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May 2007

Things that go boom

Img_5917_2 Friends and family have been emailing me, asking me what it's like in Baghdad these days.  I can sum it up in one word: SHITTY!

In the past 72 hours, violence across Iraq has gotten noticeably worse. Several British civilians were kidnapped from INSIDE a supposedly secure government building.  At least 122 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in May, the third highest death toll of the entire four-year war.  Media and other westerners are fleeing in droves.  Today from my balcony, I could hear a huge battle unfolding in western Baghdad: artillery shells, mortars, machine gun fire, lots of things that go boom. It was several miles away from my compound, but it sounded like it was practically next door.  Every time an artillery shell explodes, it makes a deep thump sound that you actually can feel in your chest even miles away.

That said, I feel pretty safe where I am at the moment, even though we are living in the "Red Zone." 

I know I've bitched about this before, but I can't reiterate it enough -- especially to the conservative bloggers and much of the public who have a misconception that all journalists are living INSIDE the Green Zone, enjoying the creature comforts there like movie theatres, gyms, pubs, even Burger King.  WE DO NOT LIVE IN THE GREEN ZONE!  The majority of journalists are living and working in downtown Baghdad, alongside Iraqi civilians and families.  Yes, our compounds are fairly-well protected, but we do not have U.S. soldiers with tanks stationed outside our front door.  Sadly, Baghdad is becoming so dangerous that a handful of reporters have moved into the Green Zone, but they are in the media minority.    For OPSEC (Operational Security) reasons, that's all I'll say on that topic.

There are moments of calm, when you might actually have hope for the future. I spent the afternoon today interviewing an Iraqi for an upcoming story. He is so confident of the future that he has invested thousands of dollars into starting a new business.  Over in western Iraq's Al Anbar province -- once a no-man's land -- violence is significantly down and many locals are now taking up arms AGAINST insurgents.

Which direction this war will take will likely be determined over the summer.

In completely unrelated random news:  I've actually made money off this blog!  I received a direct-deposit check from today for a whopping total of $10.17 to cover referral fees from some kind souls who actually bought books or CDs from Amazon through the links on this blog. A quarter here, a dollar there really adds up, and it only took me 18 months. At that rate, it will take me 15 years to earn $100 from Amazon, so I won't be becoming a professional blogger just yet.  Maybe I could turn a profit if I added some Iraqi porn!  Hmmmmm...

Cobra helicopter over Baghdad

Cobra helicopter over Baghdad
Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Today is Mrs. Crab's birthday! Happy birthday, my love! Mrs. Crab is currently stomping around Holland with my sister, who shall heretoforth be known as Mrs. Paris. I had a chance to call Mrs. Crab today as she was walking into am Albert Hein supermarket in The Hague (Den Haag) to buy stroopenwafels, which are a delicious Dutch cookie made of waffels and caramels.

Thanks to all the penicillin my translator/fixer bought me yesterday, I finally felt half-human today. I spent most of today covering the first diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran in nearly three decades (friends: see tomorrow's newspaper!). Not much breaking news, but fascinating story nonetheless for the fact that it even happened.

Came back to the bureau and attended a going-away party for a good friend who works at another paper. He and I keep running into each other at various sh*tholes around the world. Lots of shisha (hookah/nargila), whiskey and cheap Jordanian wine later, and I'm ready for bed.

Sick as a dog

Img_5845 The day I arrived in Baghdad, I started feeling ill. I chalked it up to fatigue from having traveled through eight time zones in less than 6 days.

But yesterday morning I woke up with a fever and the WORST sore throat ever.  I downed several Dayquil tabs, aspirin, Cipro, you name it.  I fell asleep about 8pm last night, only to be awaken about 2am drenched in sweat, burning alive, yet freezing and shivering uncontrollably. I had a very high fever, and a sore throat that was so painful I could not swallow.  I popped two NyQuils and went back to sleep. I still don't feel well.  And it doesn't help that I have a million stories to write, and a staff of four to manage.  Ugh.

I was so out of it last night that I slept through two loud explosions just down the street from our hotel.  Doh!

Yesterday me and my security detail drove to the Green Zone (officially called the International Zone) to renew my press ID card.  What a pain in the arse that turned out to be. What should have been a 20-minute, in-and-out process turned into a half a day.  The traffic in Baghdad is absolutely horrendous, partially due to the number of checkpoints that have been thrown up all over town. 

When I got to the Green Zone, every guard who saw my passport wanted to speak with me in Spanish. Why? Because all the guards in the Green Zone are Peruvian soldiers!   We all had a big laugh at being able to converse in Spanish at a US military base in Iraq.  How surreal, but it only further delayed my entrance.

By the time I got to the correct office, the soldiers who process the badges were out to lunch. Great. Sat around for an hour, then two. When it was finally my turn, I had to go through a tedious "biomatrix" screening, where a soldier took my digital fingerprints and several photos of my face & head from different angles. I don't know what they do with all that information, but somehow I get the feeling that my photos are now posted on some G.I.'s wall of shame display. 

Not much else to report, except to say that I had a good laugh this morning at the news that Lindsay Lohan had been arrested on drunk driving and cocaine charges. ROTFLMAO! 

Back in Baghdad

The world's most dangerous road: the seven-mile stretch of highway between Baghdad International Airport and downtown Baghdad.

Yesterday, my father was buried with full military honors at Quantico Marine Base, Virginia. I was not at the funeral. Instead, I was 7,000 miles away on a plane bound for Baghdad. 

I have mixed feelings about missing the funeral. But I was happy I got to see him before he passed away, and that he is finally at peace.  So life goes on, and I'm back at work in the war zone.

To get to Baghdad, I had to fly from London to Frankfurt to Dubai to Baghdad. Two days, three planes and nearly 4,000 miles later, I'm back in Iraq for the 8th (EIGHTH!) time since the war started in 2003. 

I flew from Frankfurt to Dubai on a Lufthansa Airlines Boeing 747. And judging by the racial makeup, it was clear most of my fellow passengers were also heading to either Iraq or Afghanistan.   Dubai, in addition to being the Las Vegas of the Middle East, has become the primary passenger hub in the war on terror, being close to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plane was full of Americans and British, mostly men, with "high-and-tight" haircuts of buzz cuts, carrying military style backpacks, rucksacks, some carrying diplomatic passports, reading military action paperbacks like Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc.  The American troops were wearing civilian clothes like baseball caps, T-shirts and shorts. Many had tattoos like eagles, swords, unit insignia, etc.  They could not have been more indiscreet.  Others were clearly not military because they had longer hair, but still fit the other profiles. They were probably "black-ops" -- special forces and mercenary-like private militias like Blackwater, etc.  There were also a few guys who fit the above profiles -- except they were, how shall I say this politely -- "volume-enhanced." Those big guys were probably Brown & Root/Halliburton-type private contractors -- those bastards who make $100,000 tax-free for a six-month tour.   Your tax dollars at work.

So I get to Dubai and sleep about 12 hours. The next day, I go on a hunt to find a sports bar to watch the European championship football match between Liverpool and AC Milan.  The front desk attendant refers me to a nearby hotel that has a British pub. Fine. So I go there a few hours before the game to grab some dinner and beer.  About five minutes after sitting down, I'm approached by a Chinese woman wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. She was at least 35 years old ... and partially deaf.  She starts asking me something, or I should say grunting. I can't understand a word she is saying, can't even tell if she is speaking English, and just shrug and throw up my hands.   Another woman next to us butts in and translates: "she asking if you want lady tonight!"  Call me naive but I suddenly had a moment of clarity. I look up and take note of the bar patrons: about 75% middle-aged men (mostly British), and 25% Chinese or Russian OVERLY-FRIENDLY young women.  Yup, I've stumbled right into a prostitute pick-up bar. Like I said, Dubai is quickly becoming Las Vegas, but without the casinos.

I quickly run out and head to another hotel across town called the Metropolitan Hotel, home to the Old Red Lion Pub. That's the same name as a pub near our London flat, so it had to be a good sign. It was. The Dubai Old Red Lion had a huge outdoor beergarden, where staff had set up large screens to project the game. This was more like it.  Unfortunately, the beer garden was located in a courtyard that shared space with a nightclub called the Rattlesnake that -- you guessed it -- was also a pick-up bar.  Throughout the game, women in high-heels and slutty outfits kept walking in front of the screen on their way to the nightclub, blocking the view of football fans watching the game.  By the first-half, I had enough, and went back to my neighborhood in search of a true sports pub.

There, I discovered the Old Vic at the Ramada. I realize that THIS was the bar that my concierge was originally talking about.  Now this was more like it. Dozens of patrons -- men, women and couples -- who were there for only one thing: football (soccer). And beer.  Of course, it was a wasted night, as Liverpool got handed their arse on a paper plate, losing 2-1.  As usual, an English team chokes in a finals game.

When I got to my hotel, I logged onto the Internet hoping to blog and upload some photos to Flickr. But strangely, FLICKR IS BANNED IN THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES!  I get a message claiming that Flickr is "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values" of the UAE. I'm gobsmacked! What the hell! Apparently, Flickr is also used to share porn and artistic nudes. But this just seems so hypocritical: hookers and liquor are okay in the UAE, but Flickr is taboo? But I guess it all comes down to appearances. For as liberal as the UAE has become, it's still an Islamic country.


The next morning I have to wake up at 4am to make my 7am Iraqi Airways flight to Baghdad. The plane is about half-full of Iraqis families back from shopping trips in tax-free Dubai, and random Brits and Americans. I recognize a few familiar faces from my Lufthansa flight.  The flight was an hour late leaving, but uneventful. I slept the entire way and did not wake up until we started into the now-routine spiral descent into Baghdad. When we get to the airport, the guards separate the passengers: Brown & Root / Halliburton employees on one line, all others in the right line.  More than 3/4 of the passengers go to the Brown & Root line.  Not many regular people traveling to Baghdad these days.

Baghdad itself hasn't changed much since I was last here in December, except it's a LOT hotter. The high today was 106 Fahrenheit, about 41 Celsius. And because of the Baghdad security crackdown, there were a lot more checkpoints. We passed about 7 checkpoints between the airport and my hotel, more than I have ever seen before. But most cars were being waved through without so much as a second glance.  Go figure.  It doesn't appear to be working because, despite the crackdown and 20,000 additional US troops, Baghdad is still hell on Earth.  This morning, a major bridge in Baghdad was bombed. Six US soldiers died around the country. Fiery anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has reappeared after four months in hiding. Inflation is way up ($1 USD = 1,216 Iraqi Dinars, down from 1,500 dinars in December). Iraqis are fleeing the country in droves. 

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Published photo

This photo of my father and sister was taken by my 13-year-old niece.  Two weeks ago, I submitted this photo for's "24 Hours of Flickr" project, which was seeking to compile photos taken on May 5, 2007.

On Monday, the day after my father passed away, I received an email from Flickr notifying me that the photo above will be published in the upcoming "24 Hours of Flickr" book! The photography bug has bitten my niece. She's getting full credit in the book, which will be published later this summer with proceeds going to charity.  I'll post details when I know more.

Final hours & days

Husband & Wife
Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

So my Dad, by some small miracle, is still with us. Hospice nurse says he has "a few hours, or a few days" remaining on this Earth. Relatives are flying in from all over the U.S. and Mexico to say goodbye. 

I posted a few black&white photos on Flickr.   Some of the pictures were taken by my 13-year-old niece.    Some people may find the images disturbing. I find them beautiful.

"Death may be the greatest of all human blessings" --Socrates

Yesterday I received the phone call. The call that, in the back of my mind, I knew would be coming eventually but that I never really believed would happen until it happened.

My father is dying.

He has less than 3 days left to live.

My father suffered a stroke on Thursday. He was already in the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease so this was not unexpected. But the stroke has just quickened nature's course.  He can't swallow. He can't eat. He can't drink. Not even water.  He is slowly dying of starvation and dehydration.

It hasn't really hit me. I'm not really sad. Perhaps that's because, to me, my father died four years ago. That's how long it's been since he's recognized me. 

My mind is a jumble of emotions. Not all nice. 

Tomorrow morning I'm flying home to Washington. My first time back in the United States in nine months. I'm not looking forward to the task of burying my father. But there is a bright side.

After 10 years of suffering, my father will finally be at peace.  As will all those who have cared for him, mainly my mother and sisters.  I don't know how they survived and kept their sanity all these years.  They are some of the bravest people I know.

God Save the Queen!

Queen Elizabeth II is touring my home state of Virginia today. The Queen and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinborough, will commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown -- the first permanent English colony in the Americas. 

Before moving to the UK, I was never particularly interested in the British Royal Family. But lately I find myself obsessed with every little piece of gossip surrounding the Royals: Prince William and Kate Middleton break up!  Prince Harry goes to war in Iraq!  Zara Phillips wins a gold medal in horse riding!  Prince Charles marries a horse! Prince William gets drunk and gropes a girl!    Philip is, umm, nothing.

I've seen the Queen twice since moving to London: once was a fleeting glimpse as her limo dashed past my office in Tottenham Court Road downtown. The second time I was only a few yards away from her when she arrived at the world premiere of "Casino Royale." 

This August 31 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. I was in Chicago at a friend's restaurant when I heard about the death. The bartender switched on the TV and everyone was engrossed, even in the Windy City.  She was the People's princess. A memorial benefit concert will be held in London on July 1, with headline acts Elton John and Rod Stewart, Duran Duran, Lily Allen and a few others.

Incidentally, If you haven't already, I urge you to go rent "The Queen" starring Helen Mirren. GREAT FILM!