In 2009 I welcomed in the New Year in Baghdad. Control of the Green Zone, or the International Zone (IZ) as we had begun calling it, had just been handed back to the Iraqi Security Forces and the check points we had to navigate on a daily basis were now under their command. 10 minute journeys took up to an hour, there was an increase in random searches, protocols for exiting and entering different areas and buildings were new and, therefore volatile, and there was a general sense of unease. There were certainly no cheery “Happy New Year” greetings being called out. Mostly we watched each other through bullet proof glass, pointed to our IZ passes and held our breath. Smiles disguised themselves as grimaces. “Inshallah” sounded like we were all trying too hard.
I had struggled through the Christmas period, far from home and hearth, overwhelmed by the snail pace of progress, the long road ahead and the substandard living conditions. Made worse because I was also still labouring under the ignorant belief that what I did would one day make a difference. In my journal I recorded childish dreams about building wind farms to generate power – as though that was the solution to everything, on that particular day anyway, even while admitting that I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t even possible to protect what little infrastructure there was. But it was hard to come from a background of privilege, solutions and options and not succumb, on occasion, to fanciful notions of the same for a people you work with so closely day in, day out.
By midday on Christmas Eve we were in full lock-down following the first in a series of threat warnings that Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) had penetrated the IZ. It was all hype and fear mongering, perhaps meant to destabilise the hand back environment. Nonetheless, it meant that I spent the day sitting at my desk wearing full body armour, eating meals wearing full body armour, before finally drifting off to sleep with the shadow of that protection outlined against the ceiling. On Christmas Day I was so weary that I woke with a lump wedged in my throat and a sense of fatigue that stayed with me for the rest of the day.
Days later I woke to find myself in a briefing – that’s how it felt, as though I had slept walked my way through the ‘festive’ season. I know at some point there was a tree and gifts, and that we all smiled and laughed and hugged each other – tightly. There were no carols. I know I called home and wished mum and dad a ‘Merry Christmas’ – I think I cried. I know we served our defence colleagues lunch – their one day ‘off’ and a rare chance for us to show them our appreciation. I can’t remember if any rockets fell that day, but I can recall the location of every ‘duck and cover’ bunker within 20 meters. I have photos in which I’m wearing a tinsel halo, a red sweater and a fake smile. I’m standing under a canopy of camouflage, from which we’ve hung Christmas decorations someone thought to send us in a ‘welfare pack’.
The briefing on that particular occasion was run by the Office of Hostage Affairs and included images of a mass grave that had been discovered near Sadre City, a well known strong hold for the insurgents and where most of the rocket rain that fell our way came from. The images showed nothing more than a jangle of bones – still wearing blindfolds and bound at hand and foot. This was not the first site – it was one of many that were just being uncovered – buried under houses, under new slabs of concrete, in backyards, some almost just casually covered up with rubble. Someone’s someone.
It was New Year’s Eve. And by the time the first round of celebratory gunfire was volleyed into the air by the locals, we all knew it wasn’t ending, it was just beginning.