Soviet Déjà vu in Iraq

June 11th, 2006 - by admin

Kim Gamel /The Associated Press. – 2006-06-11 23:26:21

BAGHDAD, Iraq (June 9, 2006) — I often feel a sense of deja vu here in Iraq as it reminds me of time spent in Moscow and Kiev in the years before and after the Soviet Union fell apart.

One of the first things I see from my seat on the plane as it spirals into Baghdad is the white roof of Abu Ghraib, the prison notorious as one of Saddam Hussein’s torture centers and now infamous for photos of US soldiers humiliating Iraqi detainees.

I don’t find the corkscrew landing so hard to take — certainly not worse than the steep descent of planes favored by Soviet pilots when I was an exchange student in Kiev more than 15 years ago.

“Welcome to Baghdad International Airport” the sign on the side of the terminal reads as I climb down the stairs onto the tarmac and into the dry heat. I don a flak jacket, put on my head scarf that a lady at the duty free store in Amman taught me how to wear and hop into an armored car. We ride down the dangerous airport road over speed bumps the size of logs and past checkpoints where soldiers eye us warily.

The driver keeps it slow so there’s plenty of time to enjoy the view of concrete barriers, demolished buildings, barbed wire strewn with garbage and every now and then a glimpse of domes from former palaces now occupied by Western forces.

The scene changes as we enter Baghdad proper to busy sidewalks lined with stalls that sell everything from clothes to electronics to kuba, a traditional dish that’s basically a rice ball filled with meat.

I flash back to newly independent Russia, when babushky and war veterans took to the streets to sell their pots and pans and medals to earn some money as the former Soviet Union plunged into capitalism.

Traffic is nasty here with cars lined up at checkpoints as women shrouded in black robes called abayas and head scarves fan themselves in the 100-plus degree heat with children on their laps as they wait in cars as beat-up as ours.

Even if they could afford it, nobody wants to call attention to themselves in this city, where a bakery was blown up the other day while people were buying warm bread for dinner, killing nine. Iraqi forces in green helmets and what looks like awfully thin body armor wave us on through.

I hope my assignment allows me to meet an Iraqi family and join them for dinner one night in the crammed low-rise buildings to see if it’s really true that life does go on despite the chaos below.

Air conditioners dot the windows, despite the fact that even the capital of 6 million people is down to four hours a day of electricity due to severe shortages. But I remain in my car with tinted windows and armored doors.

We cross the Tigris River, with weeds growing out of the concrete embankment. I wish this wasn’t my first visit so I’d know what it was like before the war, though I know life wasn’t easy then either with rampant unemployment and economic hardships at a time of UN sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The Palestine Hotel – a 19-story tower that overlooks the Tigris River and is currently the AP’s headquarters in Baghdad – is a shabby shell of the luxury accommodation it once was and I have a feeling the main thing I’ll remember about it is the cockroaches swarming over the countertop as I wash my dishes in the bathroom sink.

That also takes me back to 1989, when I was an exchange student in Kiev and had to take my own lightbulbs into the dorm’s bathroom because otherwise people would steal them. Times were hard for Soviet university students just a few years after Gorbachev launched perestroika. The cockroaches scatter as the light comes on.

My room at the Palestine is comfortable enough and truth be told, not much smaller than my closet of an apartment in Manhattan. The water isn’t potable so I brush my teeth with bottled water and keep my mouth and eyes shut tight while taking a shower. There’s even a phone, but I’ve only used it for room-to-room calls.

Perhaps in an effort to maintain the trappings of an actual hotel, a list on the phone provides numbers for room service, reception and a concierge, but we’re largely left to our own devices here. The toilets don’t always flush and when they do, they often continue running.

But it’s hard to complain. At least we have electricity for the most part thanks to generators. One of our Iraqi staffers tells me his children are out of school for the summer and I ask him if they’re happy to be done. He says not really because it’s so hot and their generator isn’t working well.

The city has some pools, but they’re afraid to go to them because of the rampant violence. So he says they play at home and he and his wife try to keep them cool as best they can, waving his hand as if they fan the young ones themselves.

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