Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Every 9 weeks (63 days to be precise), expats who work with my organization in Iraq are given 10 days of rest and relaxation. My second R&R begins on Saturday. In the last 60 some days I've written two grant proposals, traveled to Baghdad twice and Amman and Erbil once each, designed and delivered a training on Positive Discipline (aka don't beat your children until they bleed), compiled several reports, conducted two trips to communities and one focus group discussion and generally made myself useful around the office. So, I'm ready for a break. This time, I'm traveling back to the US to see my family and attend the wedding of two wonderful friends. I'm in what we call the red zone right now, which means it's less than 10 days before my scheduled R&R and I'm on an emotional rollercoaster that no amount of chocolate can alleviate.

I've got a list going of the food I want to eat, people to see, business to be taken care of (dentist, ugh) and things to bring back with me, which largely consists of books and cooking supplies - can't find vanilla extract ANYWHERE in KRG. I'm fantasizing about bacon and shoe stores and happily counting down the days until I go home. However, I'm also finding the idea of going home strangely intimidating.

My friends have been slowly pairing off for years, and I forsee numerous wedding in my immediate future. I can't wait to see everyone, but I'm dreading the awkward, "So, how IS Iraq" conversations with people who know me. I'm already dreading answering the painful, "What do you do" questions from people I don't know. I love my job, but it is so hard to explain what I do and why I do it. It's also hard to go home and face the fact that while my professional life has been growing in leaps and bounds, my personal life has fallen by the wayside. I also know that the normalcy of home will highlight all the bizarre things about my life here that go unnoticed while you're immersed in the insanity. And thinking about all of this makes me kind of wish I was taking my R&R on a desert island somewhere (preferably with Johnny Dep and a stash of rum nearby).

I am also dreading telling my family that I am slated to move to Baghdad in July. In spite of my last blog post, I'm feeling okay about making the move. Things have calmed down a lot, and at this point I think the biggest risk is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm looking forward to moving out of the burbs (Kurdistan) and into a real field post. I am NOT looking forward to the joys of compound living, but the challenge of helping to move and grow the office will be great experience for me. My job will still require that I travel to the south and north frequently, so I won't be trapped in the Baghdad office like some of colleagues. I'm looking forward to it - hell, I volunteered to be in the first wave moving back to Baghdad - but it's not going to be a pleasant conversation with my mother.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Duck and Cover

I’ve been in Iraq for about 4 months now, and while you never forget that you’re in Iraq, you do become acclimatized to the situation. I live in the relatively quiet northern part of the country at the moment, but I’ve been traveling to Baghdad for work recently. There is no denying Baghdad is a scary place, but I’ve never had as many heart stopping moments (including in Afghanistan) as I did on my most recent trip. Interestingly, I felt much more unsafe in the Green Zone than I did in our office, which is in the ‘red’ zone.

Heart Stopping Moment #1
It was my second night at our office/staff house in Baghdad. Two of my colleagues and I had pulled a few chairs onto the roof and were hanging out drinking G&Ts under the overly watchful eyes of the armed guards next door. It was a few weeks ago, and Baghdad was already sweltering during the day, especially in the amount of clothes I have to wear to be ‘appropriately’ attired.

So, the three of us are on the roof, talking about work when we hear a helicopter. Nothing unusual about helicopters in Baghdad, but this one was flying really low. My seat was facing the building, so I couldn’t see the sky behind me – but when my coworker gasped, I looked over my shoulder in time to see red lights with smoke trails heading straight for our roof. My coworkers had started moving towards the door, but stopped to look at the incoming lights. I yelled, “GO, GO, GO” and shoved them through the doorway and starting running for the…well, just running really. Not sure there was a clear destination in mind. All of the above happened in seconds. A couple seconds later, after nothing had gone boom, we realized the helicopters were just shooting flares – some kind of messaging system – which just happened to occur directly over our roof in an ominous shade of red. Once we had started breathing and stopped laughing in relief, we returned to our rooftop – this time I sat with my back to the building.

Heart Stopping Moment #2
I was attending a conference in the Green Zone, which is generally considered to be very safe, although two Americans were killed there this week (after my visit). I was invited to visit the American Embassy in the evening, and very happily went in order to take full advantage of the PX (store with lots of American goodies including Pop Tarts and chewy Chips Ahoy cookies). After our shopping spree, we decided to eat dinner at the mess hall (it has a different name, but can’t remember what it is now – think dormitory cafeteria with slightly better food). As we were walking up to the cafeteria door a siren started blaring and a voice on a loud speaker yelled “Incoming, incoming”. We were literally at the entrance to the mess hall, which doubles as a bunker, so we just high tailed it inside. In the mess hall, everyone sat very calmly (I guess this is a common occurrence) while a recorded voice yelled over the sirens, “DUCK AND COVER, DUCK AND COVER” and everyone calmly ate their Rueben sandwiches and wandered over to the ice cream bar - with real hot fudge. Eventually the sirens stopped, but the ice cream bar was endless.

Heart Stopping Moment #3
After that little incident, my conference colleague and I walked back to the hotel we were staying in, keeping an eye out for bomb shelters along the way (just in case). It was a long walk, and after watching a pick-up truck crash into a median (it really was a bizarre night) we caught a taxi to take us the rest of the way to the hotel, through numerous check points (I was still in the Green Zone – it’s huge).

The taxi took us to the hotel, and we got out and walked inside, carrying our PX goodies. As we were walking in, I realized that I’d left my purse in the taxi when I was pulling out my ID card. The purse with my passport, my cell phone and all forms of ID that proved I was an American citizen. Luckily, my colleague was thinking on his feet because while I was hyperventilating for the first time in my life he ran to the hotel check point and convinced the security guy to radio up to the next check point and stop the taxi there. Now, I have done a lot of traveling – and most of it alone in the last few years – and I’ve never done anything that stupid. Thankfully, the checkpoint guard caught the taxi, who hadn’t even realized my bag was in the back seat. I would have been trapped in the Green Zone with no ID and no way to leave Baghdad. Talk about a professionally embarrassing situation. I will be eternally grateful to the conference colleague who helped me, the security guy who helped us and the taxi driver.

This week, a week after my trip to Baghdad, a mortar hit the Green Zone, just north of the embassy and killed an American civilian working for the US Dept of Defense.

My new goal is to stay as far away from the Green Zone as possible.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Outskirts of Sadr City

Today I went to an outlying neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad to meet with women from the community. We were meeting with a small group of women to gather information about the community’s needs from the women’s perspectives. We had already met with the head of the community, but oftentimes the women identify different needs and priorities than the community leaders, who tend to be men.

To prepare for the trip, my colleague and I had to dress appropriately. This consisted of black pants, a long tunic top and a head scarf. It is already HOT in Baghdad, and I was sweating before we even left our office. There was a minor crisis in our southern office regarding visa paperwork for a trainer who was coming in from another country which the Baghdad office had to help with, so we got off to a late start. We drove out to the area where we are planning on working, following our transport security procedures – which I won’t detail here for obvious reasons.

Driving into the neighborhood, it was hard to believe that we were still technically in the city of Baghdad. The streets were unpaved and open sewers ran along the main street. There was trash everywhere and small square cement homes were crowded together along the almost overflowing sewers and the dusty road. We turned down a narrow alley and arrived at the home of our hosts.

The house was an unimposing cement square situated inside a cement perimeter. A donkey was standing outside the cement wall, calming observing our approach. Inside we found a dusty courtyard with about 7 children ranging from 11 to 3 years old, a toy car for children to ride on and two small buildings. A man, his wife (the hosts) and two other women were waiting for us. We were led into a smallish rectangular room with a television, carpets, several pillows to sit on and a fan. The children weren’t at all shy, and stared at us from one side of the rectangle. One of the girls had animated brown eyes and was wearing a lime green training hijab – a head scarf with elastic around the part that frames her face (I could use one of those).

We arrayed ourselves among the cushions, drank soda (instead of the traditional tea) and talked about the community’s needs. Because our translator was a man, the host stayed with us, even though the women were the focus of the meeting.

The biggest problems they identified were unemployment, lack of safe play area for the children and poor local healthcare. Apparently the local midwives cost more than traveling to the closest hospital, which is far away if you need immediate assistance – like if you are in labor and the kid isn’t going to wait for you to drive to the hospital…Of the women interviewed, one had never attended school, one had completed the 4th grade, and one had finished 6th grade. The community has intermittent electricity, terrible public waste disposal and questionable water quality. They say the quality of the schooling is poor, and that girls tend to stop attending between 6th-8th grades. The woman who had never attended school had difficulty telling us how many members there were in her household because she could not count high enough. Unemployment was estimated to be around 40%.

As we were leaving (we had stayed longer than intended) we heard the pop-pop-pop of gunshots. We got into the car and waved goodbye to the children. On our way out of the neighborhood we passed a big convoy of cars celebrating a wedding – and probably the source of the gunfire. Everyone in the cars were playing music and dancing, with men hanging out of passenger seat windows with video cameras and music blaring.

It was a good day.