Monday Feb 21 – Wednesday Feb 23
We were dropped at the temporary billeting building in Union III, and met there by the Program Manager, Dick who helped us check in to our rooms. This place has been referred to as a “1/2 star hotel” which turned out to be pretty apt. Long, fluorescent-lit, bleak corridors with banged up old cement and marble floors led to the rooms, each with three single beds and three metal lockers. Shared bathrooms at the end of the corridor completed the budget boarding-house ambience. Upstairs I hear they had access to windows and natural light but, on the main floor, there is no natural light; there had been doors but they’d been sealed off. I noticed along another corridor perpendicular to this one, that there were sealed-off squares on the floor with 3” metal bars that looked like handles, and were also sealed off. I later found out that “Chemical Ali” used to do some of his horrific tortures beneath the building and, apparently, also in the bathroom.
I didn’t really take much in that evening; I was a zombie and beyond exhaustion. Dick gave us a brief tour of the base (the gym, laundry, DFac, his office in Building 5 – the old Ba’ath HQ -), gave us each a meeting time with him the next day and left us. We had some dinner and all went our separate ways to bed and sleep (about 12 hours in my case, right through breakfast).
Monday and Tuesday were spent doing “in-processing” which was mainly filling out yet more paperwork and getting briefs from various people. In between, I wandered around Union III, did laundry, ate and slept more. I wound up running into two people I’d worked with before (Carlee from King’s in Victoria and Michael Smith from ADU).
On Wednesday I was still jet-lagged and up in the middle of the night unable to sleep. Mary, one of my roommates who’s about to set up a forensic lab and train the Iraqis in how to use the equipment and run the lab, was also awake and couldn’t sleep. She was upset and wanted to talk because she’d been told prior to coming to Iraq that she wouldn’t have to carry a gun and would be in a secure location. Turns out, however, that each day when she goes to work she will have to leave the security of the US base she’s being assigned to and go to an Iraqi-controlled location and will, therefore, need to carry a gun. The next day she was going to have to go and get fitted (?) for a gun and learn how to shoot it. As we were talking, our third roommate, an Egyptian translator named Kim, came in to the room. When I explained to her that we were having trouble sleeping, she became quite animated and very helpfully began telling us that no-one could ever sleep in this room. Why? Because it is haunted with the ghosts of Chemical Ali’s victims. She said it was also the reason this room smelled bad; none of the other rooms smelled bad – only this one. (This was accurate; over the next little while I had a chance to go in all the other female rooms and they all smelled quite clean and pleasant, unlike Room 102 which always had a bad, sour sort of smell in it which no amount of spraying or cleaning ever changed.) No-one who stayed in this room, she said, could ever sleep more than 2 hours at a time; she, herself had been there for almost a month and she made a point of coming back very late so as to not be in the room very often. Before eventually tucking herself into bed, Kim regaled us with her version of upcoming events on the weekend protests. She “knew things”, she said. “Things had been planned”, she said, things she couldn’t tell us about but she warned us to “never, EVER trust an Iraqi”, no matter how warm and friendly they seemed to be. I tried to get details but she would only repeat several times, “just be careful”. Yep. Sweet dreams!
Wednesday: Slept through breakfast again, had a shower and went over to Bldg 5 where Dick took us up to the 2nd floor to meet more people and do yet more in-processing. Randell from Texas, Colonel Soracco and Valentina all talked to us and gave us various bits of information. Randell is very sweet, kind and earnest; Colonel Soracco is quite a lot of fun and has a mischievous air about him and Valentina felt like she could be from the west coast. After lunch we met Lisa, head of the academic side of the English Language teaching program. She lives on FOB Prosperity and offered to take us over there since a couple of us were interested in shopping (me mainly but another newbie, Jason came too). We went in what’s called variably “The triple canopy” or “The Ice-cream truck”. It’s a very secure vehicle with small bullet-proof windows – we had to wear our vests with plates inside and carry our helmet. It does look a little like an ice-cream truck.
Union III is a narrow grey wedge of land liberally furnished with t-walls and gravel. Prosperity, only about a kilometre away, is very different . In the centre of the base is one of Sadam’s palaces – one the US bombed the heck out of during “Shock and Awe”. Because it was located quite near the old Ba’ath HQ (now in use by US Forces and Nato), he often slept there and there was a chance he’d be there during the bombing. Although it’s been heavily damaged by the bombing, the palace is still very beautiful; I took several photos on my mobile phone but have no idea how to get them off the phone and onto my blog. (Rachel, you have the same phone – any suggestions?) Prosperity is much more open and spacious; there’s a sort of town square with a volleyball net set up in sand, actual grass and trees. Around the square are shops, a PX, some restaurants (both fast food and Arabic) and a Green Bean (like Starbuck’s). Jason and I sat at a picnic table and had a coffee from the Green Bean and then joined Lisa in having dinner at Prosperity’s DFac. Steak and crab night!
After dinner Jason and I took the ice-cream truck back to Union III, making it just in time for the 8:00 Town Meeting where the first item on the agenda was the extra security measures in place for “The Day of Rage” protests planned on Friday. The base was to be in total lockdown for 3 days – Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Thursday, Feb 24th
I can’t seem to get to sleep in the early evening and am watching Dexter episodes until midnight or past. In the morning, I’m still feeling exhausted, even after 8 hours sleep. I guess the past couple of weeks, jet lag and the exhaustion of the arduous 3 day journey over here take a while to recover from. Everyone else seems to be in the same boat so it seems to be part of the process.
Outside, there are at least a couple of dozen very impressive looking m-raps (mine resistant ambush protected vehicle) with engines running all the time, soldiers geared up (a few in full riot gear) and sitting or laying atop their vehicles, at the ready. There are more guards than usual and they are even more attentive than usual. There are a few sniffer dogs and pairs of helicopters continually circle the area. Because of the lockdown, we all have to check in twice a day at 7am and 7pm for accountability but in the meantime we all just walk around, doing our laundry, going to the MWR, having meals and carrying on as usual.
I was very aware that outside the gates and walls, outside the IZ, are ordinary Iraqis planning their protest, desperate to have a better life for themselves and their families and just tired of waiting for such basics as jobs, more electricity than 4 hours a day and other aspects of poor living conditions. Their Prime Minister is telling them to stay home, the Iraqi police are preparing for control, especially around Tahrir Square and the borders of the IZ. Inside FOB Union III (aka “Washington”), we drink lattes, check our email and socialize.
(to be continued)