Ask the guy in Baghdad

That’s it, ask away. I am dying of boredom and any interaction would be a blessing.

I’m an aid worker living in Baghdad. I don’t live in the green zone, but out in the city proper. I won’t give too much information on my location, or work beyond vague descriptions for security reasons.

I used to be a charter member on these boards, but I let my membership slip. I first came to Iraq in the summer of 2003 shortly after the fall of Baghdad. At that time I was working on a project to build and supply schools. Off and on, I"ve been coming back to Iraq to work on various aid projects. This current deployment is for six months, but I’m sure I could stay longer if I wanted.

I tried one of these ask the guy in Baghdad things back in 2004 to less than stellar results (something like 4 responses). But as I said I am bored beyond tears.

I think I have a fairly unique perspective on Iraq. I was here at the beginning of the war and I’ve dropped in periodically ever since. I’ve been to pretty much every major city in the country, often times by car and pretty much by myself (back in 2003). I first arrived in Iraq in a cargo plane and I have had to walk out of the country on foot twice.

My main diversions are the internet and satelite TV (mostly BBC news and Mythbusters)

Because of the time difference, I probably won’t be on line when you post, but I will check it every day (did I mention I was bored?).

Having been there previously, how do you find the current mood of the country compared to the earlier visits? If the US news media is believed, Iraq is either in the midst or a civil war, or just on the edge of one. How do you see it.

How is development and the return of civil services going?

Do the people you encounter believe they are better off now or under Saddam?

Did you ever catch anybody eyeballing you in a threatening way?

Generally speaking, what is your perception of the behavior of the soldiers you undoubtedly see regularly?

How do the Iraqis perceive you and your fellow aid workers, and how is that different from their perception of the soldiers?

Those three will get you started, I think. Good luck, be safe, and thank you for doing good things for the Iraqis. They deserve a chance.

I just got in about a week ago, so my view is changing.

A lot of Iraqis I know have very mixed views of things. Many of them say that they are glad that Saddam is gone, but that the price is too steep. A lot of them feel that the US bungled things in the beginning. I am amazed at our national staff who are really putting their lives on the line for this project. If word got out they even worked on an aid project they are open to reprisals or kidnapping for ransom, yet they come in and work hard every day.

I’ve always said that if this country doesn’t break apart it will be because the Iraqi people committed to getting it right.

One thing I notice is that there doesn’t seem to be the same national identity of 3 years ago. When I first came here, I was really impressed by the fact that there was clearly a sense that being an Iraqi meant something. I worked in the Balkans and no one there described themselves as a Yugoslav, it was Albanian, Serb, Croat, etc.

Now people are quicker to identify themselves as Shia, Sunni, Turkomen, whatever. It’s a very troubling trend and can’t lead to anything good.

Development is hard. A lot of what we are doing is trying to restore things that were looted in 2003. I find it really frustrating that we are burning millions just trying to get back what I believe were preventable losses. As for services, they aren’t much better than 2004.

Every time I come here I feel things are worse off then the previous trip. I do feel that things were more bustling in the economy in 2003. Of course, this is my personal experience. Back then, we used to go out to dinner, visit Iraqis in their homes and so on. Now that would just be suicidal and no business owner would want to be known as catering to internationals.

Oddly enough, for me, things seem safer. Attacks on aid workers and the internationals in the green zone are way down as the insurgents are apparently fighting each other more. There are explosions and small arms fire pretty regularly around town, they seem to be at about the same levels as 2004. There was a big blast this morning around 6.30 am (no idea what it was).

Airman yeah I have had some scrapes. I was stuck in traffic one time and there was a guy not three feet away from me with an AK 47 just screaming at me in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic, but it was pretty clear he didn’t like me too much. I’ve also been shot at on the road between Mosul and Baghdad (in 2003) but that could have been anything. Everyone has a gun. I also had a pretty crazy scrape in Tikrit (Saddam’s hometown).

When you say soldiers, I’m assuming you mean US soldiers? When I first came here I was interacting a lot with US Marines who were with a civil affairs unit. They were a reserve unit from CA. I really liked them, they were hard working and really committed to getting it right. I think because they were a reserve unit, a lot of the guys seemed older and a little more focused.

I don’t have too much interaction with the US military now, every once in a while I can get onto the Green Zone, where there is a PX with American junk food and a Burger King. Other than saying hellow to a guard or standing in line, we just dont’ interact.

I’ve seen some of the young soldiers that I thought was needlessly confrontational. I’ve seen a young soldier at a gate get frustrated and really cuss out an older Iraqi gentleman, which is really socially taboo here. I also have seen guys get way too trigger happy. I had a business meeting with this Iraqi contractor who was doing some reconstruction work for us, on the way over to my office he got too close to a US convoy and the American troops killed everyone in the car. I can understand the US soldiers being jumpy but that kind of thing happens every day and it is really erroding good will.

Most of the Iraqis I deal with work with me and are very positive. Like most people, they mostly put aside whatever feelings they might have about the US government and take me for who I am. Given that I am working on aid projects, the Iraqis I deal with are usually fairly appreciative of our efforts.

If it’s not too personal why or rather how did you get into aid work ? When were you in the Balkans ? Was it the first time round or for Kosovo ?

I realise those two questions don’t really fit with the OP si here’s a more lighthearted one - does amazon deliver over there ? if you’re a reader where do you get your books from ? is there an infomal pass it on system ?

What’s the nature of the agency you work with? Religious/secular, US/UN/other?

How long have you been doing aid work?

Is it always warzones, do you and/or your employer also go to natural catastrophes or places where things are “simply bad”? (Most people I know don’t think of a 10-year-drought as a “catastrophe” because, although the consequences are catasthropic, it doesn’t give news footage of stuff moving fast and broken houses)

Cat Jones I was in Kosovo and that was my first time in the Balkans. I was there 1999-2000. I’ve done some other small stuff in the Balkans, but Kosovo was the longest, most involved.

I have a system set up where my wife in DC can send stuff to my home office, also in DC that can get to me. I came out with a pretty good library and you can always find people to trade. Every two months I get a ticket home, so I plan to load up.

Now, with the Internet, it is amazing the content you can get online. I subscribe to Atlantic Monthly and I get access online to a pretty big library. I also spend a lot of time on the SDMB, I mean reading every post on the front page of each section and waiting for someone to post a new one. It can actually get kind of unhealthy. There is just nothing to do.

I have an undergrad degree in Russian Studies and a MA in International Relations. When I got out of school, I answered an ad in the Washington Post and that was pretty much it. I’ve spent some time working in DC for the home office supporting field offices, but I’m not good at it and I hate it.

Nava I work for an NGO that is funded mostly through USAID which is the chief agency for delivering foreign aid. It is entirely secular and in theory apolitical, although that’s not really possible in this environment.

I don’t work exclusively in war zones, but I have kind of carved out a niche as a person who will go to high risk areas and work. I’ve worked in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Mindanoa province in the Phillipines and I lived in Siberia for quite a while.

Most of my work has been in supporting democracy and governance development and providing assistance through small grants to rehabilitate schools, hospitals, etc. I don’t do too much of the kind of work people think of as traditional aid work (bags of rice and refugee camp operations).

Why are you so bored? Is the nature of your job such that you don’t have enough to do? And how do you assess the effectiveness of your work?

I’m bored during my off hours. When we are not at work we are prisoners in our compound. I’m with three other internationals with whom I don’t have much in common. We each have our apartment and because of security concerns are prevented from leaving the ground of our building. Friday, for example is my day off and I will spend it pacing in my apartment and probably writing work emails. It’s not like we can go to the park, or even the store. We’re really prisoners here.

As far as assessing the efficacy of work, when a project is developed, there usually is a monitoring and evaluation component. This establishes performance benchmarks, for example the number of schools buillt or hospitals rehabilitated, number of students graduated from a program, etc.

As far as long term efficacy that gets trickier and much more murky.

How did you think about the prospect of war in Iraq prior to March 2003? Has your experience in Iraq changed your views?

There’s been a lot of criticism of the press here recently for not showing the “good” side of what’s going on in Iraq. How do you view that debate? Do you think the press is just chasing the blood and guts stories that cast things in a negative light, or is the chaos and violence there really undoing what good is being done?

On a lighter note, what are your favorite trinkets/gifts to bring back from Iraq? And can I get one? :slight_smile:

So does Baghdad look like a suburb of Istanbul? (I keed, I keed)

There’s been a complaint that we here in america are getting more bad news than good news, from what you can see online, do you agree with that statement?

For some reason I find that terribly depressing.

Do people in your profession and situation ever talk about Margaret Hassan? Of all the hideous kidnap/murders, that struck me as the most disgusting. Does her fate weigh on your minds? Do you have armed guards?

Is there anywhere you could engage your time learning Arabic? Might alleviate the boredom as well as make life a bit easier.

Wow, if you can’t even leave your compound, it seems like it’d basically be impossible to do your job effectively. I mean, everything is happening off-site, and it’s all really out of your hands, isn’t it? Isn’t that a little demoralizing, in terms of having a sense of accomplishment about your job?

Sorry – I’m not trying to bum you out. Is there anything good you could tell us about your experience there?

Ravenman I was opposed to the war when Bush was gearing up. I had some friends who refused to work on any development projects in Iraq out of protest. To me, that attituded seemed to punish the Iraqi people twice, they need assistance regardless of what you think of the war.

When I first came to Iraq in the summer of 2003, I was a bit surprised. People did in some cases greet the troops as liberators. I was free to move around and I met a lot of Iraqis who were supportive. I thought to myself that maybe I was wrong and that the US would be able to pull it off.

But I think two decisions have doomed the effort: the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the failure to stop the looting. The Iraqi Army was available to be reconstituted and put to work on repairing roads, bridges, etc. I think disbanding them (with their weapons, btw) was a disater and turned hundreds of thousands of armed men loose into society.

Not stopping the looting was the other disaster. When Saddam fell, everyone was kind of holding their breath to see who was in charge. When the looting went on and US troops did nothing to stop it, it sent the signal that no one was in charge and fueled the anarchy. Most of what I do is just trying to get things to their pre-looted state, forget about making progress beyond that.

I think that the best case scenario now is for a kind of Saddam Lite, by that I mean a dictator who allows some access to the outside world and doesn’t torture quite as much as his predecessor. I think a complete breakup of the country is more likely.

My feelings on the war in 2003 were that I thought it was a bad idea, but if the US is going to do it, they better do it right. I think the occupation has been hampered by incompetence at the top and that the US didn’t have enough troops and now I don’t even know what ‘winnable’ would mean in this context.

My problem with the press coverage is more for its lack of sublety. I just don’t think they give much depth to help people understand what’s really going on beyond that stuff is blowing up. I don’t think things are going better than the press would have you believe. I think things are going very badly here and we might be past the point of fixing it.

As for trinkets, most of what I see are knockoff rolex watches and zippo lighters. Maybe a bottle of sand?

Sorry for the long answer to the short question.

NurseCarmen as I said above, I think things here are pretty horrible. If anything, I wish people could get a better, more nuanced understanding of how bad things are. I read about that photo on Dailykos and now he has a generic picture of the Baghdad skyline up on his website instead. I want to try to get into that hotel and take the same picture now because a couple of the buildings in his picture taken last year are bombed out now. Kind of a before and after.

Sal Ammoniac I leave my compound during the work day to visit sites, but it is crazy dangerous and when we are home from work we are buttoned up. We use our Iraqi staff for a lot of the verification and site visits and we then follow up with site visits from other staffers. We are also subject to outside audit.

It is a very difficult place to work to be sure and verification is an issue. So is building things that then get blown up again. To do this work you have to be philosophical. Personally, I think of it as throwing spageghetti at a wall, some sticks, some doesn’t.

The best thing about my experience is the Iraqi people. Our national staff are risking their lives to get something built. A lot of the people we provide assistance to are amazing. I meet teachers who haven’t been paid working in schoolhouses without windows or toilets, or doors, or anything to educate kids. Doctors with hardly any facilities who are responding to 3 or 4 car bombings a day. There are people here putting everything on the line to try and make things better for future generations, if that’s not positive, I don’t know what is.

Man, you have 100% of my admiration for being over there and helping. Do you know of a good way that us average schlubs could help the Iraqis? I figure since our leaders FUBAR’d it but good, maybe us, ahem, “lesser” types could help repair some of the damage.

mojave66 thanks, that was a nice thing to say.

If you wanted to donate money, the Intenational Committee for the Red Cross ( lets you donate to specific countries. The money would go to Iraq’s Red Crescent who are really out on the front lines of things.

If you weren’t in Iraq now where would you be ? I mean you say some people refused to go to Iraq as an anti-Bush statement. Where are they currently working, did you have a choice - Iraq or nation state X ?

I have no real questions, I’m afraid, but you are welcome to e-mail me if you’re interested at to chat, or whatever. I love getting e-mail and will always respond promptly.

Cat Jones if I wasn’t in Iraq, I’d probably be back in DC, working for an NGO’s headquarters supporting projects overseas. In my line of work people tend to mover around from outfit to outfit a lot, you kind of follow the projects not the company. The people who passed on Iraq are working in Africa, or Asia or wherever.

I’ve kind of agreed with my wife that this is my last war zone deployment. She works in the same field, so we will probably try to find a joint posting overseas someplace where we can start a family.

Anaamika thanks for your kind offer, I’ll probably take you up on it the next couple of days.