Sunday, 8 May 2011

Chapter 25: Behind the Moustache - On the Road to Baghdad - Jordon

Monday 21st May 2001

I flew out quietly the following Monday afternoon. There was no point in more farewells as that had been done to death and people were wary of another false alarm. I cleared my desk, booked a flight and went straight home to pack my bags over the weekend.

Tuesday 22nd May 2001

I arrived in Amman late Tuesday afternoon around dusk. Taxiing to the terminal I noticed two Iraqi Airways DC9s parked on the outer limits of the tarmac. They looked dusty and neglected. I wondered how long they had been sitting there and if they were capable of even flying again when the time came for them to return home.

Once inside the terminal I was met by a small, balding man carrying a card displaying my name. Upon ascertaining my identity he hurried across and gathered up my belongings without uttering a word and scurried out of the building to a waiting van. The James Bond feeling washed over me again and I was filled with excitement.

The man took me into Amman and dropped me off at the Orchida Hotel. Along the way I spotted a road sign suggesting the Dead Sea. I promised myself a swim before leaving for Baghdad.

Wednesday 23rd May 2001

The following day, once rested, I ventured out into Amman, passport in hand to obtain the visa at the Iraqi Embassy. Amman impressed me. The sandstone coloured buildings contrasted brilliantly with the deep blue sky. It was hot, bright and full of energy.

The Iraqi embassy was confusing and frustrating but once I completed my business I promptly set out for the UNDP office in Amman to make contact.

I found the office in a quiet street and in contrast to the chaos and heat of Amman the office was quiet and cool. I found my contact, a man with whom I had exchanged many emails over the past six months, and he was engaged in conversation with a young woman who had just come out of Iraq on leave. I sat and listened to them and discovered to my horror that her UNDP car had been fired upon the previous day on her way out of Iraq. From what I could gather from the conversation a taxi full of men wielding Kalashnikovs fired repeatedly into her car before speeding off. She survived the attack because she had her seat laid back sleeping and the driver escaped injury as a bullet heading his way ricocheted off the windscreen wiper. I was later to see this bullet ridden car in Erbil which confirmed the story. As I sat dumbfounded at this news the only reaction from my UNDP contact was a casual shrug and turning in my direction said calmly, “Ah well, all is the same in Iraq.”

To my surprise the women left the office offering the assurance that she would return at the end of her break.

A little subdued I returned to the Iraqi Embassy to collect my passport complete with visa (I would later learn that the only reason I obtained a visa was that they gave me one from someone who was not returning. A new visa was never granted) and took a taxi to the Dead Sea to float around and cover myself in mud.   

Thursday 24th May 2001   

Early the next day I checked out of the hotel and loaded my belongings into a GMC which was going to deliver me to Baghdad. The young man at the wheel already appeared tired as he negotiated the traffic and this was confirmed further as he tried to prepare a coffee from his onboard coffee making apparatus only to spill the contents all over his trousers. My apprehension almost reached breaking point but after we reached the open road on the outskirts of Amman he settled down into a rhythm and I convinced myself that he was probably capable of completing the journey.

Heading for the Al- Karama Border Crossing

The three hour drive out to the border across the Syrian Desert was particularly non eventful, punctuated only by the many oil trucks toiling back and forth along the two lane bitumen road and the occasional small town. Even the desert was a little disappointing, just scrubby sand and rock and a never ending transmission line.  

At a small village 70 kilometres from the border we stopped and the driver insisted we have and early lunch. Sitting over a plate of greasy chicken and chips in a shabby restaurant he explained that the food in Iraq was much worse and that the last time he had eaten he became ill. I could hardly wait.

Finally, in what seemed the middle of nowhere, low lying buildings appeared out of the shimmering heat and we were at the border, near the village of Trebil. The driver parked under the shade of the Jordanian customs shelter and disappeared inside with our passports. I had almost reached the point of no return. While he was gone I stood beside the car and gazed across the half kilometre or so at the symbolic arches of the Iraqi customs. My bowels churned. I was looking into a political abyss. What these two arches represented was a tyrant dictator, a rogue state, a state on the world stage for all the wrong reasons, a state on the edge - on the outer. What was I doing? What was I considering?

Before I had time to rationalise my thoughts my taxi driver emerged from the customs office and ushered me into the car. As the powerful V8 revved into life he nodded across the baking earth towards the Iraqi border. What he uttered didn’t fill me with any comfort. “Well that’s the easy part, now the hard part.”

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