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the last chicken
From: Marcela Gaviria · Re: Nasiriya · Date: Dec. 14, 2003

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Introduction: A Long Road

It's only a rumor, the vendor tells us. Saddam is too smart to get caught.

For two days I've been lying under a synthetic furry blanket in Room 611 of the Southern Hotel in Nasiriya. I've been sweating cold under a load of faux wool that smells somewhere between cheap perfume and body odor. Scott and Martin left me early in the morning with one bottle of water, a carton of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and one banana, while they film some scenes in the marshlands of southern Iraq. They said they would be back at sunset.

My room is dank, with one window, a soiled carpet, crusty walls, and the smell of sewage emanating from the bathroom door. There is no phone -- or anyone to call, really. It's not the kind of place one would like to have an 103 degree fever, but I'm almost too sick to care.

Later on in the evening, Martin and Scott come back to my room briefly to make sure I am still OK before going off to an interview with the man who tried to kill Uday Hussein in 1996. I half contemplate going down to listen to the interview and help Scott with the directing, but I'm too weak to get dressed.

At 11 p.m. the team comes back to check my temperature, fill up my water bottle, and (mainly) to steal some of my corn flakes. They haven't eaten all day. The hotel restaurant had run out of food hours earlier, and the five of them had to pick at half a chicken until only the carcass remained.

I fall asleep and wake up the next morning covered in sweat. I'm too clammy to get dressed but can't bear to stay in this awful room any longer. Martin comes over to discuss our options. He can leave me resting in this hole for a day or two, with [driver #1] to translate and care for me, while the rest of the team heads north to Najaf to push for an interview with Sadr; we can all head to Najaf together; or we can leave Iraq immediately, trying to make it to the border with Kuwait by evening.

My temperature has not broken, but I dread the thought of being stuck in my room for another 24 hours. I also worry that we might be pulling out without everything we need. I convince Martin that we should all head north and try one more time for Sadr.

A young fisherman pulls in his net while fishing in the marshes near Nasiriya, Iraq. (Photo by Scott Anger)

"We need one bad guy in the film," I say.

Scott comes into my room. "We are leaving..." I tell him, and he breaks into this little dance he saves for celebratory moments, writhing his hips and pumping his elbow toward his ribs. Then I break the news: "Not for Kuwait, Scott, but back to Najaf. Sorry. I know it's been a long trip." Scott moans and walks away sulking. Of all the members on the team, he is the most exhausted by this country.

It takes us a while to collect our belongings and prepare for the trip north. [Driver #1] and [driver #2] must go out trolling for "benzene." [Our translator] stands outside the hotel entrance pressing the redial button on the satellite phone, hoping to alert Sadr's secretary of our impending visit. Martin trades stock over the Internet with the BGAN, a satellite hook-up that we hang out of every hotel window. Scott assembles his gear, packing each cable and battery methodically into eight cases. And I sweat profusely as I gather my dirty shirts, books, and muddy shoes and shove them into a bag.

At midday we are ready to leave but decide to stop for lunch at the Baghdad Cafe, the only restaurant in Nasiriya we can tolerate. It's packed with men in their long dishdashes and red kaffiyehs enjoying mutton and chicken kebabs, sheep brain soup, and our old faithful, half-chicken on rice.

After weeks of eating rotisserie chicken at each meal, we pick at the greasy skin and dry meat with little enthusiasm, even though we are all quite hungry. The morale is generally low. Scott is upset we aren't leaving Iraq. Martin seems preoccupied. [Driver #1] is sad with anticipation that we will leave him soon after we interview Sadr. [Our translator] and [driver #2] seem worried about my health. For the most part, we eat in silence. A soccer match between Manchester United and Manchester City blares from a television set propped on the wall above us. I look at the score: 2-1.

The tab for six half-chickens is the usual sixteen dollars. As I take the money out of my pocket, [driver #2] -- who has mastered the art of speaking to us without knowing a word of English -- overhears something and says, simply, "Saddam." And then he firmly holds his left hand to his right wrist as if handcuffing someone.

We all ask in disbelief: "Saddam has been captured?"

The rumor hits every table like a rash. Every man in the room gets up from his seat. The conversations turn animated. The soccer game is interrupted by a newscaster who repeats "Saddam" every few words. The image of the dictator fills the screen behind him.

"Scott, get the camera," Martin says. "[Translator] ... what is he saying?"

[Our translator] is in disbelief. "It's not confirmed, but he is saying that an Iranian channel claims Saddam has been captured near Tikrit."

The entire restaurant gathers underneath the TV in total concentration. There are no smiles, no high fives, no slaps on the back. The only sound in the restaurant is the voice of the announcer on Al Arabiya. I look at my watch: it is 1:12 p.m.

Outside the restaurant, bursts of gunfire can be heard at some distance. The crackle of gunshots almost sounds like domino tiles cascading one onto another from afar, then closer and closer.

While Scott films the scene inside the restaurant, I step outside with [driver #1] and ask the man carving shawarma if he knows what has happened. I mimic [driver #2]'s handcuffing motion and ask him, "Saddam? Capture?"

[Driver #1] translates. "It's only a rumor," the vendor tells us. "Saddam is too smart to get caught."

Across the street, about 100 feet away, a man is emptying his handgun into the sky above. Every time he fires, I flinch. I was in Baghdad back in July when Uday and Qusay were gunned down by coalition forces and it was literally raining bullets. Thirty-nine people died from stray gunfire that night. The gunfire now is nowhere as intense as that night, but it suddenly feels rather stupid to be standing outside, and I head back into the Baghdad Cafe, where [our translator] is translating the breaking news to Martin.

Scott disappears with [driver #1], chasing the story around the block while we camp under the roof of the restaurant. Martin heads out with [our translator] to see how Nasiriya greets the news of Saddam's capture. I drive back with [driver #2] to the Southern Hotel, knowing it will have access to the BBC.

My fever is climbing. An hour has gone by with no news from Scott or Martin. I gesture to [driver #2] to get the car. We drive around, along the pleasant promenade that lines the Euphrates River, down the narrow streets with bullet-ridden walls, remnants from Operation Iraqi Freedom, past the hospital where Jessica Lynch was held and rescued back in April, onward toward the Italian headquarters, in ruins since a car bomb exploded a few weeks ago killing 19 Italians and 9 Iraqis.

Surprisingly, the streets of Nasiriya seem quiet, almost empty. I find it odd. I imagined a wholly different scene, where people would take to the streets crying with joy, women ululating with their tongues as they do at marriage ceremonies, men hugging and dancing. Instead, they must all be watching television in their living rooms. I can still hear gunfire at a distance.

After driving around for a while, [driver #2] and I finally bump into a crowd. It's a group of young Iraqi school children waving flags, cheering, and gaining stragglers as they celebrate the news of Saddam's arrest. It takes me a minute to realize that Martin and Scott are at the head of the pack. [Our translator] trails a few blocks behind. She isn't wearing the right shoes for this kind of reporting.

The events of the day derail our plans to get to Sadr. The whole country will be in thrall of the arrest. Going to Baghdad seems pointless -- everyone will be on this story. We decide to head south instead, toward Safan, at the border with Kuwait. We climb into our cars, drive past the Baghdad Cafe, and celebrate.

Martin announces: "That was our last chicken."

[Editor's Note: The names of the Iraqi drivers and translator have been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]


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posted february 12, 2004

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