The sky was always layered with soot from the power plant in the middle of the city, and you would pass through it when you descended through the cloudless sky to the airport. On the ground, you could look up and see it laying there still. It hung without movement like a nebulous black veil watching over the people, faded and motionless and its venomous odour fell and stuck into every breathing space in the city. To my foreign senses, Baghdad was like a snake bite to the nose.
If you followed the plume of pollution along its lingering trail it would lead you to the giant chimney that piked up above all its surroundings, belching the remains of whatever it is they burnt in there to keep the lights on. Someone once told me that the environmental decay over Iraq could be seen from outer space.
On the outskirts far from the extremities of the city walls, small balls of fire glowed day and night ceaselessly as the associated gas from the oil wells is burnt off into the atmosphere, teaming with the chimneys charred miasma. Look again at night, and the city appeared to be surrounded by grieving giants circling the city with enormous candles. If you had the courage or the lunacy to follow the white line nightmare of the dilapidated motorways north, past the unfinished slip roads, the fires, the abandoned excavation sites, burnt out vehicles and endless shredded rubber, eventually you would enter the notional caliphate of 2014, and pass into a man-made hell on earth.
What the city felt like at that time was quite terrifying. It was being abandoned by the world in every direction and bubbling into a rogue state as control dwindled, and corruption prospered. The Islamic state propaganda films had been circulating through the city, bouncing from embassy to embassy and around the security contracts on seedy, whorish memory sticks. At the British embassy, where I was part of six man security team, there was a vortex of panic diplomatically and publicly. Time was syphoning out all hope of potential intervention. Thousands were fleeing and choking the airport to escape with as much as they could carry, wads of Denar in sweat-drenched palms and suitcases bulging with probably what they could never replace. Iraqi politicians showed their true colors and recoiled in horror and had their security escort teams poised in the carparks day and night, engines on, ready to bolt through the city and to the airport as soon as the airlines gave their last flight notice.
The only avenue of escape was by air, and the commercial aircrafts were starting to get shot at. They were getting uncomfortable and were pulling out the closer the front line of Daesh progressed towards the city, towards their objective. Once the airlines stop their services, international diplomatic missions would have to be liquidated, or managed outside of the country. Evacuation drills were being rehearsed at the embassy; either Special forces from Kuwait in Black Hawks would come and get us, or, if feasible, a flat stretch of desert was nominated somewhere outside of the city for a possible Hercules C130 landing. But if the exodus began, the roads would be impassable with people in flight, and from that point, there was no further contingency plan. Get behind the blast walls, fill the towers on the corners with all of the ammunition, barricade the gates with armoured vehicles and deflate the tires, then begin to ration water and food. Then the videos started trickle feeding through to the west.
Relations continued within the panic with one foot out of the door, and In the end, it was agreed that if the Islamic state took ground within twenty miles of the airport, we would burn everything we couldn’t carry and lock the doors behind us. Then like a scene from Mad Max, we would drive the entire staff of the Embassy from Baghdad to Kuwait in poorly maintained land cruisers that would not make the six hundred kilometer journey. They even had a fuel truck to follow behind us. There would be no stopping, no diplomats are going to wait around for inevitable snapped fan belts or blowouts, and there were only so many seats.
A few of us crowded around a laptop in a dark room one night, and we watched the notorious propaganda videos to see what was coming down that road. Behold, it was a high definition, seamlessly edited, immaculately presented, slow motion, untrammeled, berserker murder montage that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. It was a motion picture. They chanted and slaughtered, and it wrapped its black flag of pure terror over my soul and shook the eleven-year veteran within me. They were operating from beyond the grave and without a single concern for consequence. Alas, all the horror was accompanied with calm words of wisdom about the greatness of God. We were in the first hours of what appeared to be a zombie apocalypse beginning fifty miles from the city, and there was every manner of human extermination taking place. The Iraqi army ran away, they ran and abandoned garrisons, tanks, fleets of vehicles and worst of all, their people. Iraqi officers were surrendering percentages of their wages to not be sent to the front lines, and only the brave few remaining were out there holding the ever-shifting and invisible line. The people were left with little security or defence, and so President Nouri al-Maliki summoned citizens of fighting age to take up arms.
It didn’t stop, but as the days went by it didn’t come any further either. The plague had lost its momentum as the international special forces were finally released and came in when the news started to break with urgency and the horror was witnessed abroad. My team picked them up from the airport in twos or threes or sometimes alone. Then down a road that followed along a concrete blast wall scarred with pocks from all kinds of calibers and punched with Sarajevo roses. A road that dipped and jumped in the headlights as we climbed over the blasted macadam, holes four feet deep from the mortar bombardments of two wars. No vehicles, no one on the roads, no soul in sight. Peculiar paintings of Iraqi elite forces members on the twenty-foot walls along the road lit up in the headlights and then passed into the gloom. Glimpses of huge masterpieces of fire and battle, emblem and motto outside the trembling camp gates of the Iraqi special forces compounds. Mottos not adhered too. Desperate to portray bravery and patriotism, but when you passed them in person, you knew they were not ready for this and were more interested in their appearance with uniforms tailored as tight as possible, shrink wrapped to their bodies. Pouches on their webbing and equipment were often filled with foam. Unnecessary amounts of grenades, magazines and optics on their weapons. They could barely move. At the end of the road we arrived at the crucible, the American airbase where the plans were being drawn up to begin the counter-offensive alongside the Iraqis. The agent we picked up one night sat in the back seat and slid into his body armour with a moleskin notebook between his thighs and a rifle valise at his feet out of sight of the five checkpoints on the route in. Diplomatic plates got us through most of the endless checkpoints. There were no questions, everybody knew. Through the soot drenched night in some unknown military fortress reeking with aviation fuel, a Black Hawk helicopter spun up behind a hanger. From the side of the runway, I watched the goblin green lights of instruments in the cockpit and night vision from the swarm of those climbing aboard glowing like the many eyes of some mercenary devil. And there would have been no sane soul on earth that wouldn’t have felt some relief and some safety in it. The agent stepped out of the vehicle then his shrinking figure dissolved into the legion of characters and silhouettes of weapons. The city under curfew sat silent, awaiting some news under the spewing crematorium. Shortly after they took off, I could hear the rage spraying from the sides of the Black Hawks, from the miniguns.
The luxury is being able to leave somewhere like this and to not be resident within it. So a few weeks later, I watched my plane taxi along the runway and through the bloated airport stricken with panic. I bribed my way through security and through the cues to beat the compressed crowds barking to each other in the terminal. The thirst for escape was torturing the overcrowded lounge. I looked through the window as the plane moved backward to begin its taxi for departure, everything was desperate, sweat streaming from all in the seats from the dry, withering sun and the futile air conditioning. As the plane rolled across the unkept runway, a man on the ground ran and waved to the pilots, and the plane stopped. Then a fuel tanker trundled towards us and threw out its hoses and jammed them onto the belly and wings of the jet. They had forgotten to refuel the plane under the panic. The engines ripped through and consumed their fill of air, and we sucked forward until the wheels levitated from the land and the jet grappled with gravity and pulled us through the layer of soot once again.
For the last time, I craned my neck and absorbed the city once more from the height of benevolent safety. We pulled through the layer of pollution and further still, as far out of range of ground fire as it could get until the land turned into a grid system and all detail was out of sight. It looked like there was some kind of order below. The privilege of foreignness and the comforting anticipation of a period of reflection is always taken for granted; to only imagine in my wildest dreams what a quaint family out there dragged into the caliphate must have thought, felt, suffered and seen. To hold their children and watch the patrols of them lunatics in the dust clouds emerging through the mouth of madness to plunder and pillage, fortune and spirit. Imagine all the prayers, all at once. And who listened? Who came?