Out with the old, in with the new

We drive off for the best pizza in Baghdad. It is in a dangerous place, a suicide-bomber struck the area recently killing scores. Samir isn’t happy, but I’ve had it with the hotel food. On route I notice teams of road sweepers dressed in red clothes, “Look the only work available for the young in Iraq.. sweeping the streets” Samir points out. “They get paid $3 a day which is more than what our hotel staff get.” We arrive for our $4 pizza. It is a privilege, and tastes delicious. We leave and get stuck in the heavy traffic. Samir has to turn his air conditioning off when the car isn’t moving, so we open the windows and let in the belting 50c heat. An armoured vehicle passes, inside men hold guns. I notice that each window has a bullet hole in the centre. It looks like they’ve all been shot at.

Samir knows these vehicles. “It is bullet proof glass but they make a hole in it themselves so they can fire out of the vehicle if they are attacked.” The men sit like birds in a cage, staring at everyone and everything they pass, sub-machine guns poised on their knees. One false move could really upset the apple cart here. I look to my video camera in my bag. “Don’t film them Sean, they will kill us. They will say they thought your camera was a gun.” We both sit silently, looking straight ahead until the armoured van pushes its way through the busy traffic. Other drivers look up, see the armed men staring through the bullet proof glass, and give way. The ‘law’ of this ‘lawless’ land is the gun, although every driver around me right now is probably armed, these guys have the biggest guns.

We get back to the hotel and queue outside the checkpoint. We wait like sitting ducks outside the hotel. As we approach, the four Iraqi guards recognise Samir and wave us on. Samir laughs, “Look that is our security, they are there to protect us. We could have TNT in our boot. Who cares?” He is in fits of laughter as we zigzag through the concrete slabs in the road that lead up to the hotel. The raging heat has us both dripping in sweat, and now we can’t find a place to park. Samir swears furiously, looking for a place to park his battered old ‘Super Salon’ car. We disembark and race to the air conditioned hotel.

The pool is cool. We meet the new restaurant manager, he is looking troubled again. I imagine the weight of responsibilities on his head. After being Saddam’s palace manager for 20 years he is working and sleeping here in the heavily fortified hotel, for his own personal safety after receiving death threats. We have a dip in the pool and meet Khalid, a 22 year old clean cut man man. He is the new legion of Iraqi security men, a much cheaper version of the notorious Blackwater company who looked after Paul Bremmer, and currently look after the Iraq Prime Minister. Khalid looks happy. He has every right to be, he is earning $1500 a month in his new job. I feel happy that the liberation of this land has brought fortune and opportunity to Khalid and others like him.

I sit with Samir as Khalid leaves with a spring in his step. The new restaurant manager follows him dragging his feet. Samir shakes his head. “Iraq is becoming so complicated.”

An American journalist enters the pool, “Hey Guys I’m leaving.. see you next time.” Samir looks at me. “See you next time.. you know I’ve spent most of my life trying to leave this country and I’m still waiting!” The American journalist is wearing a bullet proof jacket for his journey on ‘the world’s most dangerous road’, the airport road. It reminds me that I’m set to leave also on Friday.

Leave a Reply