Iraq – Homeward Bound

The long-awaited fourth and final part in Chris Afir’s account of being incarcerated in an Iraqi prison cell: Following 17 days in an Iraqi prison in 2005, Chris Afir and companion, Zim, finally get a military escort out of the country.

Before long we arrived in a guarded compound which I was surprised to see was residential, not military. The house we were taken to was just that, a house, where we were left in the care of an old Kurdish man who balked when he saw us. It wasn’t just the unsanitary conditions of the jail but the weeks prior to coming to Iraq during which we had been less than hygienic. It had been at least six weeks since either of us had bathed or shaved and for the three weeks in jail we hadn’t even been allowed to clean our teeth. To add to the veritable Petri dish that our bodies had become our clothes were completely riddled with lice and I didn’t know it at the time but I had also managed to contract scabies. How Zim escaped this most excruciating of afflictions is still a mystery to me I can only presume that his cell was luxurious.
We wanted to burn our clothes but the Kurdish housekeeper forbade it so they were thrown in the trash.

I then had the best shower of my entire life. A grey-faced stranger peered back at me from the mirror as I set to work in shaving off what can only loosely be described as a beard. The wiry brown pubic hairs that had sprouted from my hollow face were alarmingly long but sufficiently sparse to be identified as individual hairs. The same could not be said for the thick tuft of yellow fuzz that had appeared on my top lip, which in many ways I was just as proud of as I was ashamed. Still, it had to go along with the magnitude of filth that I had accumulated.

Sitting on a huge soft sofa, fresh from the shower in clean clothes, it was impossible to even comprehend that only a few hours ago I was in tears hiding under a T shirt having almost given up hope of ever being rescued. For the next few hours Zim and I talked non-stop recounting stories from our respective cells, and friends that we had made inside. This talking didn’t stop when we were taken to be debriefed by the two uniformed soldiers that came to the jail. In fact it was less of a debriefing and more an evening with Zim and Chris. They just sat back and listened as we rattled on and on. I think that they manage to sieve out the information that they needed from our stories because they didn’t ask many questions.

When Ed finally came in to see us all he told us that he was working on a plan to get us safely out of the country. The obvious option of going back to Turkey was out of the question as he was certain that we would be arrested there as spies. The same was said for Syria. His initial plan was to fly us to Baghdad in a helicopter from where we would catch a commercial jet to Amman just over the border in Jordan. I loved this idea. I would never have gone to Baghdad by myself, but the thought of flying there in a helicopter with an army/CIA escort sounded exciting and rather appealing.

We spent most of our first evening making phone calls to friends and parents back home all at the American taxpayers’ expense. Before we went to bed that night we still had one more thing to do before we were completely out of danger. The small piece of hash that had been hidden in the lining of my bag while it was with the police in the jail. I had had repeated nightmares about this being found and it was the first thing that I checked when we had got our bags back a few hours before. Now we were alone, the rest of the house was asleep and Ed was back out saving the world we had the perfect opportunity to destroy the evidence. We burned it in two very rushed but satisfying controlled fires in the small garden in front of our new home.

Over the next few days we did nothing but watch DVDs. This was all we were allowed to do. Scared that we might wander off in to more trouble they had forbidden us from leaving the compound. Walking round the compound was not even interesting. Lots of houses behind high metal doors with various Iraqi guards outside slouching on their rifles or drinking tea in the shade. Our house was mostly empty during the day. Ed would leave in the morning sporting wrap around shades and brandishing an assortment of weaponry no doubt on a top secret mission so we didn’t see him much. Every now and again a soldier or government employee would pop in looking for Ed or someone else and we would tax them for their DVDs, which they would lend us willingly. I was pleased to see that they all had Team America in their collections.

After a few days, or twenty or so movies, we were told the new plan. The Baghdad idea had been cancelled as it was deemed too dangerous so we were to be escorted by road down to Kirkuk where we would catch a military transport plane to Kuwait.
We were pleased to find out that they were not making a special trip just for us and we would be hitching a ride with some government official who was going there anyway.

Kirkuk was in the middle of the war. There was street fighting on a daily basis and a steadily increasing number of American troops were losing their lives there so the situation was understandably tense. In preparation for this trip an Australian mercenary wearing hot pants (yes, hot pants) came and asked us for our blood types. “In case it goes tits up,” he said. Neither Zim nor I knew our blood types and neither did our parents so we were of no help there at all.
On the morning of the trip everyone was especially tense as the previous day a US convoy had been ambushed on the road to the airport and suffered heavy casualties. The very same road we were about to travel down. Zim, I and the government official donned our bullet-proof vests and helmets and clambered into one of three armoured Chevy Suburban cars. The two other cars were stuffed full of mercenaries from various English-speaking countries. All armed to the teeth and wearing wrap around shades. The driver of our car and the other passenger, the hotpants-wearing Aussie from the day before, were equally decked out. The road to Kirkuk is long and straight and it passes numerous abandoned jails, each of which seemed easily capable of holding thousands of men. Hundreds of little windows in these otherwise featureless buildings whizzing past the car each of them once housed some poor bastard who wouldn’t have been as fortunate as Zim or me. Apart from the prisons and the gas flares of the oil fields burning in the distance the whole area was pretty unpopulated and unexciting. Every now and again we would pass a ridge or a bend in the road and the soldiers would become tense and there would be lots of walkie-talkie banter then cars would speed up until the threat was gone.

As we approached Kirkuk someone pointed out the house of Ali Hassan Al Majid, better known as Chemical Ali. His house was a palace perched atop a small hill. He wasn’t in as we drove past as at that time he was living in less spacious conditions at one of Uncle Sam’s infamous ‘guesthouses’. Say what you will about the man, he may well have been an evil murderous bastard who gassed thousands of Iranians and Kurds but he had great taste in houses.

Once in Kirkuk we were driven straight to the joint US UK embassy compound for another debrief. This compound was completely surrounded by three walls of 15ft concrete blast walls and sandbags. The security was intense but once inside it was much more relaxed. There were a number of buildings stretching off in all directions as well as lots of less permanent structures. Beneath the fluttering twin flags of Britain and America was a basketball court where two sweaty teams of Special Forces and private contractors battled in the sun.

We were ushered in to a meeting room where we got to see firsthand the different working styles of two of the world’s great powers. Two men walked in, one British, one American. The American was a bald giant in his 30s in a tight white T-shirt with a gun on his hip. He strode in to the room with purpose, announced himself as a federal agent and started to lay down the Law.
“You guys are in big trouble.” He started “You have broken the law in two sovereign nations. Iraq and Turkey”
It turned out that the Kurds were now saying that they had caught us crossing in to Iraq illegally and therefore suspected us of running drugs or weapons. Thankfully I had insisted on the border that they stamp my passport and so we easily proved our illegal entry. The agent looked a little deflated although the ease with which we convinced him of our innocence shows how little trust there still was between the Americans and their Iraqi counterparts.

The British man then started to speak. He was at least in his fifties with greying hair on his head and white stubble on his unshaved face. His dishevelled jacket had leather elbow patches and he had bad teeth and bad breath. He was the stereotypical geography teacher. He sat down next to me and asked me if there was anything I needed, a doctor or any provisions? That was it! I thanked him and declined but Zim took him up on his offer of a doctor. When they had all left I sat there wondering how these two so very different men could be working for the same team.

A short while later another group of antipodean mercenaries escorted us to the airbase. For this we again had to put on our bullet-proof vests and helmets and were then taken in two separate cars for the short journey across the city. For the duration of the trip I was forced to crouch in the foot well which meant all I really saw of Kirkuk was a pair of Special Forces boots.

Kirkuk airbase is like a small city, it even has its own bus service as well as a Pizza Hut and a Burger King not to mention literally thousands of planes, helicopters, tanks, and other vehicles. On the base we were handed off to another CIA friend of Ed’s, who was to be our chaperone as far as Kuwait. We were in a large semi permanent tent that served as an air terminal for passengers on the large C130 transport planes. There were a handful of soldiers and others waiting with us all watching war movies on a big screen TV. It seemed somewhat odd to me to be in the middle of a war zone with people dying literally less than a mile away, and watching war movies which all tell stories of the futility of war.

We spent hours here in this terminal tent as we were constantly getting told that our plane was still on the ground in Baghdad so what should have been an hour stretched out in to the whole afternoon and longer. We tried to find ways of amusing ourselves but you cant just wander around airbases like they are your back yard so we mainly hung around outside smoking with a group of soldiers from Idaho. Having seen Napoleon Dynamite only a few days before I sympathised with these poor people and understood quite well why they had joined the army. None were too pleased with having been sent out here to fight and die and more than a few of them had some choice words for Donald Rumsfeld. Of course they thought we were idiots for coming to Iraq and thought it even funnier when we got in to trouble again for taking photos. We had been told by our CIA chaperone that taking photos was fine. There were others there with cameras. Only aircraft were off limits so we were being snap happy trying to document as much of the experience as we could taking pictures of pretty much anything, until Zim took a photo of a particularly angry military policeman who marched right over and demanded to know who we were.

Unfortunately we didn’t have the answers to many of his questions so we took him to our chaperone, who was less than amused. They had a private conversation, IDs were shown and then most of the photos were deleted off the camera. They left some of them but that was the end of our picture taking for Iraq. We spent the rest of the time in front of the TV under the watchful glare of our chaperone while the other soldiers laughed. Shortly before sunset we were told that there was yet more delay and so the three of us decided to get some dinner. We hopped on the bus, which did a huge tour of the base picking up and dropping off various people along the way before it arrived at the Burger King. It was not how I’d imagined it at all; it was a white caravan with the BK insignia on the side and a picnic bench out the front. Next to it was Pizza Hut, which didn’t even have its own bench. The food however was exactly as it is in every BK in the world. It even came in a bag that said Burger King Kirkuk in English on one side and Arabic on the other. I sat and ate my Whopper Meal and chatted with some GI who was about to go out on patrol. He was a big tough looking guy but he was genuinely scared. I didn’t envy him, it was his job to simply walk the streets bearing the stars and stripes on his shoulder. No easy task in a city like Kirkuk. I left him to his thoughts and felt thankful that I was on my way home.

By the time we got back to the terminal tent it was dark but our plane was apparently in the air at last. There was a real buzz around the place. All around us men and women were double-checking their weapons and packs. We were all given luggage tags indicating what plane we were going on and before long we were being ushered out on to the tarmac. The young soldiers that I had seen lounging around earlier and making teas were now dressed in full combat fatigues with helmets and night vision goggles marshalling people around with authority. They spent most or their time shouting at us or into their radios trying to be heard over the din of the arriving aircraft. The area outside the terminal was completely dark the only light was coming from the small flashlights the young marshals had strapped to their Kevlar and the red and green blinking from the wing tips of the two huge cargo planes that were taxiing a short distance in front of us.

With the deafening noise it was very disorientating. We were walking in a line holding on to loops in a rope rather like school children crossing the road being led out over the tarmac. Every now and again I would see one of the planes silhouetted against the clouds as it manoeuvred in the darkness. Everybody seemed to know exactly what was going on and it all seemed very organised. The cargo doors opened and within a matter of minutes one load had come off and another had been prepared for the return trip. People were running this way and that barking orders over the noise and I really began to feel the power of the American war machine at work. Running out towards the plane I was acutely award of the giant propellers that were whizzing over my head but the marshals aided by their goggles steered us around any danger zones and safely on to the plane. Inside there was dim lighting enabling us to scramble over the cargo and to some seating. The seats on cargo planes are in fact long canvas benches that run the length of the plane and they are big enough to hold a GI and his backpack so they aren’t that comfortable but as there were only about fifteen of us there was plenty of space. When the last of the cargo had been packed in behind us the lights went red and the pilot came on the radio.

“People like to shoot at the planes here so we will be taking off lights out.” It was a little disconcerting being told by the pilot that we might not even make it to the end of the runway but I didn’t have much time to think about it as we began to move. There was no stopping and waiting every five minutes like at Heathrow, the lights went out and from the moment we started taxiing we increased speed hurtling round corners until the pilot piled on the power and we shot down an invisible runway. If anyone was shooting at us when we took to the sky they must have missed as we tore up in to the sky at alarming speed made all the more dramatic by the sound of the four massive engines powering us that even with earplugs in were deafening.

Our plane was scheduled to stop in Basra before making the short trip on to Kuwait but the monotonous drone of the engines and the darkness of the inside of the plane sent me in to a deep sleep within minutes so when I awoke we were safely out of Iraqi airspace and on our final approach to Ali Al Saleem airbase outside Kuwait City.
Our trip wasn’t quite finished there. We still had one more task to fulfil before we would be free. As we had landed at a military airport we hadn’t had our passports stamped so were not yet legal in Kuwait.

We were handed off by our chaperone to someone from the British embassy who took us the short drive to the commercial airport where he ran in with out passports and shortly returned with a beautiful fresh stamp in each. Now for the first time in over a month we were actually free from custody – masters of our own destiny again. Although we had to return home and face the music we were free to enjoy the next few days in Kuwait without any worries. The British embassy driver, who was a kind man from Goa, drove us to a suitable hotel where we crashed out exhausted from our long, difficult and often terrifying but ultimately rewarding misadventure into Iraq.

Author – Chris Afir.

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