ON THE EASTERN SIDE of the border hundreds of civilian vehicles were jammed up bumper-to-bumper, gridlocked on the desert sands as crowds queued to get out of war-torn Iraq.
On the Kuwaiti side, there was just one car among all the military hardware waiting to get in.
Or more correctly, it was mine for as long as I paid the fees. If the rental company had known I was taking one of their spanking new vehicles into the war zones of Baghdad, they would have had a conniption.
The border sentry held up the stamped permit granting me permission to enter Iraq. He squinted at it incredulously. It was legitimate.
But … still. The astonishment on his face was almost comical. This was too weird for him to grasp.
He poked his head inside my wound-down driver’s window,his face a foot or so from mine, and then looked at us as though we were escapees from an asylum. My two Arab companions from the Kuwait City zoo focused their eyes straight ahead, studiously avoiding his scrutiny.
“You guys sure you want to go to Baghdad? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
I nodded. “We’re going to try to rescue the zoo there.”
He still looked flabbergasted, so I jabbed my thumb over my shoulder. “There’s half a ton of supplies in the back.”
The soldier eyeballed me, disbelief on his face, and glanced at the permit again. “There’re animals in Baghdad?”
“We hope so. The zoo there was once the finest in Arabia.”
“Man, people are shooting each other there. For real. Forget about animals. You’ve got to worry about your own sorry asses.”
He gestured in front of us to the other side of the border. “Look at all these cars. Everybody else is trying to get out. And you want to go in?”
“We’ve got to get these supplies in. Urgently.”
“Okaaay.” The soldier pondered for a moment, then smiled. “This is crazy. You’re the first civilians in–apart from some newsies, but they don’t count.”
I forced a grin. Maybe this was all insane. Maybe he was right, I should be somewhere else. My elation that my mission was at last under way was starting to deflate a little.
But it was too late for that. The soldier walked to the barrier gate and shoved it open. “Just stick to the main road, obey military instructions, and follow real close to the convoys, okay? We’re getting several hits a day from the ragtops on the road.”
This was valid advice, I thought. Advice, however, that my two Kuwaiti assistants, on loan from the Kuwait City zoo, had no intention of heeding. As soon as we came to an intersection on the highway they made signs for me to stop. They then climbed out, opened the trunk, and rummaged for a box of tools. With a few turns of a screwdriver, they whipped off the Kuwaiti license plates.
Alarmed, I asked what they were doing. But as my Arabic waslimited to “Salaam Aleikum” and the Kuwaitis’ English was equally scant, communication was a challenge.
“American …” The Kuwaiti named Abdullah Latif made a shooting motion and pointed at himself.
I grasped what he meant. They were concerned the soldiers might target them as Arabs and equally concerned that if they were seen in a foreign convoy, Iraqi fighters would consider them collaborators.
All very well, but what about me? My instructions had been specifically to stick to the main Baghdad Highway and stay with the numerous military convoys speeding to the Iraqi capital. Indeed, in the hour or so it had taken us to drive from Kuwait City, cross the border, and enter Iraq, I had seen more military vehicles than you would find in the entire South African army. That’s where I wanted to be, safety in numbers. I knew too well that a Westerner on the back roads was a prime target for remnants of Saddam’s army or the scores of feral fedayeen gangs who were fanatically loyal to the deposed dictator. And I, six feet and four inches tall, with a pale complexion and blue eyes, looked about as un-Semitic as you could get.
I pointed at myself and also made a shooting motion. “Iraqis shoot me.”
The Kuwaitis shook their heads and one spoke animatedly in Arabic. I gathered they were telling me they would refuse point-blank to travel on the main road, but I would be safe with them as they were Arabs and they could talk their way out of any situation.
I looked at the road ahead, a narrow ribbon of potholed tarmac, mirage shimmering in the hot air. It suddenly looked very desolate. There would be no American or British soldiers for hundreds of miles. I felt as conspicuous as a match in a fireworks factory.
But my guides from the Kuwait Zoo were not going to change their minds, so what the heck … there was not much I could do about it. I couldn’t very well order them back onto the highway. So I might as well enjoy the ride into bandit territory and hope like hell the clouds of billowing desert dust would disguise the fact that I was a Westerner in no-man’s-land.
The barren landscape we were speeding through radiated hostility, and I somewhat ruefully reflected that making a ten-hour journey through the back roads and alleys of a war zone might not have been the most intelligent thing I had ever done.
But it was too late to turn back now, so I slouched low in the front passenger seat. Well, about as low as I could. The Toyota was not exactly built for someone as big as me to hunker down in. All the while I pictured Iraqi fedayeen, militia fighters specifically trained to hail Saddam Hussein as a cult figure, hiding in the dunes and relishing the opportunity to hijack a car. An unarmed white man would be the juiciest prize for them imaginable. I had no illusions that being a neutral South African would cut much ice with renegade gunmen. I was a visible Westerner, and as far as Saddam’s Ba’athist fanatics were concerned, any foreigner would do.
I forced the grim visuals out of my mind. At least I had two Arabs with me, even though they were Kuwaitis.
However, that illusion was soon dispelled when my companions confirmed, through vigorous sign language and an interesting repertoire of facial expressions, that another reason they had taken off the Kuwaiti registration plates earlier was because there was no love lost between them and the Iraqis. Thanks to Saddam’s vicious propaganda, most Iraqis believed Kuwait was the reason for the American invasion in the first place. Not only was I a Westerner far off the beaten track, but the welcome mat wasn’t exactly out for my Arab companions, either.
As we drove deeper into the country, passing through remote villages unchanged since biblical times, I started to unwind a little. In fact, I even began to enjoy the view. It was like diving into another world where people were rooted in time immemorial: they had survived Saddam; they would survive the foreigners; they would survive the fedayeen. In among the squat-roofed mud buildings, women drew water from communal wells as they had in the days of the prophet Muhammad, while overburdened donkeys with drowsy eyes watched children running barefoot in the swirling dust. Time truly stood still.
We traveled fast to make sure armed gangs weren’t following us. But even so, whenever the car had to slow down for loitering donkeys or camels, villagers did stunned double takes when they realized a white man was inside. Being in the only brand-new vehicle among the banged-up relics on the road also drew a lot of unwelcome attention to us.
I felt dread creep into my belly. Surely the fedayeen would soon know about me. Indeed, the rolling desert sands fringing the road could be hiding hundreds of Saddam loyalists. At one stage I saw at the roadside a man dressed in Bedouin robes that contrasted starkly with his wraparound sunglasses. He appeared unarmed, but there could be anything under those flowing garments. As we went past, he stared coldly before swiftly turning and disappearing down the back of a dune.
Whom was he going to tell?
Behind him, the skies were black with the greasy smoke from burning oil wells blazing red and orange in the distance. It must have the most expensive pollution in the world.
At another village we passed a group of men gathered under a cluster of wizened palm trees. Hookah pipes were bubbling on top of a box, and the group’s transformation from soporific lethargy to instant alertness when they noticed me was unnerving. I felt exposed, alien.
Whenever we entered larger towns we had to slow considerably to ease through the narrow, congested streets and I crouched on the floor, the gap between the dashboard and front seat squeezing me as tightly as a python. These were the most dangerous moments in the journeys. Gunmen were more likely to be lurking on these urban perimeters, and the mere glimpse of a Westerner could trigger a hailstorm of lead. Squashed, sweaty, and uncomfortable, with only a thin metallic skin protecting me, I knew how a sardine felt. Even the Kuwaitis were silent.
Abdullah, a self-assured, well-built young man of about thirty-five who was keen to get to Baghdad to find lost family, was pensive and alert. His partner, who didn’t speak a word of English, wasquite the opposite; slightly built and unassuming, he sat in the back of the car in silence. They were originally both as keen as mustard to come with me to Baghdad; the war was over, after all, and it was a chance for a bit of an adventure and a few days off from their jobs.
Now that we were actually here, misgivings were beginning to surface. The atmosphere in Iraq hung like a pall and had tempered their ardor somewhat. As it had mine.
But the most harrowing few minutes of all were when we had to stop and refuel. We had brought spare gasoline with us, and running almost on empty, we pulled over beside a flat stretch of desert where no dunes could be sheltering gunmen. With a speed that would have rivaled a Formula 1 pit stop, we sloshed gasoline from twenty-five-liter jerricans into the tank, not overly caring how much spilled onto the steaming tarmac. Then I heard the Kuwaitis say something to each other, alarm in their voices. I looked behind; a crowd was gathering about one hundred yards away and starting to move toward us. They may have been curious onlookers or maybe inquisitive kids just hanging out. We didn’t bother to find out. Quick as race-car drivers, we were back in the car and speeding off again.
As we got closer to Baghdad, the landscape was no longer biblical. The area was littered with burnt-out tanks, shell holes, bombed bridges, and hastily abandoned air-defense systems discarded like junk. There were Iraqi missiles, twenty-five feet long and as thick as oak trees, some still on the backs of their launch vehicles, others dumped casually on the roadside as lethal litter. Scuds, I thought; they were certainly big enough.
Also among the detritus of battle were scores of toppled statues and bullet-pitted portraits of Saddam Hussein–the calling cards of America’s frontline warriors.
We skirted Nasiriya, Al Najaf, Karbala, and Babylon, now renamed Al Hillah, all bearing fresh scars of the American whirlwind advance.
Then to our absolute dismay we found we were hopelessly lost. The Iraqi army had removed all street signs to confuse the Americanadvance, and we had no idea where we were or which way to go. We were forced to double back through areas we had been glad to see the back of, asking for directions in villages and navigating by the sun in the countryside until we found a large road. This had to be the main Kuwait–Baghdad road.
We looked at one another hopefully. It was. Abdullah slapped me on the back. The relief in the car was palpable.
Eventually we reached the outer periphery of Baghdad. There we asked for directions to the zoo and a friendly Iraqi pointed ahead. “Al Zawra Park,” he said. “Just keep going straight.”
I felt my stomach muscles tighten. We were entering the belly of the beast.
IN BAGHDAD, the awesome evidence of American firepower was omnipresent. Even though they had bombed strategic targets with surgical accuracy and few homes or apartments had been affected, the city was still a shambles.
In the upmarket Al Mansur district, buildings such as the Department of Information and the internal security headquarters were hollowed-out shells, their shattered cores little more than piles of rubble. Chunks of concrete dangled from tangled steel reinforcing as though they were giant wind chimes. Burnt-out Iraqi tanks and trucks were like mangled monuments of science-fiction movies, stark testimony to the Americans’ shatteringly superior technology. Millions of spent cartridges lay sprinkled across the streets, a carpet of confetti glinting so harshly in the desert sun that your eyes hurt.
Every now and again random clatters of automatic-rifle shots sent civilians scurrying down the streets. This is for real, I thought, as I realized with horror what was happening. They are still fighting. I couldn’t see where the shots were coming from, so we kept moving, heading toward Al Zawra Park in the center of town, home of the Baghdad Zoo.
To our surprise, there was a fair amount of traffic on the road.With all the traffic lights down, it was hard going as we swerved in and out, trying to get away from the shooting. Cars jumped intersections with reckless bravado. If one careered into another and could not be driven off, it was abandoned. The most important piece of motoring technology amid the anarchy was the horn. You sped through traffic intersections by honking as loudly as possible and praying that everyone else got out of the way.
But as we crossed Al Jamhooriah Bridge, spanning the river Tigris, everything seemed to go suddenly quiet. After the raucous gauntlet of gunshots and traffic chaos, the only noise now was the hum of the hired Toyota–ominously out of place in the eerie stillness. We were the solitary car on the road, although gutted Iraqi trucks littered both sides of the double-lane highway as far as we could see. Some were still smoldering.
From one side of the muddy river to the other, traffic had simply disappeared. We soon discovered why. Looming menacingly before us at the top of Yafa Street was a massive roadblock: Bradley tanks and machine guns spiked above sandbags and tightly coiled razor wire. Khaki-colored helmets peered above the barricades, commanding the street with absolute authority.
The desert sun was pitiless, blasting down like a furnace. Above the brooding bulk of the tanks, sand-colored camouflage nets twitched nervously in the heat, the only shade available for soldiers clad in full combat dress and ceramic bulletproof plates.
I felt uneasy about driving any closer, so the two Kuwaitis and I decided to stop right there. We were about one hundred yards from the barricade when I slowly got out and approached the machine-gun nest gingerly, my hands stretched wide to show I was unarmed and a friend.
Everything was tense. It was as if something brittle was about to shatter. I couldn’t understand it … surely Baghdad was a liberated city? I had seen the footage on TV of Saddam’s statues falling like giant metal dominoes. I had heard the reports that his fedayeen were on the run. That the Iraqis were rejoicing in the streets …
There was no rejoicing in this street. In fact, all I was aware of was a creepy sensation slithering up my skin like a snake.
I kept walking, slowly, with arms stretched.
The soldiers who had been watching my car as it came down the street were now monitoring my every move through high-powered binoculars. I tried to look as harmless as possible as I approached.
“Back off! Back off!” they suddenly yelled, waving me away. Machine guns now poked out from the bagged fortress, their barrels focused on my chest.
I stopped, stunned, feeling as though I had been punched. I had expected the Americans to be friendly. After all, I was here with their blessing.
“I’ve come to help at the zoo,” I shouted back, waving my authorization papers.
“Fuck off! Just fuck off!”
Jeez, I thought, these guys are serious. They must’ve heard my shout, and I certainly don’t look like one of Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen.
I yelled out again that I was on a rescue mission for the zoo. This time there was no reply, just a sinister silence.
What the hell was going on here?
It was obvious I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. But I never would have guessed I was at the entrance to the most heavily armed, highest-alert security zone in the city, somewhere nobody without top-level clearance was allowed in. In fact, I was just a block or two away from Saddam’s palaces, the designated head-quarters-to-be of interim administrator Gen. Jay Garner. Security was so paranoid that Abrams tanks firing 105mm shells casually vaporized any unauthorized vehicle driving or parked in the area.
This was strict “shoot to kill” territory, and soldiers at the checkpoints surrounding it were primed to do just that. Unescorted civilians were given one warning only.
I was on my second.
The Americans were understandably on hair triggers. There wasa good reason for all of this security. For despite TV images of quick victory, much of Baghdad certainly had not fallen and firefights with die-hard Ba’athists loyal to Saddam Hussein were raging all over the city.
I also was unaware that a few days previously a suicide bomber had blown himself up at a roadblock near Al Narjaf, killing four marines, while at Karbala soldiers had riddled a car that refused to stop, killing seven people, including a woman and her child.
The two Kuwaitis frantically signaled to me. Al Zawra Park formed a dominant rectangle in the heart of the city; there was probably another entrance to the Baghdad Zoo. Wheels spinning, we made a quick U-turn and sped away.
About a mile or so farther on we came to another roadblock. There the heavily armed Americans, also dressed in full body armor and desert camouflage stained dark with sweat, were quizzing some Western journalists.
This time I refused to back down and got permission to approach. A soldier asked what I was doing, and I showed my authorization papers, explaining that I had to get to the Baghdad Zoo on a rescue mission.
For good measure I added that I had urgent supplies–including drugs–for the surviving animals. If there were any, of course. I still had no idea what condition the zoo would be in.
The soldier just looked at me; here they were fighting a war and, if he was hearing right, some madman had pitched up in the middle of it with animal narcotics. He asked me to repeat what I had just said. Perhaps it appealed to his sense of the ridiculous.
I again flourished my papers: “Here’re my credentials from the Coalition Administration.”
The American scrutinized the papers, shook his head in amazement, and smiled.
“A South African,” he said. “You’re sure a long way from home.”
He radioed through for instructions and indicated that I should bring my hired car up to the side of the roadblock and wait.
I parked in the lee of an Abrams tank and greeted the crew, whostared at me with openmouthed curiosity. The tank was a huge, vicious monster of a machine, dirty and battle worn. Unlike the tensely wired soldiers at the first roadblock, this young crew–who looked and smelled as though they hadn’t seen soap for months–was friendly, and a couple of them jumped down to shake hands.
“So you’re here for the zoo,” said one. “It’s right behind us, just across this wall. Had the shit shot out of it.”
“You mean to say you came here on purpose?” asked another.
“You’re nuts, man. Me, I would turn around and go straight back to my girlfriend. This place is a shit hole. It’s not worth fighting for.”
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Then, as a rattle of AK-47 fire split the air, I realized why the roadblock soldier had told me to drive up to the tanks. Their brooding presence was the only shield in that hostile street.
“When did you guys get here?” I asked.
“First in,” was the proud reply. The soldier looked down the street, raising his gun and taking imaginary potshots. “We came straight in. Killed anything that came near us and plenty more.”
It dawned on me I was actually chatting to the same tank crews whom I, and millions of others, had watched on TV storming the city just a few days before.
No wonder the soldiers smelled as though they had just emerged from some fetid pit. They had been in continuous combat for the past three weeks, holed up in the sweaty, claustrophobic confines of their tank. The bitterly pungent odor of cordite mingled with the rank sweat of battle and acrid adrenaline was all-pervasive. I didn’t breathe too deeply.
My little car looked absurdly incongruous parked among all the military hardware, like a rabbit among wolves. I realized what an absolute gate-crasher I was in this world, a million miles from my normal life. This was about as far removed from my natural element as I could get–where bullets were flying through the street and people you couldn’t see wanted you dead. It was some bizarre situation and I was the supreme interloper.
Eventually the soldier on the radio got through to the right person: 1st Lt. Brian Szydlik. But it took another thirty minutes, with me marking time and feeling wretchedly exposed on the side of the road, for him to arrive. Once he did, he leaped out of his armored troop carrier, checked my permit, and nodded.
Szydlik (pronounced “shadalack”), a blond, square-jawed, compact man with bull shoulders, exuded a powerful presence that was almost tangible. He was someone you wanted on your side in a fight, and with him there you felt you would win it.
“All seems okay,” he said with a curt nod. Then he smiled and I blinked, astonished at the transformation of his granite visage into sudden affability. “That zoo sure needs help all right. Follow me.”
We drove under the crossed-scimitars archway, one of Baghdad’s most famous landmarks, across the military parade grounds, and into Al Zawra Park, a huge, sprawling open area similar in size to Central Park in New York, where remnants of a fierce shoot-out that had raged just days before were starkly evident. Twisted metal that was once sophisticated Iraqi weaponry lay blackened everywhere. Road surfaces and paving had been powdered to grit by charging Bradley and Abrams tanks, while culverts and walls were speckled with thousands of chipped holes from a maelstrom of lead. Trees and buildings looked as though they had been through a chain-saw massacre. Irrigation pipes, vital to prevent the desiccated ground from reverting to a dust bowl, had been squashed flat.
However, I soon learned that despite the apocalyptic scenario, the biggest damage to the Baghdad Zoo had not been done in battle, fierce as it had been. It was the looters. They had killed or kidnapped anything edible and ransacked everything else. Even the lamp poles had been unbolted, tipped over, and their copper wiring wrenched out like multicolored spaghetti. As we drove past, we could see groups of looters still at it, scavenging like colonies of manic ants.
Eventually we stopped outside a large dust brown wall, crumbling in some sections from mortar bombs and pitted with countlessbullet scars. Behind it wispy smoke still rose from fires that had obviously been burning for some time.
“Well,” said Szydlik with an elaborately grandiose sweep of his arm. “That’s your zoo.” He then eyed me quizzically. “How the hell did you get caught up in this nightmare?”
It was a good question … .
PERHAPS THE DEFINING MOMENT was a fortnight or so previously on my game reserve, Thula Thula, thousands of miles away in Zululand South Africa, when a soft-lilting voice whispered in my ear, “Wake up, darling. Your babies are here.”
Françoise, my girlfriend of fifteen years, was very French and very beautiful. I had always wondered what exactly it was she saw in me but had decided some things were better left unknown.
However, I knew exactly what she meant when she said “your babies.” For the past few nights the elephants had been coming up to our game reserve lodge–something they had never done previously.
We soon discovered why. The matriarch, Nana, and her second in command, Frankie (named after Françoise), had recently given birth, and they wanted to show us their babies. Nana and Frankie’s pride in their offspring easily matched human maternal love.
For the past five years I had been concentrating on restoring Thula Thula, our beautiful Zululand game reserve home, to its natural glory, removing alien plants, improving infrastructure, and allowing the wildlife to flourish undisturbed in their native environment. I had also been involved with several of our neighboring Zulu communities, assisting them to create their own game reserve and by so doing help rebuild their traditional cultural relationships with nature, which had to a large extent been eroded by apartheid.
My personal love is the African elephant. Five years ago I had offered sanctuary to a traumatized herd who were due to be shot by their previous owners for being “troublesome,” and I had beenworking closely with them to ensure they settled down at Thula Thula. They had been wandering deep in the bush for a while, and even though it was 3:00 A.M., I was excited to know they were here at the house again.
I pulled on a battered pair of khaki shorts and unlatched our bedroom’s stable door that opened onto the lush lawn, sheltered by a giant African marula tree. Sure enough, I could make out the herd’s gray hulks in the murk.
I felt a warm glow spark in my core. The sheer joy of being alive was as bracing as plunging into a crystal mountain stream. Who else in the world was lucky enough to be woken up by a honey-silk Gallic voice on a game ranch in the Zululand bush to be told that elephants were in his garden?
Nana, the matriarch, was in front as usual. She saw me, tested the air to get my scent, and then slowly walked over and stretched out her trunk. A little figure was beside her, nuzzling her for milk.
“You’re a clever girl, Nana,” I said, carefully judging her demeanor and that of the herd behind her. These were wild elephants that for the past four years had been unusually proactive in forging a relationship with me. Even though they knew me well, I still had to be very cautious. “Thank you for bringing your baby to see me. He is beautiful.”
A couple of the younger elephants were at the side of the house, tugging thatch out of the roof. This would require some serious repair work once the sun was up, but what the hell, it was worth it for the privilege of being visited by a herd of wild elephants.
A streak of lightning lit the sky in the east, illuminating the beautiful tract of lush African wilderness that I am privileged to own. A storm was brewing far out over the Indian Ocean, and for a moment I was reminded of Iraq. I had been watching the war on CNN earlier that evening, and for some reason the nonstop TV coverage unsettled me.
I knew nothing about Iraq and the politics of war. But what I did know was that in all human hostilities animals have suffered horrifically and often anonymously. Unable to flee or defend or feedthemselves, they either were slaughtered wholesale in the initial assaults or died agonizingly from thirst and hunger later, locked and desperate in their cages. Or worse, they were callously shot by blood-crazed soldiers just for the hell of it.
It had happened when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait; it had happened in Kosovo; it had happened in Afghanistan.
In fact, the awful images of the Kabul Zoo crippled in the aftermath of the Afghan Taliban war still haunt me. When the American forces liberated the city from the Taliban, they found the last remaining lion, Marjan, alone in his filthy cage. Starving and dehydrated, he had shrapnel embedded in his neck and jaw and was half-blind from a grenade attack and riddled with mange and lice. It was too late to save him.
But his ravaged, once-proud face glaring into the camera was beamed around the world by TV networks and became an iconic symbol of animals suffering in man-made conflict. Whenever I watched CNN’s footage of Iraq, Marjan’s accusing stare kept rattling around in my mind.
The same fate awaited the wild creatures of Baghdad. Of that I had no doubt. I knew I had to do something. Anything. I could not let the same dreadful fate happen to the animals of Baghdad. Somehow I had to get there just to see if I could help.
Standing out there on that magnificent African starlit night, watching my elephants contentedly showing off their progeny, I decided for once I was not going to be a bystander. Enough was enough. It was time for me to make a stand, even if I failed.
And if the animals died, I wanted to make sure it would be branded deep on the conscience of man.
Françoise was somewhat understanding but not happy. We had invested a huge amount of money, time, and sweat into our game reserve over the past five years and only now were we starting to reap rewards. It had previously been a hunting ranch and wildlife had been decimated before we bought it, imposed a strict hunting ban, and began renovating and renewing the area. Now the animals had flourished and we had built a small upmarket touristlodge that blended into an acacia and Tamboti tree forest overlooking a water hole and the river. It is pure bushveld luxury.
Managing an African game reserve is a Herculean task, and Françoise was understandably apprehensive about me suddenly leaving. It was the start of the fire season and we were still vigilantly guarding against poachers. To ask a former denizen of Paris to take charge of a wild, five-thousand-acre tract of Africa was an extreme request. But our staff is loyal and Brendan Whittington-Jones, the reserve manager, was reliable and trustworthy. Françoise has a streak of toughness concealed beneath her feminine French flair, which would see her through, and I think she also knows when there are some things I just must do.
“When are you going?” she asked later that morning, as we sipped coffee on the patio of the lodge watching Gwala Gwalas, beautiful exorbitantly colored Zululand birds, flitting through the bushveld canopy.
“As soon as I can.”
That was easier said than done. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where to start. How do you get into a country at war? Obviously I couldn’t just show up with some suntan lotion and a tourist visa. This trip into Iraq would require not just audacity, but some extensive networking.
As it happened, one of our regular guests at Thula Thula had been an American commercial attaché named Henry Richmond. I knew he was well connected and reckoned that he could point me in the right direction. I put a call through to him, now retired, in Hawaii, telling him my fears for the Baghdad Zoo and pointing out that America could ill afford to allow Baghdad’s animals to suffer the same fate as those in Kabul.
Henry was on the same wavelength. As a seasoned mediator he had already sensed that when the fighting stopped, America would have a rough time securing peace. The invasion was, among other things, an initial step in a hugely ambitious attempt to germinate democracy in the Middle East, and they had to get Iraq up and running as soon as they could. So, he asked, what did I have in mind?
I didn’t hesitate. I said I wanted to find out firsthand what was happening to the zoo. Could he pave the way for me to get into Baghdad?
After a pause, he agreed to use his diplomatic network, although he warned it could take some time. Permission to enter Iraq would have to come from the coalition Central Command (CentCom), which was based in Doha, the capital of Qatar. He would talk to friends in Washington, but I would have to be patient.
Patience, however, is not my strong point. Those awful images of Marjan kept haunting me, and the very next day I phoned CentCom myself. Using some serious poetic license, I told them that I had been assigned to take over the Baghdad Zoo. Who would be my contact person?
The people in Doha referred me to the Humanitarian Operations Center (HOC) in Kuwait. I immediately placed a call to the authorities there, repeating my request–but crossing my fingers and adding that CentCom had referred me. An HOC spokesperson told me to put it in writing, and about two seconds later I had banged off an e-mail. I phoned Henry again to assist with expediting the approval.
A few days later my receptionist at Thula Thula informed me that “some ambassador” was on the line from Kuwait. I grabbed the phone and a man with a deep, cultured voice on the other end introduced himself as Tim Carney. He said he had an “impressive string of e-mails” in front of him claiming I might have some ideas about restoring the Baghdad Zoo. Carney had been assigned to become the minister for industrial and mineral affairs in the interim Iraqi administration. The zoo didn’t fall directly within his portfolio, but he had a special interest in wild animals.
Jackpot! I quickly explained my concerns and the next thing I knew I was holding a faxed invitation to Kuwait, printed on Coalition Administration letterhead and signed by Tim Carney himself.
The next step, obtaining a Kuwaiti visa, might have been a bureaucratic nightmare, had it not been for the intervention of Martin Slabber, the friendly South African ambassador in Kuwait.
“An invasion is being launched from Kuwait and the country has all but closed its borders,” he told me. But Slabber saw beyond bureaucracy and personally took my application to his contacts in the Kuwaiti government, and I was able to leave South Africa the following night.
Though arranging the trip itself may have so far gone smoothly, saying good-bye to Françoise at the airport was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Once in Kuwait City I contacted Tim Carney, arranging to meet him for dinner that night. Carney, a tall, graying, immaculately groomed American, was a veteran international troubleshooter and had spent some time in South Africa. We immediately found common ground and over dinner agreed that if the animals of the Baghdad Zoo perished through neglect, the powerful green lobby would hound the American administration mercilessly–and with good justification. I stressed as forcibly as I could that the Americans were sitting on a time bomb.
Carney agreed it was imperative to get me into Baghdad as soon as possible but warned me that the city was as volatile as nitroglycerin. The situation on the ground was too dicey for foreign civilians just to barge in. Even the military convoys were regularly attacked. He would pull as many strings as he could, but he stressed that the final decision to grant permission could only come from the military. The place to start was the HOC.
So naturally, the next day found me banging on the HOC’s doors until I was in front of Col. Jim Fikes and Maj. Adrian Oldfield, who were responsible, among other things, for issuing permits to get into Iraq. They were thunderstruck by my request. Who in their right mind would want to go to Baghdad at this time on their own volition?
Neither Fikes nor Oldfield wanted the responsibility of letting a lone civilian wander onto a battlefield. They said the chances of being killed were frighteningly high and it just wasn’t worth their jobs to sign the papers. They strenuously advised me to fly back to South Africa and wait for the Iraqi border to open.
That was the last thing on my mind, as each hour I sat around twiddling my thumbs meant more animals would perish. While I waited, hoping that the HOC would reconsider, I tried to hitch a ride with the press, pestering CNN, BBC, and FOX, but they were facing their own problems getting to the battlefront.
Then I heard that a certain Colonel McConnell had arrived from Baghdad for supplies and was also sourcing food for the zoo’s animals. This was the best news I had heard. It meant that at least some creatures had survived.
I managed to contact McConnell and he confirmed my worst fears. The zoo was in dire straits and the few remaining animals were at death’s door, starving and critically dehydrated. He was taking a load of buffalo meat back the next day but admitted this would not last long without adequate refrigeration. I begged to be allowed to accompany him, but it was impossible to get clearance for a civilian. McConnell did, however, send me a copy of his one-page report on the zoo that described the fighting, lawlessness, and looting and the surviving animals’ critical condition. The report concluded, ominously: “The zoo is still a very dangerous place.” But I naively shrugged off the warning and kept trying to find a way in.
Fortune favors the persistent–or perhaps in my case the thick-skinned–and a chance encounter completely turned the tables. Ambassador Slabber had kept in regular contact and now he requested a diplomatic favor. The Kuwait Zoo had just completed an elephant and rhino enclosure and had applied for a permit to bring animals over from South Africa. Slabber thought that because I happened to be in Kuwait, I might assess whether the enclosure was suitable.
Initially I was reluctant because I didn’t want to waste precious time on anything not connected to gaining border clearance. But Martin had been fundamental in getting my Kuwaiti visa, so I hesitantly agreed and was met by one of the zoo’s senior veterinarians, Dr. Medoc.
Unfortunately, enclosures did not pass muster. They were toocramped, and I had to tell the Kuwaitis this with as much tact as possible. But as our meeting ended we got to chatting about the Iraqi situation. Dr. Medoc described how the Iraqis had trashed the Kuwait Zoo during Saddam’s invasion of 1991. Every single animal had been machine-gunned in cold blood. The Iraqi soldiers had done it for fun, he said.
The shock must have been evident on my face, and I told him I was doing my damnedest to get into Iraq to ensure the animals didn’t all die at the Baghdad Zoo as well. Would the Kuwait Zoo donate medicines and supplies to their Baghdad counterpart? It would be a fine goodwill gesture, particularly as Kuwait was keen on establishing solid relations with whatever post-Saddam government emerged. And who better to transport the supplies across the border than me?
Medoc agreed in principle but said final permission would have to come from the minister of agriculture and animal welfare himself. A meeting was set up for the next day.
Again, fate played a strange trick. A few days earlier at the airport, while being held up by the notoriously cantankerous Kuwaiti customs, I had met a Texan named Mike Honey, a senior executive for the U.S. Evergreen aircraft company, which contracted helicopters to the military. My mission intrigued Honey, particularly as it was entirely self-initiated, self-funded, and, in his opinion, bizarrely offbeat. He said he might be able to fly me into Baghdad on one of his “birds,” and we kept in contact once in Kuwait City.
The night before the scheduled appointment with the minister of agriculture, I bumped into Mike and told him about the meeting. He asked if he could come along. I shrugged. Why not? Couldn’t do any harm.
Imagine my astonishment the next day when it turned out that the minister, Fahad Salem Al-Ali Al-Sabah, had attended the same university in America as Mike. The two men spent the next half hour swapping raucous yarns about the good old days. I despaired we would ever get around to discussing the zoo rescue, but when we did it took barely a few minutes for the minister to listen intentlyand agree to all of my proposals before turning back to tales of his university exploits. Tim Carney, who was also present, smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.
I now had the authorization I needed. I was no longer just a maverick trying to hustle my way into the war zone; I was on an officially recognized mercy mission. Not only that, but the mission was supported by a strategically vital Arab ally, the neutral South African government, and the interim Coalition Administration.
Despite the fact that they were getting a little tired of this pesky conservationist, Colonel Fikes and Major Oldfield were impressed with my new credentials. Just one small matter–could I get this on an official letterhead from the Kuwaiti government? This meant from the minister Dr. Fahad Salem Al-Ali Al-Sabah himself.
“No problem,” said, heart sinking at the prospect of more red tape. Again I contacted the Kuwaiti agriculture and animal welfare offices.
The deputy director, Dr. Mohammed Al-Muhanna, not only got me a letter but also agreed to my proposal to take two of the zoo’s staff with me as guides and assistants. One was a trainee junior vet; the other, a trainee in animal husbandry. They would be outside my hotel at 4:00 A.M. ready to go.
Even at the last minute, Colonel Fikes was reluctant to give the final okay. Playing my trump card, I laid it on thick: “This is not the U.S. border we are talking about. It’s the Kuwait border. And the Kuwaiti government has given me permission to cross it into Iraq.”
Fikes resignedly picked up his pen. He had one final piece of advice: “You are the first civilian in. Keep your head down; it’s rough in there.”
I finally had my elusive clearance permit. Despite our difficulties, Fikes was a really good man and I could see he only had my own safety in mind. I promised to phone him when I got to Baghdad.
Adrian Oldfield shook my hand when I left. “If you survive this,” he said somewhat ominously, “I will take you up on your offer to visit you at your game reserve one day.”
I nodded. “With pleasure. And bring Jim Fikes with you.”
I hired a car at the airport “for business in Kuwait City,” not daring to reveal my true destination and bought supplies. I wished I had a gun, even a pistol would be better than nothing, but getting a weapon in Kuwait was out of the question. I would have to find one in Baghdad.
That night I phoned Françoise and told her I was going in, I don’t think she, sitting alone four thousand miles away and knowing I was about to enter a war zone, shared my enthusiasm.
Copyright © 2007 by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence.
It is also on my “must read ” list.
IF you do get ’round to reading any of these books, please try to come back and visit with me and tell me of your reaction.
Sadly, in March this year, Lawrence Anthony died.