The story below was submitted to The Kurdish Project by Matthew Mayfield, a former soldier in the U.S. Army. We hope that it inspires you to submit your own personal ‘Story from Kurdistan.’
How Kirkuk Changed My View of Iraq (and of Kurdistan)
by Matthew Mayfield
I started out my tour in the U.S. Army like any soldier would … going into a foreign land. I was fully expecting to show up in Kirkuk ready to kill and fight — and with that came a sense of hate.
Hate fuels you to endure the battle and push thru the physical and mental challenges you’re facing. Hate can be a very powerful tool to use in those situations so I came basically ready to hate Kurdish people.
Finally, I arrived in the town of Kirkuk, our base was in the old airport right outside the city. Once my unit settled in, we started doing patrols with the unit we were relieving (I believe it was the 101st Airborne).
We pulled up at a police station, I can’t remember the name, but it had a picture of two brothers, who had been policemen, but had been killed in the line of duty. Someone had painted their pictures and the story of them in remembrance, and I remember thinking how it was a really nice thing to do.
New Guys in Town
Anyway, I noticed right away how nice everyone was, how glad the Kurdish people were to meet the new faces. They were so excited to talk to the new guys in town! I was greeted by everyone there, people wanting to shake my hand, people wanted to know my name, and to tell me their name.
I was kinda shocked. Where were the bad people? Where was the people I was supposed to hate? They weren’t here, or in town driving to the police station. All I had seen were people waving and giving me a thumbs up. Kids were playing in the streets, nobody looked like the enemy. I was shocked.
As I went inside the police station, I was given a sandwich, and a police officer gladly got up from his seat, so that i could sit down. The Kurds showed me how to sprinkle the special salt they had on the table, and the homemade sauce to put on the sandwich. It was so good, I ate two more!
Making Lasting Friendships
I had a great feeling about these people, something changed in me. The hate grew into love. I started to care about these people, I wanted to protect them and rid the city of any bad guys. After a few months I became best friends with our Kurdish-Iraqi interpreters.
One good friend of mine would tell his mom about me, and she was so worried I would go hungry that she would send me home cooked food. Dolma and stuffed green peppers with rice and meat.
She said that if her boy was far away from home, she would hope that another mother would cook for her son, and make sure he was safe. That made me feel so loved.
After the months wore on, we would go door-to-door and ask people how they were. Our medics would check to see if people had any medical problems. Kurdish families would offer us food and water or drinks to show support. The kids who, at first, would hide behind mom and dad, would soon run up to us and want to take pictures and have us hold them.
A Sudden Explosion
It felt like our purpose being there was worth the pain and struggle from being away from our families, and then one day — BOOM — an explosion in the city. Smoke was all I could see from the base. We got called out to go see what had happened.
When we arrived, I was devastated at what I saw. A dump truck full of explosives had been blown up at a children’s school killing everyone. I was in tears. How could someone do this to the children? What kind of animal has the nerve to hurt innocent children?
Parents were pulling bodies out, trying to find their kids, and I was told to hold them back. They pleaded and begged for me to let them through to find their babies. But I couldn’t. I had to point my gun at mothers and fathers and keep them from approaching the bomb sites.
Everyone was crying, bodies were everywhere, people were on their knees praying. “Why?!” They said. “Why would you let this happen to our babies?”
I was mad and upset. I was crying and was thinking, “how did we let this happen? How did the bad guys get inside this beautiful town?” I was given the order to push everyone back in case another truck full of explosives was sent in.
Soon after that, one did come. We began to shoot. Machine guns all over were shooting, and the driver of the truck, knowing he was going to die, floored the gas and blew up the truck right in front of our patrol, instantly killing two good soldiers, and injuring Kurdish police officers where were right beside us trying to stop the suicide bomber.
The city of Kirkuk took a blow that day. It affected many lives, and I’m sorry to this day that I couldn’t prevent it from happening.
I’ll never forget the people of Kirkuk. I’ve got tons of pictures and stories to tell. Hopefully my story of hate turned to love may inspire someone to love back, and to open thier heart up to someone from across the world, like I did to the people of Kirkuk. God bless and goodnight.