The flight from Jordan feels all too normal until we arrive over Baghdad International Airport. The nose of the plane dips, the left wing drops, and the downward spiral begins dropping us 4,000 feet per minute into the inferno that is occupied Iraq.
Rather than an in-flight magazine, a lonely card is available to read in the seat pocket. It begins with:
"For those of you who have not traveled with us before, you need to be aware that, for your security and safety, and not for your comfort, we do a spiral descent into Baghdad. This is carried out to avoid any risk from anti-aircraft missiles or small arms fire ."
The airport is filled with nearly as many foreign security guards from "Global" as passengers. A large influx of third country nationals, looking as though they are either Sri Lankan or Indian, is rounded up onto the Kellogg, Brown, & Root bus to go work jobs which could be done by Iraqis.
I nervously wait until another small bus appears and takes me to the front checkpoint passing signs for the soldiers that remind them to have their weapons ready and flak jackets on as they enter the "unsecured area," which is most of Iraq outside of the U.S. camps.
It is tense as we unload a huge car bomb detonated here just a few days ago, killing nine people. One of the security guards approaches me and says, "You don’t want to be here long. There are bad things going on here. Very bad things."
I look up to see a line of cars being searched as they attempt to enter the pick-up area and take a deep breath when I see Abu Talat. He approaches with a big smile while waving at me as he walks up to be searched. The man is undeterred.
We hug and share countless cheek kisses as per Arab custom. Despite the extremely tense atmosphere at the checkpoint, we can’t contain our joy, and it bubbles out as laughter and more hugs and kisses. This entire trip is worth it just to see my dear friend.
We quickly load my luggage into his car and drive out, passing some men in a BMW (the favored vehicle of criminal gangs), who ask us if I just flew in Abu Talat tells them he came to pick up a friend, and asks me for a pen and paper and quickly writes down their license plate while telling me, "That could be kidnappers there is not another flight after yours. I will watch to see if they follow us."
While driving past three burnt car bodies from the recent suicide bomber, he says, "Everyone is being kidnapped now. It is a booming business here since there are no jobs. You must be extremely careful, Dahr."
Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles are perched along the road, with their weapons aimed directly at us and other cars as we pass this is occupied Iraq. We drive perilously close to a huge Bradley with its growling treads, and I point to it, thinking Abu Talat may not see how close he is. He laughs and says, "This is our daily life you know this. How do you think Americans would like to have tanks on their streets aiming guns at them? For us, this is normal."
I breath and quickly remember the daily life here driving to avoid craters in the road left by lethal improvised explosive devices, heavy weapons aimed at cars, scorched palm trees along the road, crime running rampant, and the constant threat of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by gunfire or an attack on a U.S. patrol. I allow myself to surrender completely to the mindset of Insh’allah (if God wills it.) It is the only solace here.
On the suggestion of Abu Talat, we go visit some friends of ours, a family whose father/husband was beaten into a coma while in U.S. military custody. It is safer this way because as my trusted interpreter/fixer tells me, "No one knows you are here yet, so this is the best and maybe only time to go places. Y’allah, we go now."
We talk with the wife and daughters while the electricity cuts off again and again they tell me how they just finished a stint of 72 hours straight with no electricity. One of the daughters tells of how, while in school the other day, she listened to rockets flying over her building. "This is a war here, we are living like animals," she says wearily, "How long can this continue?"
We mustn’t stay long and are off to run errands before I go find a hotel. Every moment finds us watching to see if we are followed; the kidnapping has become out of control. He explains that even people who give information about Westerners to crime gangs can earn $500. In a place with 70% unemployment, this is the only lottery. Just like in any economically depressed area, more and more folks are becoming willing to take a shot at the jackpot.
The deep red sun peers through the pollution as the breaking of the fast approaches (it is Ramadan). We go to a few stores to pick up supplies for me, and Abu Talat tells me not ever to speak English in public we are both on the lookout, ever careful for the safety of both of us.
Iraq has again transformed into a different country as had happened between my previous two trips. Between November ’03 and late January ’04, other journos and I were able to ride around together, walk the streets, even sometimes at night. We shared the same hotel without fear of kidnapping or car bombings.
My last trip, this was transformed into one Westerner with one interpreter, and rarely more than that. A rogue band of us stayed in a dive hotel off the map and kept our heads down, and didn’t do too much traveling around the city without an interpreter. Car bombs had become the norm, and the mood of Iraqis had grown sullen and bitter.
Now, it is yet another country. As I type this, a gun battle of automatic weapons rattles down the street, Fallujah has been sealed prior to imminent attack (as it was on the day I entered Iraq for my last trip, April 4th), and the mood in Baghdad is tense with gloomy expectation. The feeling is that of a war zone, people are downtrodden, tense and angry, chaos reigns and nobody is safe, anywhere.
All this against the backdrop of the recent news of another four years with Mr. Bush and his junta. Now the people of Iraq prepare to slide further into the hell that is occupied Iraq as the siege of Fallujah looms over Baghdad, as a heavy, damp night settles over this once magnificent capital city.