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Red Means Go and Green Means Stop

September 23, 2005 from Christian Peacemakers Team in Iraq
After passing two pleasant days in Amman, Jordan, our delegation
departed for Baghdad on a private flight. As we flew through the
air, ten thousand feet over the Jordanian desert, I struck up a
conversation with a sporty-looking American woman sitting across from
me on the twin-engine propeller plane. The atmosphere on the plane
was not dissimilar to how one might feel if traveling with others to
the funeral of a man whose murder was not yet solved. Fear,
suspicion, doubt, and homesickness permeated the air.

She had an amiable demeanor and told me she had been working for
USAID in Baghdad for over a year. I briefly described to her what
our delegation intended to do while in Iraq. "So, you're going to be
living in the Red Zone?" she asked with astonishment.

"I guess so," was my reply, "if that means not in the Green Zone." I
tried to be matter of fact, but I a bit taken aback. What did she
mean by "Red Zone?" I'd heard of the International (or "Green") Zone—
the area around Saddam's Palace and other important buildings that
amounted to a hyper-secure fortress in the center of the Baghdad.
But this term was unfamiliar, and I felt indignant that such a loaded
_expression would be casually tossed about to refer to an entire city
of more than 6 million inhabitants or a country of 25 million
people. "Still," I thought, "she's right. I'd feel more safe going
to the Green Zone." Boy, was I wrong.

It's not that there are no American civilians going to Baghdad:
hundreds (thousands maybe) work everyday in the Green Zone. But those
who do—embassy employees, USAID "relief" workers, and private
contractors (often heavily armed mercenaries)—can work for months or
years without ever speaking to Iraqis outside of this fortress.

After a few days in Baghdad, I'm not as consumed by fear for my
personal safety as I had imagined I would be. We've traveled to Sadr
City, Kadimiyah, Qazaliyah, and Daura without incident. Over our
first two days, the most hostility we encountered came from American
soldiers intent on taking charge of a situation well managed by Iraqi
police and making our visit to a power plant as difficult as
possible.

Our visit to the Green Zone, however, was a lesson in terror. After
driving past the first checkpoint we approached an entrance gate
guarded by dozens of soldiers with M-16s, AK-47s, and 50mm machine
guns mounted atop a half-dozen Humvees. Getting out of the car, we
paused to allow space between our two groups. But stopping for
twenty seconds was enough to scare the Iraqi soldiers (they're
frequently targeted here by suicide bombers). A masked soldier
standing in the bed of a Ford truck raised his Kalashnikov, which had
been pointed at us, and fired a single shot in the air. Alarmed, I
pulled my foot back in the car and closed the door as we scooted off
back up the road.

All eyes on the street were on us now as we walked a very foreboding
half-kilometer back toward the guards. I started to question a
teammate, but was quickly shushed—if we weren't already recognizable
as foreigners, we didn't need to make it obvious by talking loudly.
We passed through five more checkpoints where we were lazily frisked
and searched by Asian mercenaries and Iraqi soldiers.

Even inside the walls we were not safe. Being observed there could
cost us our lives and there's no telling who was monitoring our
meetings while we were there. While the odds of being a victim of
violence in Baghdad are not great, the randomness at which it occurs
makes one more fearful and knowing that anyone or anything near the
that Green Zone is prime target makes me not want to return. For an
Iraqi to be seen entering the Green Zone is even more dangerous
because it is a clear sign of possible collaboration.

Although we've only been in Baghdad for a few days, that plane trip
seems like ages ago. And while fear and suspicion sometimes
overwhelm me, I can often block them out it in my excitement,
curiosity, and gratitude. I have much more to learn in the days to
come, but in the end, (like it or not) I go home. The Iraqi people,
however, will continue to live here—occupied and in fear. Despite
being used to it, there is little for them to like about it. Over
time it affects a people's ability to love and to trust; but I have
met many Iraqis who have not yet been overcome—humdu l'Allah, thanks
be to God.
 
 

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