Little visitors make impact on gates of Abu Ghraib

25 May 2004 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

Off the road, outside of the prison walls of Abu Ghraib, Iraqi families mill about, waiting to be cleared for admittance, hoping to speak to relatives inside.

At the checkpoint, nicknamed "the Forward," Army military policemen check visitors for weapons and contraband before helping them on to a bus bound for the visitor area.

There are also boys like Hamzi, an 11-year-old from a nearby village.

"A lot of them come from nearby communities," said Lance Cpl. Jared Bierbaum, one of the Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment that stands post on the prison's perimeter. "They don't go to school. Some of them are helpers, pick up trash, and get money or candy."

Hamzi, smiling, wanders around in a bright orange and green Nike soccer jersey bought with money earned from helping out the Marines, along with his new sweatpants and sandals.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon trash!" he said to one of the Marines on post, hopping up and down excitedly.

Named after a nearby village on the outskirts of Baghdad, the prison, a nestling of walled compounds in a walled compound carved out of the barren, hardtop desert, has become notorious after revelations of prisoner abuse by members of the Army's 372nd Military Police Company.

In an address to the Army War College May 24, President George W. Bush announced plans to raze the prison, saying, "Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

Until the walls of the prison are torn down, the Marines of K Co. have been tasked with defending them. They have also become a public face of the prison, as photographers from wire services mingle with the crowds of Iraqi visitors.

"What happened was just horrible," said Maj. Luke Kratky, the commander of the reserve infantry company based out of Terre Haute, Ind. "The fact that we could be associated with that as Marines has aggravated us beyond what we saw. Marines at (the front gate) have to deal with anger of the local populace, when they had nothing to do with it."

According to the Marines at the post, such outbursts are the exception, not the rule.

"They're just mad because some of them have family inside and can't see them," said Lance Cpl. Mirza Bijedic, who is originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia. "We're here to protect the base, and (military police) handle the visitation."

More often, the families' questions center around life in America.

"They ask us about religion, that kind of thing," said Bijedic. "For me, I'm Muslim, so they ask me why I'm in the Marine Corps. They ask how it is to be a Muslim in the U.S.

"I tell them, nobody cares if you're a Muslim; nobody points a gun at you and says, 'You're a Muslim, go back home.'"

And some, like the kids who come in from local villages, offer their assistance to the Marines.

"We pick up good Arabic from these kids," said Lance Cpl. Jared Bierbaum, a native of Bloomington, Ill. "I think we learn Arabic faster than we would sitting in the classroom. And they keep coming back (with) something to tell us, if some 'Ali Baba' is in town."

Marines like Bijedic hope to be remembered for what they do, not for the abuses committed before his company arrived.

"Some people ask me about it, and I say, 'it's a few misguided individuals.' Everybody has a couple of bad apples, but in general, we're here to help people."

Editor's note: This is the first of three stories in a series about Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment at Abu Ghraib Prison.