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.