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November 2005

Freedom Bird

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Just got back from an "embed", which is a fancy word for "living with the troops". Can't say what unit I was with until my story appears in print. Except to say it was a fun mission but way too short.

My colleague arrived back to Baghdad today, which means I get to go home tomorrow. Woo hoo! I'm leaving for Dubai at zero-dark-hundred-hours tomorrow morning (5am).

This was my first trip back to Baghdad in a year. And what's changed? Not much. It's still dangerous, as obvious by our recent suicide car bomb attack. At the same time, there is a lot to be optimistic about in Iraq. There is a construction boom in Baghdad. Iraqi refugees are moving back home. Iraq could eventually become a beautiful rich country...but not anytime soon.

Eight Lives Left

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

(Warning: extremly graphic descriptions of war and death follows. For more photos, click on the "TwoCrabs" FlickrBlog link)


I nearly bought it today.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I've survived five tours of Iraq and four tours of Afghanistan as a journalist without a scratch. Not to mention a six-month tour in Bosnia back in my US Army days. Until now, the closest I've come to dying was a few days after the fall of Baghdad when I was caught in the cross-fire of two rival street gangs. My luck ran out this morning.

I was planning on sleeping in today. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, which means most stores and businesses are closed and folks spend lazy hours with family and friends. However, the powers that be had other plans.

At 8:12 a.m., I was literally blown out of my bed by a powerful explosion that tore through my hotel room like a tornado without mercy. The explosion made a sound I would not want to hear twice in my life. Shards of glass rained down on the bed where I had laid just seconds before.

For a moment, I wasn't quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, alive or dead. I had barely stood up when my survival instinct kicked in. Suicide bombs are usually followed by a second suicide bomb. I was reaching for my body armour (bullet-proof vest) when the second explosion came not more than 20 seconds after the first bomb. Although less powerful than the first, it caused more damage to our room because of the position of the car bomber. The glass from the balcony doors were blown onto the computer desk where I usually compose my thoughts. Had I been sitting there, I'd be in a world of hurt. But the worse damage occured in my colleague's bedroom. The entire belcony door, glass and door frame were ripped off the wall and landed on his bed. Luckily, he was out of town today otherwise he would surely be dead, or at least seriously injured.

Funny things happen when you're gripped with terror. The sane reaction would be to get the hell out of there any way you can. My first reaction was to calmly change out of my pajamas and into my street clothes, use the toilet, brush my teeth, don my body armour and to grab my camera, notebook and pen. The whole process took me maybe 90 seconds. I was about to walk out when two armed security guards broke down and yanked me out of the room.

I made my way to the rally point and sat on the floor with a half-dozen other people, still wondering: is this happening? No way.

I kept replaying a line from Full Metal Jacket:

Animal Mother: "Are you some sort of reporter?"
Joker Man: "No. I'm a combat correspondent"
Animal Mother: "Oh. You seen much, COMBAT?"
Joker Man: "Well, I've seen a little on TV!"

I've seen plenty of suicide bombs on television news. I've also covered the aftermath of many bombs. But never been in the windtunnel myself.  After a few minutes I stumbled downstairs. The warmth of the Middle East sun was pouring through the now open-aired lobby. Pipes, cables, ceiling tiles and other bits of building were everywhere. There was a trail of blood leading outside, which I followed toward the exit.

The first thing was a leg. At least I think it was a leg. It was a piece of human flesh but I couldn't quite make out what it had been. Then I noticed another body part. A piece of hair. A tooth. A colleague later told me he saw a penis and an elbow but I luckily missed those sights.

The car bombs had hit a block away from our hotel. The first car bomb's mission was to destroy the blast wall that surrounded the perimeter of our compound. The second car bomber was to follow through the hole punched by the first bomber, and then detonate his explosives directly in front of the hotel. Can you say Oklahoma City?  But as usual, the bombers fucked up. The first bomb was too poweful, if there is suck a thing. The bomb left a huge crater and debris field in the road that the second bomber was unable to enter the compound, so he blew himself up right there at the gate.

Random thought: Palm trees smell really good when they are on fire, like roasting chestnuts. Human flesh smells like ground beef that has been left out in the hot summer sun for three days.

A woman wailed, hitting her own head and screaming uncontrollably. A U.S. soldier helped bandage another woman and her son injured by flying debris. Another man told of waking to the ceiling closing in on him.  He was lucky. The apartment building next door was no longer there. Just a 30-foot high pile of rubble stood where two families had lived. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers worked frantically with their bare hands, sifting through the rubble searching for victims.

Death hit close to home. Among the casualties were the family of Salam, the night manager of my hotel.  Salem is a quiet, gentle man; a short, stocky bald guy who reminds me of an Iraqi version of George Costanza who has been a good friend during my repeated visits to Baghdad. On Friday, Salem lost his 19-year-old son, a sister-in-law and a 7-year-old nephew. Dammit.

In the courtyard behind the hotel, the swimming pool was filled with shrapnel and bits of car. A piece of a car bumper landed on my balcony six stories above the pool, a good 100 yards from ground zero.

And then there was the head. The scalp and top-half of a man's face and ear were lying on the patio about a foot away from the pool. An undistinguisable piece of flesh was also nearby.  Later, an Iraq man with a red bag and gloves walked around picking up the bits of body. I watched as he meticulously picked up the pieces, scruitinizing between animal, plant, vegetable. But for some reason, he did not touch the head. He looked at it. He poked at it. But left it in its place as if some priceless artifact.

For the survivors, life goes on. I still had to work, write, shoot and file. I attended a meeting on our security situation. And I called home about 10 times during the course of the day. My editor asks me if I want to pull out of Iraq tomorrow. Nah. I think I'll stick around for a few days and help rebuild this place. Somebody fucking has to.  But I'll be home soon, inshallah.

Love, me

Greetings from Baghdad

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Hello all. I've arrived in Baghdad for my fifth working tour in Iraq. And what a trip! I entered the country through Dubai aboard Iraqi Airways. Two hours, $575 roundtrip (the same price I paid for the 6-hour flight from London to Dubai.

I get to Dubai airport and nobody has any record of my ticket. That smarts. That problem solved, I get to the airport and the plane is delayed. Big surprise. The plane is an old Boeing 737 that was literally being held together with duct tape (see Flickr photo blog). Fine flight until the landing. All planes coming into Baghdad land in a steep corkscrew so their entire landing takes place over the airport, making it harder to shoot down a plane.

We get to the airport and it's now pitch-black outside. So I go through customs, pay my $86 USD for an Iraqi visa, get a cool stamp in my passport, lose one of my bags when I accidentally put it down for a minute (I found it the next day), and retrieve my baggage, find a taxi to take me to the American checkpoint. My ride wasn't there. I'm alone. In the dark. In Iraq. Miles from Baghdad. And the Iraqi cell phone network was not working. I finally get through to my boss in Virginia. There was no way anybody was going to pick me up after dark, he says. So I had to sleep in the terminal. On the marble floor. While Iraqi night janitors went about their fruitless effort to clean the airport of its infinite dust. Welcome to Baghdad...suckers.

Meanwhile, the Pineapple Princess is going out tonight to the theatre on London's West End.  While I sit in a gloomy Baghdad hotel room watching "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle" for the 3rd time. In a month.

One for the road

londonwink 052
Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Inspired by a dude's website that contained a list of 2,000+ pubs that he's visited, I've launched a new Flickr photo set entitled simply "Pubs". It's a photographic journey of the pubs that your's truly, The Two Crabs, have frequented on our journeys around the globe. Take a look!

In the meantime, it's been a busy week. Speckled Hen/Pineapple Princess/She Crab has been sick and had to take two days off work. Meanwhile Old Scratch/Coconut/He Crab has been busy packing for his next adventure to Iraq. Details and photos TK.

After some beautiful weather last month, London has become, well, London. It's been rainy, cloudy all week, and now that the clocks went back, dark very early. Luckily it's still quite warm, about 65-70 everyday.

For foreiginers, it's a crazy time to be in London. This Saturday, Nov. 5, is the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night. It's a combination of American Independence Day, Halloween and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. It's also Britain has to an official national holiday.

In a nutshell, the holiday commeorates the failure of a terrorist to blow up Parliament. Guy Fakwes was a Catholic who, along with a small band of insurgents, planned to blow up the British Parliament building, killing the Protestant King James I and all the politicians inside. He nearly succeeded, smuggling in 2.5 tons of gunpowder into a cellar below the House of Lords. But two nights before his plan was to have been executed, he was discovered. (some say one of the co-conspirators got cold feet and warned his Catholic pals in Parliament, who subsequently told the authorities). Fawkes was tortured until he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, hung until half-dead, disembowled and finally drawn and quartered. King James I declared that bonfires be set on Nov. 5 to commemorate the failure of the "Gunpowder Plot."

In addition to bonfires, cities now burn effigies of Guy Fawkes as well as other people in the news including George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, and even the Pope (many have condemned this holiday as anti-catholic.) Before the bonfires, children make their own effigies that look like Guy Fawkes scarecrows and once went door-to-door asking for "A Penny For the Guy" (hence how the word "Guy" came to become known as man/person/dude).

But the real appeal of Nov. 5 are the fireworks displays. Practically every city, town, village and hamlet in Britain marks the anniversary with some sort of firework display. And fireworks are sold everywhere here even in Woolworths. And everything is legal here, including giant mortar rockets that produce nearly the same effects of professional fireworks (for about $35 apiece). Consequently, we've been hearing fireworks and firecrackers going off every night for the past two weeks until the wee hours of the morn! More details TK after this Saturday.

Random thoughts: We have yet to find a stick of butter in Britain. Seriously. All the butter comes in giant blocks. They are the same size as you see in an American supermarket, but instead of four little sticks, it's just a big block o' butter!