I snapped this early morning photo after getting off a UH-60 (Blackhawk). One of the last trips I made before leaving Baghdad was to Camp Liberty (previously Camp Victory).
Camp Liberty is located directly next to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), and used to be Saddam's personal hunting grounds. There are guest houses and several small palaces, which are now used for planning and rebuilding operations in theater.
Flying in, we travelled along the city outskirts before heading downtown. In this photo you can see one of two Grand Mosques being built in Baghdad. They are simply gigantic.
On a smaller scale this is one of Saddam's personal mosques. This one is not as fancy as others, but it looks so nice next to the pond. You could almost forget that this is Iraq.
Al Faw. This palace was named after a battle in southern Iraq during the first gulf war in 1991, though I couldn't tell you much more than that.
There are two bridges connecting the palace to the mainland but the one in the photo has been blown out. Pipes for support infrastructure are laid across the damaged water pass, while the rest of the bridge is mostly submerged. Some have said we destroyed it because we thought Saddam's sons were hiding in bunkers underneath. Most likely, we took it out to limit access. One way in, one way out.
The inside of the palace...
This chandelier is about 10-13 meters around (30-40 feet in diameter). You can really sense its volume by comparing it to the person standing in the balcony on the left!
A better view of Bridge #2. In the distance you can see that small mosque (to the right).
Camp Liberty has many pools, most of which Saddam used personally. Last time I was up here, I had the chance to swim in two of them. I can just picture Saddam running into these pools, shouting "cannonball!" as he jumps in and splashes all his royal guests.
To see pictures from my trip to the pools in June 2004, Click Here.
The staircase inside Al Faw Palace.
Back to Taji. For the three weeks that I travelled in and around Baghdad, Balad, and Taji, I flew on 12 Blackhawks, 2 Chinooks, 1 C-130, and 1 Sherpa.
To get back down to Kuwait, I had to take what's known as a "Space A" (Space Available) flight.
My "available space" was on a C-23 Sherpa. Doesn't really look like it can fly, huh?
Sherpas look like little school busses with wings. They carry about 24 PAX (people), and they travel only a few hundred feet off the ground, skimming across the desert.
While flying over dangerous areas, we had to climb to about 10,000 feet. Sherpas are not pressurized, so you start to feel a little funny that high up.
I'm now back in Kuwait, enjoying the dusty season. Conditions are a bit windy over the next few months, and sand storms are frequent occurrences. I snapped this photo on my way to work. Just to clarify, I work during the day, and I would normally see blue skies, not orange haze. Keeps getting more interesting out here.
I should be headed to Qatar in a week, and eventually to Afghanistan. Everybody remembers we are still over there, right? I am looking forward to this new adventure, and hopefully I will learn a thing or two along the way. More to follow...
I leave in a few hours for Qatar, a small (but extremely wealthy) country further down the Persian Gulf. Doha is the capital, not to be confused with Camp Doha here in Kuwait.
I wish I could spend more time in Qatar (especially since alcohol is allowed there!), but I have to leave for Afghanistan shortly after. I will be working in Taliban Territory for the next few weeks, and will hopefully get some great photos to post here.
More to follow...
Waiting for my free ride. Still in Kuwait (in this photo).
Intra-theater flying is like hitchhiking, only the ride you catch could be anything from a C-130 to a UH-60. You also have to wait for an available spot to open up, whether it's on a cargo plane or personnel carrier. Both trips (from Kuwait to Qatar and Qatar to Afghanistan) were on C-130 (which carries both people and supplies).
I landed in Qatar, checked in with PAX terminal (like booking a flight), and had to wait all over again. Fortunately, it only took a few hours. As a civilian, you get second priority over military, but it's not too bad.
On the plane, trying to get some sleep. The flight from Doha (Qatar) to Bagram (Afghanistan) takes about 5 1/2 hours. At this point I was so tired I just conked right out.
Coming in for the landing...
This is Bagram Air Field, in north-eastern Afghanistan. The environment is very different from Kuwait. The temperature is cooler, and there are trees and shrubs...not to mention the giant mountains in every direction!
The mountains I am referring to are the Hindu-Kush, a very famous range that runs from Afghanistan to Pakistan and reaches heights of around 23000 feet. The name means either "Hindu Killer" in reference to the mass-slaughterings from older times, or it was a corruption of the word "Koh," meaning Mountain.
I'll talk about the mountains in the next post.
Here's my new neighborhood. Comfy, eh? This picture reminds me of something you'd see at the base of the Himalayas (all the shanty wood huts and the ominous ridge in the background).
I know these pictures suck, but I'll post again in a few days. I've got some better things to share. Oh yeah, and land mines...
This was from last week's lighting storm. The weather here is restless, often changing several times throughout the day. Most of my time here, the weather has been sunny and cool...almost like San Diego.
This is Afghanistan...at least from where I'm standing. On one side is Bagram Air Field, where I temporarily work. On the other is an abandoned old village. And in the distance, surrounding the entire valley, are the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Afghanistan is quite beautiful, despite thousands of years of violence. Almost every civilization you can think of has left its mark or fought in this land, leaving devastation and empty villages in its wake. In this picture you get a better view of the ghost town.
One of the things I hinted at in the last entry was Afghanistan's mine problem. The Soviets invaded in 1979, and fought the people of Afghanistan for ten years. The day finally came when the Soviets retreated. Despite the end of this war, Afghanistan's troubles were far from over.
The Russians planted thousands (if not millions) of mines in an attempt to subdue the locals and cut off supply routes. They scattered mines all over the country, covering outposts, border regions, roads, and even residential areas. These mines are still a problem, and children are usually the ones who suffer. They often mistake small mines for toys and try to pick them up.
Mine clearing began soon after the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in 1989, but to this day, most of Afghanistan remains dangerous. In this photo, Polish soldiers clear the land, sweeping small areas and marking them off.
More than 60% of Bagram is off limits, because there are too many mines to clear. Another scary thought, when it rains, mines that have been buried deep in the ground float closer to the surface, thanks to the soft soil. A few weeks ago, after a fresh rain storm, a soldier going for a jog went off the recommended course and blew his foot off.
The Polish troops are part of our coalition, but they are also part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF is responsible for the security and rebuilding of Afghanistan, and is made up of countries like France, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Canada, South Korea, Slovakia, and many others.
This is the tail end of a Soviet Aircraft. Bagram Air Field (being a former Soviet Air Base) is littered with ruined equipment from the last thirty years. I would have gotten closer, but the area around the wreck has not yet been cleared of mines.
This is another destroyed aircraft. Everyone has been affectionately calling it "Osama's Airplane."
And this is what remains of a Soviet tank, left to rust next to a small village.
I might have painted a dark picture in this post, but there is more to Afghanistan than war. Oh yeah, Afghanistan produces 75% of the world's heroin. God, this place is crazy!
Enough of that. On to something lighter...
Every Friday, the locals and third country nationals drive to a small "interim area" next to the base and set up shop for a weekly bazaar. You can buy all kinds of stuff; from furs to pirated DVDs, to gemstones and marble. They even have World War I and Cold War era antiques.
I haven't bought anything yet, but I'll have another chance next Friday. I am supposed to leave for Kuwait at the end of the week, where I'll have a few weeks and then I'm off to Ukraine.
I am really looking forward to visiting Ukraine. I am meeting a soldier friend, from when I worked with the Multinational Division in Iraq. He and I are going to explore the old side of Ukraine, and check out all the tourist stuff too.
Oh, and I've been trying to fix up the web site (with what free time I have). Check this out to see a new map section I've been building, including an interactive map of Asia and the Middle East. So bear with me if some of the graphics and pictures get messed up.
Until next time...