Unseen Iraq

A Soccer Game at Camp Saad, Without a Ball or a Goal

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, September 1, 2008

A short drive onto what remains of one of Saddam Hussein's largest military bases, past skeleton barracks and makeshift roads, a deserted hangar traps the echo of laughter. Movement -- fast, almost blurred, mostly legs -- can be spied on the other side of a broken brick wall where seven boys are kicking around a stolen shoe.

"My slipper, my slipper, you dogs! Give me my slipper!" yells a 9-year-old wearing a green-striped soccer jersey. He isn't the youngest, but he is the most earnest and, therefore, the most vulnerable to teasing. His tan plastic sandal rolls on its edge with surprising precision, then flips into the air at chest level. Stepping and tripping, the boys bump the shoe in a new direction, away from its owner. They are experts at controlling it and making it bounce like a ball.

The boys are part of a refugee community living at Camp Saad, a base on the outskirts of Baqubah that in 2003 was looted of almost everything, including window frames and light fixtures. They are squatters, Arabs forced to flee their homes in Kirkuk, to the north, when Kurds reclaimed land taken by Hussein. One man on the base estimated that hundreds of Arab families are hiding in the camp's ruins. For five years, they have lived without running water, electricity and, in most cases, doors.

Running along the wall of the courtyard, the smallest boy falls behind, his nose running. He lurches past a clownlike painting of Hussein and catches up to the others when the shoe hits a bed. Like most Iraqis, the squatters sleep outside at night to find relief from the heat.

In minutes, the boys are lying in a pile, panting. The prized sandal has returned to its owner's foot.

A U.S. military convoy passes the base, looking small in the desert distance. The boys laugh and spit. They select a new ball, a pink sandal, and one of them kicks it into the air.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, http://visit blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

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