“Take Hard Cover!”: Stories from Baghdad and Basra

This blog by Joe Power is based on accounts from GPG staff and partners working on projects in  Iraq between 2008-2016.

Global Partners Governance started working in Iraq in 2008, at which time the country was almost unrecognisable compared to now. 2008 was a time when travel to Iraq seemed not only scary, but logistically impossible. It wasn’t as if, at that time, you could simply pop into Thomas Cook and book a 2 week break in Basra. At that time it wasn’t even the case where your plane could land in straightforward manner, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Before being able to travel to Iraq, the team needed to go through the hostile environment training, ensuring you’re prepared should the worst happen. Then, in lieu of typical summer/hot weather clothing, you had to give your measurements to ensure that your bulletproof vest and helmet were going to fit. If this seems like a lot to go through before travelling, the flight itself wasn’t a simple A to B route. Not only were there no commercial flights going to Baghdad at this time (meaning that the GPG staff and partners had to travel via RAF jet), the plane also had to perform aversion tactics when landing so as to avoid potential missiles. The residence for the duration of the trip was the British Embassy compound in Baghdad which was located in the green zone. Though, just how green a zone it was at this point may be up for debate. Not only did rockets land inside the green zone, there was one instance where a missile (which thankfully did not explode) landed in the embassy compound itself. This incident, like many others, was treated as though it was both entirely normal and yet nothing to worry about. This attitude, along with the strict safety protocols, certainly helped one young employee at GPG on his trips to Baghdad a few years later.

By 2011, around the time of the Arab Spring, things in Iraq had progressed to the point of commercial travel being available again, though there were no direct routes through the UK, the journey was somewhat more comfortable. Iraq at this point had, as one project partner puts it, the “nuts and bolts” of democracy and in the relatively short period of time since the invasion, the country had developed and it felt like a time of real opportunity in the region. GPG’s various teams arrived there with the genuine hope that they could assist in supporting change happen in Iraq. As the project expanded, we had new staff members and partners making their first trips to Baghdad. It would be understandable for someone in their mid-twenties at this point to be apprehensive making this trip, but in reality the whole process, as well as feeling both overwhelming and bizarre, actually felt quite normal. At least in as much as everyone else surrounding the team was behaving normally.

Though, in an environment such as it was, “normality” can only last for so long. Fear hits in when you experience the warning system in the British Embassy in Baghdad. The noise of a piercing alarm and the words “Take hard cover! Take hard cover!” blaring out across the compound and the sound of unceasing gun fire is approaching, getting louder and louder until it feels as though you’re surrounded by the noise. At a moment like this you would be forgiven for thinking that people had descended on the embassy to attack. However, an hour later, those in the compound are informed that the gun fire was an act of celebration following a victory for the Iraq football team, with several people cheering and shooting in the air to commemorate the victory. “Hard cover” was still essential because, even though there was no imminent risk to public order, what goes up must come down. Unfortunately for the resting heart rate of those present, the alarms in the Embassy compound don’t have separate settings which denote the severity of the situation; an alarm saying “take to hard cover, but don’t worry too much” would have been ideal.

By 2015, the government were more established and were looking to form local governments and decentralise power, showing how far the country had come over the previous decade. Because of this, our work in Iraq had expanded to Basra, and one young graduate who was brand new to the GPG team found herself taking her first trip as part of a project which, unsurprisingly, was also the first trip she had taken where she needed to give her size of bullet proof vest. Despite having completed the hostile environment training and wearing body armour far too heavy to be comfortable in, it was still quite a shock when in the car being transported from the airport to notice an AK-47 tucked between the driver seat and the armrest. 

Over this period where many are reflecting on the past 20 years in Iraq, it is important to note that whilst there is still work to be done, as there is in most places, the progress the country has made since the invasion has been vast. What stands out to all project staff I’ve spoken to is the conversations with motivated people on the ground in Iraq, working to deliver for the people of their country.