Our wits were softened by three days of snatching sleep between rolls called on a two-hourly basis. Our names never seemed to rise high enough on the list to catch a flight. Until suddenly yesterday we made it onto the flight manifest, as it is called, and were bussed out to a waiting C-17 military freight aircraft. Tight rows of seats had been fastened all the way up the length of the windowless belly of this enormous vessel. We entered with about 200 U.S. infantry who carried their weapons, armor vests, Kevlar helmets and packs. There was very little space to move.
It was a rough flight. We had been issued earplugs to preserve our hearing from the roar. The pilots pitched the aircraft violently on several occasions, especially before landing, which was a very noisy and rapid descent. I was told the erratic landing is a tactic for avoiding enemy fire.
During the taxi, I spoke with a pasty-faced gent who I was right in thinking might be a fellow Irishman. He is a contractor from Dublin who lives out here in Baghdad, planning logistics for the military operation by way of an outsourced private firm. I asked if he had experienced any of the war first-hand. “Well,” he said, “my neighbor was one of the first of us to have his head chopped off. His convoy went down and he didn’t make it back. You can still buy his DVD in the market here.”
I asked whether his neighbor’s name had been Ken Bigley. It was. I vividly remember Bigley on the news back in 2004 dressed in an orange boiler suit, sitting against a black background and pleading for his life. Everyone in the U.K. watched for days while this went on. Tony Blair’s silence on the issue had been deafening. Towards the end, Bigley even claimed Irish nationality. But it didn’t help. “That’s life,” the Dublin contractor explained.
We hustled about Baghdad’s airport trying to work out how to proceed to the press office. Since we were traveling with too many bags to take a helicopter to the International Zone, we were told to wait for the midnight Rhino. This is a heavily armored bus convoy with a military escort that makes its way daintily from the airport to the IZ via greater unknown Baghdad and a long dimly lit highway notorious for IED attacks. When we finally embarked it was 2 a.m.
Before we left, the driver made a safety announcement. He told us to beware of glass shards in case of an IED, pointing out the exits on the roof and sides and rear of the Rhino. Then he paused, and stared distantly at the floor of the bus. The silence was palpable. He paused for a good 10 seconds. I could see his face in the darkness. He looked visibly moved with fear. It was a kind of silent fear, as if he were asking himself what he was doing here. Finally he raised his head. “If this Rhino does go down, there will be a back-to-back evacuation through the rear door,” he said. Then he sat down and the convoy headed slowly into the darkness.