Patriotism before religion

“We’re here to teach the Arabs something”, one of the two security consultants says. “Not that it will help much”, adds the other; “but we keep on trying”. A friendly smile then, and an inquisitive look. They seem to like me, but I am clearly also the object of reconnaissance.

They were soldiers once, in South-Africa. There are many former South-African servicemen working here in Iraq, in private security, mostly. Armed with heavy firepower, preferably concealed under roomy shirts, they keep foreigners safe as they go about their business in the country. A ‘PSD’, or personal security detail, will set you back at least 5,000 US dollars a day. But many seeking commerce in post-war Iraq are happy to pay up, hoping that their profits will make good on their investment in safety.

Most of these South-African bodyguards seem to be Afrikaners; descendants of settlers from the Low Lands, which is why their language still bears so much resemblance to Dutch. My two new friends spoke Afrikaans to each other, and so I noticed them. They are amused to encounter a Dutchman around these parts. “No protection?”, they ask; and assuming they were not referring to condoms, I reply with a ‘no’.

They give me the 5 Rand coin that I – thinking of golden Krugerrands for some reason – had been eyeing in one of the men’s hands, and tell me that in Afrikaans, there is still a well-used expression for when all things are safe and secure: ‘Die Kaap is Hollands’, or: the Cape is Dutch; we can all sleep quietly once more.

And so, across oceans and many centuries, the men and I formed the bond of shared origins. But the Cape is certainly not Dutch around these parts. Down here, in the GOI (the Government of Iraq), trouble has been brewing ever since the last elections, that have not yet produced a new government. And the different power centers do not shy away from detonating things to add some explosive force to their arguments for a strong say in a new coalition. Up north though, in the KRG (the Kurdistan Regional Government), the situation has remained relatively calm, bar a few IED’s (improvised explosive devices) here and there.

Or were they AVE’s. Iraq is a place where one needs to catch up quickly on one’s mastery of martial acronyms.

“I have been here for more than 10 years now, and I can tell you one thing: the Kurds up north put patriotism before religion”, says the elder of the Afrikaners. “But in the GOI, religion comes before country. the Shia’s, he continues, get their money and bombs from Iran; the Saudi’s supply the Sunni’s. “Of course, the Kurds also stick together because no one else loves them. No Iran or Saudi-Arabia will help them out. But when all is said and done, it’s the Christians that get the short end of the stick, and are driven up north.”

“The main Kurdish parties, PDK and PUK, were smart: they stopped fighting each other, formed a pact, and created peace and prosperity for Kurdistan and their clans. The Arabs are incapable of doing that. They don’t even trust their own family and friends. Did you know that Saddam’s bodyguard consisted of Kurds and Christians from the North? He knew he couldn’t trust his own people with his own life”.

Before they go on their way, they offer me some security advice. “Do you know what the main threat in the Middle-East is for foreigners like us? Hostage taking. It’s nothing personal. To an Arab, you are just a bag of money. They hold you for a few years, extort 30,000 or 40,000 dollars from your family, and send you back to where you came from. It’s not a good idea for you to be down south unprotected, son”.

Free counsel. Yay. A businessman might have paid 5,000 dollars for that. I can’t make up my mind: are these two security workers selling their trade to me? Or does the mere thought disqualify me as absurdly naive?

Through the soothing process of fortifying one’s gut feeling with arguments after said gut has already made up its feeling, I decide that things cannot be as bad as it might seem from the professional perspective of these men.

Just as in my work here in Iraq, I meet a lot of people – Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Christians alike – who work hard, and at times put themselves at incredible risks, to eradicate sectarianism and violence from their communities.

Anyhow. There are still fighting men in Iraq, ready to help out a lone journalist. Somehow, I found that a comforting thought.

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