Guest Post by Eric Burkhart
When I first landed in Baghdad in 2003, I was immediately impressed by the international flavor of the city. I expected to hear nothing but Arabic being spoken in the markets and restaurants, but I was way off-base. Baghdad is one of the world’s oldest cities, and is still home to a small Catholic community, a neighborhood of Assyrians, and a few Orthodox Churches. I was never able to find a Jewish Temple, but locals assured that a Jewish community continued to exist. All these cultures, and in particular the different languages, can make the job of a CIA Case a Officer very difficult. The Agency is very good about teaching it’s officers to be bi and sometimes trilingual, but I was hired with a fluency in Spanish, French and Afrikaans. After my initial training was complete, the last thing I wanted was to go back into a classroom for a year and learn a language. In hindsight, I which I had taken advantage of the Agency’s phenomenal Arabic instruction. In fact, back in 2003, right off the plane, as I was settling down into my new living quarters and thinking about the work environment, I was truly regretting not having learned Arabic.
My responsibility as a CIA Case a Officer in Iraq in 2003, was to develop sources in the local community who could provide confidential information that would ideally allow us to keep our soldiers safe.This effort was called “Force Protection”, and I was never more proud as an Agency Officer than when I was part of this effort to disrupt the efforts of the Extremists to attack U.S. military targets and friendly Iraqi non-combatants. Speaking Arabic would be an invaluable tool to any Case Officer working in this part of the world. Upon arrival in the Green Zone, even before locating my quarters, I was lucky enough to meet three brothers who were working on contract with the CIA to act as translators. Having a good number of translators, or linguists, is very important. We did have a few Arabic speakers, but at the time the Case a Officer Cadre was stretched to the limit, and Arabic speakers were a wanted commodity. With welcome foresight, the Agency made arrangements to hire Arabic speakers to assist us in our interviews and debriefings. I became close friends with the Yonen brothers, who I mentioned earlier. Or seemed that no matter how busy we were, one Yonen brother was always on hand to assist me.
The Yonen brothers were Assyrian, and all three had been born in Baghdad. The family emigrated to the United States just after a World War Two. The oldest brother was 82, the second oldest was 79, and the youngest was 75. As seems to be common with immigrants from that generation, the Yonens were tremendous patriots. Everyone at the CIA facility in Baghdad soon became familiar with the brothers, who were very charming. I recall one conversation I had over breakfast with the oldest brother. I asked him why he and his brothers would want this kind of work, especially at this age. It turns out that the brothers were ordered to apply for the linguist positions by their father Papa Yonen, who was still alive somewhere in Northern Virginia. You see, sometime within the last few decades, the U.S.-based branch of the Yonens lost contact with their family still living in Baghdad. Papa Yonen had instructed his sons to do whatever they could to find the old family. Not surprisingly, the brothers came to me and my sidekick Mark, and asked us if we could help. Only Case Officers were allowed out of the Green Zone, so they had correctly assessed that we were their only hope. I put the word out to all my local contacts, hoping that someone was aware of the existence of a Christian Assyrian community deep in the bowels of ancient Baghdad. It wasn’t until just before Christmas, 2003, that one of my most trusted assets called me to say that he had accidentally stumbled upon a crumbling Church that appeared to be Assyrian. Mark and I wasted no time in taking directions and heading out into uncharted Baghdad to discover if there might be some small hope of reconnecting the Yonens to their kin.
Did I mention that at the time, Baghdad had no street signs (not that I would have been able to read them in Arabic)? Mark and I had become experts at getting from point A to point B by using visual landmarks. We found the Church, but the area surrounding the building appeared very dicey. It was an extremely poor community, and it was impossible to see where some dwellings started and others ended. The roads had long-ago disappeared, and avoiding crater-sized pot-holes became essential for keeping our axel intact. When Mark and I returned to the Green Zone and reported to the Yonens, they were in no was dissuaded from their mission. We explained that it was dangerous, and even though it appeared that the community was at some Assyrian, that we had been unable to identify the ethnicities of anyone. At that point, the oldest Yonen stood up, and announced that if we weren’t going to help, that he and his brothers would just walk to the Church for Christmas Eve services (the next day). So Mark and I went to my boss, and asked for permission to take the three Yonens out of the Green Zone and into the depths of ancient Baghdad, on a likely goose-chase looking for long-lost relatives. I was shocked when he told me to do what I thought was right, but I was on my own if things went south.
The next day was indeed Christmas Eve. I was beginning to worry because so far everything has gone smoothly. I’m always expecting a hiccup somewhere, and driving into a ramshackle, broken down neighborhood in Baghdad with our three passengers presented all sorts of opportunities for trouble. But everything was fine. Mark had no problems remembering the way to the street with the Church, and we were able to park about two houses down, directly in front of a large, very old home. Mark agreed to wait with the vehicle while I went to the Church with the Yonens. They were hoping to at least speak to the priest and hopefully get some information on their family. But as the Yonens stepped out of our vehicle, the oldest one stopped and just stared at the house in front of which we were parked. At about the same time, an army of people started filing out of the front door of the house, and approached us. I do not speak Assyrian but the emotions that were filling the air that afternoon, the love, the joy of the moment made it obvious to both myself and Mark, that we had managed to park right in front of a relative’s home. What was most astonishing to us was how quickly they all recognized each other. And oh how quickly that little community which previously had seemed so destitute and foreboding, was transformed into a place of rejoicing. When Mark and I were ushered into the home, I was pleased to see that as run down as the home looked in the outside, inside it was warm and welcoming and full of love. I remember eating some of the most delicious homemade bread before Mark and I made arrangements with the Yonens to pick them up the next morning, and said our goodbyes to so many new friends.
The Yonens ended their contract not long after, which I had expected. They had fulfilled Papa Yonen’s instructions, and re-established contact with the family in Baghdad. That Christmas Eve, after leaving the Yonens with their family, Mark and I stopped at the U.S. Army chapel at the Coalition Provisional Authority Headquarters, hoping to catch a service. We were lucky enough to make an early Midnight Mass service (there were four scheduled that evening, beginning at 6:00 pm). I have so many wonderful memories of Christmas, but that particular 2003 Christmas Eve in Baghdad is special, because I feel like I was part of the miracle.