It's July 17 and I'm back in Baghdad. After an hour and a half of sweating on a hot plane in Jordan as the airplane staff got proper documentation to fly to Baghdad, another hour in the air, I made it to the city before nightfall yesterday. Thank God! Sleeping in the Baghdad International Airport is not my idea of a good time.
On my way out of Iraq, the airport was filled with Iraqis carrying their posessions and fleeing their homeland. On my way in they were mostly American mercenaries. One redheaded 20-something from California stood in front of me in the passport line.
"It's pretty awesome," he said. "I'd probably be in school right now if I wasn't here. I get to travel a lot now."
Hmm. I guess that's one way to look at the Iraq war, a travel opportunity.
Inside the airport there was no electricity and baggage handlers threw suitcases through the black drapes onto the motionless conveyer belt as people gathered around trying to identify their bags in the dark.
Mine came out last...of course. As we pulled up to our hotel I was excited to see the Iraqi staff. Leaving them always makes me feel like a part of me is missing. Most had gone home for the night.
This morning we reunited over Arabic newspaper headlines and gossip.
"So what's been going on since I left?" I asked. Everyone was pretty quiet.
Not much has changed. Legislators still arguing about what to do with the controversial speaker of the parliament whose guards beat up a lawmaker. He's refused to resign. Politicians are still promising that they are making progress on political benchmarks, more people are dieing. At least 76 people were killed the day before in car bombs in Kirkuk.
One person was missing. One of our senior drivers, an elegant man and former pilot, hasn't been to work in weeks. His neighborhood has deteriorated as Sunni insurgents and the Shiite Mahdi Army, radical cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia, fight for control of the area. He hasn't stepped foot outside his home, afraid that he will be killed. Instead his 22-year-old son is sleeping at the hotel and working in his place. His chubby young face is just like his father's. But he doesn't have the dark humor of his dad.
Hussein isn't here either. Our Iraqi reporter is in Basra visiting his father. The man was detained in May by the U.S. military. We weren't told why. I had been working to get him released and one U.S. military official promised me his papers were being processed for release. On my break in Beirut, I got an e-mail from the bureau. He had been transferred to Camp Bucca in Basra. No release in sight, no answers about why he is in detention.
I was out of passport pages so I needed to make a trip to the U.S. Embassy. I called the consulate but I was told I'd need an escort to get in, they didn't provide them. For an hour I called around searching for someone with the right badge to get me into the embassy so I could get basic American services. Finally the military came to my rescue. Nothing can be simple in Baghdad.
I called Shatha, a former Iraqi staffer, who had fled the country and after running out of money and options returned. "The Iraqi passport is a curse," she told me.
Now she is living with her in-laws, unable to return to her own home in a neighborhood overrun by Sunni gunmen. She was frantically trying to find a place for her father to live. He was being forced to return home as well. But there was no home for him to return to. The rest of the family is split a part in various foreign countries.
She was dusting a storage room in her brother-in-law's home where he would sleep for now.
Tonight I did expenses and now I'm in the office typing my blog as Mohammed chats with friends. I transcribed some of my interview with Ambassador Ryan Crocker tonight. He told me about the fear he remembers under Saddam's time. It was pervasive, he said, people afraid of their neighbors. We have three staffers living in the hotel now, virtually homeless because of fear of their own neighborhoods.
I'm glad to be home. But some days I wish I could write a story that says today is so much better then yesterday.
Someday I hope I can.