As I meet Iraqis here in the Middle East who helped the U.S. try to bring peace and security to their country, we discuss what the military draw-down taking place right now means for this already imperiled population. It’s worth taking a page from history – so as not to repeat the horrific fates that have befallen other collaborators. Look, for example, at what happened to the Hmong people after the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to join a “Secret War” in Laos. (It was a Secret War because even though a Geneva agreement barred America from sending troops into Laos, the U.S. pumped $20 billion into an air and ground campaign to stop the spread of Communism there.)
Like Iraqis today who serve(d) as military translators, secret CIA operatives and reconstruction specialists, the Hmong put their lives on the line to support the U.S. by blocking supply lines, gathering intelligence and flying combat missions. And while 15,000 died during the war, that number doubled when the U.S. pulled its troops out of South Vietnam, abandoning the Hmong, and forcing them to flee to Thailand for refugee.
Today’s Thailand is here in Jordan. Today’s Thailand is Syria (where we’re headed tomorrow). Today’s Thailand is Lebanon and Egypt. These are the countries where Iraqis who have been abandoned by the U.S. are fleeing.
One man I met today – Hamad*, a prominent sheik who lived near Abu Ghraib, described how he befriended the Americans who moved in to nearby Camp Bucca. As Hamad got to know them, and they got to know him, mutual trust and respect developed.
“When I had a heart attack, they promised to get me medical attention.” Hamad understood it would be a difficult process to secure medical clearance to leave Iraq – but he believed the process was underway. So, when American officials asked him for a favor, he was eager to help: assist the U.S. in rebuilding Abu Ghraib. He was now an official employee of the U.S. government. Any by becoming such, Hamad essentially signed the death sentences of his three brothers and an uncle, and was responsible for the kidnapping of his 18-year-old son.
This afternoon, sitting on a faded sofa as a fan hummed overhead in his Amman apartment, he reflected on the abandonment he feels, “I never did get any help for my medical condition… But, it has been five years since all of this happened, and it’s time to move on. America did nothing to help me – but I’m focused on the future.” All the while he tells his story, he is smiling. Smiling because he is preparing to move to Australia in two weeks.
“You want to know how it makes me feel?” asks Kirk Johnson, founder of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Refugees who is traveling with us on this shoot. “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that Australia is doing more to help this family than we are – and we’re the ones who tore them apart and put them in so much danger.”
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. denied there was ever a Secret War in Laos. It wasn’t until May 1997 – 24 years after America withdrew its support of the Hmong guerrillas that the Secret War was officially acknowledged. Let’s hope it’s not 2033 before our Iraqi allies experience some sense of justice for all that they have sacrificed.
(*Hamad’s name has been changed for his protection)