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Ham Radio, Anyone?

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November 2001. Somewhere on the road between Bagram and Kabul.

Bombed bridge and a tank stuck in the river on the road from Bagram to KabulI am not a happy camper. And that is an understatement. Before we left, I emphasized them to keep a watch for us on our monitor frequency. And now, I call them, and … nothing, nada, ziltch. The sun is already set behind the mountain tops. Even though the sky still has a hint of a dark-blue afterglow, it is already dark. And when I say dark, I mean pitch dark. There is not a single light. The headlights of the trucks in our convoy beam into a void as they negotiate twists and turns of this bombed road. They light up nothing but emptiness. And bomb craters. And little flags marked ‘Mines’. But for the rest, I can not describe it in any other way but “Void-ness”. Absolute empty-ness. There is nothing in this part of the world. There is nothing that grows. There are no houses. No-one lives here. There is only light brown dirt. Dirt and bits and pieces of mangled war-toys. A rusted tank, half buried in the sand. Or a rotor blade from a helicopter sticking from a pile of rubble. But for the rest, dirt. I can not believe this part of the world has been a battleground for the past twenty years. The last fierce battle was only four days ago. The Northern Alliance meets the Taliban. One-nil. Taliban lost and evacuated Kabul. And we moved in with the relief convoy.

Offloading the C130 earlier that day.I curse, check another frequency they sometimes use, but still nothing. The radio room is not answering. It is Ramadan, and this time of the day, the radio operators in Kabul, twenty kilometers away, are probably gone praying, or are already at the Iftar, breaking their fast. We just flew in a C130 cargo plane full of food, and I went with a convoy to pick it up from Bagram airport, few hours truck-drive from Kabul. We can’t use Kabul airport yet, as a one ton unexploded bomb sticks out of its runway. And we don’t have any deminers in yet. Nobody is allowed to come into Kabul, except twenty expatriate aid workers. I am one of them. And the only one on this road. The only one outside the Kabul safe haven. I must be crazy to do this. At any time, I expect to see the flare of an RPG coming straight at us, as rumours say there are still rogue Taliban roaming in this area. We desperately need to get hold of “someone” in Kabul to inform them this convoy is on the move, and that “someone” needs to monitor us, just in case something would go wrong.

“What to do? What to do? How on earth can I get hold of Kabul.. Hmm let’s see.” I dial another frequency on the HF radio in the car. No UN frequency, but a ham radio call frequency this time. One push on the auto-tune button and in a few seconds, the radio beeps and displays: “14.195.0 – Antenna Tuned”.
I push the button on the microphone and ask “Frequency in use?” Not a beep. I wonder if this radio is receiving or transmitting at all. Maybe that is why the radio room did not copy me. Even though all worked well before we left.
- “Frequency in use?”. Nothing again. Hmm.. Ok, well… let’s try.
- “CQ 20, CQ 20, YA5T/m YA5T/m YA5T/m , CQ 20 and by.”, I launch my call. “YA5T is my callsign in Afghanistan. With the prefix “YA”, the hams will know what country I am transmitting from.
And the world explodes on this tiny radio. Dozens of hams answer my call. From Europe, North America, Asia. Shivers run down my spine. I can not believe this. Here I am sitting in a car, driving on what once was a road, with probably dozens of Taliban waiting to take a shot at me, in the middle of bloody nowhere. And still, with this small piece of hardware, I have the world talking to me… You have no idea how this feels. YOU HAVE NO IDEA…!

It takes me one minute to get ‘ON4WW’-Mark, my friend in crime on frequency. He is at home in Belgium, I am in a car in Afghanistan, but his radio signal booms in. I pass him the satellite phone number of the control centre in Kabul –just in case something would happen- and he remains on standby for the next two hours until we safely reach Kabul.

Even though in the middle of nowhere, we were not alone. I had hundreds listening in. From all over the world. Weird stuff, hey, ham radio? How do you explain that to outsiders? How do you explain not only what ham radio is, but also what it meant to you, in your life? How it changed the course of my life in many ways? Last year, I started to write down some of these stories in my eBook.

Ham radio. A sharp bend on the road of my life.

ON6TT at AH1A - Howland Island 1993 expeditionAs I wrote down these stories, I started to realize – it does sound rather melodramatic, but it is true to state – that “ham radio has changed my life”. If no ham radio, I would not have done the Clipperton expedition in 1992, I would not have experienced the adrenaline kick that operating from a remote Pacific island gave me. I would not have done the expedition to Howland the year after. Then I would not have met Paul, F6EXV. Paul as co-operator then, and as one of my ham contest partners at John-ON4UN’s home. He would not have received the telephone call –during that contest- offering him a job at the UN in Congo. He would not have explained me what that work was all about, which raised my interest.

Less than year and one expedition (Peter I island in the Antarctic) later, I flew to Angola, for the Red Cross, on my first humanitarian mission. My job had nothing related to my education – I am a graphical engineer – nor with my professional experience – I was an IT manager in my last ‘normal’ job-, but I was to install radios. I did work which was solely based on my experience as ham operator. In the end, there is no difference between going on an expedition, fiddling around with generators, debugging antennas and raising masts, if it was on Peter I island, or in the middle of Africa. Well, true, they did not shoot at us on Peter I… But for the rest, there was no difference.
Angola, where I operated as ham with the calls D2TT and D3T later on, was my first mission in the humanitarian world, to be followed by hundreds of missions, to over a hundred countries. Never kept count how many. I did keep track how many countries I operated from. 85 so far…

ON6TT as 5X1T in Uganda 1996-1999Over the past 14 years, there were many exciting and memorable moments. Many are explained in stories on my website, and often have a mix of an exotic location, work and ham radio. Being the first to transmit ham TV signals from Zaire (now DRC), during the midst of the Kisangani refugee crisis. And a few months later to be the first on ham TV from the Vatican City. Or the 60,000 radio contacts I logged from our home in Kampala as “5X1T”, in between power cuts, baby sitting, bombings and evacuations. All the friends I made when on mission, and hooking up with people I have spoken with hundreds of times, but never met. I met them while on mission, and they welcomed me in their homes. Be it in El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa, Tajikistan or dozens more)… And even more so, they often gave me a head start for my work, providing me with much needed connections to the local PTT officials or trustworthy local telecom repair shops where I could find that long-sought-for cavity filter…

There is not one single memory that stands out. They are all different in their own way. But if there was one time where I felt *really* lucky I was a ham radio operator, it was that one night, in the midst of nowhere, in Afghanistan, just a few weeks after 9/11 !

Peter, ON6TT

This is an edit from an article I wrote for the 2007 yearbook of the Northern Californian DX Foundation (NCDXF). Check out more ham radio related stories in my eBook.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

November 1st, 2007 at 1:06 pm

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Lost Connection

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Dubai airport at night

 
Dubai International Airport – October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,… Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

Postscript.
I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy theme.cc (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), umami.co.nz (Duty free zone)

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:08 am

Palestinians: Refugees for Life.

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Warning: this piece is highly opinionated. It is nevertheless my honest opinion. My impression of the reality, my interpretation of the facts, and my reflection on the state of affairs. Mine only.

Today:

Today’s headlines: “Mortar strike wounds Israeli troups”, “Lebanon camp offensive continues!”, “Seven US soldiers killed in Iraq”… The Middle East… How did we ever let it come this far?

In a previous post, I stated that today, 5.7 million people in the world were long term refugees. That excluded the Palestinians. 4.3 million Palestinians have been “Refugees for Life” since 1948. 4.3 million… That is about the whole population of Norway. Or half of New York city.

Since 1948, time and again, the “Palestinian Issue” became front page news. An excellent historic overview, you find in this summary. But have a look also at the UNRWA overview of the issue, which includes a lot of pictorial data.

According to me, the “Palestinian Issue” has been at the basis of most conflicts in the Middle East, as well as at the root of the artificial split the US foreign policy has made in the world since 9/11: on one hand they put the Muslim world, and the other hand, the non-Muslims. “With us or against us..”.

Turn back time: August 2001. One month before 9/11

Why am I saying that? In one of my short stories “M- Requiem for Baghdad”, I wrote: In August 2001, I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.
That feeling was mostly based on something that happened a year before that:

Turn back time again: September 2000.

The US was in full presidential elections battle, and after years of a US (and an international) push for peace in the Middle East, there was less attention on “the Palestinian Issue”. “At last”, Sharon, the then leader of the hard-line opposition party Likud, must have thought, and he took the opportunity of the distractions to provoke the Muslim community, inspired by his political ambitions: In September 2000, he visited the Temple Mount, a site in Jerusalem sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. This visit was internationally seen as a direct provocation amidst a very volatile situation.

That particular day of his visit, was to me the start of re-newed trouble in the Middle East. Fighting started during his visit, resulting in several days of back and fro firing fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen. Amidst the fighting, there was one occasion where a young Palestinian boy, called Muhammad al-Durrah, and his father got caught in a cross fire..

Video footage, shot by France 2, showed the father and son hiding behind a barrel, until in the end both were shot. Muhammad died, and his father was seriously injured. There is a lot of controversy if this was all a clever media setup. Still, the picture of a father trying to protect his son, in the midst of a violent shoot-out, stuck in my mind forever. A father, who could have been any father, trying what any parent does: protect his child. And the overwhelming violence resulted in what must be the greatest sorrow of any parent: not being able to provide safety for your child. Muhammad died in the hands of his father, he himself half shot to pieces. In a conflict they had no part in.

That picture, those thoughts, did not only stick into my mind. The picture of Muhammad Al-Durrah and his father squatting for cover, was painted on walls all over the Middle East. They became a symbol of oppression. Senseless violence.
So, Arafat called for an intifada, a civil upraising, and the umpth Middle East civil war started.

Al Qaeda jumped onto the media frenzy, claiming to act on behalf of the oppressed Palestinians, and off we went. 9/11 here we come! After that, Bush took the opportunity to bash El Qaeda in Afghanistan, and while at it, went for the oil in Iraq.

We can all guess what would have happened (or preferably NOT happened) to the world, if Sharon did not visit Table Mount in September 2000. But to me, that one single act, and the attitude behind it, is one of the reasons why we still have 4.3 million Palestinians without a home. With millions of children without a future. Lost generations. Lost opportunities. And why? Because of political ambitions. International ill-meddling.

A sad state of affairs.

Suggested reading: Hanan Ashrawi’s Miftah site: a Palestinian initiative for the promotion of global dialogue and democracy.

Pictures courtesy UNRWA, Wikipedia

Written by Peter

June 4th, 2007 at 11:10 am

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Islamabad: The US Special Forces Have Arrived!

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Islamabad, Pakistan. Sept 14 2001

Yawn!
Another interagency coordination meeting. Since 9/11 three days ago, we had one every morning. And it goes on and on and on and on… Stuff which is important, no doubt, but not really interesting for me. I don’t have a real say in those meetings, as my unit merely plays a logistics support role. So I sit in the back, in a corner, trying to blend in with the furniture.

I knew exactly how this was going to evolve. Two planes crash into the NY World Trade Center, and all hell was to break loose in Central Asia. The morning after 9/11, it seemed however that few people sitting in this room now, realized how it was going to influence their work, their lives for the coming years… They all had a typical denial reaction. Until it started to hit them in the face. Now, three days later.

And there was no denying the facts anymore today! Pakistan and Afghanistan are now continuously in the news, with the world’s big news networks flying in with plane loads of equipment.

Islamabad Marriott HotelJust as 9/11 happened, we were giving a training for our Afghan staff here in Islamabad. Last night, we took some out for dinner. We picked them up from their hotel, and took them as a treat to one of the fanciest restaurant in town, in the Marriott hotel. As we drove up through the entrance of the Marriott parking lot, there was actually a traffic jam of the small local taxis, each with a huge satellite dish strapped onto their roof rack. Stickers on them for the big news networks. CNN, BBC, Sky, AFP, Fox, Al Jazeera, ITN, ITV, RAI… The hotel’s roof was engulfed in bright floodlights as the anchor speakers were ‘Reporting Live From Islamabad’, with the city lights in the background..

No more denial that our lives were going to take a sharp turn for the worse.. We were going to be in the midst of all the action… And the reactions of the people in the meeting was taking a twist today: from denial to a slight state of panic. The tone of the meeting is definitively much more nervous than the previous days.

Yawn…
My thoughts are running off. I am thinking of the Afghan staff at dinner last night. They were worried about their families left back home in Mazar, Kabul, Faizabad, Jalalabad… Would the Taliban go nuts, and start murdering and plundering? Or empose an ever stricter regime? They wondered how each of them was going to get back home, as we evacuated all international staff from Afghanistan the day after 9/11. We also suspended the UN flights from Islamabad into Afghanistan…

Somewhere, a change of tone in the conversation draws my attention. A lady from one of the agencies starts talking in a low voice. I concentrate again.
She is leaning forward and whispers slowly:

- ‘Yes, I know we will have problems. The US special forces, the spooks, have already arrived. I saw them last night’.
Hey, that was news to me.
- ‘Yes, I am sure. I saw them. Last night I was in the Crown Plaza hotel around the corner’, she continues.
I start thinking.. The hotel she spoke about was where we picked up our Afghan guests last night.
- ‘Four of them arrived, driving a small white, unmarked 4×4.’
Hey, that is funny, we were driving the old office car last night. The organisation’s emblem sticker had peeled of, so there were no more markings on it.
- ‘There was one normal looking guy with three big –I mean huge- guys behind him. One was an Afro-American. They were all dressed the same. Kaki trousers, safari jackets, handhelds on their belts.
Hmmm.. Robert, Martin and Terah were with me. Terah is Ugandan. They are all pretty big guys, now that I think of it. We were all wearing our safari jackets, and yeah, we wore our mission clothes.
- ‘They did not say anything. They just walked into the hotel lobby, picked up some local guys, and drove off again. US special forces. Spooks, no doubt.’
Hmmm…We picked up our Afghan staff last night…

I stand up, cough, raise my hand. The lady stops talking and looks at me as if she sees a ghost. She starts pointing her trembling finger at me. She does not say anything.. Just points at me and after a few seconds, starts blushing.

Everyone turns their heads. They look at me, and then at her. I don’t know what to say. I smile. There I stand with my safari jacket, kaki pants, and with my handheld radio on my belt… Everyone starts laughing.

Since then, rumour had it the ‘Belgian Special Forces’ had arrived. :-)

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2007 at 6:44 am

“M.” – Requiem For Baghdad

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“The horror… The horror…”
(Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’)

Dubai, December 2004
All of us, all our Dubai staff, are standing around in silence in the reception of our office. We put up the plaque our HQ gave us. “WFP FITTEST team – Dubai. Award for Merit 2004. For their outstanding global achievement and particularly for the critical support of the UN humanitarian effort in Iraq”. Each of us are in thoughts. It seems weird how in a split second zillions of thoughts and images can flash through your mind.

Robert was a bit angry at me this week. He rightfully said: ‘This plaque is something to be proud of, how come we still have not put it up? We received the plaque several months ago.’. I did not really have an answer for him. Sure, at first there was a spelling mistake, so they had to re-do it, then we had a problem finding a suitable spot, and then, and then… In the end, it were all excuses, I thought to myself. Excuses as it brought back a lot of painful memories for me… I did not want to remember that period. Did not want to remember the pain. Suppress it. Done. Buried. But that is not the right way. Robert was right, the team had done well. The team he had coordinated did well in the Iraq emergency operation, and they had to be remembered for their excellent work. Together we also had to remember how we all stuck together, as one team, despite all the pressure and challenges. Somewhere also we had to remember the pain of that period…

As we are standing in front of the plaque, I think of M. Her face comes before my eyes. I hear her laugh. Would she have felt pain? Fear? Regrets? Or would it all have gone in a flash? Like a switch. Switching off life. Done. Over. And then?

Belgium, August 2001
If you have lived through a number of humanitarian emergencies, worked long enough in relief operations, you start to develop a sixth sense. It was this sixth sense that helped us deciding to move our intervention team from Kosovo to Islamabad a few years ago. We sensed that at a certain moment the US would retaliate against the Taliban. Basing our team in the middle of Central Asia would allow us to prepare the region for a possible humanitarian emergency if the US would take military action in Afghanistan.

I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.

Islamabad, September 11, 2001
We were working in our office in Islamabad when Jalal, one of our staff, said ‘Hey, a plane just flew into the New York World Trade Center.’ And a few minutes later, the news came a second plane crashed into the Towers. We stopped all work. I knew it could not have been an accident. This was an act of terrorism. In a flash, I saw what would happen. The world was going to fundamentally change. I saw the US attacking Afghanistan. I saw the polarization of the world into Muslim and non-Muslim. I saw the invasion of Iraq.. I just knew we were going for a very rough period, with a lot of human suffering. I felt sad, very sad. When I came back to the guest house I was staying, very late at night, that night of 9/11, I just could not stop looking at the video replays on TV, displaying what happened in New York. It was so violent. So many people lost in one go. But above all, I felt “it is all coming our way. Within here and a few weeks, the world’s attention is going to be focused on our region.”

It did not take weeks. It took days. We saw them arriving at the hotels in Islamabad. All the international camera crews, with their equipment loaded onto rental cars. Setting up shop on the roofs of the hotels. All the well-known anchor people from the main broadcast stations started to report from Islamabad. The media often is one step ahead of the military. Only one step.

Kabul, January 2002.
Several months later, the Taliban was beaten, Bin Laden was on the run, and Afghanistan was ‘liberated’. I just ‘knew’ Iraq was going to be next. No matter what the world’s opinion was going to be, I felt the US was going to attack Iraq also.

Baghdad, November 2002
Richard and I spent a nice evening in one of the open air restaurants in Baghdad. Even though it was close to midnight and pretty cold outside, there were plenty of people still walking around. I loved the people there, the feeling the whole setting gave me. They were friendly, helpful, many of them very well educated. Never a harsh word. As we were walking the streets that night, people smiled at us, often to say ‘Hey habibi, how are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?’. When we would start talking to them, the subject of children and family would always come up. No matter where people come from, the love for their close ones always seems to be the main thing on their mind. We felt safe, almost at home, without the slightest sense of fear or insecurity. We were amongst good people.
The first UN weapon inspectors had arrived earlier that day. We saw them dragging up boxes with their equipment into Canal Hotel, the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.. Somewhere I knew that it was all going to be in vain. The US had already made up its mind: ‘Saddam had to go’. Even if the weapon inspectors would not find any weapons of mass destruction, any excuse was going to be good enough… After all, Iraq had oil. I could just see all the human misery a US invasion in Iraq would cause. And the anarchy, the violence that would follow. I imagined those peaceful streets of Baghdad in flames, shooting, bombing. I could see all the friendly, loving people, with eyes, filled with hatred.

Dubai, March 20 2003
As I closed the door of my apartment, on my way to work, I stopped for a moment. Something was not right. Something was different that morning. I could hear the television sets from my neighbours. Different languages, agitated voices of the reporters. It was an awkward sound. My heart started to beat real fast. I went back into my apartment, switched on the TV, and sat down. Images of helicopters, tanks, military convoys, crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq. I picked up the phone and called Gianluca, in our HQ in Rome. It was still very early in Europe, he was still asleep. ‘Gianluca, switch on your TV. It has began. The invasion has began’.
June 2003
I met M. in Cyprus several times. She was working for another UN agency. By coincidence, we had the same travel itinerary, and spent several days on the road together: flying from Cyprus to Jordan, then driving into Erbil in North Iraq and a few days later flying to Baghdad. We talked a lot. Work, people we met in the past, our hobbies, adventure traveling, what appealed to us in this world, in people. The last time I saw her was one evening in Canal Hotel, Baghdad. For security reasons, the movement of our staff in town was restricted, and we all lived on the large office compound. A couple of guys had put together a barbeque in the parking lot which by then was filled with sleeping and storage tents. As I was walking back to my room, M. was walking towards the barbeque area. She had a strange look in her eyes. She hesitated for a moment as we were passing eachother. I remember I stood still for a moment, wondering what this look was about. I told her I was leaving for Dubai the next day.. I can not remember if she said anything, as we gave three kisses on the cheek. Maybe we did say something. Some pleasantries like ‘see you whenever I see you again!’.

A few weeks later, I received a message from her. Some stuff about work. She had decided the Iraq mission was going to be her last. In September she would quit and do something different. Enough of this type of work. It has been a good road, but this road had come to an end. The last sentence in the Email did not make much sense to me. It was about us meeting again. That it would mean a lot to her, that she would like to talk to me.

When I talked to Larisa, one of our staff in Baghdad, on the phone, she said: “you left quite an impression on some people in Baghdad.” I did not really understand what she meant. “Well, last night, I was having a drink with M., and again, it looks like you left quite an impression on her”…
Sometimes a lot of things happen, and it is difficult to pinpoint what they really mean, to make real sense out of a string of signs. But then something small happens, which causes all the rest to make sense. Now I understood the look in M.’s eyes the last evening in Baghdad. That last sentence in her Email. I sent her an Email that I was coming over to Baghdad before she left, so we would sit together and talk.

Belgium, August 18 2003
I had a long chat with Robert, our project coordinator in Baghdad. He ran the team installing the technical infrastructure for most of the UN relief agencies. Most of the conversation was about his main worry: security. He felt something was to happen, the ‘tension in the air’ was just too much. He felt some of our staff or some of our offices were going to be attacked. ‘Something bad is about to happen’, he said. I shared his feeling. I did not sleep much that night. I had a lot of my staff in Iraq and I felt very responsible for them.
Belgium, August 19 2003

This was one of the saddest days in my life. Mats called me ‘Our headquarters in Baghdad was bombed a few minutes ago. A truck full of explosives flattened most of the building’. Mats and I talked with Robert in a conference call later that day. It was bad. Robert said most of our staff was accounted for, but several of them were badly injured from falling debris, shrapnel or glass flying around. Ghis had a window frame hit his head. Michael’s face was badly cut by glass. Diya was evacuated with severe cuts in his arm and hands. Dozens of people had died. The pictures on television looked horrific. I was shocked. And felt endlessly guilty. Guilty as I had recruited these people. I had sent them in harm’s way. Guilty as no matter how good the security precautions we had taken, no matter how many times we had stressed to them all to be careful, still they, the people from my team, got hurt. It cut deep inside me. I felt guilty as I was not there to help. I should have been there with them.

Belgium, August 20 2003
As more details came in of the bombing, a provisional list was circulated, a list with names of those not accounted for, and those which were confirmed dead. I could not believe my eyes when I saw M.’s name on the list. M. was dead.
Dubai, December 2005
These thoughts and images fly, no, they scream, through my head as we are standing in front of our plaque.. It all takes a few seconds for it to come through. All of the hurt. The immense sadness and senselessness. The guilt of not having done enough. The guilt of not having said things that should have been said. So often we forget that when we say ‘goodbye’, it might really mean ‘goodbye’. A final ‘goodbye’. We might never see that person again in this life. I see M.’s face in front of me as we talked for a brief moment in time, passing eachother in Canal Hotel that evening of the barbeque. I should have taken the time to sit and talk with her. I should have known this might have been the last time ever, we had the chance to talk. But I did not. I was tired, wanted to go to sleep, had an early start the next day. But I should have. Should have. The guilt. And the horror…

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Written by Peter

January 20th, 2007 at 10:31 am

Posted in Stories

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