Goodbye Iraq

19 08 2010

With “Operation Iraqi Freedom” coming to a close after a seven-and-a-half year nightmare, I am reminded of the day I left Iraq, a long time ago. In a different lifetime, it seems. I spent almost six weeks in the war zone in August and September 2003, as a journalist. That was after “Mission Accomplished” but before the real carnage began. Admittedly, a couple of weeks is a joke compared to the many months and years that others, including friends – civilians like journalists and aid workers as well as military personnel – spent there. And of course the Iraqis themselves, who have to face a violent reality every day, and who don’t have the luxury to be able to hop in a car or a plane and start a new life elsewhere.

This is the email I wrote home after I left. My observations may seem superficial, and you might think I don’t have the credibility to pass judgment. On anything about this war. If I would have known what I know now, I might have made different choices back then. But it’s safe to say that my time in Iraq was probably the most intense, enriching and educational experience I have had so far, both professionally and personally, at a time and in a place I will never forget.

*********************

September 10, 2003

My shift in Iraq is over, I have returned to Europe, many experiences, stories and snapshots richer. I arrived there knowing no one and nothing, and when I left, I left friends behind in a hostile environment. Time for you to stop worrying about me, and me to start worrying about them. I hope they will fare well, inshallah.

Thank you for your thoughts, prayers and good wishes. Every email from every familiar voice was welcome – you guys made me smile a lot when the going was tough. I spent a few days in the Baghdad bureau, but office work was never my thing. Most of my time, more than three weeks, was spent on a U.S. Army embed near Baqouba, about 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, near the border to Iran. Camp Boom, a former Republican Guard base, is now home to the soldiers of an Engineer Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. Baqouba is a hotbed of loyalist activity, the soldiers’ main mission is to search for former regime supporters and their weapons caches. Every so often an informer leads them on a hunt for the big fish himself, the Ace of Spades. But even after 75 such tipoffs across the country since the coalition arrived, Saddam Hussein remains at large.

It was hot, uncomfortable and downright filthy in the desert. With the summer temperature in Baqouba reaching 120 degrees Farenheit – 48 degrees Celcius – or more our living conditions were very basic. No air conditioning, no running water and no privacy. I never knew I could get so sweaty and dirty and disgusting and still be able to live with myself. We slept in the open air, under a perfectly clear starry sky every night, with gunfire in the distance. The local fauna included sand fleas, black scorpions and wild dogs.

An Iraqi and and American

There was also enough tragedy on my watch. On August 17th we lost a friend and colleague, our company’s second fatality of this war. Our cameraman survived years of dangerous unrest in his home, Hebron, only to die on an empty Baghdad street in broad daylight at the hands of a U.S. tank gunner. Two days later, the United Nations was dragged into the ever tightening spiral of violence. Earlier in the month, the Jordanian embassy was bombed. On a peaceful Friday in Najjaf, south of Baghdad, the first shot of a possible civil war was fired. During my time in Iraq, about 20 U.S. and British soldiers lost their lives to ambushes and homemade bombs.

My cameraman and I had some close calls and we were very lucky, narrowly escaping one such bomb. An explosive device, planted at a busy Baqouba traffic circle, went off  as a  military convoy passed. It was intended to kill Americans, instead it killed two Iraqi children. The humvee in which we were traveling had passed that very spot just 15 minutes earlier. Another time, at night, our vehicle swerved to avoid the carcass of a wild dog lying on the side of the road. We found out later that the carcass had been stuffed with explosives.

Baghdad in the afternoon

Was I scared at all? Strangely, no, not really. Looking back, the only real fear I felt was on my way into the country, at night, on an eleven-hour car journey from Amman to Baghdad, into the unknown. Once there, it was futile to be scared or to panic, and somehow, after a few days, I didn’t even think of it. My senses were more acute, I had to trust my instincts and I had to trust those who know the territory much better than I ever will. I only took risks that I could justify and the fear quickly gave way to curiosity, disbelief at times, heightened awareness and determination. Only after I left Baghdad, two days ago, did I realize how mentally exhausting living like that really is. My journal was my release – in those weeks I wrote more than 100 notebook pages.

Tomorrow is September 11th again, the events of that day two years ago brought the world to where it is today, and they brought me to Iraq. After this, I now question, more than I did before, the wisdom of the policy that took us from there and then to here and now. I know some of you disagree. I’m still trying to sort through the conflicting feelings I have about it all.

My next challenge is to return to normalcy: pay bills, do laundry, get a haircut. Six weeks in a war zone was long enough to want to return to creature comforts and my own bed. For the first time in a long time, I am happy to be home. The next opportunity to travel will come, so in the meantime I will enjoy taking a break, knowing I did my best to tell a few of the stories.

Be well, everyone.

Farewell, friends.

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