Surviving Baghdad

The surprising thing about Iraq is that it is beautiful.
I never expected it to be ugly, of course. But whenever I think of a war zone, I never picture it in color. It’s either an ashy black-and-white landscape, like those in World War II pictures. Or it’s the brown, dusty pictures I’ve seen of this war and the first Gulf War.

Actually being there in Baghdad, though, painted a more realistic, ironic and complex picture of this place. I saw things in the same glance that had no business being together. Like a battle-weary Soldier looking through a glossy bridal magazine. The dark twisted metal remains of an Iraqi tank baking in the desert sand against an orange-pink sunset. Pigeons keeping watch on a shelled-out Iraqi watch tower, balanced on rusty barbed wire. These are the things that surprised me.

Our first assignment was to cover the story of Airmen who are helping train the Iraqi air traffic controllers here. The 200-foot tower stands across from the Baghdad International Airport. Built in the 1980s, the tower hasn’t been maintained or updated since. The officer in charge met us at the bottom of it.

“Are you guys ready for a climb?” he asked. “The elevator doesn’t work today.”

JV, JB and I didn’t even look at each other. We just grabbed our gear (backpacks, camera cases, video cameras and tripods) and headed for it, making jokes along the way. We were still laughing about 10 flights up, but three fourths of the way, we were gasping for breath and pausing at the landings – no longer laughing. By the time we reached the top, we were covered in that all-too-familiar layer of sweat.

It was worth the climb, though.

From the top, we could see a perfect panorama of Baghdad and the surrounding area. It was a little hazy, so the outline of the actual city in the distance was a little unclear.

But we could see mosque towers and palace rooftops, busy highways and open fields with thin irrigation canals weaving through them. Army helicopters flew by the tower, the gunners sitting by the open doors. Aircraft moved around the airfield, departing and landing continuously.

JV took this photo.

The Air Force air traffic controllers were easily identifiable in their uniforms. Standing next to them were the Iraqi air traffic controllers, dressed in everyday civilian clothing. They talked at ease with the Airmen, working together as they directed the air traffic. JV, JB and I immediately went to work, interviewing folks and getting imagery. We made a promise not to photographer any of the Iraqis’ faces, and here’s why.

JV took this photo.

They live under continuous death threats. One of the officers, who was deployed here last summer as well, talked to me as I walked around the area. Last year, an Iraqi who worked in the tower lost her father – he was kidnapped and murdered because of her association with the Americans. Several controllers simply never showed up again. A lot of them fled after the invasion. Others just vanished.

Yet, despite all of that, there were still these Iraqis. They talked amongst themselves cheerfully, pausing every now and then to help one of the Americans translate a message. They were professional and kind. The officer pointed out that they were a mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslim, too. While the extremists of both religious sects fight each other on the streets, these guys are working in harmony together, trying to build up their country’s air traffic infrastructure so that they can one day operate like any other airport around the world.

When we were finished, we said our goodbyes. The Iraqi men stood up and shook our hands. The first guy I approached was older and had a very paternal nature about him. I wondered about his family, and what they’ve been through all these years as we shook hands. After letting go of my hand, he nodded his head and placed his hand over his heart – their common sign of respect over here. Then, he thanked me for coming and wished me well, his face completely open and friendly. All of them did the same.

In a place where war dominates, in a time when the headlines proclaim nothing but blood and loss, this was a bright contrast for me, a flicker of hope that these people have a chance. Later that night, as JB, JV and I sat outside the palace on the banks of the Euphrates River listening to the whirl of the helicopters, we talked about it, agreeing that at the very root of it, all most people want in the world is to live peacefully and provide for their families.

Something I’ve noticed over here: there are broken chairs EVERYWHERE.

Of course, I got the other extreme of it the next night.

We had an hour left before we needed to be at the air terminal for our flight back to our home base, so we decided to grab some dinner. The officer who was acting as our tour guide, and two others, led us to nearest dining facility, where they were serving baked turkey and mashed potatoes.

Two giant television screens were showing the news: one proclaiming the end of Katie Couric’s career and the other showing the extreme meltdown of a minor league baseball manager.

I was walking between the serving line and the salad bar when it hit – BAM! It was a sound that I later tried to describe in my brain. It was not too unlike the Fourth of July fireworks. But it was louder and more ominous than any other sound I have ever heard.

“What the fu…” I remember thinking before someone bellowed, “GET DOWN! GET DOWN!”

Everyone dropped. The sound of trays and utensils hitting the floor echoed throughout as everyone quieted. Only the sound of Katie Couric could be heard, reporting about a celeb being sentenced for drunk driving. A zillion thoughts ran through my head as I looked out from underneath the salad bar, my hand stupidly on my M-9 holster. People were crouched under the tables. All the service workers were gone. An Asian woman in civilian clothes was bent down in her seat, her hands covering her head.

I looked up at the three bars hanging off the salad bar, where you slide your tray, and cursed the person who said such equipment couldn’t be in eating areas. I looked over to see JV and JB down on the floor, too, and that’s when I felt a surge of fear run through my veins, which I quickly dismissed. There was no time for that. I waited to hear a second explosion, but none came.

A few more seconds passed before people started slowly coming out from underneath the tables. Eventually, I heard some nervous laughter and then people started talking.

“That was close. Wonder what they hit.”

“They’re at it again.”

“Damn. I got the wrong dressing for my salad.”

I watched JV get up, look around and then continue filling his glass at the juice fountain. I stood up, too, grabbing my tray and putting it back on the salad bar. We made eye contact, but he didn’t say anything. In fact, that was what surprised me the most. Nobody really said anything. They just continued what they were doing. So I did the same, although my hand was shaking badly as I scooped up some potato salad.

By the time I sat at the table with my group, we could hear the artillery fire. Helicopters were soon over us and we could sense movement outside. Our officer host explained that these things happen routinely here and that it’s more a nuisance than anything else.

“You have to think, out of the thousands upon thousands of mortars they launch at us every year, we’ve only lost a few people by them,” he said, which is true. I’ve seen the numbers. But I quietly finished half my dinner. They say your first mortar attack is the worst. It downright sucked.

We weren’t able to return to the terminal right away as they took a headcount for accountability. Shortly before we boarded our aircraft, we learned the damage. Five mortars, nobody was hurt. The one we heard landed on top a cement building near us. As one of the deployed Airmen who stays there permanently said, it was just another day surviving in Baghdad.