Romanian Soldiers in Iraq: A Photo Exhibition in Sighisoara


Entry to the Exhibition

A soldier’s proud silhouette in front of the rising sun. Two photos of composed soldiers aiming with their gun. Another of one soldier guarding the door with a stony, tough expression on his face. I studied the scene for a while, an unusual sight just beside the Monastery Church in the old town of Sighisoara. I was perplexed. What was it? A military museum? A virtual shooting range indoors?
Imagine my surprise to see arrays of photos in a bright room after I went through the half-open wooden door. The photographer behind them, Cornel Mitut approached me minutes after I stepped in. “This is an exhibition of photos I took when my unit was stationed in Iraq,” he said. To my even greater surprise, he added, “I hosted the exhibition to show a humane face of the military, because I think that they are often misunderstood by media and the public.” As our conversation continued, I learned that Mr. Mitut stayed in Iraq for 6 months in 2006, along with 400-500 of fellow Romanian soldiers. He started taking photos there as a personal hobby, but developed into a profession — he currently works in the military’s film academy. He chose to host his exhibition in the old town of Sighisoara so that more visitors might be attracted. A holiday is coming soon, he explained, and he wanted to take advantage of the inflow of tourists.

Cornel Mitut and I

To be honest, “a humane face of the military” was not something that would came to my mind when I thought about the Iraq War. On the contrary, I thought about injustice, military brutality and all the ravaging that could have been avoided. At the beginning of last year, Haider Newmani, an Iraqi veteran and journalist was invited to Carleton’s weekly convocation. His telling of the Iraq War has stayed in my head: children playing around dead corpses, families forced out of their house and in front of US tanks in terror, as soldiers in the tank were forced to decide within minutes whether to identify them as terrorists and shoot them to death — divisions, misunderstandings, and the horror of war. On the other hand, Mr. Mitut started his presentation by saying that their mission was to protect and help the local people. Later, we passed by what he called “the more artistic photos”. He pointed to me one of these photos, a child seen through the embrasure of an armored car. “I just find the angle interesting.” For a moment, as I recalled the speech of Mr. Newmani, I didn’t know how to face this friendly military photographer in front of me. (The same thing happened when he explained the story behind another photo, a rare ball hosted in the base. “There were only 7 women around, so she danced all night and with every man.” Mr. Mitut said, laughing, pointing to a picture of a man and a woman dancing. I didn’t find a good way to start a feminist argument, so I remained silent.)

Left: A Child Seen through an Embrasure; Right: “She was dancing all night and with every man.”

I reminded myself, however, that I also wouldn’t have thought about the presence of Romanian soldiers in Iraq, so I listened on. Mr. Mitut came as one of the UN forces in Iraq. “We were doing all the dirty works for the US military,” he said, referring to the patrolling missions of his unit. Every several days, they drove out in the field and inspected local vehicles that drove off the highway, making sure that none of them carried armory. They were supposed to get out of their car and inspect in person suspicious vehicles. In contrast, at the convocation, Mr. Newmani mentioned a US policy that prohibited soldiers from getting out of armored vehicles when inspecting suspicious local residents. The policy was to ensure the safety of US soldiers and to reduce causality rate. I don’t mean to compare these two incidents as representative or applicable to wider practices. When I related the words of Mr. Mitut to Adam, he made a fair point that US troops performed the majority of the missions and took great risks. Nevertheless, one of the Italian soldiers died during the patrolling mission in the 6 months Cornel Mitut was stationed in Iraq. Mr. Mitut photographed the mourning face of his Italian comrade at the funeral.

Soldier at the Funeral

As we continued our tour of the exhibition, it became clear that religion was an important theme. An Orthodox priest came along the Romanian troop. A church was set up in their camp. Before every patrolling mission, the priest blessed the soldiers deployed. “It was a tiring task,” commented Mr. Mitut. As his photo revealed, the priest sometimes needed to do it late in the night. The existence of the priest and the church added a new religious dimension to his interaction with the locals. Labelled as “one of my favorites,” a photo recorded a local Muslim leader in the Orthodox church. Mr. Mitut found the image empowering — Muslims in an Orthodox church. “Why were they there?” I asked. “They needed to discuss issues with us and the church was one of the available meeting spaces,” was the only answer given. I forgot to ask Mr. Mitut whether he had been to a mosque. Pity, in any case the answer would be worth knowing.

  

Left: “A Muslim in a Church”; Right: (up) Blessing before patrolling, (down) Base “Dracula”

Not surprisingly, as units were organized and separated by nationality, so were Mitut’s description and impressions. Language and cultural similarity seemed a central focus. “Italians are nice; they are close to us,” Mitut commented. “Who was your least favorite?” I asked, and the answer was the Australians. “They don’t speak the kind of English I can understand.” Frankly, I expected a different answer. Just before this conversation, I noticed that the Romanian camp was named “Dracula” — a name, according to Mitut, that was given by the Americans. “For them, every camp needed a name, so they assigned the name ‘Dracula’ to ours, since they associated Romania with it.” I thought about how Mihaela hated the association between Romania and Dracula, but Mitut didn’t seem to be that offended. He didn’t comment on this practice, and ended the topic with a shrug.
“I want to show a humane face of the military.” Mr. Cornel Mitut said at the beginning of our encounter. For the record, I retained my criticism against the absence of military brutality and the lacking reflection on gender imbalance, but it was the war Mitut experienced, the one he took the effort to show me. Thus, in a way, he succeed in showing me an alternative face of the military — a Mitut and Romanian one. That, in a sum, is a face humane enough.

Romanian Soldiers in Iraq: A Photo Exhibition in Sighisoara

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