Sophia's Peace Work

Monday, March 29, 2004

Man of Mystery

As you drive through the city of Baghdad, you will occasionally come upon the high walls of concrete and concertina wire that grace various hotels and official buildings around town. One such place is the Sadeer Hotel in Andalous Square. Entering the Sadeer through this impressive security blanket and swarm of gun-toting guards, you are first greeted by a parking lot full of shiny, new cars and rows upon rows of SUV's. Once into the marbled and paneled lobby of this five-star hotel, you have arrived in DynCorp Central. The place is packed with westerner in tan fatigues … ex-military and police men … hired to do “security work” in Iraq by DynCorp, a multi-million dollar defense contractor with something of a checkered past (See my article "Nosh to Iraq"). Dan, a photojournalist I’ve invited along for this excursion into the high-rolling world of big-money contractors and government officials, has to scrape his jaw off the floor as we walk out into the immaculate pool and patio area where I’ve been invited to meet some "important people" for a dinner party.

The hotel buildings around us are lousy with armed guards. They are on the roof-tops and they ring the patio areas where the guests have assembled. One tall fellow named Louis mingles with the crowd slung with a submachine gun and a kifeyah, the well-known checkered scarf of Arab men. There is live music, drinks, and incredible food. I know that outside this well-protected oasis is a city filled with strife, sewage and desperation, but here … aside from all the armed men encircling the party, I could anywhere in the West.

As promised there are lots of "Important People" … senior advisors and staff to the Ministry of Sports, Ministry of Housing, Several press officials and Nina Bonino, a Minister from the European Union, come to Iraq for quick briefings and a CPA-hosted tour. There are also men of mystery here as well. I spoke to one named Robert. That was all he would tell me. Our host introduced him to me and I started telling him of a boy in one of the squatter camps that can not walk and of how I have been trying to get him some assistance. Here is a summary of our ensuing conversation.

Robert: What is his name?

Me: Ahmed

Robert: What is his problem?

Me: Well, I’m no doctor. He can’t walk and he has seen many doctors that can’t seem to help. His mother believes that he needs help outside the country.

Robert: Where is he?

Me: Well, as of yesterday, he was at Yarmouk Hospital. But why are you asking me all of this. Is there anything you can do to help him?

Robert: I think so. Write down the information on the boy. I’ll make a few calls.

Me: Oh really? Who do you work for?

Robert: I can’t tell you that.

Me: Can you tell me your last name?

Robert: No.

Me: How about an email address or a phone number?

Robert: Sorry, I can’t tell you that.

Me: (to myself) ARRRGH!

The whole conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. To make matters worse, a few minutes later, I saw the host of the party and I asked him, "Who was that man named Robert that I was talking to? What does he do?"

"What man?" was all he replied as he fluttered off to talk to another guest.

"But you introduced me to him!" I called in exasperation to his back.

I have no right to refuse help for Ahmed but this is just not how it is supposed to work! There are thousands of kids like him. Who is going to parachute them out of Iraq? If this man does pull some strings for the boy, I'll never be able to show my face again at the Mukhabarat camp where he lives. The people there will assume I am some kind of "Important Person" myself. It’s bad enough as it is now … my visits have built up expectations for the family and as much as I try to remind them that I cannot promise them anything, I can see that they are starting to pin their hopes on me.

But in some ways, I'm not that different from the mysterious Robert. He can pull strings because he knows the "Important People" to call. In my case, as Alaa my translator reminds me, it is just my white face and my American passport that pulls strings and opens doors. Either way, it's a lousy way to operate.

Note: To date, Robert, my Man of Mystery, was all talk. Ahmed hasn’t heard a word from him.


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