TCS Daily


Greetings From Camp Arkansas

By Jay Hallen - September 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: What follows is an email sent from Jay Hallen to his friends and family back in the United States. Hallen recently arrived in Baghdad and is working for the Coalition Provisional Authority on its efforts to get the Baghdad Stock Exchange up and running. Hallen works out of the Office of Private Sector Development, a group that's responsible for privatization of state-owned industry and coordinating foreign investment.

 

We at TCS thought you would be interested in a first person, eyewitness account of what some of the day-to-day life is like during the reconstruction of Iraq.

 

Hi there,

 

I hope everyone's doing well. I've been in Baghdad for five days now, working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (aka CPA, aka coalition government) and I finally have a laptop and some free time, so here is the obligatory mass email update. Apologies in advance because this email is pretty long; I have a bad habit of rambling.

 

So many things going on at once, it's hard to know where to begin. I guess I'll start by saying that I feel safe where I live and work, in and around the former Presidential Palace in central Baghdad. I appreciate the well wishes and concerns that many of you have expressed.

 

Please know that I'm in what is probably the safest place in the whole country, and while I'll never be complacent, on the whole things are definitely not as bad as they appear in the media. Of course, my one time outside of the green zone (any area guarded by soldiers, in which you have to show ID or get searched to enter) was coming in from the airport, so that will change when I occasionally have to go out into the city, starting in the near future. But when I do, those in my office use a non-descript Ford Taurus, which is certainly safer and less conspicuous than a Humvee or a large SUV, which most other CPA people drive. And you always have two shooters in the car as well, in addition to a bullet proof vest and helmet.

 

My main job responsibility here is to manage the re-establishment of the Baghdad Stock Exchange. There's an Army civil affairs guy who's been working on the project for a few months, has made some good contacts and has found some good potential properties that I'll view this week, so there's some good groundwork. But I'm the head CPA person in charge. My job is to know exactly what needs to get done, what skills and expertise and money and equipment are needed, and to contact/hire the right people.

 

One of the great things about working here is soliciting help. All the people I've contacted in the States are eager to pitch in and make it a top priority, because of the high visibility and PR benefits of the project.  This morning I met with a group of Iraqi securities dealers, who we're organizing into a formal body, and one of my next priorities will probably be asking Ambassador Bremer (head of the CPA) to sign a statement firing the former heads of the Baghdad Stock Exchange, because they're either Baathists or friends and family of Saddam.

 

I work with an energetic, smart, and diverse group of people, whom I like a great deal. This is a good thing because we spend incredible amounts of time together. We work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Fridays people take a half-day, but that's the extent of the weekend. When you consider the limitations on any semblance of social life here, there are no distractions. And as with anything in life, you get used to it. My office has 10 people in it, among them 6 Americans (3 civilian, 3 military), a Libyan-Brit from Citigroup in London, a former Iraqi Army officer who defected in the 80's, a former Polish deputy economic minister, and a Romanian Army colonel (gotta love the "new Europe" representation).

 

As I said earlier, I live in the Palace. It's very cool to live in a Palace. If you ever have the chance to do so, do so. I have never seen so many chandeliers in my life. Even in the most mundane side rooms, there are chandeliers and beautiful tiling on the floor, walls, and ceiling. And in the same room, you also might find bullet holes in the curtains, so it's an interesting juxtaposition. By far the most beautiful room is the chapel.

 

There are about 2,500 or 3,000 people on the whole Palace grounds (the Palace and maybe 10 surrounding acres), of which there are 1,000 civilians and 1,500-2,000 military. The people, civilian and military, are about 75% American, 15% British, and a smattering of Australians, Spanish, Italians, Poles, Romanians, and even a Ukrainian or two.

 

The whole green zone feels like a college campus: roughly the same number of people, everyone does different things during the day, but in the same buildings, and uses the same living, dining and recreational facilities. It's a small world, and there's nothing like a dangerous, uncomfortable, or just plain different environment to create a sense of closeness among people.

 

There are giant trailer parks (I live in one of them) surrounding the Palace, and some unfortunate people live on cots in the north wing, and the really unfortunate ones in 500-to-a-tent tents full of bunk beds on the front lawn.

 

But the lucky ones live in the Al-Rasheed hotel, about a mile away by shuttle bus, still in the green zone. The Al-Rasheed was specifically built by Saddam to house heads of state and dignitaries, so it's pretty lush. The lobby is, at least, I hear the rooms aren't. There are 3 restaurants, 2 bars, and a nightclub in the Al-Rasheed, which provide a nice diversion from the greasy fare at the large dining room in the Palace. I'm hoping to move there eventually. The Al-Rasheed also boasts many, many shops of Iraqi rugs, Saddam watches and other memorabilia, and t-shirts saying things like "Iraq: Opening Soon Under New Management."

 

Last night I went to a stand-up comedy show by a group of Americans who are traveling around Iraq performing for the troops at the newly renovated Baghdad Convention Center, which is down the street from the al-Rasheed. I'd never heard so many France jokes.

 

My trailer is in the section known as Camp Arkansas because it's hundreds of trailers on an ugly expanse of dirt. You have to hike through a Humvee parking lot to get there. I lived with the head water resources guy from the Army Corps of Engineers, a portly 50-something year old guy from West Virginia, until he mysteriously had moved out when I came home last night, probably to escape from me or something. I didn't mind, he wasn't what you'd call sweet-smelling. He was a neat guy though, definitely the type I wouldn't meet anywhere else.

 

And you might be wondering about the weather. Well, when I went back to get something from my trailer this afternoon, I looked at my trusty digital thermometer and it read 113. That's right, 113. I can now proudly say I can feel the difference between 90, 100, and 113. The early mornings and late nights are nice, it gets down to the 70s, but the few hours in the middle of the day are absolute hell. And you just can't escape from the dirt and dust, it's everywhere, you track it everywhere. Thank God for air conditioning.

 

The Iraqis I've met are extremely gracious and supportive of us. But then again, any Iraqi that I, as a CPA person, would come in contact with probably would be (unless he's throwing a grenade at me, of course). But seriously, they are a great people, and maybe it's the naivete of being here less than a week, but I have very high hopes for this country. The reconstruction effort is thriving, so many incredible initiatives going on at once that never get any publicity. The Americans and other coalition people are so dedicated to the cause, and they are very talented and accomplished people, and the Iraqis I've met are very supportive and eager themselves. I was very impressed with the securities dealers I met today, who are very well-educated and eager to work with us 100% of the way.

 

It's been a new experience living among the military personnel. They outnumber us civilians by quite a bit, and I've gotten to know a bunch of them. It's sobering to think how the soldiers at the table next to me are the ones you hear about on the news at home, being shot at during their patrols of the city. What I can't get over is how young they all are. 80% of the soldiers -- from all countries, male and female -- are younger than I am, in the 18-22 range. And they are unbelievably mature for their age, all with impeccable manners, doing a job that most of us would absolutely loathe. What I'm doing is really nothing compared to what they do every day. It's hard to imagine that the people defending America are in high school and college, but they are.

 

I spent 3 days in Kuwait City before coming to Baghdad. Kuwait City feels more like Phoenix or Las Vegas than what you'd expect an Arab city to be. It's sprawling, rich, modern, artificial, very hot, and in a physical environment that was never meant for human settlement. Unlike Las Vegas, though, there's a total ban on anything fun. I went to a restaurant the first night there (the hotel people recommended TGI Friday's) and settled for a "tequila-flavored margarita." I thought a felt a buzz for a while, but then realized it was just exhaustion.

 

And you can see the burning oil wells from the plane when landing in Kuwait at night. I did have some great food and enjoyed lying on the beach and swimming in the Gulf. And I got to go to one of the only water parks in the Middle East. There was a mosque inside the park where people went in to pray at the appointed hour, and the only female there was 8 years old and fully clothed, rather than in a bathing suit like the rest of us.

 

In Kuwait I was issued a gas mask and trained on how to use it, along with a full set of Army fatigues, the vest and the helmet, and several hours of training on how to identify all kinds of explosive devices. I learned fun stuff like the four kinds of explosive ordnances -- stationary (mines), thrown (grenades), dropped (bombs), and launched (mortars). The instructors there went out of their way to scare us about the dangers of Baghdad, like getting hit by RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and driving over IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which are remote-control explosives laid down in the middle of the road, lodged into soda cans, dead animals, or the like. They succeeded.

 

We flew up to Baghdad in an Air Force C-130 cargo plane from Camp Wolf, one of the main U.S. bases in Kuwait, in the middle of the desert. That was pretty harrowing. You sit facing each other, your back to the side of the plane, and you wear earplugs because the engines are so loud. On approach to Baghdad, we suddenly banked very hard to the left, over 45 degrees, then to the right, then up, then down, for several minutes, to avoid the threat of surface-to-air missiles. Under other circumstances it would have been fun, but I was pretty relieved to be on the ground. We drove from the airport, on the far west side of the city, to the Palace in a long military convoy. We went as fast as possible (speed is your best defense), and zigzagged when going under any overpass, because those are some favorite places to drop grenades. The west side of the city (Palace is on the west bank of the Tigris, which bisects the city) is more modern, very residential, with lots of nondescript apartment towers and small dust-covered houses. The east side of the river, which I haven't seen yet, is the older, more interesting part.

 

So that's the update. Apologies for rambling on way too long here; I have such limited access to email or phone that I haven't really had a chance to tell anyone about any of this. If I write another mass email, I promise it won't be anywhere near this length. But I will send some digital photos, once I get the software properly installed. I'll do my best to communicate individually as well. Hope you're all well, and I'll see you in an undetermined number of months.

 

Take care,

 

Jay

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