Sunday, 7 August 2011

Chapter 33: The Day America's Virginity was Lost

I stood in an internet café in Krakow (Poland) watching the computer screens while I waited for a terminal to become vacant. It seemed as if everyone in the room were playing a game together. Planes were flying into tall buildings on each and every one. The room was silent except for occasional gasps. I studied the images more closely over someone’s shoulder. I was absolutely dumbfounded when I realized that it wasn’t a game but was real life footage. The world had suddenly changed.

It almost appeared significant that I should learn about such a horrific act in a town with such a horrific past.

I wandered the streets of Krakow that night watching the town’s folk milling around bars and huddled outside electrical stores watching as the aftermath of the horrendous events unfolded; like everyone around the globe that night, united in their endeavour to come to terms with something that defied comprehension.

Checking my emails back in Berlin I read that my company wanted me to return home and abandon all thought of returning to Northern Iraq. I was to return as soon as possible by the safest and most direct of means.

I had in my possession return tickets to Australia via Amman so I decided to use them. Even though the world was in shock and the people responsible identified I could see no reason for purchasing new tickets.

I continually monitored the situation in Iraq and it appeared it was business as usual. I began to feel very downcast about having my return taken from me.

This was reinforced when I happened to catch a hazy glimpse the road leading to the village of Trebil on the Jordan/Iraq border from the window of the plane on approach into Amman. My heart was un-expectantly tugged.

I was told back in Australia that no one from the company would be returning to Iraq due the sensitive new world order. My colleague was returning home and we were to get back on with our lives.

But I couldn’t. My Iraqi visa was valid for another two months, until the end of November, and while that remained valid my desire to return remained as strong as ever.

I learnt from the continuing flurry of emails to Northern Iraq that my position with the UNDP was still open but only up until my visa expired and this could only be extended from within Iraq. Once the visa expired I would be of no value and the dream would be over.

With all prospects of returning with my Australian company vanishing quickly I realised that a significant decision was looming. My only hope of returning to Northern Iraq was if I resigned my position and worked direct for the UN. This had its tempting financial advantages but no longevity security particularly with the American government talking about retaliation.

One night I saw a documentary on television about Kurdistan. (I had heard there was a television crew in the region when I was there so I was extremely interested in watching. In one scene a black shopping bag blew across the road in front of the camera. I never properly knew how much I missed the place until I saw this article of discarded rubbish.

As the deadline loomed I spoke one night with my late Father on the phone. My Dad lived his life in a very safe and secure manner, erring on the side of financial security and avoiding risks. But as I briefed him on my predicament I braced myself for an inevitable lecture on why I should remain in the comfort of my present employer. I was surprised to hear him say just one word. “Go.”

With the decision made I went and bought a plane ticket. My visa expired on the 1st December 2001. The ticket was dated Tuesday the 27th, November giving me just enough time to slip inside the border.

I still needed to receive final confirmation before travelling commenced. It came midmorning on Monday the 26th, November. The phone on my desk rang and I heard what I needed to hear.

After replacing the receiver I sat at my desk contemplating my next move. I was truly in an awkward position. I had tried to give the impression over recent weeks that I had given up on my quest to return and was falling happily back into my work but everyone around me could see I had the temperament of a caged animal. My body had returned but my mind and heart was still in Iraq. But now I was in the predicament of securing a job in Iraq and I was to leave the following day. I figured the only option I had was to throw myself at the mercy of my manager.

My manager, a veteran of overseas assignments, listened to my plea and something stirred in his soul. What he suggested that day was uniquely brilliant.

I was certain I was the only person in the world, at that time, who was taking leave to holiday in Iraq.

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