The desert wind blows the smell of human feces into my nostrils as I descend from the up armored 7-ton. Another name for the 7-Ton is the Armadillo named for its high standing bullet proof walls surrounding the passenger compartment on the back of the truck. Standing room only packed like sardines I spill out first. United Nations members wearing blue Kevlar type helmets and blue bullet proof vests come pouring out of the vehicle behind me. The landscape stretches out to my left as flat a landscape on earth can be. Holes filled with human feces aren’t too far from my position. Trash litters the ground, a paper and plastic panoply of human consumption. Marines stand to the right and left of me, a Marine Captain leads our UN expedition and my-self a Corpsman of the Navy I provide medical coverage. The captain orders the Corporal to take point and we start making our way through the sea of sand colored tents.
This is the PRC abbreviated from Palestinian Refugee Camp. I find my way somewhere in the middle of the single column formation. The attitude is relaxed our weapons are slung at the ready but we maintain the muzzle of our weapons pointed towards the ground. The Palestinian children familiar with our past charities have already come to greet us. “Mister, Mister chocolate she annunciates with a hard K. She holds out her hand expecting me to give her some. I have no chocolate to give her but I give her a high five instead and she smiles returning the same. Once it’s discovered that we haven’t brought anything this time around some of the children wander away but a few stay laughing and smiling walking along. Having been taught certain American social customs like high fives, and give me some skin the children laugh as they share this interaction with myself and the Marines. Walking my attention gets wrapped up in high fiving the kids and teaching them other variations of knuckle punch, give me some skin, so forth and so on. Almost too late, a stream of oily water smelling like sewage bar’s my way. I have to stop to go around. Some of the kids in their open toes sandals walk through the foul water.
The convoy, Armadillo included, move out to take up security positions in a three hundred sixty degree perimeter around the PRC. All the handouts the kids are used to getting, pencils, pens, mint candies, lollipops, small sacks of granola, soccer ball’s are in the vehicles. It doesn’t take the children long before they figure out where to go to get what they want. Already I can see a group of them reaching out jumping over the smaller children trying to be the one who catches the soccer ball first. A soccer ball is released high into the air by the gunner manning a 50. Cal, it’s a brawl as the younger and smaller kids get beat up on and kicked out of the way while the older kids pile over them pumping their feet to be the one who gets the soccer ball. During the distraction the driver takes the opportunity to start handing out some candy to the smaller kids while the bigger kids are away fighting over the soccer ball. Smiles light up the smaller children’s faces when they realize what has happened.
We walk in what is called a satellite patrol weaving in and out amongst the tents. The tents are more or less in uniform order creating vertical and horizontal walking paths. Tent stakes and ropes anchor the tents down against the often quite high gusts of wind. Almost all the tents have two peaks one at the front and one at the back. There is a partition out front of most of the tents a sort of antechamber in which a person can sit and still receive shade from the sun. Sometimes there are pillow’s lying on the tent floor in these antechambers and sometimes a plastic chair or two. A layer of dust coats everything. The ropes mooring the tents, the tent fabric, even the plastic of the seats is covered by dust. We pass a row of buckets hanging from a line next to a trailer with the acronym UNHCR on it. Stagnant grey water pools beneath the trailer. Mangy dogs unkempt and unwanted drink from the water and take advantage of the shade provided by the shower building. A red plastic water container stands on a raised platform outside the building. The water is gravity fed.
People stare at us as we walk by. The majority of those we see are men. Occasionally a woman will walk by but rarely will she make eye contact. An old man grey hair, oily wrinkled nose flat and broad, a toothless grin, walks by holding the hand of what I can only guess is his granddaughter. She smiles at me from some innocent depth of childhood feeling with her glowing brown eyes. She is dressed well and in sharp contrast to her Grandfather. He is unshaved and wears a dirty brown t-shirt and a pair of stained raggedy jeans. He walks carrying a smile on his face holding his granddaughters hand he looks unconcerned as to his appearance. We pass some vendors. I see Lay’s potato chips for sale. I see the lungs of a goat hanging in front of what I can only guess is the butchery. I see three liters of Pepsi bottles covered with dust precariously piled on top of one another ready to fall. There are a lot of stares from the men but they stare with smiles. The UN is here to help them and generally they try to get along with their Marine neighbors who have built a small operating base nearby.
There is more or less a destination to our patrol as we come to a hardened structure which is the Palestinian’s only school building. We walk through a small side door. Two men sit inside, a variety of games and game boards on shelves against the wall behind them as well as chocolate bars, different types of candy and an ice chest. “Salaam Aleikum” is the traditional greeting they give us and the correct response is “Aleikum Salaam”. But it is often abbreviated by the Marines and we just say Salaam. There are colorful crayon drawings on a portion of the walls and some burlap sack pieces of cloth with decorations glued onto them. A few of the crayon pictures are made by kids with a talent for art.
There is a large long table set up in the hallway of the small building. The building is built in a cross pattern one large hall up the middle and two halls to the left and right intersecting it. Plastic chairs like the ones I remember at picnics back home surround the table. Some of the chairs are leather bound. “Two men at each door,” The captain of our patrol calls out. The United Nations team is milling about while some well dressed people are introducing themselves to them. The people are teachers and appointed spokespeople for the refugee camp. The United Nations team has come to talk to the Palestinians about moving to a location across the street. A few of the Marines from our patrol and some of the United Nations team they head across the highway to look at the site in question. I have a choice of staying in the cool shady school and waiting for them to come back or walking out into the hot desert sun and crossing through backed up traffic trying to get across the border. I stay in my seat deciding that walking across the highway wouldn’t be all that exciting underneath that hot sun.
I overhear during the discussion that preparations are being made but first the land belonging to the new site has to be prepared. They say work will begin on the project two months from now but construction won’t actually begin until the beginning of next year. The idea is to get the Palestinian people out of their tents and into hardened buildings with proper plumbing and sanitation services. The United Nations spokesman repeats his apologies for the work having to take so long over and over through an English/Arabic speaking interpreter. They move on to the second bit of business for which they have brought Sudanese representatives. They want to interview people who would like to emigrate to Sudan. My attention can only hold for so long and I walk to the front door where I see an Iraqi police officer outside whose job is to keep vehicles from passing in front of the school.
I watch the interplay between him and a stubborn driver driving a large white Cadillac Avalanche, a popular car among the Iraqi’s. The Iraqi police officer motions for the car to stop by curling up his fist and raising it high. The driver flashes his headlights but doesn’t slow down. The police officer pumps his fist in open and closed in rapid succession. The driver slows down but is inching forward. The police officer drops to one knee and points the AK-47 he is carrying towards the driver. The driver stops. They stare at each other for a few minutes then the officer waves at him to turn around and go the other way. The driver makes no move. The police officer waves again, still the driver doesn’t move but instead starts to creep forward slowly.
The Iraqi police officer takes his weapon off safe and prepares to fire when the driver sees that he is about to lose he gives up waves his hands into the air and starts to turn around. I notice the police officer has to repeat these steps at least twice more for other vehicles wanting to use the street that the school is on. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t have respect for the Iraqi police officer or if it’s just plain stubbornness on the driver’s part. The street running in front of the school doesn’t go anywhere. It is just as easy to go around. Meanwhile the meeting inside drags on, the half of the patrol that braved the congested traffic on the highway returns and they want me to go with them to the Caravan. The caravan is simply four trailers forming a square in which are located semi official offices. In order to capacitate seating arrangements some of the plastic chairs used at the meeting are brought over by young Palestinian men. A power cord used to power the fan that was blowing during the meeting to keep them cool is brought over as well. It occurs to me that they have to share the comforts they do have.
I have more hours of standing and sometimes alternately sitting on the steps of the trailers. One of the captains finds entertainment by throwing rocks at two pups taking advantage of the shade beneath the trailer. The louder the puppy whelps the more acclamation of praises the captain gets. I hear him say “I like dogs back home but these dogs here there just mangy he says.” I think it is true the dog population is a problem. They often end up living off the scraps of the people and multiplying into ridiculous numbers and the matted fir and whining servile disposition of most of the dogs doesn’t lend any sort of respectability for their plight either. Still a part of me does desire to confront the Captain about throwing the rocks, but he is a Captain and I’m a Petty Officer Third Class. He is an officer I am enlisted. The nature of the military is based upon his rank and my order. I watch as a few Palestinian people come and go out of the trailers. There are a few of the United Nations members inside presumably conducting the interviews. The Marines small talk. Security isn’t all that tight were relaxed. Were simply waiting for the United Nations Members to finish with what they are doing so we can return to base.
It’s pre-dusk. I’m choking down the dust created by the 7 ton as we drive across a strip of desert driving around our small base of operations, a COP, abbreviated from Command Outpost. Were driving the United Nations Workers back to the Iraqi border station where they can get their passports stamped and then return to their own base in Syria. Once again we file out of the Armadillo this time the UN members carrying their bags and the items they brought with them for their two day visit. An Iraqi Police General his epaulettes shimmering gold in the sun sinking overhead hurries over while the United Nation Members stamp their passports. Iraqi police start putting their bags into the back of an Iraqi Police truck. The Iraqi police will escort the United Nations members across the border to the car parking lot in Syria. We get back in our Armadillo our weapons on safe and we drive away.