Monday, June 26, 2006

Leaving Baghdad

We made it safely to the States. Here is some background information on what it's like travelling out of Baghdad.

I first travelled to Baghdad back in June 2001, during Saddam's reign, when I was visiting my husband's terminally ill grandfather. Back then, we had to fly in to Amman, Jordan and then rent a car to drive into Baghdad. Baghdad International Airport was closed because of international restrictions, and so no one could fly into the country. Whoever wanted to visit their family in Baghdad made the average 12 hour drive (including tme spent at the borders) from Amman. I made this car trip about three times, once during Saddam's time, and twice after that. During that first car trip, the time at the Iraqi border (Traibil) was quite scary for me. I remember having to be careful of the books that I brought with me, of the gold I wore, of the money we had on us. I remember having to pay off one of the border guys not to give me a required ($50) AIDS test; I was too worried that their needles would give me something. I felt the terror grip that Saddam had on his countrymen most during that border search.
My next two car trips were after the fall of Baghdad. During the first one (October 2003), we drove right through, without anything but our American passport. No luggage search or body search or visa. But we faced the first signs of Iraq's chaos during that trip when our driver told us of the very real danger he faced of car jackers around the Ramadi/Falluja area. During one stretch of a one-way highway, we saw some cars that had turned around and were driving 'wrong side' as the Iraqis say. The driver saw this and told us that this was a sign of a car jacking that had happened, so the cars turned around in fear of the same fate. Our driver turned our car around, but after a while, when the danger subsided, turned back around and we continued on our way.
The second time around(December 2003)at theIraqi border, our car was given a mirror search from the outside, and my husband had to show his father's Iraqi citizenship. It was still quite easy to get into the country, but the fear of car jackers was just as real. We had to stop our car outside of the Falluja/Ramadi area because we reached it after dark. We slept in the car that night, along with a bunch of other cars stopped for the same reason. Around sunrise, we continued on our way to Baghdad.

A few months later, airport traffic was opened for limited useage, and plane tickets went for about $600/one way from Baghdad to Amman on Royal Jordanian. To put that in perspective, you pay about $200 for a roundtrip flight from Cairo to Amman, about the same distance as Baghdad to Amman. So the prices are about six times the regular fare. Today, more flights are available out of BIA, but the prices continue to be high because of security issues (cheapest fare from Baghdad to Amman is $350/one way on Iraqi Airways. RJ is still around $600/one way). Flights are not yet available to Western countries, so to fly to the US, I had to take a flight to Amman, and then pay for another flight from Amman to the US for the following day. Security-wise and comfort-wise, its much better than the car ride across the border. (Flights open now to Cairo, Dubai, Damascus, Erbil, Istanbul, Tehran. Erbil Airport has flights to London and Frankfurt.)

Driving to the airport, you pass through about 4-5 different checkpoints. The first couple of checkpoints you just show your badge/ID card. For regular cars (non-military/non-VIP), there's a long line that you have to wait in to get to the search points. One is a dog search, another a mirror search and then a body search. Outside the airport, there's another dog search of each piece of luggage before you enter, followed by another body search. The same occurs inside the airport. So, taking into account the numerous searches and long car lines, an average Iraqi has to give himself a good four hours to make it to the airport before his short flight. An additional security measure is taken by all planes flying out of and into BIA: planes must spiral up into the air, instead of ascending at an angle, to avoid RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), etc. There's another really weird measure for non-Iraqis: the exit visa. To leave the country, I have to get an exit visa, and not from the airport. I don't know if any other country has this added bureaucratic measure. But all of that is a step forward, from a country which had its major international airport shut down for the 13 years of sanctions (the airport itself is quite nice/modern from the inside).

7 comments:

misneach said...

It's good to see that at least some progress is being made somewhere in Iraq.

How was it going to the states? I hate flying in and out of the states, there are 5 security checks for everyone flying internationally into America (at least the last few times I've flown) regardless of where you come from. And the charming people at customs and immigration make you feel about as wanted as a leech on a warm summers day. No other country (other than America) have I seen them make their own citizens fill out a "customs" form that asks if you've been associating with terrorists. Ain't the "land of the free" great?

yelling_at_the_radio said...

Glad to see you had a safe trip. Have you ever considered writing a book about your experiences?

I love Munich said...

My goodness - what an ordeal!!! It is good you mention all that - I can not imagine many people knew what an odyssey that indeed is! Thanks so much for sharing! I'm just very happy you made it safely - when will you return to Baghdad? Have a GREAT time and ... RELAAAAX!!
P.S.: I can only echo the suggestion of "yelling at the radio" concerning a book!!

Truth About Iraqis said...

Fatima,

Can you email me?
truth.about.iraqis@gmail.com

it's rather urgent ...

Anonymous said...

We're happy you're back, if only some one else would come as well.

Riot Starter said...

Reminds me of my own trip out of there...maybe oneday I will make a post about that..or well, I'll make a blog about all these funny incidents about life in baghdad..and leaving and all of that.

Fatima said...

Misneach, you had my sister in law and I chuckling when we read your comment. Didn't realize other countries don't have this 'customs' form.

Yelling and Munich, thanks for your good words and support.

Anon: Amen!

Riot: Would love to read your experiences.