Sunday, October 30, 2005

Soldier of fortune

By: Anish Trivedi
October 30, 2005
Just about 18 months ago, I was packing my bags. For Baghdad. The allied invasion was over. Iraq had been liberated from slavery under Saddam. And a new world order was sweeping the streets, and everything else, clean.

This was the new land of opportunity. While Halliburton may have been making hay, thanks to the largesse of the US Vice Presidential office, there was enough reconstruction activity to excite the rest of the business world.

Including me. I was going to buy two radio stations, one in Baghdad itself. The other in Kurd country. As a business, it made perfect sense. It was significantly cheaper than trying to buy one in Bombay.

And as a new market, it offered far more possibility than the taxi drivers in this town who appear to be the only audience that our radio stations aim for. So there I was, spreadsheet in hand, ready to bet that I could give Iraqi youth their first fling with international entertainment in years.

I didn’t. Largely because I couldn’t go. Not that there was a problem getting a visa. Back then, no one knew who needed to issue a visa. So as long as the US military command didn’t mind my coming, all was well.

The problem was in just getting there. Two flights a week from Amman. If that. Because air traffic control in Iraq didn’t know how safe the corridor coming in was. It seems there were still a few 100 surface-to-air-missiles in existence in the hands of rebels. So ‘planes flew high over Baghdad airport. Then dived down in a narrow flight path that brought them to the ground. Hopefully with their fuselage intact. And passengers alive.

At the time I sat in Dubai trying to make it across to Amman so I could then make it over to Iraq, the corridor closed. The occupying force had discovered that there were more missiles on the ground than they’d previously thought possible.

Which meant tempting fate while catching a flight. While I am willing to go to most lengths to further my business and the reach of radio around the world, I draw the line at having to put my head between my legs hoping my ass will still be attached to them when I reach the ground. I opted to stay in Dubai.

Cowards don’t die

Which probably means I lost my last opportunity in a long while to see Iraq. In the week I waited in Dubai, a few dozen soldiers, mostly American, lost their lives in rebel attacks. The hotel in which I would have stayed, and indeed on whose roof the radio station I was buying had its transmitters, had gaping holes in the walls.

Rockets fired into the building didn’t kill anyone that week. But they played havoc with room service. While I wouldn’t quite call myself a coward, I do draw the line at being blown up. Or shot. Or kidnapped. It’s hard to run a radio station if your tongue’s been ripped out. Along with the rest of your head.

Since then, the body count has risen considerably. In this last week, a sombre ceremony counts the 2,000th American soldier to be killed in Iraq since the war of liberation began.

And then there are Brits. And the soldiers of other nations. And the journalists. And the contractors. All of whom have fallen victim to an unseen army. One that doesn’t want them there.

It can’t just be the Saddam supporters. The former dictator is behind bars. In no position to be summoning troops from his jail cell. The rest of his regime is decimated. With the various public enemies the US has tried to catch or killed.

Or captured. Which doesn’t leave much more than the citizens of the country. Who for some strange reason don’t appear to be too happy with their new found freedom. So when they’re not mowing down their own people, they’re killing soldiers.

Two thousand and counting.

Not that it’s going to stop. In his wisdom, something only he believes he has, Mr Bush has reiterated his desire to keep his soldiers there. To keep fighting a losing battle. To keep talking of peace when the presence of those men and women just prolongs the war. You’d think the man would get it. But then, let’s face it. He’s not very bright.

I never did buy those radio stations. It’s bad enough being in a city where email and text messages and telephone calls heap criticism on your jocks. To be in one where a missile is the only missive you get when you offend someone doesn’t make much sense. Not to me.

So there you have Baghdad. A city without peace. Without hope. And without radio. But come to think of it, given what we hear here, that’s not a bad thing.