Monday Mar 7
Monday morning, there was a meeting re travel plans for those of us going to Taji or Speicher; we were told we would leave the next day at 4 on a state rhino (government armoured bus) to the American Embassy and from there take a helicopter. Then, about an hour later at lunch, we received a text message saying “change of movement – meeting tomorrow at 11.” This had become standard; plans were made, altered slightly, changed significantly or cancelled altogether. After a while, we just accepted new travel or assignment information with a mental shrug and carried on with our days. But although we were – as a group who’d all spent at least some time in the Middle East – quite flexible and accustomed to uncertainty and lack of information, we were also beginning to get somewhat impatient to get settled somewhere, to be able to unpack our duffels and actually put things away and have just a modicum of stability. My coping mechanism was to just detach myself from any particular outcome and mentally tread water by reading, writing, eating, and roaming around feeding my curiosity. There was definitely plenty to supply that.
Valentina, the program administrator, aware of how people were feeling, organized a tour of the IZ for us. Perfect! A lot of people had been feeling frustrated and edgy with all the waiting around and this succeeded in focussing all of us on our excursion instead of wondering where we were going to be assigned and, when. Much excitement! However briefly, we were to leave the close confines of the base and its omnipresent t-walls and actually see something of Baghdad! So it was that after lunch on Tuesday, about 20 of us (teachers, USFI officers and translators) met outside the billeting office, piled into 3 (or it might have been 4) vehicles and left in a convoy. At first there wasn’t much to see; even after leaving the base, there is still quite a stretch of road lined with high t-walls you can’t see over. Fairly soon though, in just a few minutes, we were in an area that looked “normal” insofar as there were houses, non-armoured vehicles, a few trees and no t-walls lining the streets.
Our first stop was the victory arches which Sadam had commissioned to celebrate the victory against the Iranians – before the victory had actually been declared. Two sets of giant crossed swords, the hilt of each held by a monstrous metal hand designed from Sadam’s own hand, flank each end of a ceremonial parade ground. In the middle of the parade ground, on the side, there’s a small, covered outdoor theatre where Sadam apparently used to shoot his gun into the air while the soldiers were marching. Got everyone’s adrenalin running pretty good I’d imagine. Directly underneath the crossed swords are numerous helmets in poured concrete, intended to represent the heads of the fallen Iranian soldiers, the idea being, of course, that the Iraqis would be able to walk on the heads of the Iranians.
Although it’s supposedly against the rules to climb the monument, not only did Valentina and a couple of the teachers climb up to the metal hand, a couple of the US officers did as well, with the Iraqi soldiers looking on and smoking in boredom. Not Ba’ath party supporters, one presumes.
Second – and last – stop was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which looks very much like a flying saucer. That, however, was apparently not the intent of the architect. I spoke (through a translator) to the Iraqi soldier who accompanied us and he told me that the architect who conceived the design did so while in a restaurant looking at his spoon and fork. I’m not quite sure I get it – I can see the spoon part I guess – but then I’m not very artistic.
We roamed around the structure, taking photos of it and each other but there isn’t really a whole lot to see. There used to be a museum downstairs, the soldier said, but like so many places in Baghdad, it had been badly looted and there was nothing left to see. One interesting thing is that we could see the top of Building 5 (old Ba’ath party HQ) in Union III from where we were, giving us a different vantage point than our usual one.
The architect is buried nearby his work; the soldier pointed over to an area about 100 metres away. Although the whole area has fallen into a sad state of disrepair, he says it used to be very well tended in Sadam’s time and the family of the architect had been given permission to go and visit the grave sometimes.
From the bottom of The Tomb of the Unknown soldier, the Iraqi soldier pointed at a somewhat decrepit looking building where he said the Prime Minister works (about half a kilometer away). Then, adjusting the angle of his finger slightly, he indicated the expensive new building (akin to a 5 star hotel) where the PM’s guests sometimes stay. Other than the 5 star one, all of the buildings that we could see from our two sight-seeing vantage points looked dirty, run down and in various states of disrepair. And, unsurprisingly, various degrees of bomb damage were apparent in many.
And that was our tour of Baghdad – 2 very recent historical relics from Sadam’s reign within the Green Zone – in one of the oldest cities in the world. Still, that’s what was available and we had fun; it was a therapeutic, shot in the arm, morale-boosting outing and I think I thanked Valentina about 8 times! Afterwards, it felt as though we should all go for coffee or ice-cream cones but that, of course, wasn’t on the itinerary. In a convoy, we went back through the same few ordinary streets we’d passed through until we once again found ourselves completely surrounded by t-walls.