Boy bonds with troops at Baghdad checkpoint
BAGHDAD — For the past year, the center of one boy’s universe has been a dusty, razor-wired military checkpoint in Baghdad. He’s there every day, sprawled atop a concrete barrier, subsisting on endless cans of Pepsi and talking to nearly everyone in his best soul brother accent.
When he finally gets tired, usually after midnight, he curls up inside a concrete cubbyhole where he keeps a blanket, near a parked Bradley.
“He slept here last night,” said Pfc. Brandon Osborne, of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. “He goes four or five days without going home at all.”
He said his name is Sayf. He’s 10 years old, he said, as he jammed his skinny frame tightly against Osborne’s side.
Sayf (pronounced “safe”) has attached himself to every U.S. military unit that has manned a checkpoint to the Palestine/Sheraton hotel complex, beginning with the Marines last spring.
“When America came to Iraq,” Sayf said, “I came here.”
Small, scruffy and appealing, Sayf doesn’t go to school or play with other children. He hangs out with soldiers.
“Good guys,” he said. “They help me.”
As for the soldiers, they don’t just put up with Sayf; they miss him when he’s gone. He’s made himself useful, translating and running small errands, even advising on checkpoint etiquette.
“He’s been here so long, he knows more of the procedures than we do,” said Sgt. Freddie Lewis.
There’s also undeniable affection between the soldiers and Sayf.
“Last night we were coming back from patrol and he came running down the street, high-fiving us,” said Spc. Kyron Regis.
He can’t read or write, but Sayf has learned simple English quickly. He said he went to school once but was expelled for fighting.
“They take my badge and my packet, and they tell me to go,” he said.
He seems most drawn to the black soldiers, and he tries to walk and talk like he thinks they do.
“The little hand gestures, the way he walks. … It’s pretty much the whole super soul brother thing,” Lewis said.
No one’s certain of Sayf’s history.
“I said, ‘For God’s sake, where are your parents?’” said Wisam Hashim, a security guard at the Palestine Hotel, where Sayf goes to rest sometimes in a chair in the air-conditioned lobby. “He said, ‘They beat me and they take my money.’”
Hussain Mohammed, 15, who sells cigarettes and beer outside the hotel each day after school until 11 p.m., said Sayf has been working the area since he was a very small boy.
“In Saddam’s time, he used to come and beg from the Iranian pilgrims,” Mohammed said.
No adult has ever come to claim him.
Sayf has found more of a haven than many Iraqi street kids.
“We have no census, but probably there are thousands of them,” said Huda Raphael, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Services. “Kids who hang around the Palestine or Sheraton are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Until the Iran-Iraq war, homeless children were rare, Raphael said. But the war left widows and poverty and more war throughout the 1990s worsened the situation. According to the United Nation’s children’s agency, UNICEF, the number of homeless children in Baghdad rose last year after the U.S. invasion began. Services for them are nearly nonexistent.
Sayf has told soldiers that he has brothers and sisters and a mother, and that she forbids him to come home unless he brings $50. Sayf does go somewhere sometimes, to bathe or sleep, and once he returned wearing a new outfit.
He also frequently picks up something new from the soldiers. His vocabulary of curse words, for instance, is said to be impressive.
But sometimes the soldiers sing to him. Staff Sgt. Michael Tucker taught him “Build Me Up Buttercup” recently. Tucker sang a verse, then Sayf repeated it, until they finished the song.
“That’s something I sing to my future stepdaughter,” Tucker said, a little embarrassed. “It just popped into my head.”
The soldiers often slip Sayf $5 or so but they said he prefers to earn money pushing carts or carrying foreigners’ bags in his skinny little arms.
Late one afternoon, Sayf had amassed 3,500 dinar — about $2.20 — and seven $1 bills.
“He comes up here some days and he wants to buy everybody a soda,” Lewis said. “I say, ‘No, Sayf. You have to save your money.’ ”
Lewis is one of Sayf’s favorites.
“We tussle and stuff. Or he brings a soccer ball up,” said Lewis, who has two children. “We play and talk. I try to do as much as I can to make him happy during the day.”
“I called my wife and told her about him,” Lewis said. “I could never picture my kids in the condition he’s in. It tears me up.”
Lewis said he saw a picture of Sayf taken a year ago. His hair, now close-cropped, was long and curly, and he was cleaner.
“He looks a little worse now,” Lewis said.
Each rotation of soldiers stays about two weeks at the checkpoint, then they go on to a different duty. Sayf makes friends all over again. But it’s not as easy as it looks.
Sayf kept asking Lewis how long he’d be at the checkpoint.
“I said, ‘Two more days,’” Lewis said, “and he started slowly pulling himself away.”