Bearing witness to destruction
Coach Kindbom’s trip to the intersection of war and faith
At dusk, Washington University head football coach Larry Kindbom stands in the middle of the flood-lit field, ready to start practice. When he blows his whistle, his players come walking towards him from the sidelines.
Absolutely unacceptable. They’ll have to run if they want to play on Kindbom’s team.
So, he sends everyone back to the edge of the field and whistles again, this time yelling and waving his hands at them to move faster. They come jogging.
Again, not fast enough.
One more time he sends them back and blasts his whistle. They all come running. There we go, that’s the kind of hustle he wants to see out of his athletes. It took a little coaxing, but the people of Erbil, Iraq are learning the game from scratch.
Amidst refugees and upscale housing projects, Kindbom taught kids and adults alike how to throw a spiral, block a pass rusher and run receiving routes. Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and 50 miles east of Mosul. It’s also a world of intense juxtaposition. The city is wealthy, but a sanctuary for the desperate fleeing ISIS. Camps of refugees directly abutted houses that looked like they belonged in Santa Barbara. While in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kindbom’s primary mission was to provide aid for displaced families. But, for two nights, he was able to do what he does best: teach football.
For the past 28 years, Kindbom has served as the head coach of Washington University’s football program. He’s also a devout Christian and an active member of his church. One day late last year, he was speaking with Randy Mayfield, a friend who organizes mission trips for the church. Kindbom made an offhand comment about visiting Iraq, but to Kindbom’s surprise, Mayfield was all for it. Mayfield planned all the itinerary. In addition to hosting football clinics, they’d deliver aid to refugee camps, meet with Peshmerga generals and visit the Kurdish Parliament. They departed in late February.
So why Iraq?
Well, folks around Wash. U. know Coach Kindbom as the longtime helmsman of the University’s football program. But a couple of decades ago, he was Larry, political science major at Kalamazoo College. For a while he’d been closely following the upheaval in Northern Iraq and wanted to help, especially if he could use his expertise from the gridiron.
“I love my faith, I love football and I love kids,” Kindbom said. “How cool would that be to use football as a way to connect with people?”
For the clinic, Kindbom set up on a mini fenced-in soccer field. There are these kinds of spaces all over Erbil. About 50-60 people, boys and girls, showed up, donning Washington University football jerseys and other swag Kindbom brought over from the states. But even after everyone was geared up and gathered around, the real challenge began. Most of the people he was coaching barely understood English, and he did not know a word of Kurdish. There was just no way he could pass everything through an interpreter. He had to find a way to connect without words. So he started clapping. Slowly at first, until some of the people started copying him. Then he’d mix up the speeds. He’d clap really fast and everyone else would start clapping fast. Then he’d slow down and the players else would follow in kind. This wasn’t about getting everyone to applaud themselves—this was about building the connection and a football spirit without the luxury of words.
Of course, the cultural exchange wasn’t seamless. At one point during the clinic, Kindbom was running a couple of girls though the high knee drill. To get their legs up higher, he was slapping them on the thighs—the kind of thing he’d do with his players back in St. Louis.
“And all of a sudden, I get this tap on the shoulder,” Kindbom said. “Guy came over and said, ‘Don’t touch the girls.’”
“This was the worst moment of the whole trip,” Kindbom added, laughing at his own embarrassment. But beyond that, communication was smooth. Boys and girls alike were moving their way through the drills.
Of course, only a small fraction of Kindbom’s trip involved coaching football. The true work was done in the refugee camps. Using money donated by people from around the world, Kindbom and his group purchased and distributed plastic bags full of essential aid items like cooking oil and juice. Along the way, they’d interact with the refugees and document their experience through photography. Mayfield, who is an accomplished singer-songwriter would occasionally take his guitar out and play for a small crowd, letting children strum while he held the frets.
In these sojourns, Kindbom witnessed the true upheaval from the war. Many of these refugees came from Mosul. When ISIS captured the city in 2014, roughly half a million people fled the city, many of them ended up in the refugee camps in Erbil and the surrounding countryside that Kindbom visited. There he’d find former lawyers, bankers and teachers surviving off aid and the generosity of their neighbors.
The way Kindbom sees it, this reshuffling was kind of like a natural disaster. You could be the richest family in town, but when that hurricane rolls in, you grab your phone, a couple days’ worth of clothes and drive away in the family car. So when a week turns into three years, the way the occupation of Mosul has, whatever wealth you had before hand disappears, and you’re left with whatever you had in that frantic getaway. This meant that you could have former doctors, lawyers and teachers living under tarps with no plumbing. But if you asked to see their car, they’d point to a Mercedes parked out front.
Especially in Erbil, hundreds of families made their camps in abandoned construction sites. These structures kind of look like parking garages, unfinished buildings with just concrete columns and floors. Before the war, Erbil was booming and new developments, partially under the direction of the American government, were popping up all over the city. As you can guess, once ISIS threatened the city, all construction stopped. Refugees then move into the first floor, the concrete roofs offering much more protection than an open air encampment.
“The city is loaded with these places,” Kindbom said.
Kindbom and his group used a set system to distribute the aid bags. When they arrived at a refugee camp or one of these abandoned structures, they’d put together a roster using the visas of each family there. Once your name was read off the list, you could pick up your bag.
“You just start right at the top and call them off, and when you ran out, you ran out,” Kindbom said.
“The last visa goes and you’re looking at all these people. What do you do?” It was disheartening.
“It’s hard…It’s hard,” Kindbom said. “You see the kids and it breaks your heart.”
Kindbom believes that what little they could give out was shared with some of the families that got nothing. He’s probably right. At least anecdotally, there was a strong bond between members in the camps. In one of the locations that Kindbom visited, refugees pooled all their coats into one big pile, all free to use for anyone that needed one.
On their second to last day in Iraq, Kindbom and his group drove to a Peshmerga army base, just three kilometers outside Mosul. The road from Erbil wasn’t easy.
“It’s like driving a solemn—the road has holes all over,” Kindbom said. That’s because of the landmines. As coalition airstrikes and Peshmerga forces pushed ISIS back away from Erbil, ISIS buried explosives to slow the chase. The roads that Kindbom and his group were traveling were cleared at this point, but out in fields on either side, he could see soldiers with minesweepers trying to clear the acres and acres of open land. They passed through abandoned villages with few structures still intact.
When they finally arrived at the base, it was time to talk football. Kindbom met with 14 Peshmerga generals—big-wigs ranging from one to four stars. They wanted to hear about Kindbom’s coaching philosophy.
“Coaches always have to look out for the last player on the team because they’re every bit as important as their star,” Kindbom remembers relaying.
That’s a classic talk for the football field, but the mantra resonated with the generals too. To them, it sounded like their mission of religious freedom. Iraqi Kurdistan is an ethnically diverse region with Sunni Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and Zoroastrians all occupying the same space. The Kurdish Parliament allows the open practice of religion, but it is up to the Peshmerga to protect minorities from the likes of ISIS.
As the men weave through discussions about football and the political climate, Kindbom noticed one of the generals sitting towards the end of the couch where they sat. The man had wide shoulders and was thick through the trunk. Kindbom thought, “This guy looked like a football player.”
So, as the group is milling outside the base towards the end of their meeting, he gets an idea—he’s going to show the general how to block like an offensive lineman. Well…at least he’ll try, since this guy can’t speak a word of English. Kindbom pulls the general hands up, whacks him behind the knees to get him to bend, and smacks him in the chest to try and push him over. Everyone is watching at this point.
The general waits, looks back at Kindbom, and hits him right back—hard enough to knock the wind right out of him. He then picks Kindbom up and throws him over his shoulder, prompting cheers from the other generals.
Kindbom couldn’t help but note how surreal the whole situation was. Here he was talking football next to a bowl of fruit while ISIS was down the road. And they weren’t exactly out of mind. As he spoke with the generals, he kept hearing an odd, faraway concussion, similar to the noise when you drop a stack of books.
“It sounded like someone was dropping pallets off the back of a truck,” Kindbom said.
Turns out those were bombs. Those were sounds from the Battle of Mosul, one of the most pivotal theatres of the whole conflict.
“It’s like you’re in Harrisburg having a sandwich, and you know that 20 miles down the road in Gettysburg they’re fighting the Civil War,” Kindbom marveled.
On their way back from the front, Kindbom and his group stopped in an abandoned church that had been used as a base of operations by ISIS. The interior was in a sorry state. Pews were upturned, plaster was shot to pieces and many windows were blown out. One of the more devastating images is of a mural of Jesus shepherding a flock of sheep. Christ’s face was completely destroyed by bullet holes. There was also an altar with a carving of Jesus, only his head and arms had been lopped off. This kind of damage is clearly deliberate and must have been a difficult sigh for Kindbom, a devout Christian to take in.
“Oh my god, as anybody,” Kindbom countered, “You just say, ‘why?’ You say, ‘why?’ to the refugees. Why does someone go in and destroy their homes…Why would you do that?”
Kindbom is the kind of guy to take hardship in stride, but there is only so much devastation and desecration he could absorb. The experience—watching families go without food, passing scores of bombed out buildings—started to weigh on him, especially in his willingness to document his trip.
“The first day, I’m like everyone else,” Kindbom said. “I want to take a picture or two to remember. The second day: It’s going to be etched in my memory forever. I don’t need any pictures. The third day I’m there, I feel like destroying the ones that I have.”
But everywhere he went, people told him to keep on taking photographs. They wanted him to bring those images home and spread the word.
“Nobody likes to carry this around, yet they would tell you, ‘We want you to take this back. We want you to know what’s happening with ISIS,’”
So when families would receive aid, they’d turn and smile for the camera because they wanted to reach out.
“They want that, because they want to pass the same message on that the generals wanted to pass on, that the parliament wanted to pass on, that the archbishop wanted to pass on, ‘We’re live, living people.’” Kindbom said.
Kindbom has done his part. His trip and the world he saw has already been covered by the St. Louis NBC affiliate and now, Student Life.
He’s quite eager to share stories and pictures from his trip, even the hard ones to tell, but there is a collection of images on his hard drive that he’ll never publish: they’re from an adult baptism.
In an upscale suburb of Erbil, Kindbom was able to witness the adult baptism of four people, two men and two women, who had crossed over the border from Iran. Apostasy—or abandoning—of Islam is a capital crime in Iran, punishable by death. To perform the ritual, the men and women would demonstrate their faith while kneeling in a pop-up pool.
“One of the questions that was asked was, ‘Would you give your life for Jesus Christ?’” Kindbom remembers. It seems like a standard question you’d ask at any adult baptism—probably more important for its symbolic than literal meaning. But when one of the men was asked, he replied through the interpreter, “I already told you. If they found me with a bible or if they find out that I’ve been baptized to be a Christian, I’m going to be dead. I think that answers your question.”
Kindbom was stunned.
“As Christians, we like to think that we’re giving everything up, but here’s a guy put in that situation,” Kindbom said “It was quite a thing.”
Just like Kurds he ran into, the four Iranians wanted Kindbom to take photos of the ceremony. But why? Sharing photos of refugees builds empathy, but why create proof of an act that could get you killed. Maybe it was still a desire for witness. The naked act of their baptism was such a powerful decree of faith that maybe they needed someone to have proof, even if they couldn’t share it.