Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Chapter 24: Behind the Moustache

I ended up in pre-war Iraq more by good luck than good management. With the post phobia period coming to a close my confidence was up and my depression bouts (which I might add used to strike with such intensity and last so long during the phobia years that even my short term memory was affected) had practically evaporated away altogether. I had now returned to a position, mentally, to bring the dream of working overseas back into my mind and I was open to any opportunity that came my way.

That opportunity did come my way in the form of my manager bounding into my office seeking personnel to fill two appointments; one in Antarctica and the other in Iraq. As luck would have it the resident surveyor in our office who took care of the majority of overseas assignments was out of the country at the time and my colleague sitting next to me had a passion for cold climates so he readily snatched up the Antarctica posting which left me, the only other surveyor in the office and the one with minimal overseas work experience to speak of on my resume, with Iraq.

After my manager gave me a quick briefing and left the office my mind was in a spin. The first thing I thought of was Saddam Hussein and a so called evil state which I thought could not be good for anyone going there but then romantic images of the middle east flooded into my mind of camel trains, burning deserts, ancient Arabic cities, Arabic architecture, biblical history and of course one special donkey and the idea of going didn’t seem so bad.

My life immediately was turned upside down. There was so much to do to prepare for a speedy departure. I was quickly swamped by acronyms which were foreign to me - UN, UNDP and ENRP - people’s names which I could barely pronounce and place names which I had never heard of.

The work was decidedly simple, however, obtaining and providing data for the design of mini-hydro schemes in the Kurdish autonomous region of Northern Iraq, well within my professional grasp but the logistics of getting there and operating there were mind boggling.

The first and most important item to address was obtaining a visa. At that time with Iraq under UN sanctions visas were hard to come by. One of the only ways to enter the country legally was to be issued with a visa linked to the “Oil for Food” program which the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) administered. My engineering colleague who was residing in Northern Iraq and who had requested my presence assured me that the visa request had been instigated by the appropriate UN personnel stationed in Iraq and all was well.

With this procedure underway I concerned myself with the multitude of tasks necessary to prepare myself for the journey.
Expecting to travel in the very near future I booked a flight to Amman - Jordan, I handed all my files on my desk back to my supervisor and hastily embarked on a round of farewell drinks with my friends and work colleagues.

It all appeared quite straight forward and simple but it wasn’t long before the harsh reality of working in a sanctioned country became apparent.

I had heard that the Kurdish surveyors working on the project were hampered in their endeavours by using old and obsolete equipment. Modern state-of-the-art equipment had been procured and was on its way but was held up in the lengthy sanctioning process. I thought I could speed things up by taking modern equipment with me. It was suggested to me that I declare the equipment to Australian customs so that at a later date I could bring it back into Australia easily and swiftly without it being queried for stamp duty. I dutifully faxed off a note to the local customs office late one evening before departing for home.

That night while I slept peacefully it seemed an international diplomatic storm raged all about and when I returned to work the following morning I learnt to my horror that the assignment had been put in jeopardy by my foolish action. I never did fully grasp the full ramifications of my actions but it appeared, to me anyway, that the sequence of events that occured that night went something like this: Apparently Australian Customs had latched onto the destination country as being Iraq and had notified DFAT (Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade) to query that some idiot was taking stuff into Iraq. DFAT contacted the UN Security Council asking who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq, the UN Security Council got in touch with UNDP asking who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq, UNDP got in touch with the Programme Directorate for UNDP-ENRP stationed in Northern Iraq at the time and asked who was this idiot taking stuff into Iraq and the Programme Directorate fired off an email to the Chief Technical Officer to ask who was this idiot bringing stuff into Iraq who in turn sent an email to my office, and various other notable persons around the globe, asking who was the na├»ve idiot bringing stuff to Iraq. It was my first taste of international diplomacy and I was correctly the victim. After a flurry of very apologetic and retracting emails later the whole idea was abruptly abandoned.

The other thing which I was totally oblivious to was the fact that the Government of Iraq had no intention of granting me a visa. Their task was to hamper the international operation taking place in the north of their country and one effective tool they had at their disposal was to restrict the issue of visas. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months as I patiently waited for news of my departure. I took my files back from my supervisor, friends and colleagues became bored with false alarm farewell parties and the girl at the travel agency suggested that I quit postponing my flight and just secure a fresh booking when I knew I was certain to be leaving. Life basically went back to its humdrum self.

During the waiting game there were moments to rekindle the anticipated excitement. I had a briefing with an engineer who had returned from the north on leave. His strong Macedonian accent and hints of strange meetings with strange men in strange lands and the talk of dust storms suggested I was embarking on a James Bond mission. “…a man will meet you and take you to your hotel,” he explained, “…you must call this number and speak to a man named, Camille; he will help you…try and get some sleep at this point as you will have a long journey the next day…”

Then one Friday evening in May 2001, after six months of anxious waiting, I was closing down my computer for the weekend just as an email arrived from the Kurdish city of Erbil. It simply stated, “Pack your bags, you’re coming.”

The adventure had begun.

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