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Baghdad from a Bulletproof Window by Marcela Gaviria

"Private Warriors" producer Marcela Gaviria describes her April 2005 trip to Baghdad and how it compared to her two previous trips to Iraq.

maerla gaviria

This was my third trip to Iraq, and the first time I felt I was never really there. I saw Iraq from a distance: from behind the confines of a four-inch bulletproof window; from the eighth floor of my hotel; from a chopper hovering 200 feet above ground. Iraq looks more striking and peaceful from above.

We lived like thousands of private contractors in Iraq -- in isolation, barely crossing paths with ordinary Iraqis, walling ourselves off from the chaos, the car bombs, the poverty.

We did this on purpose, to document life for over 100,000 private contractors that live "inside the wire." And also because we had to. For reporters trying to make sense of the place, most of Iraq is now out of bounds.

We used to be able to stand on the streets of Fallujah and talk to Iraqis. We could sit at a restaurant in Tikrit and order a half chicken on rice while Iraqis looked on. It was brazen, perhaps, sometimes even dangerous, but it could be done. You could buy pistachios and bananas in the market, take an evening stroll through the streets of Karada, sit in an outdoor café, or go to a friend's house to eat dolmas and kebabs. That was for most of 2003 and up to February 2004. But that's all changed.

In April 2005 we are clipped by the violence, restricted by the walls. And our reporting, especially for those of us making television, no longer includes spontaneous encounters with Iraqis or casually setting up a tripod on any given street.

Related Web Sites
Explore -- and watch online -- Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith's earlier FRONTLINE reports on Iraq:


For a private security detail,  the facts of life are simple: Insurgents mingle in traffic, artillery shells are buried on the roadside, suicide bombers in cars packed with explosives lurk at on-ramps, waiting for convoys like theirs to pass by.

This is the first time we didn't interview any Iraqis while in Iraq. We came to see the "Little Americas" that have been erected across the country. And for a few weeks, the most iconic of the bubbles, the Green Zone, became home.

The Green Zone is a misnomer. First, there is nothing verdant about the miles of concrete blast walls and barbed wire that ensconce the perimeter. And, the threat level is more amber than green. As Lt. Col. Bill Foos of the Army Corps of Engineers pointed out, "It's not called the Green Zone. It's called the International Zone. People that have been here for a while have stopped calling it the Green Zone, because it's no longer the Green Zone. Green connotes safety, security."

The IZ felt safe enough. In fact, it felt sterile. It doesn't smell like Iraq; it doesn't feel like Iraq. I've read that there are roughly 5,000 Iraqis living and working within the IZ. The few I encounter work at the Al Rashid Hotel, once Iraq's finest hotel. Now it feels more like a dusty tribute to the '60s with eerie reminders of Saddam's regime. There are cameras everywhere poking out of what are known as Saddami stars -- the five-point decoration that appears on everything from ashtrays to roadblocks. There is an observation booth in every hallway, where presumably someone used to sit and note the comings and goings of the hotel guests. And we are told that the antique rifles hanging on the walls of the main restaurant were donated by Saddam's son Uday.

The hotel is jointly run by the U.S. Army and Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. You book reservations with the Army, but when you check in you are briefed by a KBR employee -- Susy -- who lays down the house rules. "No filming inside the hotel or out the window. No visitors." She then adds: "Make sure you keep all your stuff -- equipment, underwear and toothpaste -- padlocked and out of sight." After Susy, we sign in with Capt. Ralph Hedenberg who proceeds with a safety briefing. All I remember is that you are supposed to hide inside the bathroom if the hotel is attacked. We are then introduced to the Iraqi staff, who insist on cash up front in exchange for room keys. It's emblematic of the new Iraqi order.

The hotel appears empty, though the 8th floor has a few inhabitants. There is Terrence Brombel, a very plumy Brit who heads a large private security company called Hart; a TV crew from Rupert Murdoch's SkyNews channel, which is here to cover the formation of the new Iraqi government; and a newly imported Iraqi-American who is about to become the new spokesperson for Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. The floor below us is empty. It's still under reconstruction after a mortar attack tried to interrupt former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's visit back in October 2003. A few floors below us there are a dozen Arab-American translators with the firm CACI.

Most days the elevator refuses to stop on the 8th floor. You generally wind up on the 13th floor, which is strewn with broken glass, left over from the attack on Wolfowitz, that crunches under your feet. After walking four floors down the fire escape you bump into a newly printed sign that reads, "No Iraqi Employees Allowed on this Floor Without Security." So every morning an Iraqi housekeeper makes your bed while Barry, a Bulgarian security contractor with the firm Total, oversees the changing of sheets.

The hotel's conference rooms have now been overrun by KBR, which runs the Green Zone's largest DFAC, or dining facility. Four times a day, hundreds of contractors and soldiers stream into the hotel to eat a wide variety of American favorites: fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza, and French fries. We tend to eat at the hotel's restaurant that only offers chicken derivates -- eggs, chicken sandwich, egg salad sandwich, and grilled chicken.

We have no transportation to get us anywhere because our trusted drivers from previous productions are not allowed inside the Green Zone to visit us. Somebody suggests we buy a car and then resell. That sounds like a bad option, so most days, my first task is to find a ride.

One option is Maj. Wesley Hayes at CPIC (Coalition Public Information Center), but he's often tied up picking up other journalists that land in the Green Zone's helo pad that goes by the code name "Washington." The problem with Hayes is that he only lets you film at the designated sites. And there are only seven, which wouldn't amount to more than 30 seconds of footage.

Terrence Brombel of Hart is always happy to drop us somewhere but is too busy to hang out while we do our shooting. The most accommodating of all is Lt. Col. Foos. He always seems up for a car ride in his white armored Humvee.

Foos manages the contract with the British firm Erinys, which provides security for the Army Corps and its reconstruction projects. He offers to introduce us to his contact at Erinys so that we can obtain some footage taken by a private security detail that was attacked in Mosul in January 2005.

Getting access to private security teams has been a problem. I wrote over 40 companies before arriving in Iraq and got lots of rejections. Only one company, Triple Canopy, said yes. They had dozens of restrictions, but we jumped at the chance. There are precious seconds of footage showing private security guards working in Iraq throughout the world's media houses. We needed every frame of footage we could get.

Gladly, one contact always leads to the next. One day, as I'm settling in my room to check my e-mail on a high-speed satellite hookup called an RBGAN, I get a phone call on my Iraqna cell. It's Andy Melville from Erinys and he wants to talk to me and find out what kind of film we are doing. I offer the hotel lobby. He offers to pick me up so I can spend the day with his private security team. I briefly hesitate, but quickly call up my co-producer Martin Smith and cameraman Tim Grucza to let them know where I've gone, and 30 minutes later I'm inside a bulletproof SUV careening about Baghdad's "Red Zone" at high speed. I'm in the "client car," unsure of where we are headed and thinking this is kind of nuts.

Gaviria with the Erinys team (faces obscured by FRONTLINE for security reasons).

The sirens make me the most uncomfortable. It's about as inviting as driving around Baghdad with a U.S. flag or a Union Jack hanging out the window. I'm starting to miss my discreet Iraqi driver in his beat-up Mercedes and tinted windows. Somehow, even driving in a soft-shell car seems a lot safer than running around the city in a three-car convoy with guys with big guns hanging out the window.

The guys tell me they make six runs a day. It's impressive to beat the odds six times a day, every day. For a private security detail in Iraq, the facts of life are simple: Insurgents mingle in traffic, artillery shells are buried on the roadside, suicide bombers in cars packed with explosives lurk at on-ramps, waiting for convoys like theirs to pass by. There are no reliable statistics on how many private security guards have died in Iraq, but Erinys' gets attacked once or twice a week.

After the longest 20 minutes of my life, we end up at a practice range, a sandbox in the middle of a highway and a back road. There are a few Iraqis guarding the perimeter, but somehow it strikes me as the perfect place for an ambush. Paranoia settles in quickly in Baghdad.

The boys are very relaxed. They seem to be enjoying the company of a visitor -- a female one to boot -- and are eager to teach me how to hold and fire a rifle. Most of them are South Africans, with thick accents. They are a charming bunch that make me laugh. And they are a close-knit group that seem to be relishing this experience.

They fire hundreds of rounds at paper bodies taped to wooden planks. It's so loud, some of them use bullets as earplugs. I'm hoping they'll do that again if I get them to agree for cameras to follow them about for a couple of days.

I ask a lot of questions and get a lot of very candid answers. Henny, what are you most afraid of out here? "Having my head chopped off ma'am." Bernard, how many Iraqi insurgents have you killed? "Can't comment on that ma'am, but let's say more than I can count on one hand." China, Iraqis hate you guys… "Yeah, they have a point, but if we did this differently, we'd be losing clients."

I'm a lot more settled on the way back to the hotel. One ride and you know what to expect. But I can't help thinking that Iraq has never felt more dangerous. On the other hand, it's hard to tell what the reality is when you are experiencing Baghdad from a bulletproof window.

That night Andy Melville wrote me an e-mail telling me that we have permission to film the team. He adds, "If I get a whiff that you are doing an investigative piece, I will be forced to come to the hotel and collect the footage forcibly." Luckily he never did carry out the threat.

As I write this, two months after our return to the States, an e-mail from one of the guys on the Erinys team arrived in my inbox. "We are still going very strong," he writes. "We roll heavy every day now and are still beating the clock so far. Stay low, move fast, Mike"

Marcela Gaviria was the co-producer on "Private Warriors." She's produced several previous FRONTLINE reports, including "Truth, War, and Consequences," "Beyond Baghdad," "Medicating Kids," and "Kim's Nuclear Gamble."

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posted june 21, 2005

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