‘We were surrounded by machineguns’

Soldiers well prepared for Iraq because of students from Windesheim

Fifteen students from the English teacher training course helped Dutch servicemen and women preparing for their training mission to Iraq, where they will train Iraqi soldiers for battle. At the army base in Havelte soldiers were taught the do’s and don’ts about translating and didactics.

‘’When you hear something about Iraqi soldiers on the news you often think about a professional army. This is not the case, because most of the soldiers are civilians with a gun and they have to fight self-styled IS’’ according to Hanno van Boven (22), fourth year student of English. ‘’Every family is expected to send at least a few family members to the front, so it could be the case that your eighteen-year-old nephew gets forced to hold a gun. Unbelievable isn’t it?’’

The lack of knowledge has unfortunately caused a lot of deaths in Iraq. Hanno: ‘’Faith plays a huge role in this as well. People will just run right through the battlefield while yelling ‘Insjallah’, loosely translated into ‘for god’s will’. That you can take measures by having a tactical approach and wearing a bulletproof vest, is a real eye-opener for them. The Dutch soldiers will teach them this.

Baby language

Students helped groups of about ten armed trained soldiers fine-tune their lessons in the first week of July. Red-white ribbons on the grass of the military barracks were imaginable walls of an enemy building. One soldier explained about safely entering the building, while a second soldier acted out the instructions. The other soldiers were pretending to be Iraqi warriors listening and hiding under camouflage netting. Hanno: ‘’We were translating it from English to Dutch. This is how we discovered if their explanation was understood by somebody with no knowledge about military jargon. You can still check this in English, whereas in Iraq it will be translated into Arabic. This has to be right the first time. To prevent faulty translations, we helped to explain everything in baby language. The combination of explaining and acting out helps with this process.
It wasn’t just all seriousness though: ‘during training, one soldier who pretended to be an Iraqi soldier walked into the fictional enemy building acting extremely clumsy, in contrast to what was explained about being extremely careful while inspecting every corner of the room. Everybody had to laugh, but the soldiers who were teaching got very frustrated. They know that their colleague knows how to do this. It could be that an Iraqi soldier will do this, so they’ll have to be prepared.


Despite the goal being very serious, the atmosphere between lessons was relaxed. ‘’The soldiers may be wearing an impressive uniform and a machine gun, they are just people around my age. The only difference is that they choose a different career.’’ Between lessons there was plenty of time for a break. ‘’We would do a ‘bakkiepeukie’ (a cup of coffee and a cigarette) as they call it there. They are really tough but also very motivated, which was amazing to see. They are very disciplined and want to matter. ‘’For many of them it’s their first mission. They are finally able to do what they have trained for: working in a concrete manner to bring safety and peace to the area. They are looking forward to go there, even with the knowledge that a mortar could fall out of the sky on their camp at any given moment. I really respect that’’.


Bombs and booby-traps

Hanno became more aware of the safety in the Netherlands by being confronted by the reality about war. ‘’Booby-traps and bombs are a day-to-day reality. I am very happy about the fact that I don’t have to check for weapons when the lesson starts and that I can just close the door of my classroom in the knowledge the school will still be there the next morning. You don’t really think about it in the Netherlands, but in Iraq this is the question every day.”

Does Hanno have the feeling that he has been a valuable addition to the training mission? Hanno: ‘’I am hoping their lessons in Iraq will be better because of us. But they are boarding that plane and doing the real job. I wouldn’t have done it!’’

Janine Sterenborg

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