especially starlings "Zerzoor” to the open yards.

My first privilege, in the room that I shared with three major sergeants, a situation unheard of before, was the provision of a ceiling fan. One hot afternoon, after my customary light lunch of a bowl of onion soup and the army’s hard dark bread, I went to my room for a short nap. I awoke to find a corporal, with two stripes on his shirt sleeve, sitting on the floor and obviously enjoying the luxury of the cool air from the ceiling fan. When I asked what he was doing in my room he told me that the company’s warrant officer had ordered him to be my batman, ”Murasel”! This was another breaking of army rules as only a commissioned officer had a batman. Without waiting for my approval my batman stood up, dusted down his trousers and opened the old traveling bag I had with me. He took out the few dirty clothes that were in my bag and headed off to the mule water troughs to wash them. I do not think he used any soap and he spread them out to dry on a concrete platform next to the trough which was used to dry the soaked and salty barley feed for the animals.

That evening my batman Sae’ed came back with two spits “sheesh” on which were two suspicious looking, shrunken brown items. It was late in the evening and the light of the single electric bulb in the room was dim and on seeing these odd looking kebabs I immediately thought that he had grilled some of the testicles from the mules that we had castrated earlier in the day. I shouted and wanted to know what the hell he was carrying. Quietly he told me that he had captured two starlings in the yard, plucked and grilled the birds behind the stables and they were for my supper. I was relieved and took the two sheeshs from him but said there was little meat on them, to which he replied that the trick was to crunch the bone and meat together when eating this dish.

Now, two important necessities had been sorted out, namely my laundry and my protein requirement, I had no reason to complain further.

 The most difficult task we had to do was castrate mules. No anesthesia was available and we have to depend on two dozen soldiers being able to restrain the animals. The procedure was primitive and inhuman to say the least. I had to cut the scrotum open, pull the testicle out, tie  a string around the testicular cord  and then use a tool to crush the cord and cut it. The moment I squeeze the crusher a mule would left itself, and all the soldiers on top of it, off the ground. The strength in the animal was remarkable, when the mule was under control again I had to pack the scrotum with sulpha powder and then repeat the procedure on the other testicle.

Marking the animal by tattooing a number on its upper gum was easier. The number was for life, as is the number I was given when I joined the UN. If an animal disappeared from the camp the sergeant major would look up the animal’s record to discover in which village it had been purchased. Without fail they would find the animal had returned to its village, even if the village was over 100Km away.

I mentioned that we had to brush and polish our boots “ Poostals ” every day, well the army used to issue two kinds of boots, one for the commissioned officers and the other to all the lower ranks. The latter were heavy boots, made of thick grained leather and difficult to polish and shine. I complained to Sae’ed about mine and one day he took my boots to the city and I had to stay in my room as that was my only pair of boots. He took the boots to a cobbler to be completely restructured by removing a lot of leather from the sole and ironing flat the leather of the uppers.

Next day I went out to the morning parade with a pair of boots like the sergeant majors and not like the soldiers. Everybody in the company liked the few treats I had had with the exception of the commander’s assistant. He was a bad man and I discovered that he was behind the bad treatment of the Kurdish soldiers in our company.

Well, my light boots were a luxury.

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