No one on the team traveling to Iraq was very excited about missing the helicopter. Most of them had slept close to nothing in the last 24 hours and were really yearning for a comfortable place to rest. I was a bit ahead of all of them -actually, 8 hours ahead, thanks to my own jet lag and the time difference. After having dinner/breakfast at the DFAC, my body was on late evening mode. And 1am in the morning is still manageable on a normal day. So I was tired but not really sleepy.
I had no idea that UNAMI had its own building at the Victory Base Complex (VBC) which is relatively close to BIAP. Camp Victory is the main base in the complex – and, this is very important, where the DFAC is located. One can walk from the UNIMA one-story installations to the DFAC (and the PX/BX) in less than 10 minutes. Next to the DFAC one can also find Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut and GreenBeans outlets. And one can even pay with a credit card! Except for the DFAC which is free to all customers…
But before we could enjoy all this, we had to first reach the UNIMA offices. This was arranged by the UNIMA colleagues that organized transportation from Camp Sather to VBC. We arrived there a bit after 9am. The offices are indeed very nice as they provide beds, baths, free wi-fi and even a living room with a DVD player and two large screen TVs. Most of the colleagues rapidly disappeared into the shared accommodations -one for men with 16 beds, and one for women with 4 beds. Only a few of us, 5 or 6 (mostly women), remained in the living room checking email and chatting. We had a lot of time to kill, no question about it.
Baghdad’s Airport is approximately 15 kilometers to the West of the capital of Iraq. I suppose that in normal circumstances it could take 15 minutes or so to reach the Green Zone- now also called the International Zone (IZ). This route was considered, until very recently, the most dangerous road in the world. It is called “Route Irish” by the US military. This is not a reference to the IRA but rather to an American Football team in the US (Notre Dame). Not surprisingly, UN staff are not authorized to travel by day and cannot take any other means of transportation from BIAP to the UN Compound in the IZ.
Plan B was now all set. At 7:30pm we will have to head to Stables, part of Camp Stryker (sic) right next to Camp Victory – and on the way to the DFAC, to register for the Rhino ride. For security reasons, the actual departure of the Rhino is never known ahead of time and thus varies from day to day. So it could be anytime between 9pm and 1am.
Time now started to move in slow motion. There is not much to do at the UNAMI offices. For some reason, the Wi-Fi Internet connection only worked for one computer so we had to share the one and only wired connection in the living room. I spent 30 minutes or so trying to solve this problem but other than resetting the wireless routers was not able to find a solution. Watching TV or a film was only a recipe to quickly falling asleep. And going out for a walk was not feasible as the weather was too cold in spite of the bright sun. We were now reaching critical time, counting the seemingly infinite number of seconds needed to finally board the (now beloved!) Rhino. In a sense, we were prisoners of our own device -to paraphrase a well-known song.
I also managed to lose track of time. For me, it was still Wednesday morning although my peers kept reminding me it was already Thursday. Somehow I lost one day without even noticing it. And slowly but surely, I started my bouts with sleep which was now creeping in into my brain. I thought that sleeping at this time was not the most brilliant idea so I decided to fight it. In doing so, I lost a few rounds but won the overall fight -at a price, needless to say.
Going to the DFAC became the most fun thing we could do while at the UNIMA premises in VCB. Somehow we managed to survive until noon and then decided to put our gourmet hats on and head to quash our appetite at dinner. The DFAC at Camp Victory is amazingly large. I would say it is much bigger than the 1st-floor cafeteria at UN headquarters. The food distribution chain is similar to that of Camp Sather. And I could also see a lot of young faces, both male and female, some with weapons, some without them. This DFAC serves close to 2,000 meals per hour -so I was told. Food quality thus matches volume. And it also has a movie theater which operates from 5pm on. N0 wi-fi here though.
Lunch was followed by a visit to the PX/BX -the “shopping mall” at the base. These places are similar to what in New York we call a deli. One can find the most basic stuff from food to other essential products. The difference here is that one can also buy electronic devices (computers, TVs, phones, even Play Station 3 and Xboxes) as well as cheap “Persian” carpets and other stuff from the region. The other difference is that one does not pay any taxes. Needless to say, I did not buy anything. But my peers who live in Jordan took advantage of the bargain prices and the availability of products that cannot be found in Amman.
The rest of the afternoon lasted almost a week. At 7:15pm we headed to Stables to register for the Rhino ride, had yet another healthy meal at the DFAC and returned to UNIMA. By 9pm, the whole team was at Stables waiting for the arrival of the wonderful Rhinos. By now, I was struggling to stay awake. But coffee and hot chocolate available for free at Stables helped. The Stables policy forbids people to sleep on the premises. Instead, one can request a cot in one of the Military tents available. One has to sign up for this and they provide a clean blanket. At any rate, I could not possibly fall asleep in Stables -or else face a court martial.
At 11:20pm we were told that the Rhinos would be arriving in 15 minutes. And indeed they did. Still, the departing time to Baghdad remained uncertain.