Last Bus to Baghdad
The air in the Iraqi Airways office by the bus station in Amman, hazy with cigarette smoke that swirls around low green couches and early-career portraits of Saddam Hussein, is not as tense as one might expect, merely resigned. An attendant lazily books a ticket to Baghdad for an American customer. "Yes, there are seats," he deadpans. But not the next day, he says. There won't be another flight till Thursday. Men drift in and out of the spacious office with no apparent purpose, ambling past a large display that boasts all the world capitals the Iraqi airline once visited. The customer, Marla Ruzicka, from San Francisco, settles on Tuesday.
With war in Iraq literally a day away, any activity in this office seems ludicrous, but today, nine "tourists" have brought their backpacks, jugs of water, and cartons of cigarettes, in preparation for the 10-hour road trip to Baghdad. There, in theory, they will embark on the "Program of Ancient Monuments," a seven-day excursion to Iraq's glorious historic sites. The itinerary promises trips to the ancient cities of Nimrod, Ur, and Samarra, along with day trips to Babylon, and Mosul in the north.
They are not all tourists, of course; some of them are journalists, a few are so-called human shields, and some are perhaps going just for the reasons that tourists go placesto say that they've been there. All of them are seizing the opportunity to take the only remaining road back to the Iraqi capital before the bombs fall. One of them is not sure which category she is in. "I just don't want to die foolishly, or for no cause," says Antoinette McCormick, an American who served in the military during the last Gulf War.
Another peace tourist, who declined to be named, left his wife and daughter in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, without telling them where he was going. He looks into the distance, either withdrawn or nervous, when asked why he is off to a place that will soon look like hell.
But underneath the nerves and anxious talk, it is clear that these nine people are truly tourists, people who will say they were there in Iraq the day the sky fell. And later this Monday, as George W. Bush all but declared war, there were no illusions that the group faces anything less than the ride of their lives.
The bus pulls up outside the travel agency and the group loads on their bags. At just after 3 p.m., what may be the last tourist bus to visit Saddam Hussein's Iraq finally departs. But there's a problem with the visas, so 15 minutes later, they stop at a hotel for drinks. McCormick has a Bloody Mary, and then another. "I might have to take some Xanax," she says.
The news that war is imminent has taken hold, and McCormick is rethinking her humanitarian mission, especially after a lecture from a German photographer. "Going to any official site as a shield is a really good way to die," he says. "Electricity stations, communications facilitiesgo there if you want to die." He describes how buildings come apart after they've been hit by bombs, how even basement ceilings can collapse. "You have a really good chance of getting killed on this trip," he concludes.
If there is nervousness in the room, none of it penetrates like the fear on the face of the group's bus driver. Khoder Omran and his family, unlike the others, will have nowhere in Baghdad to hide, and for him too the news of the day has been sinking in. He asked, "Do you really think the war is coming?" He hadn't seen any news in Iraq, and didn't hear about Monday's diplomatic failures. "I hope war doesn't come, because it will target the poor. Not Saddam, not the Iraqi army," he says quietly, as his partner, Abbas, who has fallen asleep in the seats just behind him, starts to snore.
"It will just target us."
Brent Balloch, of Balloch and Roe Services, is making maps. "I discovered at nine this morning that no one here had a good map of Iraq," he says, over a freshly squeezed orange juice at Amman's Hyatt hotel, where most of the journalists are staying. Balloch has the flu, which he assures is the normal, Italian kind, as opposed to its deadly airline-prone cousin. Sick, and operating at full speed with almost no sleep, the 28-year-old New Zealander cuts a charming figure in his gray, three-button suit.
"So you know what I did? I contracted the only two people in Jordan who make maps," he continues. "And tomorrow, we're going into the map-making business."
This is only one of the businesses that Balloch and his partner have gone into, in advance of war in Iraq. He is securing mobile offices for news organizations and many of the large non-governmental organizations now located here. He has found lead boxes for journalists, so that the high-powered American microwave bombs don't fry their satellite phones. He has camera equipment, but has sold out of his flak jackets. He knows an electrician, who knows an engineer, who knows a truck driver, and so on.
His phone rings. "Listen, I've got a guy who will pay a thousand U.S. for a trailer," he says to someone. "No, a trailer. Yes, a trailer. A trailer." Then a pause. "It's the thing that you tow behind a car to carry things in."
Balloch has worked in Chechnya, Palestine, Ivory Coast, and now, Iraq, which he hopes will make him a millionaire. "You can say I'm a profiteer," says Balloch, who is trained as a lawyer, and spent some time practicing human rights law. "But I feel the best way I can contribute is with my commercial sense. I get the job done."
And judging from the amounts being spent in Jordan by Western organizations these days, Balloch is in exactly the right place. "If the war starts Thursday," he says, "I'll make a lot more money than if it starts tonight." Timing is everything; but for the real money, Balloch hopes to get in on the reconstruction of Iraq. To this end, he recently made a trip to the southern Iraqi town of Basra, one of the U.S. army's first stops on its way to Baghdad. While there, he says, he met an electrician, who knows a truck guy . . .
The Baghdad bus, which seats about 60, sits idle in the hotel parking lot. Abbas and Khoder watch an old Egyptian movie, starring the comedian Adel Imam, on multiple video screens. The two are interested in America's "sexy" movies. Is it normal, Abbas asks, to play a film on a bus like this one? This opens a discussion on values, Iraqi and American. While both drivers are awake, bravado reigns. "If Saddam dies, we all die with him," Abbas says. "Occupation?" asks Khoder. "There will be no occupation of Iraq. We all have weapons, you see."
But as Abbas starts to snore again, Khoder softens, and he talks about God. "What kind of freedom do I need?" he asks. "To live, to watch my children grow, to eat, to enjoy life. This is what I need," he says. His tourists are wandering back on to the bus, calling loved ones on cell phones, and telling them not to worry. None of them speak Arabic, and he doesn't speak their languages, so his trip will be a quiet one. It's dark outside, and Khoder smiles, and promises to drive quickly to Baghdad, as fast as a plane.
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