Zeeman is a strapping young man, broad shouldered with a maturity and authority far beyond his age of only 21. He is veteran of
Zeeman is an interpreter working for American troops. Day after day, he plays a crucial role in bridging the language and culture gaps between young, often nervous Americans inter-acting with often bruised and frightened Iraqis – whether its calming fears, picking up tit-bits of intelligence or going on a raid.
Four years ago and just turned seventeen, Zeeman was still a schoolboy hoping to take exams – and a part-time interpreter. “I was working at an American checkpoint,” he said, “That was back in the days when interpreters wore civilian clothing. When I turned up for school after that, the head teacher expelled me, because he’d been through the check-point and had recognised me. He said I couldn’t come back because I was a traitor.”
Zeeman is not his real name. He asked that I didn’t film his face at all. Nor did he want me to describe what he actually looked like. I first met him a year ago in the once-affluent neighbourhood of Gazalia that had been brutalised by Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents until US troops took it back and began a hearts and minds campaign to win over Iraqi trust.
Zeeman had been a key element of the small company that set up base in a villa there. “You need to do more than just translate language,” he said. “You need to show exactly the mood and feelings of the two sides you’re translating for. You need to act out what is going on.”
I caught up with him again in what used to be an upmarket shopping mall and is now the base for the Four-Ten Cavalry Regiment that handles a vast area of
Two things have happened in recent weeks that worry Zeeman deeply. First the Pentagon ruled that Iraqi interpreters could no longer wear masks to protect their identity – the point being that if the security situation has improved the civilian population shouldn’t have to talk through someone in a black ski-mask.
It caused outrage that created fault-lines of mistrust, and prompted a Congressional petition to get the ruling overturned.
“It’s been rescinded to an operational level,” said the base commander Colonel Monty Willoughby. “It would have been tough to get where we are today without our interpreters. We know they get scared and we protect their identity as much as possible.”
Zeeman had actually stopped wearing a mask, but he wanted it to be his decision not that of someone in Washington who knew nothing about conditions on the ground.
“I am married and I have a family,” he said in his bunk room at the base. “We have to remember that these forces are leaving one day and we are staying here. If these people from the checkpoints see the same faces as they’ve seen working with the Americans….” He trailed off with a shrug, and his room-mate finished the thought for him. “If anyone of my neighbourhood sees me in this uniform, I will get killed. May-be they will kill all my family. So that’s the issue.”
The second development was the agreement between
While the violence is down, the insurgency is far from defeated, and Zeeman believes he’s worked in so many places against so many different insurgents whose memories are long and vengeful.
Then, when we headed out on a patrol, he was overtaken by his enthusiasm for the job. He apologised to two women who were stopped from walking down a road when it was blocked by our Humvees. He introduced his lieutenant to the Iraqi army at a checkpoint; He liaised with Iraqi police while we searched scrubland for weapons.
“I’m helping both countries,
And the future?
He looked up sharply, but not to answer me. “Sergeant,” he shouted. “Two storey building up there. Unidentified male on the roof.”
A Humvee machine gun spun round while the patrol checked it was safe. Zeeman took out a cigarette from his tunic pocket. He was about to light it, when he paused, remembering my question. “The future. Yeah. You know, I haven’t even finished high school yet. So that’s what I want to do — finish my education. But in