Sophia's Peace Work

Thursday, February 12, 2004

First impressions

We waited there for three days before our driver, an Iraqi named Sattar, was ready to take us in. An engineer by training, Sattar supports his family by driving the 12 to 15 hours each way from Amman to Baghdad and back several times a week. At 1 AM on the dot, he met us in the hotel lobby ready to drive us in. We had heard stories of drivers falling asleep at the wheel and Sattar couldn’t have had more than five hours of sleep, so we were determined to stay awake for the entire journey. Unfortunately, I was quickly out like a light. I had two travel partners. N, a student from Virginia who I had met briefly before the war in Baghdad and who had spent most of the last year studying Arabic in Syria, and Lorna, a journalist from the Hudson Valley of New York. N was soon splayed out on the seat in front of me but fortunately Lorna had more staying power and kept up a near constant banter with the soft-spoken Sattar.

Our journey into Iraq was punctuated by three events.

Before even arriving at the border, we made a pit stop at a small village in Jordan to use the bathrooms at an all-night restaurant. Ordinarily this would have been an inconsequential blip in a journey but after I had successfully navigated the WC (aka water closet aka bathroom), Lorna proceeded to get stuck inside. As I waited outside for her, wondering, ‘hoo humm, why is it taking Lorna so long?’ Lorna was calling for help and two restaurant workers were banging away at the door to the WC. Finally deciding to check on her, I arrived just as the two strapping fellows broke the door down. Lorna remains a bit traumatized by this event and I promised not to abandon her to the WC’s in the future.

One other noteworthy thing occurred at this rest stop … standing outside the restaurant were a group of westerners – all men, in spanking new Timberline boots. I approached and was told by one that he was from New Zealand, another from Florida, another from Moscow. Turns out they were all ex-military and were going into Iraq to do “security.” When they realized that Lorna was a journalist (my fault for introducing her) they were unwilling to tell us anymore than that. So we wished them luck and were on our way.

The second event was the border crossing itself, which we hit at about 5 AM. The Jordan side was pretty much the same. I had heard from a friend who had gone in a week before that his driver, once he was through the Jordan side of the border, had just gunned the engine. Spitting out a dismissive “Finished!” he sped through the Iraqi checkpoints without stopping. Sattar was not so daring … after a cursory check of our vehicle and a brief stop to get our passports stamped, we were in. It was a far cry from my entry experience of last year with the three hour wait in the VIP lounge sipping chai (tea) and staring back at an enormous Saddam Hussein painting, while the Iraqi’s rooted through my luggage. No Saddam’s this time … even his statue at the border was just a twisted heap.

The final event was a sad one … as the sun rose upon the dun-colored desert of western Iraq, we noticed electrical towers stretching on for miles, most bent over and destroyed their lines broken or simply removed (“Stolen,” Sattar told us). The road seemed fine for most of the trip in, aside from one detour we made around a bombed out section of road, but as we got closer and closer to Baghdad, we noticed more wrecked cars and twisted guardrails. In many places you could see clearly where tanks had crisscrossed the road, leaving, in some areas, large rectangular sections of metal railing bent perfectly over. But most disturbing, we came upon the scene of a recent accident. An SUV (the car of choice for carting people back and forth between Amman and Jordan) had rolled several times and laid upright but smashed on the side of the road. A crowd of about ten SUV’s had pulled over to the side of the road to give assistance (all these drivers tend to look out for one another) and our vehicle soon joined them.

We then found out that as soft-spoken as Sattar’s English is, his Arabic comes out strong and forthright. The driver of the wrecked car had been a friend and he and one of his passengers was dead. We stayed at the site for about two hours, while Sattar lended what help he could. Unfortunately, there was very little any could do.

As for Baghdad itself, in some areas the city looks the same – still a bustling jumble of cars and people. But then you will come upon buildings that were bombed, burned or looted … sometimes all three. Or you will see a convoy of U.S. soldiers drive by. There are also now more guns on the street, more armed guards around building and more barbed wire. The city quiets down after dark. Last year, before the war, it was relatively safe to walk the streets of Baghdad at night. Now few go out after sunset. It is far too risky.


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