Special Reports

I went to Iraq to cover a war, and ended up covering a kindergarten pageant

We’re not sure how it happened. But one day last week photographer Kim Hughes and I found ourselves in the front row of an auditorium at a spring pageant for Kirkuk’s kindergarten children put on by Kurdistan Save the Children.

Did I mention that the room was full of about 75 Iraqi parents?

Social gatherings in general give me nervous shakes. But there I was, front row center. I felt neon conspicuous: I’m 6 feet tall in a 5-foot-tall country. I was wearing body armor and a battle helmet. For the first time since arriving in Iraq more than two weeks ago, I felt totally alien.

I slunk down in my chair, took a deep breath and tried to calm down. I would have preferred dodging bullets.

About the time I convinced myself that everyone was much more interested in the adorable children on stage than in me, a woman brought Kim and I a piece of cake and a warm bottle of pop. I guess we hadn't exactly blended in with the crowd.

“Shokrun,” I said, my “thank you” exhausting exactly half of my Arabic vocabulary.

It took another couple minutes to calm my nerves. It helped watching the kids on stage. They sang with the unflinching enthusiasm that only children can muster. The children in their Disney-cute outfits held hands and sang brightly. It was sappy and cute enough to melt a cast-iron cynic.

The girls wore iridescent scarlet, gold and turquoise dresses, flecked with rhinestones. The boys wore slacks and button-up shirts or the traditional Kurdish outfits of baggy, earth-toned, open-front jump suits with wide cloth belt.

Parents crowded forward to take pictures. I became as enamored as they were with the tykes on stage. I decided it would be rude to ignore the cake and took a big bite.

At exactly that moment, a slender, attractive Iraqi woman startled me when she sat next to me and started talking in accented English. I could barely hear her voice over the singing children. To add to the embarrassment, my mouth was stuffed with cake. I hoped I didn't have too much frosting in my mustache.

I nodded and said hello in Arabic -- the only other Arabic word I know. She continued the conversation. The music stopped and I apologized and explained I couldn't hear her over the noise. She asked my name and who I worked for. I fumbled in my notebook for a business card. She wrote down "Idaho Statesman" in her own notebook. (Her penmanship was a lot better than mine.)

The woman worked for Kurdistan Save the Children. She told me her director would like to talk to me after the pageant. I was afraid he was going to hit me up for something. Iraqis tend to be -- how can I put this gently -- a little needy.

They expect the government to fix their problems, and by default, Americans are seen as part of the Iraqi government. I was afraid he was confusing me with the Great American Media Machine that can right all wrongs. I cringed at the thought of explaining to the nice man that I worked for a newspaper in Idaho and I wasn't CNN or “60 Minutes.”

Near the end, a few mothers joined the dance in front of the stage, arms wrapped around each other’s waists. Other women joined in, and Kim was dragged into the scrum. More women and a few men joined until they formed a full circle that bobbed and shuffled. A few trilled the high-pitched Arabic yodel as shrill as a coach’s whistle.

The music stopped and the pageant ended. I went to the director’s office with the woman -- her name was Avriz -- and she translated for us.

My fears were mostly unfounded. The director of Kurdistan Save the Children, a slightly built, gray-haired Iraqi man in sharply pressed slacks, dress shirt and tie, wanted to personally welcome us and tell us about his organization.

He told us about the Cultural Center for Children (one of six in the Middle East, with a second planned for Kirkuk), where the pageant was held, and the group's youth activity center and a center for juvenile delinquents. He wondered if we could come back and do a story on his group.

I explained that I was assigned to the group of Idaho soldiers and went where they went. But I said would surely mention Save the Children when I did in my story.

Which I have done.

And that's how I went to Iraq to cover a war, and ended up covering an Iraqi kindergarten pageant.

(Find out more about Kurdistan Save the Children at www.ksc-kcf.org.)

— Roger Phillips

When three Idaho soldiers decided to re-enlist in the National Guard, they took their re-enlistment oaths at the Eternal Flame, a Biblical landmark.

Following the ceremony, several other soldiers (and even a couple civilian journalists) posed for pictures of their own with the dramatic flames as the backdrop.

But the flames aren't a place to dilly-dally for photos, as Sgt. 1st Class Rik Williamson, who dashed out after having his picture taken, can attest.

— Kim Hughes