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There is Nothing Like Death to Make you Feel Alive

September 15, 2007

What is it about travelling in India that makes it so attractive? The red forts? The Taj? The madness? The suburban cricket? All of those things, to be sure. But to my own way of thinking it has something to do with the general precariousness of life. That in itself is not the attractive thing. But that precariousness means Indians, as a general rule, live life with a fervour, passion and intensity you rarely find anywhere else. They grasp it with both hands and run hard with it. You can see the dirt and squalor. Or you can look through all that and see the person living life to the best of their ability in those conditions. With a clean shirt, hair combed, a quick smile and not a cent to his name. Proud and decent. Polite and engaging. There is a zest and vigour and animation that is wholly captivating.

I am not going to pretend the same applies in Iraq. Perhaps not yet. But there is something about this place that has the same appealing ingredients. Two things help highlight it after a week here. The first is the local help. The cooks and cleaners come in from the Red Zone and in their general joy of life (manifest in a dozen different ways, including a puppy washing session) it is hard to view them as anything except laid back and friendly neighbours. Well, they are but they are neighbours from a few kilometres away who, with their families, are living on the edge, every day. Secondly, Fuzzyjefe reminded me of a truism today – that through the sanitising of the press we forget there are real people that create those headlines (comments in a previous post). This afternoon, while on the roof watching Apache helicopters tool around the sky a loud concussive crump happened off to the west. Nothing seen but it’s a distinctive sound that makes you pause for a moment and wonder who has just had their day ruined. In the news later we see a suicide bomber has killed 8 at a police post. Somehow the sound of the bomb gives a real dimension to the headlines. Real people like our cooks and cleaners and groundsman died this afternoon, making me pause, and generating headlines we don’t really take too much heed of. But still these people hang on and make the most of what they have. They create a vibe that is infectious and is a very positive feature in a place like this. Ironically, thanks to its people, it is a place that makes you feel very much alive.

It Is all A Matter of Perspective

September 15, 2007

People wonder “why on earth Iraq?” The almost universal and consistent response to the idea that I was travelling here was disbelief. The only exception was my family I think – seems that they are pretty used to bizarre destinations. Would you travel to Baghdad? Assuming you had a reasonably legitimate reason to do so of course. Here are a couple of test questions/scenarios. And the answers lie more in the way your personality is wired and less to do with the situation here on the ground. Scenario the first: the security company briefs you on the security measures taken to get you from the airport to the city, reputedly the most lethal 15km stretch of road in the world. The brief contains all the threats – as it should. Then there is an overview of the type of vehicle in which you will travel, the procedures followed if ambushed, the nature of the weapons carried and the fact you will be suited up with armour before departing the airport. It’s a more detailed brief but you get the idea. Still want to travel? Scenario the second: the same company explains the security of the lodgings you will have. They are proud of the fact that a 120mm only “burned the paint off the roof.” It’s a very safe house. Actually, as you can see from the photo there was a bit more than scorched paint. (Impacted behind the railing, shrapnel penetrating the rails and scoring the walls. And no, I am not implying it was fired by MNF troops – that is simply a convenient DoD image showing the sort of device used). But again, you get the idea. Still want to travel? Without dragging the whole thing out consider the second scenario – with only one exception, those who knew about this were appalled that a 120mm round could still land in the International Zone, every reason to their way of thinking to never travel here. On the other hand I was very encouraged by the fact that it did not penetrate the roof – made me all the more determined to stay there. And encouraged rather than deterred my travel. Like I said, it is all a matter of perspective.

An IED Survivor

September 14, 2007

Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.

Sir Winston Churchill
In the euphemistic, sanitised language that are acronyms IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device. There are a family of derivatives such as VBIED – vehicle borne IED. Already in my stay here various IEDs have rattled the windows and woken me up. No one seems to pay them any attention. But behind IED (we don’t say “bomb”) is a nastiness never conveyed by those letters. With an emphasis on “improvised” these devices can include bunker busting heavy munitions rigged to take out your family car, or military vehicle, or unprotected shoppers in a market.

Last night I spent a BBQ dinner (yes, those things happen here) with a most remarkable man. From South Asia. Quiet, softly spoken with that lovely singsong lilt that goes with that part of the world, and with an open, kindly face. The cricket is being televised from South Africa so he was a little distracted at the start of the evening by the current game. Not so unusual for someone from South Asia. What was unusual was his thoroughly disarming and frank story about recently surviving a massive IED that hit his vehicle and killed all his fellow travellers and injured him. It was an appalling incident and experience. Not only were these fellow travellers but one was a close friend and another a guard assigned for his protection. (Actually if I got the story right these two were the one and the same). He walked away from the vehicle as the sole survivor, yet the blast was so comprehensive there was nothing remaining by which the others could be identified. I’ll spare you the gory details but you can imagine what he was covered in. Burnt, full of shrapnel, covered in gore, he walked away. He was airlifted out of the country for repairs and after being stitched up and given extensive counselling he is back in the saddle. Last night he spoke quietly about the experience. I applauded his preparedness to talk about it, not something we blokes do very well. He is something of a champion among his colleagues (many of them with remarkable SF backgrounds and plenty to be proud of in their own right) – they are in awe of what he walked away from. His shy smile, honesty, calmness, twinkling eyes betraying a vibrant character underneath somewhere, and matter of fact approach to everything has their respect as well I hope – it certainly earned mine. And that he was taking the philosophical approach that every day things just keep getting better only spoke of a resilience that even that old bulldog Churchill would have applauded. I am all the better for having met this man, a fortunate encounter and complete bonus on this trip. Far better than any tourist icon or places you go are the characters you meet.

An Evening in Baghdad

September 13, 2007

A dog across the road barks and gets our attention. We wander across the roof top and gaze down into the dark to see what has distracted it. Nothing appears straight away but then a modified Ford pickup truck drives though. Modified with a gun turret mounted on its chassis. A soldier sits in the turret swinging his machine gun from side to side. Three others laugh and chat in the open back as they push on through the street. Like guards in any environment they are booted and spurred but clearly bored and settled into a routine. Even the dog barking had not got the attention of our own guards – they are in their own routine too. Last night we had to draw the guard’s attention to a car load of young men that had just done the third lap past our front door. Once out on the roof the night captivates us and we enjoyed the fresh warmth of the breeze. Overhead there is the constant grumble from high altitude aircraft. I have no idea if the USAF maintains some sort of CAP here but usually there are no lights to give away the location of aircraft. The constant sound of jets suggest someone up there is going the same boring routine as the guards at the gate are doing down here. After all there is no Iraq Air Force to combat – at best they will get is ground support mission. For the first time tonight I catch a military jet (no strobes) with lights on (unusual) streaking north at high speed, a few minutes later followed by a similar profile boring east. Picking up the direction of helicopters is not easy as their vibrations echo off each wall and make echo location damn hard. And of course they fly without lights so you have to be constantly guessing where they are. Soon a shadow creeps in over the Tigris and drops into the suburbs somewhere, vanishing among the buildings. It’s nowhere near the hospital so perhaps the SF lads are out and about tonight doing goodness knows what. The shadow stays hidden and silent for five minutes before the sound of its blades beats the air again and you can hear it coming towards you. You can’t see it until it has gone past and the city lights, such as they are, pick up its fast moving, light coloured belly. It is visible for seconds then gone. Its rotors die out seconds later and you peer into the haze wondering if you imagined it all. The dog across the road gives a nervous yap in your direction and you realise all your peering into the sky, and rotating on the spot to follow this or that aircraft or helicopter track is making it nervous – a guard from another premises has wandered over and is peering up at the roof to try and see what is going on. Time for bed.

Guns and Dogs, Dogs and Guns

September 11, 2007

They do seem to go together. Certainly in my boyhood experience, which was an overwhelming positive chapter, guns went with dogs. Specifically they went together up at David Paton’s place where dogs seemed to be everywhere. A trip in the truck was one taken with any number of pillion passengers, their claws digging into your legs as they tried to get their noses past each other and out the window – assuming you were riding with them in the cab. Most often you were jolting along with a dozen of them on the truck deck or tray, fighting them for a place at the cabin guard and rail. A motorbike ride was invariably made with dogs on the petrol tank or panting alongside. I have especially fond memories of all the puppies that scrambled around the yard each year when it was that time. It seemed like dozens and dozens of them, all blue eyed and squealing and yipping their insistence for attention. Not all would survive the cull but some were sent to neighbours and friends and the select few would later learn to round up sheep, nip cattle along but most importantly hunt out pigs, launch after possums and dig out rabbits. We would saunter along behind with a rifle, just in case they needed a hand. It is a blissful memory, no doubt getting better with age.

Here puppies are having the same mellowing affect. I took this photo after being downtown. A couple of Abrams (main battle tanks) pulled over for a break in the shade. Four Australian LAVs went speeding past. I have lost count of the number of HUMVEEs that have grumbled past. It’s all fascinating stuff but not “normal”. Off the main road we pull into our house and here are six puppies having their lunch. They are being watched over by a very friendly, likable Iraq guard, kitted up in an armoured vest and wearing his folding stock AK-47 machine gun casually slung across his chest. He has taught me the Arabic word for puppy. He has taken a liking to these animals and is constantly feeding them, getting them water and doing all the things Mum should be doing. She, no doubt thankful, is lying in the shade watching the surrogacy from a distance. Most times she barely lifts her head though her eyes are not closed when her pups are out. Guns and dogs. With the puppies around you forget for a moment that so many guns are around, even on the friendly guard, none of which are intended for pigs or rabbits. Regrettable really.

Saddam’s Dias – Shifting and Fleeting

September 11, 2007

Every now and then we do a quick run down to the “shops” if only to get out of the house to stop from going stir crazy. On the way you drive past those crossed swords. And if you want to run the gauntlet of contractors and their armoured vehicles and the military parked in front of the swords you can drive in and wander around the grandstand that Saddam made his own, after his own peculiar fashion. Incidentally the “speed hump” directly under the swords is comprised of dozens of helmets set in concrete. I assume they are the same as those clustered at each sword grip, once worn by Iranian soldiers. Parading soldiers and military vehicles would have once paraded over these helmets, an appropriate gesture in the minds of Saddam and his friends I guess. Apart from the single vehicle here no one pays the place any attention. Its been vandalised. It’s a hot and bleak and sterile place. None of the locals sit around in any of the shade, unlike the grounds of the tomb of the unknown warrior just down the road. It is as if they spurn it on purpose. For here he used to stand, their very own Ozymandias daring them and the rest of us to defy him. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.” Now we look and no, we don’t despair. Now the place echoes to his ghost and people will have none of it except those like me who briefly visit and wonder at how fleeting our claims on this life can be. That is about as much despair as he invokes in us right now. Boundless and bare the sands do indeed stretch far away. Just as well when you consider his legacy to this place.

Apache Flares and Casevacs

September 10, 2007

The wind is still hot today but it has swung in from another direction and the dust has been pushed away overnight. The sky is blue and clear though everything is still covered in dust. From the roof I watched through the nodding fronds of a date palm as an Apache helicopter pirouetted through the sky in a seeming lazy series of swinging manoeuvres, flares drawing attention to themselves as they drift to the ground in a glory moment of intense white light. It is not too far up the river but these helicopters are surprisingly quiet if they are not right on top of you, so the whole tableau is played out in silence.
Unlike last night when I had a few drinks and a bite to eat at a BBQ in a compound not too far from a hospital. Generations on from MASH but with the same intent in mind, red cross bearing helicopters flew in to the hospital landing pad in pairs. A number of times. Roaring and whining, thrashing and beating the air with a serious thrubbing which bounced off the concrete walls and echoed off neighbouring houses. And later through the night we could hear them steadily bearing in – we assumed with casualties. It is a sobering reminder that for all that is partly normal here there is so much which is not.

Dante’s Inferno – with Choppers Thrown In

September 8, 2007

The dust storm blows in and obscures the horizon, limited as it is. The eucalypts, quite pervasive here, are dusted in the fine desert sand that drops over everything with the consistency of talc. The lemon trees in the garden are coated with it and the date palm fronds seem to sag a little lower to the ground for it. The light remains intense and the oven hot wind (it is 43 degrees out there) snaps the flags vaguely visible through the trees on the convention centre. Dust, heat, light – only a few more ingredients and Dante would feel right at home here. A pair of Blackhawks, dim through the dust, cut a low, fast, level and silent line as they head off over the Tigris and vanish behind the Sheraton. We speed up the river bank and cut back into the burbs, moving quickly least anyone draw a bead on us. Except for that slightly surreal expectation the Tigris is a serene place. It is of course a setting marred by the knowledge that here, among the reeds, the Iraqi police have retrieved hundreds of executed civilians, victims of sectarian violence barely imaginable to the rest of us. Though perhaps our experience in the Balkans and Africa has inured us to this sort of slaughter. Suddenly a pair of Defenders beat up the air above us and start circling, doing a few laps before flashing off. Another pair of Blackhawks smack and throb over the top of us at high speed and vanish in a turbowhine swirl of dust, while another couple work their way across town a little more slowly. Something is happening somewhere to get them all lathered up like this. Only I seem to have had my attention drawn by the choppers. The locals never look up and continue about their daily chores.

What is "Normal" in Baghdad?

September 7, 2007

This, as everyone knows, is a fortified city. In every sense. In the Green Zone, or International Zone as it is now being called, no one takes any chances and a drive down a side street through the suburbs is a drive through canyons of concrete walls, check points and roadblocks. Everyone is on a relaxed “edginess” as passes are examined, destinations questioned and faces checked against photos. Yet at the same time there are moments of normalcy that are startling. And encouraging. Down from the new US Embassy compound (a huge complex) a blond Caucasian woman wanders along the street, handbag over her shoulder. Cranes work on lifting cement onto the top of the new court complex (some of which was repaired for the trial of Saddam) and in the distance, outside the IZ and in the so called Red Zone, cranes are working on new buildings. Next to where I am camped a team of good natured Iraqis work on a building site, starting from scratch. They could be any blue singlet gang from any building site in Australia – you don’t need to understand Arabic to know these guys are joshing each other as they work. Men wait at a bus stop for the bus, just down from a main IZ entry check point where a low loader has just brought in some Hummers and there are more armoured vehicles than soft skinned ones. I have not seen a bus yet but they clearly expecting one. A young Iraqi man poses in front of a Saddam era statue and has his photo taken by his friend. To complete my picture I stood in line at immigration yesterday with a young couple and a baby about two months old. They had among their baggage a pile of baby toys for the cot. They were standing among a group of visitors who were predominantly boot shod, cargo pant and T-shirt clad ex military types heading in to do their thing. The couple with their sleeping baby were a poignant signal that this is what everyone here is about – trying to create an environment that allows this sort of normalcy that we all take for granted. Who doesn’t want the freedom to be able to fly in and out of your own country and to buy toys for your kids? That these people need help getting back to that point is a crucial issue that is hard to appreciate outside of this country. Miranda Devine addressed this point in part rather nicely in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. Visiting here is one way to see what is possible and how important it is that the job is completed properly – else “normal” becomes fear and destruction, not bus stops, a safe wander up the street, workmates and kid’s toys. (But which ever way you look at it there is nothing normal about those Crossed Swords).

Baghdad Short Finals

September 6, 2007

I asked for a window seat (am always keen to see where I am going, or have something other than my neighbour to lean on if the snoring starts). And of course I end up with the most heavily scratched, scored and sandblasted semi opaque window I have seen in a long time. At least since I was in India methinks. I made the airport and checked in, worried less about what might be ahead and more about what was happening inside – I had been up all night with Montezuma’s Revenge and I suspect that goat head rice dish had something to do with it. Fortunately no embarrassments on the plane. I now have everything squared away and am going to try and catch up on the sleep handed over to Montezuma.
Despite the window here is a photo of us on an understandable “short finals” profile into the Baghdad International Airport. For all the obvious reasons there are a couple of tight turning spirals down to the ground from what looked like about 10-12,000′, the turns being carried out directly over the airport – hence this grubby view.

6 September 2007

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