Marines, Iraqis foster hope for better future at native nook

27 Jun 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere 1st Marine Logistics Group

Green is often called the color of hope. One small patch of it here, an island in a sea of tan, is giving some Iraqis and Marines just that.

Setting itself apart from the rest of the scenery here with its lush emerald lawn, a locally owned and operated market and restaurant serves as a hangout for both Iraqis and Americans. 

During the day, it resembles a traditional Middle Eastern market, called a souk. The scent of Iraqi cooking floats through the air while vendors bake flat bread in an outside oven, paint portraits, and sell everything from bicycles to old money adorned with Saddam Hussein's face.

However, when darkness settles and sight is clouded, the grass becomes a cushion for souls. Stores shut their doors and nightlife emerges.

The area transforms at night when lights, left white and unlit during the day, illuminate the perimeter with a dazzling array of colors.

For some Marines, the market is an after-hours hangout. When work ends for the day, they go in small groups to decompress, drink tea, play music and catch up with buddies. For at least a few hours they are not in Iraq; they are in a friend's backyard having a get-together.

The troops, mostly from the 1st Force Service Support Group and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, aren't the only ones to enjoy this time off. The men who work at the market are also ready to relax at the end of the day.

Iraqis and Marines often sit together. They share food, drinks and as much conversation as the language barrier allows.

The Marines enjoy the opportunity to soak in the Middle Eastern culture.

"I think it's important for all of us to understand each other a little better," said Lance Cpl. Claude A. Swain. "That way there is not as much of a mystery."

Swain, a 29-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., comes to the market more often than most to play a guitar bought there and chat it up with locals and friends.

It wasn't the same when U.S. troops first moved onto the base and the workers initially set up shop. Language and cultural barriers intimidated both the Iraqis and the service members. At that time neither group trusted the other, said a Marine Corps translator with the 1st FSSG.

One worker named Waleed said that when coalition forces first entered Iraq last year, he opposed the invasion. He said he knew only what the local television news told him -- the imperialistic Americans were coming to take over.

With time, trust grew and preconceived notions were shattered. After he started working on base, he began to understand what America's mission was, and he started sympathizing with and caring about the troops here.

Now the Marines feel like his family, he said. He has begun to pick up English and helps to teach some of the Marines Arabic.

Paving positive relationships with Iraq's young people now could influence how they view Americans in years to come and vice versa.

"This is the young generation, the future of Iraq," said Staff Sgt. Damion C. Martin, 28, a reservist from Elizabeth City, N.C., whose frequent visits to the restaurant helped cultivate a friendship with Waleed. "I look at him and I see my brother, myself and my friend."

Despite the positive atmosphere, ghosts of Saddam's regime still lurk. Members of Waleed's family were killed by the dictator's henchmen. Another worker was a tank gunner in the Iraqi army until he was thrown in jail for taking a week off to visit his family.

Former soldiers often come to work for the Americans, said Gunnery Sgt. Gregg A. Smith, 39, the camp operations chief and Wahoo, Neb., native. Many military jobs went away when the country's army disbanded.

Like U.S. troops, the workers are from different parts of their country. Usually divided, Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians all work and live together here.

The workers live in tents behind the marketplace and only leave the base to visit their families every few weeks.

Traveling to and from U.S. camps is dangerous for Iraqis, nevertheless, they still come to work. The growing bond between the two cultures represents a sign of hope for both sides.

"I think in 10 years Iraq will be -- good," said Waleed, pausing to find the right word in English.

Other installations in Iraq may soon see a market like this pop up in their backyards. The manager here, who owns a prominent restaurant in Baghdad, is considering opening a similar souk at Camp Fallujah.
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1st Marine Logistics Group