Special Reports

Amid war and poverty, the children smile

I've always known they existed, those places where people are poor, where they live with fewer luxuries and freedoms than you and I have. I've seen photos in books and magazines and newspapers. But those places were always very far from my reality.

As I drove with soldiers down the streets of Kirkuk on the first patrol of our tour here, my reality changed.

It's one thing to see photos of places like this, to hear about them from some distant source. It is quite another to be here.You feel dirty because you are surrounded by streets riddled with trash. In some places it looks like people started building their homes in the middle of a landfill. You wince and have to swallow when you catch a whiff of the stench emanating from a puddle in the street.

Then you look into the eyes of the people who live here — especially the eyes of the children. And they smile.

Children dash, in bare feet, down the street when they see soldiers coming. They laugh, play and pose for the camera. They follow you. A little girl in a red dress with white lace ended up in most of my photos — sometimes just barely peeking in from the corner of the frame. But there she was, again and again.

The children tug on your shirt, chattering "Mister! Mister!" It doesn't matter that you are a woman. It is all they know.

This is what they know: Crumbling and makeshift buildings. Sewage running down rutted dirt roads. Goats, chickens, donkeys and mangy dogs wandering freely. This is where they live and play. This place, where I have to strap on 35 pounds of body armor before I get in an armored vehicle and drive through town, is their home. And still, they smile.

These children will continue to follow me long after I am gone from this place.

— Kim Hughes