Heading to Baghdad IV: Sorting out the “last mile”

By the time the Rhinos arrived at Stables, I was almost out of stamina. The 3 plus hours we had to wait to board the armored buses were the worse for me. They seemed like 3 years. I tried not to sit much as that would inevitably crown the sleeping elf. And knowing the Stables policy of no sleeping on the premises, I was trying to avoid a repeat of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. At any rate, in my brief lucid moments, I realized that being here just meant that: a) everything really takes a while to get done or to happen -so forget the NY pace, and b) everything needs to be done on a self-service basis or it will not happen at all.

The process of boarding the Rhinos proved no different.

Stables does look like a stable, at least from the outside. It is a rectangular wood-based construction that has an open front patio where one can sit and even leave luggage and PPE. Gravel stones fill the ground floor which makes the wheels in our suitcases totally useless. One goes into Stables via a single door and the inside is usually full of people patiently waiting. Coffee, tea, water, candies and chips are available for free. And of course, there are a couple of TV sets tuned to CNN, a CNN customized for the mostly military audience. There are only so many inside seats. When we arrived most of them were taken so we had to sit outside and weather the cold. The wind was now dying out and the temperature was rising slowly. So it was a bit chilly but not really cold.

I gathered the Rhinos had arrived as I heard that typical noise that large trucks make when they go by and then stop to make a delivery. We were informed by the Stables manager to leave the center of the patio open as the luggage from the people coming from the IZ was going to be placed there. The truck I heard was the one carrying the luggage which is loaded into a large container that the truck moves back and forth via Route Irish. To unload the container, the incoming Rhino passengers are asked to make a human chain and then download the cargo to the Stables patio. Once this is completed, the chain dissolves and each passenger collects its property. And I guess they go home, somewhere, sometime soon…

Now it was our turn to upload our baggage to the container. We must wear our PPEs to ride in the Rhinos so we had to have them on before starting the luggage check-in. No doubt the human chain is a very effective way of working and we managed to upload the stuff in less than 15 minutes. I had a small bag in which I usually carry my laptop and a few light papers. I asked the Stables manager if I could carry my bag with me in the Rhino. She replied positively with a Southern (US) accent.

I gathered there were more than 70 people heading to the IZ. Four Rhinos were waiting for us. Upon registering for the ride, the Stables manager tells you the number of the Rhino in which you will be transported to the IZ. The number is posted on the door of each bus. On this occasion, all UNDP staff was assigned by Rhino number 3. The Rhinos were parked across the street from Stables.

Being so tired, I had planned to board the Rhino, put my helmet on and fall asleep as soon as possible. We started boarding the buses at 12:15am. I was the last one to board number 3 as I had been delayed while I asked the Stable lady about my carry-on bag. I saw an empty seat in the last row of the Rhino, put my bag in the small open overhead compartment and let gravity pull me down towards the cushioned seat. But against my expectations, more steps were needed before we actually departed.

Two US Army recruits run the Rhino. One is the driver who has been trained to drive the so-called “toughest bus in the world”. The second is an armed security-trained officer who provides a quick debrief to Rhino passengers on what to do (and not to do) if under attack. The rule of thumb for us passengers is to do nothing. Just wait for instructions. The Rhino has three different exits which one should only use if advised to do so. Rhinos have been attacked, even by VBIEDs (car bombs), and so far there have been no casualties. This was music to my ears as it just meant that I could sleep without any concerns…

Avoid this!

We finally took off just after 12:35am. I promptly dozed off and thus missed most of the road excitement. I will see it on the way back, I comforted myself. It seemed to me that we took a long time to go from the base to the airport highway. The road from the base to Route Irish is not paved, intentionally, so the Rhino was jumping up and down for a while. Route Irish looked like a very modern highway full of checkpoints and with visible traces that there was a war going on here. I missed all the rest…

We arrived at the US-run Rhino depot in the IZ at 1:35am. We were greeted by officers’ shouting at us to form two straight and parallel lines and drop all our stuff, bags and PPE, to the ground, right in front of us. This time of night is more suited to dance Salsa than to following military commands, I thought. The same two lines then became the human chain to download our luggage from the container. All bags were placed at the very end of the line. We were then told to clear the area and move towards the depot offices while dogs smelled every single piece of luggage and equipment. This took about 10 very long minutes.

UNIMA was ready for us and had sent a van, for the luggage, and a small (and regular) bus for us. The UNIMA compound is about 1 kilometer away from the Rhino depot. We arrived there just after 2am Friday morning (or 6pm Thursday NY time). Check-in at the compound is hassle-free. You just give your name, sign a form and get back a sealed envelope with the key to your room or container. The compound is like a maze so one really needs to know where the rooms are. I was lucky as one of my peers took me to my room which by the way was very close to the compound entrance. I got into my room, unpacked a few things and crashed at 2:30am.

We finally made it. It took us 21.5 hours to get from BIAP to the UN Compound. It took me 44 hours to get from NY to Baghdad. And I only slept 5 hours in that period of time, during the flight to Amman. No wonder I was dead tired.

The UN compound is called Tamimi. What could that mean, I started to wonder until sleep finally vanquished me…

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