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Gregg Ramshaw’s Dispatches from Qatar: March 17

BY Gregg Ramshaw  March 17, 2003 at 4:01 PM EST

Free at last… the NewsHour’s 25 cases of television gear were released from airport Customs Saturday morning, nearly six days after our arrival. Ultimately all it took was a phone call. After chasing faxes for three days, we irately demanded that one official call another and within minutes we rolled our gear out of the airport with no one in authority even blinking an eye. We had no paperwork; they had no paperwork.

As we hauled the equipment into the hotel we received the sympathetic congratulations of our broadcast colleagues, many of whom had received the same treatment, although all agreed our gear may have set the record for the most days in detention.

Thrilled with the possibility of finally putting pictures on videotape, we arranged our first visit to Camp as Sayliyah, the Central Command’s headquarters in Doha’s western industrial area. It’s a sprawling unmarked complex of warehouses and nondescript buildings — nondescript being the operative word. The idea is one doesn’t know it’s there, but the security fence, jersey barriers and a wall of piled stones soon give it away. We made a number of wrong turns trying to get there. The military folks have been off post so little, they have trouble giving directions.

Security is a mix of military and mercenary. Employees of the American firm DynCorp, dressed in khaki paramilitary apparel, some with fearsome sidearms and M-16s slung over their backs, provide a no-nonsense welcome. In fact, welcome might not be the operative word here. They want to know why you’re here and who invited you.

With that settled (the Public Affairs Office HAD made an appointment for us), the TV gear gets sniffed by a scraggly critter called “the puppy.” While it sniffs for evil-smelling stuff, human visitors receive a full body scan, front and back. Having rid ourselves of metallic items, we must nevertheless prove the remaining lumps in our body profiles are wallets and handkerchiefs.

Having cleared the screening process, we get a jostling shuttle bus ride to the base media center. The van’s radio is tuned to a blaring French language station. The irony cannot go unnoticed. The chuckling driver, an Army sergeant, says she’s got nothing against the French… at least not yet. We’ll notice later that the word “French” as in “French fries” is crossed out on the menu at the mess hall burger bar.

The welcome at the media center is noticeably warmer. A Marine colonel wanted us to know that he once held the same job former Marine Jim Lehrer at Paris Island.

Army Capt. Eric Clark, a called-up reservist who lives in Alexandria, VA, not far from NewsHour offices, piles us into his rented Ford Escape for the tour. Having done it so often, he rattles off the statistics like a tour guide: As Sayliyah is 262 acres; there are 27 warehouses, each 100 yards long. It had been the world’s largest pre-positioned military equipment facility. With much of that gear in Kuwait, it’s now home and workplace to 3,000 men and women, soldiers and civilians, Americans and allies.

Residential warehouses hold six air conditioned tents; there are 60 beds in each tent; 360 people per warehouse. Tents are segregated by gender. They’re climate-controlled to be cool, and they’re quiet. A 24-7 operation means people are sleeping days as well as nights.

The tents are called the “low-rent district.” In the “high rent district,” soldiers are billetted two to a room in Conex containers called Corimans. Each container has two beds, two night stands, and two wall lockers. There are 150 containers per warehouse, 300 residents in all.

The containers are stacked; stairs and catwalks provide access to the second level.

Outside each warehouse are “Scud bunkers” — piles of sandbags and reinforced concrete shelters where troops would huddle in the event of a rocket attack — highly unlikely but not totally out of the question.

And most all here wear gas masks strapped to their hips, a vivid reminder that even this rear command post may not be immune from a chemical or biological attack.