To get there we had to go in a convoy of armored cars with security guards, wearing full bullet-proof vests and helmets as we travelled.
The pre-boarding briefing went something like this:
“What is your blood type? If we are hit, stay here until I say what to do. If you are hit, tell me. If we are killed or disabled and you can move, hit this button first to unlock the tailgate.”
Traveling on the most dangerous road in the world is surreal.
On the way to the Green Zone
The roadsides for the most part are walled off with T-bars. It’s Friday so the traffic is light. I am in the lead car. We are travelling quite fast but every time we pass a local car, taxi or truck the driver switches on the siren and speeds up.
The co-driver is talking constantly into the secure radio-phone, relaying information to the convoy about what he sees ahead. On the seat ahead of me lies a jammer, designed to knock out cellphone coverage in a 200 meter radius so they can’t be used set off IEDs. Through the last checkpoint out of the airport and its switched on.
We come in behind another convoy, keeping our distance. We don’t know them, they don’t know us. How do they know we aren’t about to attack? Keep the distance.
Through the last control (there are many) and we are in the super-secure Green Zone. Pulling over to the left side of the road we can stop and take off our body armor.
There, just to the left of me, is the large sloping rotunda that Saddam built to celebrate his non-victory over Iran in the 1980-1989 war. I turn around. Before my eyes, the great arching swords under which Saddam’s all vanquished army once marched in celebration of being able to live one more day.
The swords are dulled, the bronzed hands greened by negligence these last four years. One hand blasted into pieces, a man-sized thumb lying by the sword’s pedestal like a remnant of Nero’s colossal statue. Another vainglorious imperator lies broken on the ground, leaving a more timid mortal to record the moment.
One day the hand will be repaired and remounted on the pedestal. Maybe the mounds of Iranian helmets piled up by the swords will be discretely removed, and the road studs made from other helmets cemented into the ground below them levelled.
Can you believe there is already one stall selling tourist souvenirs under the swords’ great arc?
That, unfortunately, was the only natural activity visible. All around, in this large open area that was once the ministerial district and where those connected to the regime lived, are high concrete walls, barbed wire, roadblocks and checkpoints.
But for the rapid-fire whir of tank tracks and angry buzz of a humvee, no sound.
I wonder what will become of this area when the country stabilizes one day?
In my lifetime will the people of this city ever be able to stroll down these boulevards and see their children run ahead, laughing as they buy a cool drink from a street stall?
I am standing in the midst of the still warm wreck of a regime.
So it must have felt to those witnessing the end of Babylon, of Rome, of Tenochtitlan. Yet I know that the people are there, breath stopped in their throats, ready for the moment to cry “live!” and truly live again. I know, for I have met a few already.
Body armor back on, I clamber into the back of the lead car and the convoy moves off, heading back to the camp. We travel faster, covering the 12km stretch of highway in just under five minutes. The siren switches gear as we approach a slow moving van, no longer the normal wap-wap but a high pitched growl. I can’t deny a sense of muscular power in it all.
A few minutes later, we sweep back through the main entrance. Tension shreds like a dawn mist caught by the morning sun. Off with the armor, and a deep breath of air. The thank yous are more truly meant than the words themselves can express.