Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tourist Trapped

The other day I flew to a tiny base in the Karbala province in order to talk to the government reconstruction team that oversees the province and interacts with the local government on matters from essential services to rule of law.

I was a “strap hanger” of two “full bird” Colonels who were touring the area as part of their transition of command. Since they were headed down there I jumped into the entourage. My usual traveling partner wasn’t with me but I knew as long as I was with these to senior officers that I’d least get back to FOB Kalsu at the end of the day. What I didn’t do was fully coordinate my movements once we arrived at the small base. Since I knew the Colonels would be meeting with the reconstruction team I followed them instead of going off on my own and finding their office. They climbed into the back of a MRAP and so did I. My mistake.

I found myself locked into their schedule; the unwitting recipient of a tour of Karbala.

For the next six hours I rode around in the back of a MRAP looking out the window at the city of Karbala. Karbala is the sixth largest city in Iraq. Lisa later asked me, “As compared to what city in the US?” I replied, “The sixth largest city in the US!” It’s a predominately Shi’a city with 700,000 people two significant Shi’a mosques there.

From my window, Karbala was a thriving city without any Coalition Forces residing in the entire province except for those living with the ISF. There is vertical construction everywhere with enormous cranes lifting material over skeletons of scaffolding. Shops were open selling everything from children’s toys to furniture. The streets were crowded with people who looked at us curiously as we drove by. The word, "bustling" came to mind. The vibe was so different that in all my experiences in 2004-2005 and now, I would have never guessed I was in Iraq.

We stopped in several IP and IA offices to allow the Colonels to discuss the pertinent issues and look at their new equipment. We ate lunch at an Iraqi Army base. Plates and plates of rice and lamb with warm flat bread to stuff it into get it from the plate to your mouth. The gift of Iraqi food is a gift that keeps on giving. Two days later and I’m still not right. The only bright side to my misadventure was that we finished off our tour with a “market walk” of downtown Husanyia, a small city east of Karbala.

In the afternoon we parked the trucks at the far end of the market and strolled through. Well, that’s a lie, isn’t it? We didn’t just park and walk away. Actually, we got out, and walked on the sidewalk while the personal security element, ISF, and overhead attack helicopters kept watch of us tourists. The stores were still open in the late afternoon sun. The smells of sweet breads, rotisserie chicken, tobacco, and Iraqi men is enough to pull you (or push) you down the street. Men filled the market place in front of and behind the counter, haggling prices. Many times the shop owners were accompanied by their sons while old men sat outside and contemplated deep thoughts. Groups gathered to watch us or engage us when we stopped before our time ran out to fly back.

I always wonder in these moments, the moments when you really get to see people in their daily routine, if I will be able to return to these places in ten or twenty years and walk these same streets without security or body armor.

No comments: