October 28, 2004

An egg in Baghdad: The price of UN sanctions

If armed conflict is part of the current fabric of a place, I avoid that place, but conflict sometimes oozes over, around and through borders and colors a journey, nevertheless. In March 1999, I made a surgical strike into Jordan, seizing a period of calm between storms to visit Petra, long at the top of my goals list. I will take you to that exquisite rock city in a separate post.

I’d planned to go to Jordan three months earlier, in December, but Saddam Hussein got in the way. He was a bad actor on a good day, and in December, there were no good days. A week before my scheduled departure, the U.S. and Britain began bombing Iraq, and Jordanians joined others in the Arab world in protest. King Hussein, one of the world’s most tireless peacemakers, allowed anti-U.S. demonstrations, provided they were orderly. I kept tabs on State Department travel warnings, loitered in chat rooms at Arabia Online and daily read The Jordan Times Web edition, trying to gauge the mood. Would I be safe? My husband, Mike, and I stayed glued to CNN, watching Christiane Amanpour’s live broadcasts from Baghdad, flak popping behind her, the city’s mosques glowing an eerie neon green. One evening, Amanpour signed off, and CNN cut to Amman, the streets alive with men massed in protest. I looked at Mike. “I’m postponing.” His relief was palpable. I called British Air and rebooked for March.

I landed in Amman one day after the official 40 days of mourning for King Hussein, who’d died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February. On the day of his funeral, I’d risen in Boston at 4 am to watch on television, and I cried some. I’d respected this man, a voice of reason and conciliation, for many years. I felt I’d lost a friend and knew the world had lost a man of peace. Ala’a Haddad, owner of the Amman franchise where I picked up my rental car, told me the sight of 40 world leaders gathered to pay final tribute to the king made him proud to be Jordanian. “You cannot know what it was like for us that day,” he said, recalling the feeling of knowing that Hussein, even in death, could make adversaries discover common ground. For a day, Greeks mourned with Turks, Israelis with Syrians, Americans with Iraqis.

As I traveled Jordan and got to know its powerful desert landscape and gracious people, U.S. and British planes dropped bombs daily over Iraq, Jordan’s next-door neighbor, and chased Iraqi planes from the northern and southern no-fly zones. American pilots were busy. Five days after I landed in Jordan, American B-2s began bombing Yugoslavia. NATO had had enough of Slobodan Milosevic. Every night, I’d watch the bombing campaign on television. Every day, I’d sightsee, in my long skirt, long-sleeved tunic, dark socks, flat shoes and headscarf. While America was not alone in pummeling Kosovo and pieces of Serbia, or in bombing Iraq and enforcing economic sanctions, much of the world looked at America and saw arrogance and aggression. I felt a heightened need to blend in. To see Jordan without being seen.

I drove across Jordan to Aqaba on the Red Sea. I stood in the sun on my hotel room balcony and took in four countries with a single sweep of my eyes. The beachfront before me was Jordan. To the left, Saudi Arabia met the sea. On my right, the windows of high-rises in Eilat, Israel caught sunlight and bounced it back into Jordan. Across the Gulf of Aqaba, the mountains of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula sat in a shroud of desert haze.

I turned back into my room and picked up an envelope someone had slipped under my door. In a letter dated March 25, Consul Charles Heffernan of the U.S. Embassy in Amman wrote, “To all U.S. citizens in Jordan: Following the commencement of Nato Military Operations on March 24 against Serbia-Montenegro, there is the possibility for acts of retaliation by Serbians and Serbian sympathizers against Americans and American interests worldwide. The department of state urges U.S. Citizens traveling or residing abroad to review their security practices and remain alert to the changing situation...” A second letter dated March 17 urged traveling Americans to “maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat mail from unfamiliar sources with suspicion” because of “Usama bin Laden, the Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi embassy terrorist bombings, the Iraq situation...”

I spent my last night in Jordan at the Alia Gateway Hotel near the airport. The TV in my room offered only a mullah reading from the Koran, so I hung out in the lobby, watching a large, bubbly group of Indonesian hajis enroute to Mecca. The Haj was in full swing, and Amman is a main transit point for flights to Riyadh and Jeddah. While all the men wore white robes, the women’s robes and head coverings spanned the color spectrum. Their pilgrimage brought them such joy that they seemed lit from the inside out.

In the lobby bar, I met an Iraqi expatriate on his way home from Baghdad to Newcastle, England, where he’d lived for 40 years. This was his first trip back to Iraq. He’d gone to see how he could help his relatives, suffering under UN sanctions. Sanctions prohibited direct flights to Iraq, so he’d flown from Newcastle to Amsterdam to Amman, then taken a dusty, 12-hour bus ride to Baghdad. Now, he was making the trip in reverse. He was exhausted, and profoundly sad.

“The West has no idea how the Iraqi citizenry is suffering,” he said. He would not call Saddam Hussein by name. “Him. I won’t say the name. He and his cronies are not suffering at all, but the rest of Baghdad is reduced to begging. One of my relatives rents a wing of his house. Now, the monthly rent for that apartment buys one egg.”

The morning moon was still high in the indigo desert sky when I checked in for my flight to London. The London-Amman flight ten days earlier had taken us directly over eastern Europe and the Balkans. The world had changed since then. When all the passengers were seated, the pilot announced over the loudspeaker, “Rest assured that we will be staying well clear of the Yugoslavian conflict...”

Travel can show you the beautiful and the brutal, sometimes in the same journey.

To read excerpts from Lori's "Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America," visit www.LoriHein.com