This is the third of my four-part series on being an Atheist in a Foxhole, to counter the naive thought that at the moment of death, Man always cries out for a higher power, based my own experiences. Here is the 3rd part of that series, which is much longer than the first two.
The day, was March 27, 2008. The US military had just begun an offensive in Sadr City a few days earlier. The Green Zone, where I lived, had the unfortunate luck of being situated right across the river from Sadr City, and the militants who couldn’t take on the US Army in a front on fight, decided to put pressure, or just take revenge by shelling the Green Zone every 30mins with anywhere between 1-8 mortars / rockets round the clock, where the politicians, generals, officers and unfortunately I lived. Without going into the ethics, and morality of people fighting for their own country against what could easily be called an ‘occupying’ force. This is what happened that day.
Before we get started, it is necessary to explain one thing. We were lucky enough to have what is called as a C-RAM; Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar. It is a device that gave us occupants of the Green Zone, a 6 second warning of any rocket or mortar attacks in our 4 sq. mile ‘paradise’. Once you heard the siren, you ran to the nearest bunker, and if it was further than 6 seconds away, you hit the ground and curled up into a ball. Ok, now that is established, we can begin the story.
My three friends and I were scheduled to head out on vacation on the 4th day of this shelling (thank goodness, because the shelling would continue for another 7 weeks). Our friend drove us to the helipad, to take a Blackhawk helicopter to Camp Victory, which is situated right next to the airport. Half way to the helipad, the C-RAM went off for the first, and definitely not last time that day, and we screeched to a halt, and ran into a nearby bunker as an explosion occurred several hundred metres away, and there we waited for the all-clear siren.
A few minutes later, we were back in the car and on our way to the helipad. As we arrived, we got our gear out and walked into the helipad to put our names down for standby (waiting for empty seats on available helicopters). 3 of us immediately walked over to the Burger King in the small shopping centre on the other side of the street, while 1 remained behind to call us if the chopper arrived.
All the while walking past damaged cars, with broken windshields due to the dozens of explosions and their shockwaves.
We even walked past a damaged bunker, which most certainly housed a few people, whom surely became deaf as a result of the deafening reverberations of a direct hit.
We had just managed to buy our burger king meals, which still amuses me to this day, after dozens of explosions, and where being caught out in the open could mean your death, we needed a small slice of comfort food. Upon walking out of the store, the C-RAM went off again. We made a b-line for the nearby bunker, and got stuck there with a small continent of cool as chips US Marines, on their way home from the recent offensive in Fallujah (I can’t imagine what they went through). What we were going through was a walk in the park for them. We were stuck in that bunker for what seemed like 30 mins with them, shooting the shit as they told us of their recent exploits, and struggles being in Fallujah, and in the Marines. Eventually the all-clear sounded and we walked out, only for the C-RAM to immediately go off again, so we scurried back in like panicked dogs! While the Marines simply walked back in.
This time, the bunker filled up with dozens of people, including one woman who worked for KBR, who had her radio turned on. During the ensuing minutes, rockets and mortars landed extremely close by, mainly targeting the nearby American Embassy. Over the radio, we hear a frantic voice screaming “A mortar hit the living quarters…. *pause*…. THERE’S SOMEONE BEING BURNT ALIVE”. Everyone was unnerved, but only the woman spoke. “I’m fucken leaving this country tonight!” she said in a shaky voice, on the verge of tears.
More explosions ensued, and eventually, the all-clear rung out much to everyone’s relief. I, and I imagine many others, at this point, had forgotten about the burning man, and looked only to our own peace of mind. I was wilfully forgetting what had transpired until I was in a calmer environment. We made it back across the road, and reconnected with our 4th comrade. The events from leaving the helipad, to our return clocked in at 2 hours. We were given a brief respite, as we sat around a picnic table throwing a nerfball around, and taking some photos. Our respite was short-lived, and instead of sitting around an open picnic table, we decided to get situate ourselves in front of the helipad front desk, closer to the bunker, but unfortunately, right underneath the C-RAM speaker, of which there were only 2 in the entire Green Zone, which should give you an indication of how loud they were.
Unbeknownst to us, we still had hours to wait before any helicopters were even cleared to show up, due to the constant bombardment, and the helipad waiting list grew ever longer. All the while, every 15-30 minutes, the bloody C-RAM would sound, sending us scuttling for the bunker 30 yards away in a mad dash with 40 other people. Let me tell you something, when you are in a crowd of people scurrying to save your own life, dignity goes out the window, as does chivalry. If there was someone in front of you, slower than you, you ran around them, there was no such thing as waiting, or bravery. Your life was in your own hands, and if you thought God was protecting you, then you were a fool. (The thousands of Iraqi’s who were killed/maimed in the explosions I heard everyday, would attest to that, if they didn’t have the self-contrived ‘comfort’ of religion hammered into them distorting their viewpoint from when they were old enough to talk).
Over the course of the next several hours, we had to scurry into that bunker between 1 and 2 dozen times, while bombs rained down destruction all around. It all remains a blur, though very peaceful in-between the rains, as odd as that sounds. You very quickly adjust back to normal (comparatively) once the all-clear sounds. I imagine having friends to shoot the shit with, helped a tremendous amount.
Finally, at long last, after several hours of agonising waiting, the choppers arrived, a few minutes after the last all-clear, and we had to line up in the open to board. The anxiety once again, begins to set in. What if the C-RAM goes off? Do we run to the bunker, or brave the chance to get out of this hell hole, which for all we knew, may be the only chance we get. We all board quickly, and as we lift off, the C-RAM goes off again. All hold their breath. Luckily, our helicopters aren’t hit. We take off, and fly over the war zone that parts of Baghdad have degenerated into as a result of the offensive.
That night, we slept in Camp Victory before our flight the next morning, and I could still hear the explosions bombarding the Green Zone, 40 km’s away, and the C-RAM siren played in my head the entire night. We were only half way through our trials and tribulations of getting out of the country, but the horrible half was over with, and the 2nd half has nothing to do with God so I shan’t go into it.
My friends and I, went through 8 hours of hell on Earth, and not once, at least in my case, did God enter into the picture. I was as Godless as ever, getting mortars and rockets lobbed at me by others whom did have God in their mind, encouraging them, and by God, I mean their Ego.
I am an atheist in a foxhole.
The iPhone alarm sound simply titled ‘Alarm’ still scares the bejesus out of me to this day because of that C-RAM. When I need to wake up really early, say for a flight at the crack of dawn, that’s the alarm I set as it literally scares me out of bed, and gets my adrenaline racing, which ensures I don’t need my morning coffee or tea, I’m wide-eyed, tired but ready to go.