Came back to Iraq to film my story with the ‘pianist’ at a historic moment – the hand over of power to the new Iraqi government. Journalists still take the expensive plane route into Iraq from Jordan as the road remains dangerous and kidnapping is still rife. After the familiar corkscrew landing into Baghdad International Airport, avoiding any surface to air missile attack, I headed into Baghdad. There was a much greater presence of Iraqi police, one standing proud with a shining new machine gun next to a police car riddled with bullet holes. An ominous sign. “It is quiet at the moment” my driver said, then looking at me out of the corner of his eye, “it is the calm before the storm”. The next round of attacks are never far away. Having lived in my secured hotel compound for 5 months on and off since January 2004 we had been on high alert for an attack. It never happened but as I arrived back after 6 weeks in England I realised it had and I had narrowly escaped it.
I was just settling in my hotel when the Iraqis around me noticed the handover of power taking place in front of our eyes on the television. We broke from conversation momentarily acknowledging it and then continued talking about a suicide bomber who had tried to enter the heavily secured hotel compound where I stay a week after I’d returned to England. The bomber was prevented from entering and blew himself up on the street wrecking the front of another hotel building and killing many bystanders, including a 13 year old boy, who Samir (the subject of my film) used to buy his cigarettes from everyday.
We went to buy bread, the bakery windows were smashed and the bakery boys were in bandages. The bomb blast had thrown them from one side of the bakery to the other. Then on our way back to the hotel we met the father of the 13 year old cigarette seller. His father, a man of my age, held the arm of his younger son tightly. I shook his hand, I didn’t know what to say. Some things are so desperate, so sad, that you cannot say anything. But then a few hours pass and I find myself not even thinking of the boy or the plight of his father, I am sat poolside at the hotel drinking a long cool beer with other journalists enjoying the luxuries that the air conditioned hotel provides in a country that still struggles to get electricity for half the day, where the temperatures rage to 55c.
I notice the absence of the heavily armed mercenaries (ex army/sas soldiers employed on mass here to protect everyone from contractors to journalists, to the US army convoys) the pool looks more beautiful without them I note. The most notorious company were at our hotel, the ‘blackwater’ guys, famous after some of them were lynched and set on fire when caught in Fallujah. They all left, I am told, after another 4 were killed in an ambush in Baghdad. Around the same time another mercenary had killed himself in his room over-dosing while injecting drugs into his arm. We finish the beer and order more.
“Welcome back to newly liberated Iraq” my friends tell me.