Monday, December 20, 2004

GREETINGS FROM IRAQ

I finally found some time and energy to update the blog. I've been here for about a week now but in some ways, I feel like I've been here for a year.

But first I should tell you about my week prior to my arrival. I spent several days at a hostile environment training course run by ex-British military guys. On our first day as we were riding in a vehicle, our group was "ambushed" by guys carrying AKs and wearing black ski masks. Black hoods were placed on our heads and we had to lay face down on the forest ground. All of our possessions were taken from us and we were forced to lay there for about 10 minutes or so. It was a "sink or swim" introduction to the course, but I welcomed it as kidnappings are a major concern in Iraq. We spent the rest of the week learning about first aid (how to treat a person whose hand has been blown off by a landmine), weapons and ammunition, the differences between various mortar rounds, and how to roll/crawl during mortar attacks/gun battles. I've actually shot an AK before, but am by no means a ballistics expert so all the information provided was greatly appreciated. By the end of the course, my clothes were splattered with mud and fake blood. During one of the first aid scenarios, fake blood squirted into my eye.

I suppose it was a good way to begin my trip, but a bit surreal. I then drove to Iraq through the Turkish border, which gave me the opportunity to see more of the Iraq countryside. The geography here is amazing. There are jagged, rusty colored mountains with dusts of snow on top across from rolling hills draped with carpets of moss. It is definitely a lot colder here than I thought it would be and since we don't have a proper heating system, I take a lot of breaks to huddle around the kerosene heat lamp in the office.

I am in an area that is safer than the rest of the country, but everyone is a bit on edge, especially with the elections approaching. So far, the voting process has been very disorganized and many election officials don't even know what is going on, which gives me little hope that they will go well. Still, some natives I have talked to expressed the importance of identifying themselves as Iraqis as opposed to their ethnic/religious group, which always lifts my spirits.

We have been talking about what we will do for Christmas, although there is no real sense of the holidays here. I've seen a few random Christmas trees, and we have one in our office. But other than that, Santa is MIA. We've also been told by the locals to not attend any parties where a lot of foreigners are gathering as we would be targets for insurgents.

I've managed to talk to my husband a few times since I arrived, but it's actually a lot harder for us to communicate with both of us in Iraq because the cell phone networks are unreliable. We've realized that we can really only talk at night, and that's only after a few tries. And it's strange to be several hours away from each other, but not be able to see each other. Still, we might as well be on other sides of the world as our days are so different. He's been spending his time searching for weapons caches and conducting raids while I'm planning training courses for the local population and visiting co-workers' families.

In any case, this is what I came here to do and I'm even more convinced that I made the right decision. I've been told countless times that the training I'm doing is desperately needed so I already feel like I'm making a contribution. And I've already met people who I know will be friends for the rest of my life. So although everyone stares at me like I'm an alien, I feel like I've already formed a bit of a family here.