I was scheduled to meet with the management committee of the Iraqi Alliance of Disabled Organizations (IADO), which is headquartered in Baghdad and on the same time I was meeting with NBC Nightly News to be profiled for their “Making a Difference” segment.
I flew to North Iraq, Suli, to apply for Iraq residency, because otherwise a visa to Baghdad is around $750. I arrived in Suli on April 8 and left for Baghdad on April 10, I was escorted by my Country Director Paul. We were originally supposed to leave around 2:00 p.m. but the flight was delayed, we ended up leaving around 4:00 p.m. and traveled with a delegation from IADO, who were headed to Baghdad to participate in the National Day for the Disabled that was being put on by the ministry of Human Rights.
We arrived at the Baghdad airport and it seemed deserted except for the passengers from our flight. My wheelchair didn’t meet me at the gate, but I figured Baghdad with all its issues wasn’t the place to make a fuss, so I got in this rickety old chair, one of the hand rims was falling off and I was pushed by an old man who was almost as rickety as the chair.
We waited in the baggage claim area for about a ½ hour for our baggage, I really had to go to the bathroom, but the thought of trying to move in the beast of chair that I was trapped in, wasn’t worth the effort. My chair came off the plane in pieces and one of my wheels was the last piece off the plane. Once my chair was put together I hopped into it and booked for the bathroom, as I busted into the bathroom ignoring the man who was talking to me madly in Arabic. I did my business and then put on my Abaya and a voice came booming into the bathroom, “Tiana do you know you’re in the men’s room?” I didn’t, but I did now. So, I booked it over to the women’s room and finished putting on my headscarf.
Outside the baggage area our security detail was waiting for us. PEAK is made up of ex-British military and is run by a 33 former (I can’t remember what Andy told me, he may have been special forces). Alan and Sean met us. They took us out to a car, we went right by a bunch of Iraqi police or security and they had the doors of their autos open and were blasting music. It was like a parking lot party. They were Iraq’s finest and it shed light on some of the issues that the government is having with the police force.
Once at the car, we suited up, 40 lbs. flak jackets; I tried to put a helmet on, but the clip that was holding my headscarf got in the way. The helmet looked a little bit like the Nazi helmets from WWII. We drove out of the airport our driver armed with a pistol and the guy in the passenger seat with an unloaded model of a rapid-fire gun; it looked a little like an AK. No loaded weapons can be brought into the airport. At the check point a young kid, who looked barely old enough to shave, with US Army printed on his fatigues asked what the gun was and when he received the answer exclaimed “Rad.”
After passing through the airport we met up with our convoy and received an Iraqi driver. The security company is low profile, the cars are normal cars that have been reinforced with armor and are made to blend in and they train Iraqis as part of the security detail, as that also helps keep the low profile. The cars have cracks in the windshields, put there on purpose, and look like any car you might see on the street. This is the opposite approach of Blackwater that flies down the street in white SUVs, armed men sticking out the top and flashing lights. Frankly, I prefer the low-profile approach.
As we drove through the streets of Baghdad they seem strangely deserted. Hardly any shops were open. We were headed to the International Medical Corps compound, they were nice enough to let us stay with them.
We entered into the compound through a guarded gate and were greeted by guards at the entry to the building. Once inside the building we wouldn’t go outside until our meeting with NBC the next day.
The IMC crew was great, we had dinner that evening, the cook Maggie is Arab Christian and actually speaks the ancient language of Aramaic. She had lived and cooked in Paris and New York, Paul my country director said it would be the best meal in a compound that I would ever have, and it was good.
After dinner I embarrassed myself at their newly acquired pool table and then the IMC gang grilled me for my interview the next day. Ana who had been a reporter with the BBC was the best prep I could have had, she asked the tough questions and gave me a lot to think about and a lot of feedback. I crawled into bed around 1:00 p.m.