I drive to Baghdad. Moving through a country that doesn’t seem to have seen a war (on the surface) into a city that is a terrifying war-ravaged hell hole. (Cliche enough?)
I would say that there were two hours today that were definitely the scariest of my life. Though, I did remain calm and I figured out how to get safe. I was happy about that.
The day started out great. Yesterday, I moved to Um Qasr, the southern city in Iraq where a lot of journalist spend the night. That’s not all I did. I woke up at 6, went and bought a car, got a roof rack for the car, bought all these jerrycans of oil, bought all these camping supplies. Bought all this food. Packed up all my stuff, loaded up the car. Somewhere during that time, I got a call from a friend that she met some woman who wants to go to Baghdad. I wanted to go to Baghdad, but I didn’t want to go alone and I’ve been waiting days to find someone who will go with me. Ideally, I wanted a caravan of several cars. So, I talk to this woman on the phone and she and I agree to go to Um Qasr together and try our best to get to Baghdad. Then I have to load all her stuff in the car. The point is: I was moving at the fastest speed possible all day, scrambling to get going. I kept on feeling tempted to just relax, just wait ’til the next day to get to Um Qasr. But, no. We wanted to get going. But part of me felt like I might not even go to Baghdad for a week or something.
It took so long to get ready that we didn’t arrive in Um Qasr ’til nightfall. Now, night there is safe. The city is completely secure. But it still felt scary. This is Iraq, after all. We then spent so long, I don’t’d even know how long, trying to find this campground where journalists stay. We drove all over the city. It’s night. There are all sorts of people walking around. Mostly waving and being friendly. But it was scary. And we couldn’t find it at all. We kept running in to these American check points and each time, they’d point us in some direction and we’d go there and get completely lost. Et cetera. Finally we found this british base and they let us on and said we could sleep in this old abandoned building that housed the Um Qasr port authority. It looked so skanky. I wasn’t happy and I wanted to get to the campground to find reporters heading to Baghdad. But it was fun talking to the brits. They’re mechanics and were saying they’re just like us reporters: they hate being so far from the action. (By the way, there are massive gunshots outside my Baghdad window right this minute.) They want to fix the vehicles right at the front. Not down at the south.
I don’t know why I’m going in to so much detail about boring things. I’m tired I guess. Long story short: get to the campground, more wandering aimlessly in Um Qasr. Find a Czech and a Slovak who want to convoy with us. Can’t sleep because I bought this two-man tent that is smaller than a small coffee table and I have to sleep in the dirt in the open air. There’s so much noise. I don’t hardly sleep at all. We wake up at dawn, start driving and just get on Iraq highway 1 that goes all the way to Baghdad. It’s an ugly fucking country. Especially in the south. Just grey and miserable. I was shocked at how primitive people live. I’ve heard so much about how Iraq used to be a middle class country with lots of reasonably wealthy people. Every village we passed was sort of mudish bruck huts. People with donkeys. (Massive gunfire outside my window. Some kind of superfast gun.) You wouldn’t know there was a war. The occasional bombed out tank or rocket launcher or civilian car. But not much. We got lost a few times and were in these crowded villages and all the villagers would cheer and give us the thumbs up. Some villages had big signs in English: Thank you for Liberating Us. I really didn’t feel fear at all. Maybe some apprehension. But very little fear. Once or twice, when we’d be in a village and there would be a huge crowd at a bus station. But mostly I was happy. We were on our way, making great time. Sure to be in the Sheraton Baghdad by lunchtime. We were doing so well, that I wanted to stop off with some 82nd Airborne guys, let them use my Sat Phone to call their families in exchange for some MREs, the actually not bad military food. They were so excited to talk to family for the first time in months. It was very sweet. Although the older guys were just laughing and making fun of the kids calling their wives and girlfriends. It’s funny. Each call was the same. The soldier would be so excited and thank me so profusely. Then we’d dial and his girlfriend/wife/mother would answer and he’d say, hey, what’s up, in a totally bored voice. Then talk in a totally bored way for a few minutes. Hang up and thank me so profusely.
We continued on, got a little lost (some roads are bombed, literally, right off the map), finally made it on the main road. All the while, lots of Iraqis driving around doing their regular business: delivering tomatoes, riding the bus. Cabs. Not warlike at all. A bit of terror when the car completely stalled. But then figured it was just air bubles in the gas and we were fine and on our way. When we got to the outskirts of Baghdad we realized there really had been a war. Total devestation. Amazing. The roads bombed to smithereens. Destroyed cars everywhere. Traffic congestion, really bad. And we’re just in there with the Iraqis and feeling terrified. People are not friendly in Baghdad. They yell at us (not anti-American stuff, just mad that I was driving like a scared bastard who doesn’t know the city). Finally we find some tank and ask one of the soldiers there what to do. He tells us to go that way and left. We go that way and left and get completely lost and feel something wrong, just a bad vibe about the people there. We get out and go back to the tank. By then there’s a squad of Rangers in Armored Personnel Carriers going out on a mission. One of them talks to us and explains that they’re going to clear out a very bad area with lots of bad guys’the area we were just lost in. so, we say we just want to get to the Sheraton. The Ranger tells us to go to the airport where the big base is. The people there will get us to the Sheraton. Great. We follow his instructions and get on the base at the airport. It’s actually several bases and nobody knows where anything else is. Overall, soldiers never know anything about anything but their specific job at that moment. They don’t know the city. If they have a base at the airport they don’t know where any other bases are.
Anyway, we find the central HQ at the base, talk to this really nice private who tells us the base PR guy will help us out and get us to the Sheraton. He’s busy at the moment, can we wait. We feel so relaxed and happy that we’re kicking back, talking to the soldiers. Very nice. Very easy. Two hours go by. It’s close to dark. But we’re not worried. We’re about to get an armed escort to the Sheraton. Finally, the PR guy is free and he comes out and first confiscates our badges and then tells us that non-embedded jouranlists are not allowed in Iraq and we should turn around immediately and head to Kuwait. He is such a monster. He just tells us to get off the base. We explain that we were following army orders all day and those orders got us to a situation where we were going to be on our own in Baghdad at night. We said we would die. Couldn’t he help. No, get off the base. Can you tell us where the Sheraton is. Don’t know, get off the base. Finally, fuck, we get off the base. I’m driving like a maniac down this highway and we come up to a checkpoint. There’s a tank there, it turns it’s gun turret to us. All the soldiers there crouch and point their weapons. It takes 10 minutes to clear the checkpoint. They tell us they’dve been warned about a dangerous white car. We explain we’re really scared and want to get to our hotel. They finally let us pass. We get to another checkpoint. Exactly the same thing. Then a third checkpoint. They wont’d let us pass. They say we’re not allowed past at all and have to turn around. We say that we’dll be stuck on this road at night. We hear gunfire. We’re so scared. Night is coming fast. It’s basically dark now. They guy says he’d love to help. Nothing to do. We ask if we can sleep next to his tank. You can sleep wherever you want, but we’dll probably leave at some point. Go find somewhere safe. How can we? You won’t let us by. Not my problem. But I’m an American citizen and I will die because you’re not helping me. Nothing I can do. Another 15 minutes and they say they’re driving off, so we can do whatever we want. But whatever we do, don’t take a left up ahead, that’s extremely dangerous and an active operation site. (More fast moving machine gun fire now). We’dll be driving right in to hell. He tells us just to drive straight ahead. So, we drive straight ahead and there’s concertina wire stretched across the road half a mile up. No way across. We are really panicking. Decide the only thing to do is to drive back to those checkpoints we passed before, though now, at night, it’s extremely dangerous and we might get blown away. We do drive back but pretty soon find that someone has put concertina wire across that road as well. So, we go forward: concertina wire. Backward: concertina wire. Left’dright in to hell. Right’dnothing. Can’t go right. The woman I’m with is now panicking. Her panic actually helps me stay calm (well, somewhat) and focus on getting us out of there. I say we’dll go left. There must be a checkpoint that way. So we turn left’dright in to hell.
Alright. Here it gets anticlimactic. All the scary stuff is over, though we don’t realize it yet. But we are so scared. So completely terrified. In the middle of this city we don’t know (right next to us is this series of giant curved sculptures of hands holding swords’dominous) where we do now that Americans, Iraqis, Fedayeen and looters all would have no problem killing us. We turn down that left and at the checkpoint, they are so incredibly nice. Tell us exactly how to get to our hotel. Tell us it’s scary’dwe should keep wearing our bullet proof helmets and jackets. But we should be OK. So, we pull forward. And then we’re in the middle of downtown Baghdad. The first few blocks are eerily silent. Nothing moves. Nobody. But then it’s a zoo’tons of cars everywhere, zipping all over. I’ve been studying the Baghdad map so intently the last few hours that I surprise myself by figuring out exactly how to get there. We cross the Tigris river and come to where I think we’re supposed to turn right. At that moment, another SUV with TV written on it passes. That guy’s going where we’re going. We zoom after him. He’s going so fast I can’t keep up, but we go pretty fast. And suddenly, we’re at the Sheraton Baghdad. We’re embracing and she’s thanking me for saving her life. Soon, I’m hanging out with all these good friends I haven’t seen in months. Friends who’dve been there during the war. They’re all exhausted. Worn out. The place is a zoo. Thousands of reporters’dmost of whom have shown up now. There are no rooms. People are sleeping in the hallway. I’m sleeping on the couch in a friend’s room. There’s no food. Little water. But they say it’s amazing. They get stories just walking out the door. Everywhere they go there are stories. You don’t have to work to find them. I hope so, as I’m starting tomorrow. I must sleep now. So tired.