I didn’t know it, but time would show me right to be scared. At this particular point though, my thoughts consisted of surviving to fight another day. Toward the end of my deployment, SSG J sent me to what was known as ‘retrans hill.’ A small trailer sat on the highest point the outskirts of ‘The Green Zone,’ near Baghdad International Airport. Soldiers near exhaustion and burn out went there for a week, sometimes two, to reset. At the base of the hill, you could see one of Saddam’s palaces.
When I arrived, I set my go-bag on a cot and tried my best to relax. It took a couple of days, but slowly the tension melted away. I’ve never been one for sitting in the house all day, so I got up one morning and walked around the compound.
From the fence, I could see the palace and the lake out back of it. The ground was solid white. “What is that? I know it didn’t snow.” My partner manned the radio, so I stuck my head in and told him I was going to walk to the palace to take photos. He nodded that he understood, and I walked down the hill.
As I drew closer, I realized that it wasn’t snow but lime. On the ground, stacked neatly one beside the other, was corpses of women and children.
“Oh, dear God,” I muttered to no one in particular. “These poor people.”
The lime caked to the remains of skin. Some corpses still had skin left, it hung like strips of meat at a butcher shop, others had eroded to the skeleton.
I wanted to vomit; the stench of death was so strong. The heat made it worse. One of the engineers that labored to drain the lake saw me and nodded his head in greeting, but his eyes shined with the sadness of the scene.
“I’ve got to get out here before I vomit all over the remains,” I thought as I half-walked, half-sprinted indoors. As soon as I walked into the palace I stopped and gasped. It was beautiful, unlike the scene right outside the door. Everywhere I looked there was marble, ivory, gold, and other valuables. Even weapons was laden in gold.
“Excuse me,” I asked one of the lower enlisted in the palace. “Where’s the bathroom?” My urge to vomit would not subside.
She directed me to the latrine, and I started that way. Every toilet in the bathroom was made of gold. I did my business and resumed my tour of the palace.
When I finished, I walked back up to my temporary home. My roommate stood at the fence smoking. He nodded in the direction of the palace.
“What’s going on down there?”
“Engineers are draining the lake.”
“Is that snow?”
“No, it’s lime.”
“What do they need lime for?”
“To smother the smell of the corpses.”
“Corpses? What corpses?”
“You see all those mounds of lime? Each mound has bodies under it.”
“Jesus,” my friend gasped. “How many bodies is that?”
“One of the engineers said it was close to a thousand.”
“I don’t think anybody knows exactly why, brother. From what I pieced together, Saddam and his sons would take women and children from the markets or what have you. They brought them here and had their way with them. Then, they killed them. Some they fed to lions, others they shoved into the lake.”
“Holy God,” my friend said. “These poor people. Wait a minute, what lions?”
“Apparently, Saddam had a couple of lions. One of the warrant officers told me about them when I went on leave.”
“The man was sick, feeding women and children to them after he and his sons raped them. That’s something only a sick mind would think up.”
“Yeah. Well, we got here to late to stop it.”
“For those, yeah. But he’s got it coming.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “We’ve all got it coming.”