BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Kuwait was performing a dust storm on Saturday night. The KLM flight dropped out of a clear sky into a fog of sand and grit, tunneled through it on the runway to the terminal, and pushed its passengers out into a surprisingly cold — a freezing cold — night.
An hour later, on a high-speed highway dotted with abandoned Nissan pickup trucks, and then on a dirt road into the U.S. Army Logistics Support Area (LSA), the night landscape looked exactly like Minnesota in January. Dust had collected on everything, and in the orange sodium-vapor lights, looked white: white road, white embankments, trees rimed with white; but if you went outside in the night, behind your transit tent, you could look up and see stars.
Pierre Rehov was not seeing stars. He was slumped on a couch in the information office, trying to figure out his next step.
Rehov is a French documentary filmmaker, who looks exactly like a French documentary filmmaker should look, with long black hair and dark eyes, shirts that should have been worn by Franz Fanon. He splits his time between Paris and New York; and he has a major problem.
He was set to embed in Iraq. He’d gone through all the bureaucratic stuff, but at the last minute, he’d lost his cameraman, and had to find a new one. The guy he found was well-known and extremely competent. He was also Mexican. As it turns out, Kuwait has different entry requirements for Mexicans than for Americans. The short version (and there is a long French version) is that they kicked the cameraman out, along with his equipment, and Rehov was left sitting in the information office, with a lot of plans and concepts, but no camera.
“So now what do I do? I try to find a new cameraman, I try to find out what is going on with this other cameraman, where the equipment is — it did not arrive back in New York with him? So what do I do now?”
All of this in an excellent French-accented English. Does he go forward into Iraq and try to find a new cameraman there? Does he bail out, after all the bureaucratic work he’s already done? Does he try to find an independent cameraman?
All the army folks are genuinely sympathetic, but nobody has any answers. Rehov is stuck in a bureaucratic hell, searching for some possible route out. For two days, he wanders around the Army LSA, like the ghost of journalists past, trying to work things out by telephone and email.
Then he makes his move: Rehov straps himself into a C-130 and heads into Iraq, ready to produce and direct, no equipment in sight.
The biggest problem about getting into Iraq is exactly how to get there.
The Army is willing to take you, but there are all kinds of exceptions and difficulties: getting on a manifest for the unknown numbers of flights coming in or going out, scheduling conflicts, rank considerations — rank can and does bump prospective travelers off military transportation. Nobody has much problem with that, since it’s a war, and the ranking military may really have an urgent need to get where they are going. It does cause unforeseen, unforeseeable and often excruciating delays for people further down the bump list.
Generally, it’s like this: Get to Kuwait on commercial transportation — Northwest Airlines out of Minneapolis to Amsterdam, KLM from Amsterdam to Kuwait; a short drive into the LSA, and then some bureaucratic waiting. After that, a military C-130 to Baghdad International Airport, which is called BIAP, or “buy-op,” and then you ride the Rhino into the IZ (eye-zee), which stands for International Zone, which is what the locals call the Green Zone.
Minnesotans who drive past the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport will be familiar with the C-130 — they are the huge olive-drab canted-tail transport planes often flown in and out by the Air National Guard. The inside of the C-130 Tuesday morning was purely functional: exposed ducts overhead, all kinds of mechanical latches on the unadorned sides, floor and bulkheads, a stepladder lashed to an upright support, and the name “Desert Queen” stenciled on a bulkhead.
And webbing seats. Passengers sit in webbing seats facing each other, feet over-lapping, like paratroopers in World War II army movies. Instead of one line, there are two, on opposite sides of the plane. Most of the passengers even look like paratroopers, in the dim interior light: helmets, body armor, guns. Overhead, there is even a static line, for jumpers, but disturbingly, only enough parachutes (attached to the ubiquitous hooks and latches) for the flight crew. The luggage is piled on a pallet, which is conveniently loaded into the back of the plane, right behind the passengers, an innovation that might be considered by Northwest.
The plane smells something of kerosene and crowded people. There is little sound-proofing, so everybody wears earplugs, and nobody talks; you just sit there, trying to avoid playing footsie with the guy opposite.
The approach to Baghdad is intricate — the plane changes heading several times, and then goes DOWN, as in an elevator. On the ground, at BIAP, after several changes of mind, and a scrounged ride in the back of a pickup truck (the scheduled base bus never showed up), visitors are left at another transportation depot, to wait for the Rhino.
The Rhino — it’s called “riding the Rhino” — is a convoy of armored buses and armed Humvees, which leaves BIAP at random times: deliberately random for security purposes. This particular Rhino left after a fairly cheerful discussion of what should be done “if we get hit” and the Rhino was left in any of several dismembered configurations; if, for example, the bus should get knocked on its side, and you couldn’t get out the side door, there was a conveniently located roof hatch, which would then be a side hatch.
After that brief talk, it was something less than an hour into the IZ, all packed like sardines into the Rhino, all wearing body armor and helmets. On a variation of the fast-food notice, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” the sign at the transport depot said, “No armor, no helmet, no Rhino.”
The ride in is fast and rough: there are speed bumps everywhere — more security.
At the end of the ride, in the IZ, is the CPIC, pronounced Cee-Pik, which is the Combined Press Information Center. There, reporters go through more bureaucratic stuff, like getting an ID card — all done cheerfully and professionally by a variety of soldiers. For someone who served in the Army during the late 1960s, soldiers of the Third Millennium seem like a different breed altogether: smart, hard-working, sincere, professional, and many, many more of them, female. So many of them female, that their presence is no longer even remarked, and questions about them are regarded as a trifle odd.
Blast walls everywhere
A few more in-bound observations.
Though it can get cold — temperatures in the 30s the past few days — Iraq looks a little bit like a hard-scrabble portion of Dade County, Fla., with dusty palms and tan buildings; the landscape all ochers and umbers. The Rhino takes you past the famous crossed-swords monument — smaller than on TV. Here and there are barrel-fires: security guards trying to stay warm, standing around the barrels with M16s hung around their necks.
The American civilians, and there are a lot of them, truck drivers and food-service personnel and security guys, are generally what you’d call burly; too much D-Fac (dining facility) food. The food is good, but not short on calories. In this way, Iraq is exactly like the facilities found at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska: blue collar guys there to do a well-paying job, under conditions of severe stress.
Another thing: everywhere you drive, you see blast walls. Aesthetically, they resemble the familiar concrete lane-dividers used on I-94, except that they may be 10 or 12 or 15 feet high, and a couple of feet thick. There are literally hundreds of miles of them, protecting military installations and IZ neighborhoods; in some ways, they are an index of the massive size of the American intervention here.
When you’ve seen so many of them, so new, stretching for so many miles, protecting so many buildings, you begin to think about what it took to make them, how much they must cost, what it took to put them in…
And you begin to consider the fact that the army, with a hurricane of private contractors, has essentially moved a major U.S. city to Iraq in the past five years, and built the whole thing from the ground up, from electric outlets and potable water taps, to major generating stations, and roads, and tent cities for troops.
Whatever you may think about the war, it is an impressive feat, even for the new, naive eye.
Then there’s Pierre.
Two days after Pierre Rehov was last seen in Kuwait, climbing on a C-130, he is at CPIC in the IZ. In the temporary unisex bunkhouse provided by the Combined Press Information Center, he has created a kind of separate room for himself by hanging blankets around the lower bunk of his bunk bed. His future in Iraq still obscure.
On the other hand, the guy in the next bunk is an independent cameraman, whose current job is running out.
Things are looking up.
John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist who writes under the pen name John Sandford. He can be reached at jcamp [at] minnpost [dot] com.