Golden Handcuffs: Baghdad Week 1 - My Family Travels

I’m in Baghdad with a non-governmental organization to support local Iraqi journalists tell their side of the story. This journal is just the start of my journey…

The trip out was uneventful. The most unusual part of the trip was the descent into Baghdad: they corkscrew around in circles rather than coming in straight. You can figure out the reason for that. After all the visa delay, entry was no problem. Upon arrival a bunch of us piled into a visa office, men took our passport and copies of permission letters (which had been sent to me by our people in Baghdad who had secured the letter), much form filling and stamping and passing around of passports..and it was done.

All my copious bags arrived intact, and then to my surprise when I exited the baggage area, no one was there to meet me. Although my phone had a signal, I couldn’t reach my contact, which I soon learned was not unusual. So the porter schlepping my bags lent me his phone, and using his phone managed to reach my security guys, and I was told my team was on the way. They arrived in due course, two short weather-beaten South African men with hard eyes, dressed in full battle regalia. They were quite amused by my pile of luggage, and then got into a huge argument with the porters over the tip.

At that point I put on my very heavy flak jacket, and fairly heavy helmet, and clambered into the SUV which is heavily armored. We set out in a three-vehicle convoy, mine in the middle, the front one is the scout, driven by a local who knows the streets and picks the routes, and we are followed by a vehicle loaded with men with guns (men with guns in all vehicles). They are constantly talking to one another over their walkies, in both English and Afrikaans. The road from the airport is heavily lined with T-Walls: high concrete barriers. Once a very dangerous road, there haven’t been any incidents on it in a long time. My guards also told me that they have had no accidents involving clients in over 20 months. They also told me that if anything happened I was to stay put, listen to them, and they would transfer me to another vehicle if that was required. They control the locks on the doors, needless to say.

Once away from the airport road, they were driving in what I assume was defensive behavior, weaving around. Normal traffic pulls aside and waits on the side of the road for convoys to pass.

The little bit I saw of Baghdad was of a city still very much suffering from war. Many craters, rubble, T walls and concertina wire, military all over the place, tanks rumbling down the street, many checkpoints, and not many people in view. We then passed a huge checkpoint, and that was the entrance into the IZ (international zone, which is what the green zone is now called). At that point helmet and flak jacket were removed. The IZ is huge, also lined with T-walls, tons of sandbags, dusty, construction sites, a lot of cargo containers. Most of the buildings are concrete bunkers. Periodically one also sees a bright yellow structure: duck and cover. That is where to go when the siren for incoming mortars etc. is sounded (which I’m happy to say I haven’t heard yet.) Not attractive. There is a steady drone of helicopter traffic, and there happens to be a target range near me, so I hear a steady stream of gunfire. Also planes and predator drones. That being said, it is surprisingly quiet otherwise, particularly at night.

I first met my various security team (all south African) and then was taken to my guest house. At present, our office is in the ‘red zone’ (i.e. outside the IZ). They are in the Sheraton, and while I thought initially I would be living there, it turns out I would be the only foreigner staying there… which would not only not be fun, it would be creepy and unsafe, and would require 24/7 security.

So… I am presently living in a guesthouse in the IZ, and commuting to the office, while looking for a new place for us to move to, where we would work and I could live. Hope to be able to resolve that soon, as this is unsettling, and I hate being in the convoy so much. The guesthouse is a concrete three story building, with 13 rooms in it. It is also the HQ of yet another private security firm, who operate out of the building as well. There is a communal kitchen, serving copious hot meals three times a day (plenty of pork product served!). The cook is extremely loquacious and sits in the dining room waiting to talk the ear off anyone who sits near him. He hails from upstate NY I think, but his family now lives in Ukraine, where he was prior to here.

I arrived in Baghdad Weds am, and thought I would be going straight to the office in the Sheraton, spend the day there, and then go to guest house in IZ. But my security team hadn’t had that on the roster, and didn’t have a team available for that. So… I went to the guest house, and ended up having a very fun first evening there with a bunch of other residents.

We had a bonfire in the yard, and played poker and farkle (??? involves dice), with much booze being consumed (not by me, not a drinker). A few of the men were engineers/geologists, there was a woman there who runs an NGO in Erbil (Kurdistan) who was down for meetings with USAID, a man there working on legal/judiciary issues… a fun mix. Many of them had spent years here, they enjoyed the work and as the woman (five years here!) told me… it’s somewhat of the golden handcuffs. Hard to go back to regular pay after what they earn here. People buy various houses, invest in businesses, etc.

So Thursday I finally went to the office, and met at long last my colleagues who I had been corresponding with long distance. They couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming. Things went well, for the first day. I had been anticipating some resistance, since they had been managing on their own for the past year, but it went well.

Later that same day we went to look at a possible place to move office/living, it’s the same place my friend is living. The problem is that I travel in a ‘high-profile’ manner, meaning the 3-vehicle convoy, and the various people in the compound use low profile travel (meaning one car, not a big SUV, with a driver/guard whose weapon is hidden). So I’m trying to negotiate something with my security to park two vehicles outside the checkpoint and bring me into the area in one car. We’ll see. On the way to the new place I saw some areas which had some life: a food stall, some chickens being roasted, people sitting and having tea.

And then Thursday night I was invited by my two Embassy contacts to one of the regular Thursday night BBQ parties (Thursday is the start of the weekend…Fri/Sat is Muslim weekend). It was a blast: music, tons of booze flowing, lots of food, mix of military, embassy, NGO types. Kind of startling to see men in street clothes with sidearms strapped to their sides, and then a few pumped up marines, Mohawk haircut and all. The Baghdad stew I guess.

Friday I met with my Dept of State colleagues, the DOS is funding this program. We met in the Palace: Saddam’s former palace which is where the current US Embassy is, although it is moving into new quarters elsewhere in the IZ, and the Palace is being turned over to the Iraqis end of this year. The heavily guarded main gate into the Palace is manned by a private security firm from Peru. Go figure.

The building is vast (1/4 mile long), furnished in a highly gilded, elaborately decorative style, much of it obscured by the overlay of office warrens and cubicles. There was a bazaar going on inside, a few highly vetted Iraqi vendors had been allowed in, and the place was jammed with people starved for shopping, and with plenty of cash. I actually avoided it, feeling I might get some opportunities in either Erbil or Amman down the road. We had lunch in the vast dining hall, which had a Louisiana table serving gumbo etc., A Chinese food able, a deli area, regular prepared hot foods, salads. There were military, embassy folks, a very busy place. We sat outside by the lovely pool, while helicopters steadily whirled overhead. There’s something surreal about the whole thing.

I liked my DOS colleagues a lot, very smart, knowledgeable, we got on very well. We were then joined by a woman who heads up the UN department dealing with elections. There are due to be provincial elections in Iraq on Jan 31 (although it is possible they will be postponed). All of my activities the next few months will be election focused: organizing trainings for journalists and editors on election coverage, helping to open a press center devoted to election press briefings, working with various wire services to have links to election info sites, having TV and radio programs on election issues, getting a newspaper supplement on election issues, etc.

I liked her a lot, and at the party the other night had met various other people also involved in the election work, and so will be busy the next week or so following up and meeting all these various organizations involved in the election process. It’s very exciting.

And then last night I was taken out on the town in the IZ, which meant going to a Chinese restaurant, and then a bar, accompanied by three Brits, former military, one now working for private security firm, other two involved in various entrepreneurial activities.

So as you can see… nary a dull moment. The Brits had some leads for me of possible places to check out for office/living… so things will be VERY busy for me. Which is fine.

So… that’s the first impression

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2 Replies to “Golden Handcuffs: Baghdad Week 1”

  • your job sounds so interesting, sort of like a war correspondent with less of the war and more of the correspondence. I look forward to week 2.

  • JillianRyan

    Wow… really interesting to hear about Iraq from this non-news oriented perspective. Thanks for sharing and can’t wait for more.

    Good luck and be safe!