Me. In Baghdad. Again.
Freelancer Daniel Smith just checked into a hotel located outside the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital
When a plane lands in Baghdad International Airport, it can’t land the way that planes usually do. Instead of descending in a straight line toward the runway, it has to circle directly above the airport at a high altitude and gradually make its way down. The chances of being shot down are too great over the areas surrounding the airport.
Much of Iraq is like this: small, heavily fortified areas of very tight security, surrounded by huge expanses of frightening terrain where anything can happen. There used to be certain cities one tried to stay clear of; now there’s a very small list of cities that might be considered stable.
On my first trip to Iraq (note: this is my sixth), I hired a vehicle to take me from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. It seems quaint now that the trip was nerve-racking because bandits might rob us as we drove past Ramadi and Fallujah. Beheadings never even entered my mind, but that was 2003, when lightly armed American soldiers patrolled the streets of Baghdad on foot and British soldiers in Basra didn’t even wear helmets.
Now things are very different. The Amman-to-Baghdad route is unthinkable. So is the Kirkuk-to-Baghdad taxi ride I used to take. It was considered crazy then, but even I know not to try it now, and I would never find someone to take me anyway. A few years ago, my taxi driver had to take out-of-the-way routes to avoid places like Tikrit. Then it was Baqouba, then Samarra and then others, until there was no route left that offered even a chance of making it. Getting to Baghdad has gotten to be impossible by land.
That is why I flew there from the north.
After our circling descent, the Iraqi Airways plane made a sharp turn to approach the runway and touched down. Nervous-looking passengers made their way through the terminal and out the other side. We all knew what lay ahead of us: the infamous “Airport Road.”
American and Iraqi forces have never really been able to secure this one stretch of highway between the airport and downtown Baghdad. Gunfire, IEDs, mortars and everything else imaginable can be found on Airport Road, and it’s often just a matter of chance. Though the flight from Arbil cost me only $60, I’ve heard prices for armed transport into town ranging from $250 to $6,000. I would try the unarmed version.
It took me about 15 minutes to find a driver who would take someone as western-looking as me to a hotel, but a nice fellow named Hassan eventually agreed to do it for $50. He handed me his sunglasses as we passed some outer checkpoints, and we drove very fast. In the beginning, high concrete walls surrounded us, but as we got farther away from the airport, fields with tall palm trees or small neighborhoods zoomed by on either side.
I phoned a “fixer” (an Iraqi who works out transportation, interpreters, etc. for journalists) who was expecting my call. We exchanged greetings and then I handed the mobile phone to Hassan, and they discussed a meeting point near the hotel I was heading to. About 10 minutes later, we pulled over and picked him up. We turned a few corners and stopped at a checkpoint outside the entrance of a few small hotels. For being outside of the Green Zone, they were relatively safe.
Most of the entrances had been blocked, and at the remaining road into the small complex, several armed guards stood among concrete barriers. They checked all my belongings before allowing me to walk down the path. The balcony railings of a nearby hotel that had been bombed spread out over the pile of rubble in front of the building.
I arrived at my chosen hotel, which was almost empty, checked in and went to my room. “Well, I’m here,” I thought. “Now what?”
Each time I’ve gone to Baghdad, it’s been much worse than the time before, but the city had spiraled so far below what it had been before that it had become useless to try to form any reasonable idea of what one’s chances were.
I went downstairs and shared a soda with a security guard who was watching television in the lobby. He told me about being shot in the forehead in traffic by mercenary guards for an American company. His young son had seen this happen, and now, a few years later, the 8-year-old hates Americans in his city and aggressively yells at soldiers as they pass him on the street. He warned me not to hang around in the lobby too late. It had gotten dark, and there was nothing to do anyway, so after a while, I went upstairs.