Friday, April 8, 2011

Moving from Red to Green

By Barry Greville-Eyres
Wednesday, 8 February proved to be another significant milestone in my time in Baghdad in that a small group of remaining expats was re-located from our compound in the heart of Karada to the International or Green Zone. Located on the far-side of the Tigris River and outside of the US–Iraqi military protective cordon, Karada has experienced its fair share of Al-Qaida perpetrated terrorism, sectarian violence and religious persecution in recent months.  Most notably was the late October 2010 Catholic Church massacre in which 68 congregants perished at the hands of suicide bombers. Barely blocks away from our compound, we were acutely reminded of how extreme religious intolerance is in this country and as 2010 marched inexorably towards its end, there was little respite for Baghdad’s Christian community. Families, in mixed neighborhoods, were ‘selectively’ targeted through bombings and shootings on Christian homes.

Karada Compound immediate foreground - Fourth floor view from Cedar Hotel onto the Pool Villa and the Rimal Hotel (right). Compound fortified with concrete blast or T-Walls. Residential and commercial Karada in the background.

Upon the return from my December R&R it was pretty much the case of ‘honey who shrunk my world?’ Since our firm was the sole remaining contractor operating out of Karada, the decision was made to consolidate the compound, office and accommodation space significantly.  Our new reality was reduced to two residential hotels (one occupied by all RTI staff as official accommodation), the other retrofitted to serve as office accommodation; and only one private villa retained as office space. With the shrinking of the compound and associated reduction in expat and Iraqi national security we no longer had an inner and outer security perimeter and many of us openly articulated concerns around our security  ….feeling decidedly insecure and unsafe…a sentiment echoed by most expats…. I personally visualized in graphic detail, the product of paranoia and a fertile imagination, an explosive-laden vehicle being detonated immediately adjacent to the blast/t-walls of our meager compound with sufficient force to reduce our two 5-storey residential hotels – Cedar & Rimal into heaps of rubble…. Or a group of shadowy figures breaching the compound walls and wreaking havoc on Iraqi nationals and expats alike with silenced pistols, grenades and suicide vests (a well known & versed tactic).

The end of the Karada era ...... the Baghdad team - friends and colleagues (Pic: Mark Allen)

 Iraq-Baghdad’s conferred ‘wild Middle Eastern’ status was further demonstrated and reinforced recently when the Iraqi national football team participated in the Asian Cup which eventually saw Japan defeat Australia (eina/ouch!) in the finals. Within a football obsessed and fanatical region, Iraq won and drew a game apiece before being knocked out of the competition yet on each of these occasions, local Baghdadis lit up the night sky with fireworks and small arms fire. In the words of our vigilant security detail, ‘what goes up must come down’ and we were strongly advised not to venture out onto the rooftops or our apartment balconies running the real risk of being taken out or injured by deliberate discharges or in military-speak – friendly fire (FF). Its not surprising that country-wide, a number of Iraqis are killed and injured as a result of post-match celebrations or FF.  

Arial shot of the International or Green Zone with Saddam-era Crossswords war memorial (Pic: Mark Allen)
We’ve barely been in the IZ a few hours and I feel like a kid in a candy store …. Van and I were given a short but royal tour, by Lamar and Shaun – head and deputy head of project respectively, of the Green Zone and start by lunching at Union – one of 2 sizable US military bases in the immediate area. Once again, it was a jaw-dropping experience and I’ve been trying to recall it in slow-mo ever since.  En route we drove passed the huge, secretive and imposing US Embassy complex, purpose built after the 2003 occupation and supposedly one of the largest worldwide, especially in terms of staffing and budget. I hope to have the pleasure of visiting it someday soon as a guest with my US colleagues ….. I figure that since the first letter of my passport begins with “A” (and both passports are a look alike - adorned in the same navy blue) and since Kevie and Hilary are such good mates this will help me get through the door – I think not but will remain ever optimistic. From what I’ve heard, the complex is completely self-contained and like a small town housing all significant US government agencies including State Department, USAID, diplomatic corps and others with every imaginable amenity available at their disposal.

Iraqi iconic war memorial in the IZ - Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Pic Mark Allen)

The Union experience was like the M&M’s of the military (the South African equivalent of this candy is Smarties with a very appropriate jingle …. Wot-a-lot-I-got!) What was really striking was the sheer array of military combat fatigues, styles, insignia, and chameleonic camouflage. Even within the US military there is quite a range from the drab, olive green of the regular US army to the tan and sandy garb worn by the US Marines and Navy. Added to this is a strong foreign contingent from UN, NATO member and other countries including the Italians, Fijians, and eastern bloc.  As always, the food was excellent and I soon descended into SOS – sensory overload syndrome - having great difficulty savoring the experience and dividing my attention, in moderate parts, amongst my VIP work colleagues, my scrumptious Cesaer salad and the unfolding spectacle. Once more, I found myself wishing that I was an innocuous, disconnected, all-seeing fly on the wall. It’s challenging remaining cool and nonchalant under these circumstances and I hope to be back soon to continue with my Union fascination.  
Two months later ….. and the novelty of being here has yet to wear off and regular lunch forays to Union and Prosperity still prove to be interesting and entertaining. On a recent trip to the Prosperity base, the lunch time session was ‘jazzed’ up by an accomplished US Army brass ensemble performing and serenading, in silky spring sunshine, to a very ‘mixed’ outdoor audience of cleaners, kitchen staff, contractors and military personnel. Hosted in the grounds of one of Saddam’s palaces, this was yet another of those surreal experiences that one encounters here unexpectedly. I’m still in awe of the military might and machinery in Iraq although the drawdown (reduction in US forces) is well underway. In the limited contact I’ve had with US military personnel, I’ve been very impressed with their levels of discipline, morale and motivation. I’ve been addressed as Sir, from young and old alike, on many occasions and they are invariably always impeccably turned out in their military garb.   
For the handful making the move to the IZ, this represents a welcome change - infinitely more breathing space and freedom of movement compared with our closed, small claustrophobic compound that was Karada. We all seem to enjoy a greater measure of psychological security and comfort yet the IZ is in itself targeted, sporadically, by mortar and rocket attacks launched from outside the Green Zone, ironically from the burbs of Karada in many cases. We are pre-warned, occasionally, of such attacks via an antiquated public address system declaring in metallic and mechanistic monotones ….. In-coming …… In-coming….. In-coming ….. only to be followed up a few minutes later with All-clear….. All clear.
Generally, life in the IZ is very ‘normal’ and much effort has been put into keeping it that way in order for people to cope and function optimally. The bases have a range of shops – fast food and coffee; curio, carpet and art; barbers and jewelers; an ‘enterprising’ massage parlor that stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that optional extras will NOT be entertained never mind full frontal massages; odd electronic and DVD outlets retailing decidedly ‘grey’ products to mention a few. The bases also host military mini-markets or PXs that stock mostly US brands at seemingly cost and/or subsidized prices.  Outside of the bases but still within the IZ is an ‘underground’ bottle store and a few ‘local’ Iraqi mini-markets that stock an odd assortment of exotic groceries from throughout the region including countries such Turkey.

A spot of badmington in Baghdad (Karada) provided many day and night time hours of strenuous exercise and light, hilarious relief in a somewhat confined and claustrophobic setting. (Pic Mark Allen)
For many, exercise takes on a ‘ritualistic’ preoccupation and is yet another coping strategy in our somewhat abnormal existence. Each company compound / military base has all manner of exercise opportunities – basketball backboards; monthly fun runs; full gyms; specialized gym – cardio, yoga, resistance training, weight and spinning classes; volley ball courts etc….
For those so inclined, there is also a hectic ‘expat’ party scene rotated through various embassies and company compounds with copious amounts of alcohol and snack foods. They are aberrations as with men outweighing the fairer sex, every woman is in ‘red and beautiful’, has her night – day and way as they hold court over ambitious, restless and hungry hunters. Having attended a few of these events my fascination, for this side-show sub-culture, soon faded as ‘worn’ events, conversations and people began to roll into one. The Alpha-male set, with its own strict pecking order, ranges seemingly from: senior diplomatic staff / corporate life support managers / project directors and managers able to ‘keep’ women and/or offer employment opportunities for the ‘nomadic groupies’; to jaded, know-it-all senior citizen/geriatric consultants 60s plus – who are perhaps best placed spending time with their grandchildren; to Iraqi vets who seek to entertain and impress nubile and less so ‘newbies’ with their own brand of ‘war stories’ to blatant opportunists, and to the dull, wallflowers like yours truly.
Even though the Karada era is behind us, it was not without a wrench – one that I was not altogether prepared for. It was home and hearth for almost 9 months and walking out on its own unique community has been quite difficult. It’s the relationships, with expat and Iraqs alike, that I shall miss the most – Nival - my diminutive but highly efficient housekeeper; George & Larry our Philippino chefs  unruffled … with their Asian styled character/charm; the countless other restaurant staff and Hussan, our barber, who used to pamper and fuss around his regular customers. I spare a thought for and echo words of gratitude for G4S expat and Iraq national security personnel who pushed beat day and night so that we could succumb to blissful sleep, eyes closed, and escape to our other, near perfect worlds.  I often think of our Iraqi and expat work colleagues with great fondness, too many to mention by name …. Outstanding people that have come into my life in the most dramatic fashion, under abnormal circumstances and then faded out of it…………. there is a sense of loss and anxiety in our separation but equally, a celebration of hope and friendship - forged  and cherished!

Twenty something - bright, ambitious, professionals who are contemplating a future in Iraq amidst an ever increasing diaspora


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  3. Interesting stuff Barry... good to read a non-journo perspective..