We reach Erbil in time for a suicide bomb attack near the headquarters of Iraqi Kurdish security services, not far from here we land. By the time we deplane at three in the afternoon, the airport has been put on lock down, dozens of police and army vehicles swarm the entrance, no cars are entering or exiting the area, except the shuttles which carry passengers to and from the meet and greet area – about a mile from the airport.
I’m traveling with Sean McDonald from Frontline SMS and we’re both here as technology trainers for the United States Institute of Peace’s PeaceTech Camp training event. Our focus is transparency in a post-conflict area. It’s Sean and my first time in Iraq and we don’t know quite what to expect when we step out of the plane. While Sean waits at baggage claim, I make my way over to a counter at one end of the airport to buy a pre-paid mobile phone card. I end up chatting with a British man named Rob who stands in line behind me. He’s been here before, he tells me, it’s a good place to do business and it’s the safest part of the country. I ask for his business card, I give him mine, we shake hands and part ways.
Sean and I step out into the arrivals platform and I immediately notice two things: there’s no cars picking up passengers – not even taxis – and large shuttle buses arrive one at a time and release crowds of luggage-toting people to the platform. People move quickly. Most of the people on our plane get on the first shuttle and leave, scurry away. We stand in the shaded part of the platform and feel the waves of hot dry heat just like Texas, where I began my journey, fifteen hours earlier. The terrain is flat and bare, thousands of years have passed here and the dust that blows in our faces is ancient. We are both looking for the driver that has been sent to pick us up. We are looking for a sign with “Tangram Hotel” on it. We don’t see the sign or the driver, so I go inside to get money from the ATM and ask some questions at the information desk about taxi and potentially paging the driver. The woman at the counter is nervous. “I don’t know ma’am, an incident has happened.” She moves on to talk to the other person. What incident, I ask. But she is ignoring, except for a man in a dark suit with a CB radio in his hand who is watching me as I try to get her attention. I give up and look around for clues of what could be happening.
I come back and ask Sean if he’s seen the driver, nothing, he says. I tell him to text and call Luke, the event coordinator, while I put in my SIM card and re-start my mobile phone. Another shuttle brimming with passengers arrives, empties, leaves, the platform is empty again, except for Rob. Rob is also texting on his phone in the far off corner near where the bus unloads its passengers. I start to get that feeling I often get in Central America when public places empty out: something is either about to happen or something has already happened. Either way it’s time to move. I reach down for my backpack to get the number of the hotel. As I’m reaching over, the man with the suit and CB radio comes over to us and says: “There are not cars coming in and out of the airport, there has been an incident.” An incident, Sean and I repeat and look at each other. “Yes an incident. It will be better for you to get on the bus.”
He leaves and we’re both silent. Sean looks at his mobile and Luke has texted back and is telling us to stay where we are until they can send a car. By now I have walked over to Rob and asked him what he makes of this “incident” business and where is his driver? Could we get a lift with him? We’d be happy to pay him. As I’m speaking to him, the next bus arrives, empties its passengers and both Rob and I go up to the driver and ask him if the shuttle can drop us off outside the airport. He nods. It’s hard to tell if he’s understood. Rob looks at me and I say, “let’s do it.” I run over to get my bags and Sean who is now intently on his cellphone alternating between typing and taking calls.
“Let’s go,” I tell him.
“They don’t want us to leave the airport,” Sean says. “They want us to stay right here.” I tell him I’m not staying here, it’s time to go. I roll my suitcase quickly to the bus where Rob and the bus driver are waiting. Sean is reluctant, but then throws his backpack on and runs over to catch the bus with us. The bus is now just us and we look out the window at the slow moving terrain, past the sculpture that looks like a steel wired gun pointed in the direction of the airport. We arrive into a large parking lot with empty cabs sitting outside and a large sign in Arabic and English that reads “Meet & Greet”. We are dropped off and as we attempt to linger inside we are quickly asked to stand outside by the security guard. The same thing happens as in the previous platform outside the airport, so we take the next shuttle.
We get on the shuttle and I notice an cellphone on the seat next in front of us. I debate how safe it is to pick it up and after a few seconds, I pick it up, take the cover off, look inside, take the battery out and put it in my backpack. My logic: Since it didn’t set off a bomb on the bus, the owner must be looking for it. So I’ll take it with us and then I can leave it in the lobby of our hotel for pickup. I forget about the phone as we get on the shuttle which takes us all the way out of the airport. We pass the main entrance with its checkpoint, that’s when we see them: the dozens of police cars, army vehicles, security guards, police and the blocking off of the entire area. Traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see. The bus turns left and drops us off in the corner, makes a U-turn and returns to the airport. We can’t stop staring at all the action in front of us. I come to and ask Rob: “Where is your driver?”
“Oh right!” He says searching nervously in his pants pocket for his mobile and sees he has a missed call. It’s his driver. He calls him and I can hear him giving instructions. “Follow me!” As we walk parallel to the long line of cars headed north his driver is walking quickly towards us, like a worried mother. He is waving his arms at us and talking to us in Arabic. I get the feeling we’re being lectured.
“I have been waiting for more than an hour!” He tells our friend. “We must leave this area, something has happened.” The entire time Sean is receiving various calls both from our own driver and the coordinators about our whereabouts and instructions on what to do (which is exactly the opposite of what we’re doing). He is getting frustrated. On top of this he has also received a message that his dog is in surgery because a bone went down the wrong way and now it has to be removed back in Washington, D.C.. “Could things be any more irrational?” He says out loud.
We continue to walk the unpaved area and I look into all the cars with the drivers looking both mad and helpless at the pile up. We get in the car and the driver’s son is behind the wheel. There is an ensuing discussion in animated Arabic as to where we should go next and finally I say to Rob. “Let’s go to our hotel and then you can wait with us there until all this clears up.” Maybe I should go to work in stead, he says out loud. Work now? I say to him. He nods, tells the driver, and then we’re off and headed in the opposite direction,
As we begin to make our way across town, Sean’s phone rings. “Should I answer it?” He says, more as a statement. “Yes,, but tell them we’re good.” On the other line, I can hear Luke’s panic and frustration.
“Luke, we’ve got it covered, Kara met someone at the airport who is giving us a ride to the airport.” Silence on the other line and I know that just didn’t sound right to Luke. Should I tell him we both have insurance that will airlift us out of here? “Don’t worry, we’ll see you at the hotel!” Sean says and hangs up as we hit another line of cars. The driver and his father start another animated conversation and then we got off-road into unpaved road and through the back area of parts of town with crumbling walls, children playing in the dirt and trash in large open areas. Erbil is definitely under construction.
There are sirens, honking, and stalled cars and we’re just weaving. I ask out loud what has happened and the older man says: “Bomb, near Center.” And I tap the British guys shoulder. “Did he say bomb?” I think so, he tells me.
It catches Iraqis in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous province of Kurdistan, by surprise because Sunday’s blasts, Aljazeera states, were the first to hit Erbil since May 2007, when a truck bomb exploded near the same Asayesh headquarters, killing 14 people and wounding more than 80. Now four car bombs were detonated near the headquarters, followed by gunfire, and wounding 36 people.
It is normally very quiet here, everyone tell us, almost apologetically.
As we continue to make our way to the hotel the silence is broken in the car by the sound of Arabic music. It’s not the car radio, but I think it is until Sean says: “Can you answer your phone?” I remember the small pocket radio I usually travel with and search my backpack to turn it off. That’s when my hand touches the cellphone I picked up.
“It’s actually not my cellphone ringing,” I say out loud. “It’s a cellphone I picked up on the shuttle.” Simultaneously both Sean and our Rob turn to me and yell: “What? You picked up a cellphone that’ s not yours!” I nod and say it’s the only way the person would get their cellphone back. They are both aghast as the phone continues to ring.
“Don’t worry,” I tell them. “If it had been a cellphone-detonated bomb we would have been dead by the time we got off the shuttle.” They are both speechless. It’s true, we’d had a string of those types of bombs in Guatemala a couple of years ago and I had thought about that before picking it up, I had even thought to throw it off the bus. I counted and watched the phone intently. I figured removing the battery would turn off the phone, but the phone had restarted once I had put the battery in again while we were rushing around.
The phone keeps ringing and I tell the older man to answer it and tell the person calling that the phone will be at the hotel. He answers it and explains everything to the man on the other line who is the owner, now in Dubai. The older man says, “Tangram Hotel, Tangram Hotel,” and hangs up. Sean shakes his head and looks out the window.
We arrive the hotel and are greeted by the local organizers who look very pale and worried. We’re the first ones to make it back from town, the others were near the Center not too far from where the attack happened and are still stuck in traffic.
“What happened?” I ask Afrah, one of the local organizers who is now pale from worry.
“Suicide bombers,” she said. “I’m sorry for all this trouble. This never happens here.” I smile and give her a warm pat on the back.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “We made it.”
She smiles weakly and when I turn around Sean has already disappeared. I hand over the lost cellphone to the receptionist and tell her someone will be picking it up. She nods. “Welcome to Iraq,” she says. “I hope you have a pleasant stay here.”