The red zone
Every foreigner is in hiding, in disguise, as
presence in Iraq
June 3, 2004
Another tiring checkpoint and traffic jam on the road
between Najaf and Baghdad loom up ahead. I wait in the car, getting
increasingly bored as the minutes tick away. No radio stations
come in out here and I forgot to bring a book. Shamil, my translator,
and I decide to get out of the car and walk to the front of the
checkpoint, to see
what's going on.
I've disguised myself as an Iraqi, grown a little
beard and put on cheap sandals bought at the bazaar. The better to blend in
with the locals and avoid the possibility of getting kidnapped
or shot up on this
rather dangerous stretch of road where journalists and contractors keep getting
A lot of commotion has erupted at the front of checkpoint. Some
of the Iraqi drivers, most of them taxis who make their living
between the Shia shrine cities and the capital, are trying to cut to the front
of the cue, and the American soldiers are ordering them to get back line. The
soldiers are yelling and screaming. The Iraqis are honking their horns.
one of the soldiers holds up his M-16 and lunges toward the front windshield
a taxi full of
passengers; from my vantage point it looks like he's about to open fire,
and I feel my heart drop through
to my stomach. "No!" I yell.
The American soldier looks over at
startled by my expression of unrestrained horror. "It's okay," he
calls out to me. "It's okay. We're just trying to teach these
people some manners." A farmboy from Arkansas using his machine gun
to teach Iraqis manners, I think to myself as I walk back to the car.
is unmasked. The checkpoint is one of many meant to stanch the unstoppable
flow of light weaponry, rocket launchers and various materials used to
bombs and "vehicle-born incediary devices," the military's
term for a car bomb.
I'm not afraid of car bombs, at least when I sleep. My residence in Baghdad
is a hotel inside a very well-guarded perimeter out in what the military
calls the "red zone," which is basically the whole city. Other
than the occupation authority's "green zone."
But like the
green zone, our little patch of Baghdad is surrounded by checkpoints
and cars. The Australian embassy residence is nearby, and make no
mistake, if someone could have, they would have long ago planted
a car bomb here.
Indeed, one went off just outside the perimeter the other morning,
in front of a hotel
not lucky enough to be surrounded by burly, armed guards with Kalashnikovs.
explosion killed a kid who sold cigarettes on the streets and shattered
windows of most nearby buildings, including my bedroom window.
It was about eight
in the morning. I threw on some clothes and ran out to the scene.
A plume of black
smoke rose from the car and flames licked the air.
were also at the scene rolling film, snapping pictures and demanding
I swear I could see some of the journalists
smiling. "Oh boy," the thinking goes. "This is great
footage. I'll upload this stuff right away. My editors back in
New York will be
psyched. And I didn't even have to
leave the hotel."
Of course, my microphone was outstretched,
too. In the time of the unmasked occupation, the sights and sounds
of Iraq's woes have become a budding industry.
There's a gritty sense of pessimism throughout Baghdad. I did not
up this feeling at all almost exactly a year ago when I first arrived
in the city after spending the months leading up to and during
the war in cheery
Kurdistan, which favors the occupation because it has no effect
Every foreigner, it seems, is in hiding, in disguise, as
presence here, as if they could obscure the occupation. The American
soldiers or contractors
dress up in street clothes and drive commercial vehicles when they
haul military equipment in from Turkey. I keep an Arab kaffiya
and my Iranian
in my bag at all times.
The biggest fear is that one of the Iraqi
a checkpoint will sell you to
the resistance for a couple thousand bucks. "Fidget with your
scarf as you approach the
checkpoint," I tell a woman Western journalist, "just
like the Iraqi women do."
Even Iraqis working with foreigners
work hard to hide their affiliation. In Karbala, I saw Iraqi soldiers
of the new
army and civil
ski masks on patrol, lest they be identified and later singled
out for retribution.
My translator, who has become a good friend
the year I've been working with him, drives the same rusting shit-box
he drove 25 years ago, though he's admittedly made a killing over
the last year working
for foreign journalists. "Why should I spend money on a car
when I could be robbed or killed for it?" he says.
is a meticulously honest, hard-working and intelligent man, a civil
engineer with two bright
who speak perfect
English. He's now trying his hardest to leave Iraq, emigrate to
England where his brothers and sisters settled years ago. Iraq
will surely miss
people like Shamil.
Back in Baghdad, Radio Sawa -- the U.S.-financed
pop music and
newsbite station -- comes in. "It's all
good girl, turn me on 'till the early morning," sings
Sean Paul. "Let's get it on, let's get it on 'til the early
morning. Girl, it's all good, just turn me on."
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major
newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional
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