The Checkpoint Experience
By Annia Ciezadlo
15 March, 2005
It’s a common occurrence in Iraq : a car speeds towards an American checkpoint or foot patrol ; they fire warning shots ; the car keeps moving. Soldiers then shoot at the car. Sometimes the oncoming car is a foiled suicide-attacker. Other times, the occupants are an unarmed family.
As the shooting of the Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari, as he tried to deliver journalist Giuliana Sgrena to safety, by US forces earlier this month underlines, significant confusion surrounds the establishment and use of checkpoints in Baghdad. While the US military claim that Calipari was shot at for speeding through a temporary checkpoint, Sgrena has repeatedly denied that such a set up even existed.
I’m not surprised the event should have generated such conflicting viewpoints. As a foreign journalist in Baghdad, I regularly have to travel through checkpoints, and have often come close to being shot at in wildly confusing and terrifying situations. I think that the regularity with which I have been targeted is largely down to the fact that I look quite Middle Eastern, which, I think, makes my checkpoint experience a little closer to that of a typical Iraqi.
It is always surprising, how slowly your sense of danger takes hold. You may see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road as you drive around, but they’re such an ubiquitous sight in Baghdad that you don’t think anything of it. Most of the time, you don’t even realise that you are at a checkpoint, and then suddenly, you are surrounded by soldiers, screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swivelling tank guns in your direction. And if it’s confusing for me - an English-speaker - what is it like for Iraqis who don’t speak English ? I’ve often been in the car with an Iraqi driver who steps on the gas. I understand why, it’s a natural reaction. If you were surrounded by angry soldiers, screaming at you to "get out of here" in a language that you didn’t understand - and you were terrified to boot - you would probably try to drive away from the situation, too.
Another problem is that the US troops tend to have two-stage checkpoints. At the first, there’s usually a knot of Iraqi security forces standing by a sign that says, in Arabic and English, "Stop or you will be shot". But most of the time, the Iraqi forces will casually wave you through. A driver, who might have slowed down for the first checkpoint, will then accelerate to resume his normal speed, often without realising that there is another American checkpoint several hundred yards past the Iraqi one. Sometimes, a driver may even think that being waved through the first checkpoint means that he’s exempt from the second one.
I remember one terrifying day when my Iraqi driver did just that. We got to a checkpoint manned by Iraqi troops. Chatting and smoking, they waved us through without a glance. Relieved, he stomped down on the acceleration, and we zoomed up to about 50mph before I saw the second checkpoint up ahead. I screamed at him to stop, my translator screamed, and the soldiers up ahead looked as though they were getting ready to start shooting.
After I got my driver to slow down and we cleared the second checkpoint, I made him stop the car. My voice shaking with fear, I explained to him that having been through a checkpoint it was imperative that he drive as slowly as possible for at least five minutes. He turned to me, his face twisted with the anguish of making me understand : "But Mrs Annia," he said, "if you go slow, they notice you !"
This feeling is a relic of the days of Saddam, when driving slowly past a government building or installation was considered suspicious behaviour. Two years ago, if you were caught idling past the wrong palace or ministry, you might never have been seen again. I also remember parking outside a ministry with an Iraqi driver, waiting to pick up a friend. After sitting and staring at the building for about half an hour, waiting for our friend to emerge, the driver shook his head. "If you even looked at this building before, you’d get arrested," he said, his voice full of disbelief. Before, he would speed past this building, gripping the wheel, staring straight ahead, careful not to even turn his head. After 35 years, Iraqis still speed up when they’re driving past government buildings - which, since the Americans took over a lot of them, tend to be exactly where the checkpoints are.
Fear of insurgents and kidnappers is another reason for accelerating - speeding up and getting away from trouble can save your life. Many Iraqis know somebody who has been shot at on the road, and a lot of people have survived only because they accelerated. This fear comes into play at checkpoints because US troops are often accompanied by a cordon of Iraqi security forces - and a lot of the assassinations and kidnappings have been carried out by Iraqi security forces, or people dressed in their uniforms. Often, the Iraqi security forces are the first to be visible at checkpoints. If they are angry-looking and you hear shots being fired, it becomes easier to misread the situation and put the pedal to the metal.
American soldiers have confided to me about their experiences. Some have had to shoot people as they travelled through the checkpoints, and many others have witnessed shootings. They are not supposed to talk about it, but they do. I think that, often, the soldiers really need to talk about it. They are traumatised. Despite the impressions that we may have of American soldiers being trigger-happy kids, this set-up is not what they wanted at all. The whole checkpoint experience is confusing and terrifying, for them as well as for the Iraqis. Many of them have seen people getting killed or injured, including friends of theirs. You can imagine what it is like for them, wondering whether each car that approaches is a normal Iraqi family or a suicide bomber. I wish that the American commanders who set up these checkpoints could drive through them themselves, in a civilian car, so that they could see what the experience is like for civilians. But it wouldn’t be the same : they already know what an American checkpoint is, and how to act at one - which most Iraqis don’t.
Is there a way to do checkpoints right ? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it seems that the whole checkpoint experience perfectly encapsulates the contradictions and miseries and misunderstandings of everyone’s common experience in Iraq.
Annia Ciezadlo works for the ’Christian Science Monitor’