Baghdad diary PDF Print E-mail
The shaping of policy at UNODC (2002-2010)

Posted: 31 March 2008

On 17 March I took part in a Conference in Baghdad on good governance and anti-corruption, the first UN conference since the war. Over the three days I kept a diary which I want to share with you. The full text of my speech at the Conference is available here.

DAY 1 - Kuwait City

Spent Saturday at security briefings, learning what to do in case of IED (improvised explosive devices), ambush, kidnapping, sniping, rocket attacks. Real life situations, simulated. Plenty of gory videos as well. Most interesting. Remarkable the Marine who gets out of his bullet-proof car, looks around carefully, then suddenly drops dead - but only for a fraction of a second. He then gets up and screams "fire at 03 hrs", then runs to the other side of his Humvee. He was hit in the chest, but the flak jacket saved his life. Impressive.

I am sure there is a reason for spending hours looking at these reports on gruesome real-life details, though that reason escapes me. I'm constantly followed by security officers, even in the most private places. I have zero degrees of freedom, and no control at all of my life: should something happen, I don't think I'll be able to decide anything on my own.

Sunday AM I wake up at 03:30h. One hour to military base, the size of Manhattan. Over 10 checks, hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire and cement blocks, thousands of tents and improvised structures, all over are Humvees, troop carriers, planes, equipment and soldiers. Latrines I would not be proud of (p.s. according to Dostoevsky a society's development should be judged by the state of its prisons. I used to agree. Now I am offering a better criteria: the state of its toilets). Spent time working on laptop, in a greasy hamburger-place within the base, where 1 liter coffees are served.

Waited already 2 hours for nothing: just checks & counterchecks. I do not understand the logic of hurry up and wait. Soldiers sleep, read, play cards, watch TV. Everybody is patient. Military mostly in their 20s, plenty of women, of all ages. With raising temperature, waiting is another way to lose weight. Neighbors show, and emanate, the pains and ions of heat and its airborne effects.

Sand storm makes context surreal, though far above the sky seems blue. Standing by is an impressive, dark color C17. We are all waiting for crew and for change of interior configuration as they are taking software on board (us), and not military hardware.

Luggage was taken care of, but we have to carry helmet & bullet-proof vest: about 5 kg (in Kandahar last September was 12 kg, as porcelain was thicker to shield from RPG, rocket propelled grenades). Technology must have improved. I'm shadowed by 4 close protection security: all from Fiji islands, "the best peacekeepers in the UN", somebody whispers.

I am warned C17 flight will be 1 1/2 hrs on benches; no toilet; earplugs a must. Because of unfriendly fire, helmet and flak jackets have to be worn at all times on board. Interior most simple. Plane slow & heavy, w/ flare pipes to dupe heat-seeking missiles. When it happens, all hell breaks loose.

I'm informed that upon arrival in Baghdad, a Blackhawk chopper will take me to the Green Zone. Must wear protection at all times, so movements are very constrained.

DAY 2 - to Baghdad

On board of the C17: a magnificent troop transport jet, half cargo, half soldiers and strange fellows like me. I'm treated very well: right after takeoff the pilot asks me to join him in the cockpit and I fly in there with the airmen. Earphones and microphone are always active: the crew speak a different language up there. Interesting. Incomprehensible. Flight smooth, well above the clouds and the fray.

Pilot and co-pilot (combined age about 50, both from South Carolina: nice and professional), tell me they like to hop between Baghdad, Basra, Kabul and Kandahar - namely between two of the worst places on earth, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people are born with adrenaline instead of blood in their veins.

Landing in Baghdad smooth. But Blackhawk flight to the UN residence not possible because of sand storm. So, a bunch of brave Marines comes  to the rescue with their Rhinos (civilian name for armour-plated Humvees, used for UN staff and other similar transports). 

Quite an experience: again we have to put on helmet (blue) and bullet proof vest. I crawl into the rear-right seat (there are 4 seats: front two for 2 soldiers, next to me my personal UN bodyguard.) Seat? No: it has the shape and size of a laundry bucket. My knees are against my chest, itself swollen because of the reinforced plates of the flak jacket. Actually we are 5 people, since at the center, standing, is a gunner whose upper body is exposed above the car roof: turret can swing and turn, as does the poor fellow who keeps stepping on me, to stand straight, heavy guns at the ready. Ride at 10 km/hr for about 30 minutes until we get into the Green Zone.

Baghdad is not visible from the road: contained behind high and thick concrete walls. The whole city, each block, square, road, park have vanished behind anti-explosion containment banks. Enough civilian traffic, enormous number of checkpoints, heavy military presence. Along the road, every 100 meters or so, are soldiers, standing with their backs to the road, obviously aiming at intruders from the sides.

Humwees are a crossbreed between a minuscule medieval mini-fortress (on wheels) and a space craft (judging by the electronics inside), with thick (2-3 cm) steel walls covered with rubber foam, enough emergency and communication gear (screens and keyboards) to allow HQ to establish location of the beast. Communication between the vehicle (in the center of a convoy of 6 vehicles) is constant, as drivers look for the best way ahead and exchange advice. Traffic jams must be avoided, as we would be sitting ducks. A huge and long axel is fixed on the front of the vehicle, to sniff and trigger IEDs hidden under the pavement. 

My bodyguard takes photos from inside the Humwee, including of passengers in their pre-historic gear and rhino-like plated garments. Entry in the Green Zone (a smiling driver makes the announcement) is greeted with satisfaction. These boys are doing this several times a day, day in, day out: no wonder they talk about war syndrome of sort. I got the syndrome myself, in this single trip: unknowing that I would have to repeat this trip, in exactly the same conditions again and again, to other destinations (residence of Cabinet members, the UN house, Hotel and Conference site etc) in the days to come.

Arrival at UN House is in great style: an honor guard is waiting with flags, trumpets, weapons, salute etc. I must look like an alien because of the fatigue and the way I am dressed. I certainly feel that way.

DAY 3 - anti-corruption Conference

The UN Special Representative of the SG (Staffan De Mistura) is a most affable host: we join for breakfast and learn the impact the UN is having on everyday life of Iraqis, but especially on the important initiatives under discussion (the decline in violence, revenue sharing among minorities, DDR, integrity, water and energy supply, etc). UNAMI is a very active presence in Iraq these days. The evening before the Conference we meet with the minister coordinator of all governance issues in Iraq. Smooth, capable and outspoken, he tells us of the efforts by the government to promote integrity in management. He listens and agrees on the several proposals we put forward.

Then we have to move. A convoy of US Marines is waiting: they will escort me to the Conference facility, an hotel right outside the Green Zone (renamed: International Zone). They are smiling and cheerful: the same crew that brought us to the UN House the day before. "We promised to keep you out of trouble. We deliver", says the sergeant with a smile. Again the bullet proof vest and the blue helmet: again the kind assistance of Fijian paratroopers, quite attentive that I am comfortable (which I'm not) and well attended (which I am). I look worried, but it may be my outer shell that I do not control as well as my sentiments: but that is what people see and respond to.

The anti-corruption conference is smooth: lots of speeches, commitments, declarations. My statement proposes an enormous work program for all those interested in helping Iraq rejoin the community of nations, with an honest, accountable and efficient government. Talking about corruption, I make reference to the oil-for-food saga, and apologize for the UN's inability to run an efficient program. We need to look ahead, I say, and the Iraqis all agree: hopefully money will be available, from within the country, to pay for all these activities. Oil earnings are pouring in, oil prices are high, the problem being one of agreement among the three main minorities about spending the money, not one of earning it.

The meeting with another very senior cabinet member is interesting: he has experience dealing with foreign dignitaries. He breaks the news to me that Iraq has just ratified the UN Convention against Corruption: one of the main reasons for my coming here. Nobody else seemed aware.

Next morning, on day 4, I am supposed to leave mid-morning. Actually late in the evening I discover that the Blackhawk will take us to the Baghdad airport before dawn, at 06:00h for a 12:00h flight to Kuwait. I feel like saying that this does not make sense, but I shut up. Security first. Everything else afterwards: after all it was a very safe trip to a very unsafe place. No complaints, therefore, for sure. And so I comply: a good time to write this story to share with you all.

Mission accomplished? Yes, to the extent that I finally learned what the UNODC can do to help a country that is crying out for peace, security and good governance. No, to the extent that the work to be done remains enormous. This is just the beginning.


Last Updated on Thursday, 20 January 2011 11:08