On the Iranian Border

Badrah, Iraq
On the Iranian Border.

chucks-photo-1.jpgThe sky and the earth were black on black, blending into one another at the horizon as the black hawk helicopter thundered eastward toward the Iranian border. The windows might as well have been painted over for the last forty minutes – there was absolutely nothing to see.
Only when mountains loomed up ahead of us – in Iran – did a few pinpricks of light appear on the ground. I listened over the intercom as the pilots argued about the location of the base. “Isn’t that it off to the left?”
“No, the one time I’ve been here, we landed near those red lights directly ahead.” It was abundantly clear that Camp Shocker was not on their regular route.
Finally, they decided on an LZ, flared hard and set down in a vast expanse of gravel surrounded by concrete T-walls.

I quickly unbuckled my safety harness and jumped out with my rucksack, eager to get away from the whine of the engines and whirring blades.
Two silhouettes in uniform stood at a gate off to my left. They had guns. I waited until the helicopter lifted off, bracing against the grit whipped up by its departure, removed my earplugs and crunched across the gravel to the two waiting figures.
Only when I got closer did I realize these men weren’t American soldiers. “Is this camp shocker?” I asked, ignoring the knot in my gut.
The two men conversed in low tones. Whatever their language was, it wasn’t one I understood.

Oh, great. Wrong base.
Then one of them motioned to the far side of the gravel lot. There, coming toward me, was another person. From what I could see, this one was only armed with a penlight.
I walked his way, toting my rucksack. To my great relief, he spoke English.
“I’m Sergeant Demo. Are you the reporter?”
“I am.”

“Great. Welcome to Camp Shocker. Follow me and I’ll show you your billet.” Wonderful words to hear at what seemed like the edge of the world.
The next morning, I emerged from the sterile metal “can” that I’d been given to sleep in, and blinked in the sunlight. It was windy and cold. The base was bleak even for Iraq – everything was the color of concrete. The ground was covered by a thick layer of river gravel to keep the dust down, and A maze of fifteen-foot high t-walls surrounded every building to protect from indirect fire. Fortunately, this camp hadn’t received any of that so far.
Pre-cast concrete towers rose at intervals around the perimeter of the camp. I climbed one of them to get a look at what was outside the wire. That’s when I found that the only thing bleaker than the inside of Camp Shocker is what’s on the outside. Dust – that’s all. As far as the eye can see, it’s like a windblown parking lot covered in dust. No buildings, no cars, nothing. It’s like God made this place to store extra space until it’s needed elsewhere. I’ve been all over the planet, and have seldom seen such utter desolation.
It was into this dreary landscape that our convoy departed not long after breakfast. Three humvees, each one with a soldier in the turret and a bumper sporting a long metal arm designed to trip IED’s early. The arm might look ridiculous, but it works.

We drove south along the Iranian border past infrequent settlements of bedouin and my mind swam wondering why anyone would choose to live in such a place. With every mile just as featureless and inhospitable as the last, I couldn’t for the life of me see any reason why someone would decide, “Hey, this godforsaken wadi looks like a perfect place to call home!” Dirty children played near mud-walled dwellings, and wrinkled old men tended herds of scraggly sheep. I wondered how much these people knew about the conflict that had torn their country apart…they appeared to be living just as they had for centuries.

Just across the border in Iran, high mountains rise out of the desert. After we turned off the paved road and drove for awhile toward these mountains, I could make out a wall with turrets jutting from atop a ridge. A border fort. Inside the Humvee, the GPS screen showed that fort to be inside Iran.

“We’re not going there, are we?” I asked.

The captain in charge of the patrol nodded and spoke into his intercom. “Yeah, this fort is in disputed territory, but it’s manned by Iraqis.”

A few minutes later we arrived. The fort holds a commanding view in all directions, and I could see no other structures on either side of the border. A small cadre of Iraqis welcomed us with tea, and happily showed us around the small enclosure. The wind howled outside, making it almost impossible for me to hold my video camera steady to record the desolate landscape. Fighting positions connected by long trenchlines snaked off north and south as far as the eye could see along the border – hand-dug remnants of the Iran/Iraq war. I shuddered, thinking about how horrific it must have been for the one million foot soldiers thrown into that conflict. They say that war was very similar to WWI – with bayonet charges, extensive use of poison gas, and trench warfare. Ugh.

Now, this ancient border is plagued by another problem, one that is older than the forts we visited, and probably older than Iraq. Smuggling. The official crossing point looks like the points of entry I’ve seen at the US/Mexico border – and is even overseen by some of our US Customs and Border Patrol agents, who are here training the Iraqis on how to spot contraband. But the point of entry isn’t seeing a lot of Iranian weapons coming across. And since U.S. forces are uncovering caches of Iranian weapons almost daily, it’s safe to assume the arms are making their way into Iraq by way of “smuggler’s routes.” There is a longstanding tradition behind this…the border guards aren’t well paid, and taking kickbacks from smugglers has traditionally been an almost expected supplement to their income.

The U.S. is trying to counter this – though overcoming centuries of tradition isn’t easy. But money talks, and so the U.S. is trying to essentially outbid the smugglers, offering rewards for every Iranian weapon captured.

So far it’s working, up to a point. They seem to still be coming across the border, but then being turned in for cash. At any rate, attacks by iranian rockets and explosively formed projectile IED’s are way down, so we must be doing something right.

One thing that’s encouraging out here on the border is that we don’t have a lot of troops tied up trying to secure it. There is a brigade of men from the eastern european country of Georgia that are manning checkpoints on major routes into Baghdad, and the Iraqis are staffing the border forts. The only Americans here are basically in an advisory role. Some that I spoke with expected this mission to go on for at least a couple more years, but if you ask me, that’s the best kind of role for us to play here – as consultants to the fledgling Iraqi military and police forces.

Let’s pray that these efforts will be successful – Badrah is a long way from Baghdad, but what happens here has a direct impact on the capital city, and on all of Iraq. By making it harder to move material and weapons in from Iran, we’re forming a hedge of protection around this fledgling democracy that given enough time will be a model for every country in the region. As they say in Spanish: “Ojala Que si”– may God make it so.

Chuck Holton

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