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COLUMN ONE

A note of suffering, and hope

A $100 bill stained with blood, shrunken and unwanted, tells the story of wars fought, lives lost and reclaimed, the cost of conflict and the price of moving on.

March 17, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — It travels with me, shrunken, stained, unwanted.

I try to get rid of it, but no one will take AJ55758031. They hold it to the light, tug at its edges, hand it back with whispered disgust.

"Not this one, mister," they say as I fold it away.

It was years ago in Baghdad, after the morning mortar rounds thudded over the marshes on the Tigris, that the $100 bill smeared with blood came into my possession. Saad Khalaf knocked on the door and stepped into my room; he was healing, a big man with a little-boy smile and milky-colored scars on his face, like squiggles on a map. He was with a friend whose English was better than his.

"He wants to ask you something," said the friend, who held out what I was about to inherit. "It's no good. Saad had it in his pocket when the bomb exploded. You see this, it's Saad's blood. He tried to wash it, but it wouldn't come out, and now it's stained and not the same size as other ones. Can you give him a new one and take this one? Maybe you can find a place in another country that will accept it."

I examined it and glanced at Saad. It's hard for a man to ask another man for a favor. Saad had been a wedding photographer, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq the mood for betrothal waned. The Times hired him as a photographer and driver, and on New Year's Eve 2003, he was sitting with colleagues at a restaurant when a suicide bomber drove a car through the back wall. Saad almost died. He spent weeks recovering, and when he was on his feet again, he noticed that part of his salary -- a $100 bill -- was stiff and dark.

The money-changers wouldn't take it; shop owners brushed it aside. They craved the clean and the crisp. War zones are marred, messy places, but the currency that moves them must shine with a freshness that says "you can believe in this." I took the bill and gave Saad a new one. He exhaled relief and left my room.

The bill has stayed folded in my pocket or in an envelope I keep with travel cash. Nobody wants blood money. Nations spend billions of dollars to wage war, but a $100 bill smudged with a man's blood makes the superstitious queasy. The note is my companion, a reminder, like a curled picture that resurfaces from the back of a forgotten drawer, of the cost of conflict and the price of moving on.Iknow the bill intimately: Series 1996, signed by then-Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin. Its path most likely wound from a bank in Jordan across nine hours of dangerous desert to a safe in Baghdad, where it was divvied for payroll and one day tucked into Saad's pocket. The paper is coarse from scrubbing and the taint of blood is richest between Benjamin Franklin's left eye and a border of pretty calligraphy.

The bill has traveled with me across the Middle East, from Tunis to Dubai, from Damascus to Beirut, through deserts, cities and seasides, a disfigured ghost, appearing and reappearing. And all the while I've heard: "Not this one, mister."

It accompanies me on my visits to Iraq. It was there when I met a holy man who washed bullet-ripped bodies with rose water, when I sipped tea with a prayer caller in a mosque surrounded by gunmen, heard mothers wail, watched the dead drop into coffins and fathers curse the dirt of graves. It was there when I trailed Humvees along blast walls painted in colors to help Iraqis forget that life should be something better than running from exploding marketplaces and hiding in the lantern light.

It was poolside when I floated beneath a moon at a Baghdad hotel, my ears submerged, helicopters tracing overhead like black beetles, the thumps of explosions vibrating in the water around me. It was there in those sleepless hours when I pulled back the curtain and watched through a taped window as a sandstorm draped the city and kept the mortars silent.

Even when I tried to sneak the note into small stacks of healthy bills, hoping a thumb would flick so quickly that it wouldn't be noticed, I watched as the money-changer, whose eyes were sharper than a crow's, set Saad's bill apart.

"What's this?"

"Blood."

"Take it back, man."

It was with me in Jerusalem during the Gaza siege in January when I watched a new president take over in Washington as the old one lifted away in the winter chill.

There are promises to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq by 2010. Saddam Hussein seems a vision from a distant dream, shaking his fists from balconies as armies gathered. Iraq is better, on the mend. Or so it seems on many days.

Saad has a wife and a family, his scars are like faraway constellations, barely seen. A fragile page turned.

But I remember climbing the mountains of northern Iraq; snow on the ridges, starlight above. Kurdish fighters ate sheep by a campfire, joking the way nervous men do, and then they grabbed their cold guns, and descended into the valley to look for the enemy, their footsteps softening, a gruff communion of souls so beautifully balanced between joy and death.

And the little girl lying in a hospital bed with a bullet in her brain. Her head was swelling, hour by hour, a pale balloon with shrinking eyes. The hospital didn't have the tools to operate; by nightfall she was dead. Just like the bearded militant, his muddy clothes cut away in a candlelit mosque, his blood spreading over the stone floor, his warriors weeping around him until dawn.

The images go on and on; others are yet to be collected, but they are out there. The $100 bill will stay with me, never buying anything, but reminding me of stories told in a country at war.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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latimes.com/columnone

Previous Column One articles are available online.

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