Tents along the border

still 476

Part of the Penjwin team of novices in front of our office

I pulled into Baghdad /fearin’ to be half past dead. [ with apologies to The Band]

We’d come in convoy from Amman, —a dozen brand new Nissan Patrols freshly painted with the light blue livery of the UN—12 hours across the desert. The May night still held a bit of coolness. On the outskirts of the city we stopped at a checkpost.   A soldier stuck his head into a front window and flashed a torch into our faces. Mine was the only white one. Ayman, my tent buddy, was a Jordanian whose trousers were always pressed and shoes always polished. Amin, a colleague from Pakistan was from Khartoum. A nice guy who didn’t like to show it.

‘Passports! Country?’

I swallowed drily. Amin and Ayman replied in Arabic. The soldier nodded at me.


I expected a menacing smirk and demand to get out of the car. Or, at the very least a nasty glare. What I got was a bored shrug. After waiting for 15 minutes for our passport details to be recorded we were sent on our way with repeated statements of welcome and Godspeed, so typical in the Islamic world.

The next day as I rode in a taxi through downtown Baghdad, the chatty driver asked the inevitable question, ‘Which country?’ When I said, ‘America’ he caught my eye in the rear view mirror, raised an index finger and beamed, ‘Number 1 country! Welcome!’

Iraq was full of surprises like this. After hearing and reading nothing but horror stories of Saddam, the Ba’ath Party, torture and mass gassings the complete lack of enmity or ill will I felt from any Iraqi, Arab or Kurd knocked me off base. Other than a troop of grim immigration officials at the Jordanian border who scowled throughout the border crossing the only overtly anti-American incident I experienced was being compelled to trod across the face of George H. W. Bush embedded into the floor of the entrance of al Rasheed Hotel. But this was a requirement for all guests before they received the keys to their room and not directed at me or any other American in particular.

Having spent 3 years in Pakistan and a lifetime in India Iraq struck me as a shiny super advanced country. The freeways on which we roared at 180 kms/hour were so smooth the soda in our cans hardly shimmied. The shops in Baghdad were well stocked with everything from Hasselblads to Sony TVs. This despite nearly a decade of war and humiliating retreat from Kuwait. Bazaars were full of food and busy restaurants. Opulent wedding celebrations filled the lobbies of luxury hotels; every middle-class home had a car—many of them late-model Chevrolets—and prices were low. Filling up both tanks of our Nissan Patrols with diesel set us back hardly a fiver.

As we waited for our travel permits to travel north we lounged around a hotel swimming pool and chatted up Iraqi women in bikinis. This hardly seemed the death camp I had been led to believe.

Of course, things got a bit more sinister when we got out of Baghdad. Our team was assigned to set up a small operational base about 3 kms from the Iranian border in a little town called Penjwin, north of the major Kurdish city of Suleymaniah. Penjwin had been completely destroyed by Saddam in the early 80s to serve two purposes:

  • the creation of a cordon sanitaire 15 kilometers deep as defense against the Iranians and,
  • to depopulate the region of Kurds who were always restive and ready to rise up in anger.

Throughout all the districts along the border the situation was the same. Once thriving villages and small towns had been completely destroyed by dynamite. The residual rubble was now overgrown with tall colourless thistles and brush.

In Suleymaniah itself the Iraqi army was out in force. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets and strategic crossroads. Check posts were everywhere. The mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) occupied a multi-storied building on the main street where people were tortured in the basements.

A few weeks after we arrived Iraqi forces clashed with the peshmarga and advanced north towards Penjwin. For several days we waited in tense limbo to see whether we would have to draw back into Iran or the Kurdish fighters would prevail. They did and we didn’t. Over the next weeks Saddam’s forces retreated completely from Suleymaniah. Kurds who had fled or been forcibly resettled in other parts of the country in years past began flowing back to their decimated homes.

My work in Penjwin was very hands on and operational. We slept in tents in the dust and showered and shat in poorly constructed cubicles. Each day my team was out surveying the countryside finding locations wide and flat enough for food distribution or temporary camps. We negotiated with peshmarga leaders about access to certain areas and the conditions of our relief operation. We assisted NGOs to rehabilitate old hospitals and worked with the Red Cross to ensure adequate supplies of water to over 300,000 Kurds who had returned from Iran to which they had fled soon after the war when President Bush had encouraged them to rise up against Saddam.

Days were long and hot, sometimes reaching 55C in the tents. When the seasons changed, our canvas tents were bitterly cold and damp. Each evening (there were no weekends) our team in Penjwin, about 15 or so staff from Africa, Asia, Scandinavia and the States, bonded over endless cans of Heineken, bottles of cheap Scotch, cigarettes and the music of Mory Kante.

This was true ‘field work’. Computers were new inventions and frequently broke down in the dust. Email was yet to be invented. Our reports were mostly rough,  poorly written and smudged with dirt. A total blast.

As I had in Islamabad a few years earlier I felt sheepish that novices as myself and the rest were given such vast quantities of responsibility. We worked autonomously with minimal direction and even less instruction from Baghdad let alone Geneva. We were expected to negotiate with local barons who commanded small clan armies as well as ensure huge volumes of food and non-food assistance were distributed equitably and regularly across large and remote landscapes. And to do all this without stepping on a landmine and ending our lives or damaging UN property.

None of this was particularly challenging intellectually. It was not, as they say, brain surgery. It did require, as I’ve said before, strong generalist life skills: ability to multi-task, get along, take responsibility, coordinate with others and make reasonable decisions. But I was conscious and slightly uncomfortable with the reality that in certain areas and on certain subjects thousands of people deferred entirely to me and my team. Or conversely, the international system allowed its interests to be represented by a group of men and women with no real expertise to do so.

I suppose one can take some comfort in the knowledge that the international system is simple enough to be adequately maintained by inexperienced misfits.

On the other hand I feel privileged to have been given that responsibility. Not only did I learn more ‘management skills’ in half a year than I would have in a three-year MBA, the opportunity to meet and work with Iraqis of all styles was priceless. Indeed, this human-to-human contact, be it with Kurdish peshmarga, or North Korean bureaucrats, be it radio operators from north of the Arctic Circle or Dinka tribesmen in a war-ravaged outpost in South Sudan, is what kept me going in my career when all other reasons showed up lame.

Maybe in the end, aid workers are simpletons. With simple ideas. One such idea I’ve never been able to shake is that the more people, especially people from ‘official enemy states’, meet, the less convincing all the arguments of ‘them’ and ‘their beliefs and culture’ being dangerous and incompatible with ‘ours’ and ‘us’ become. I will always be grateful to my aid experience for exposing political posturing and media scaremongering for what it is: fear based cartooning.

I stayed on for 6 months. There was still plenty of work to do and most of my colleagues stayed on for a further 6 months or so. I thoroughly enjoyed Iraq but had reasons to consider moving on. With three years of UN work under my belt I was among the most experienced in our team and served as the Deputy Head of the Penjwin field office. In the absence of Amin our Sudanese Head of Office I got lots of opportunity to step into management ranks, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I found my ability to write and think quick on my feet as well as my ability to convey empathy with people served me well. A number of sticky situations popped up when Amin was away and though he was never one to praise subordinates, overall I was identified as an up-and-coming officer with potential. This appealed to my essentially middle class, Christian idea of success: a stable job in a well-respected organization that provided essential services to people in distress. As the end of 1991 approached I received confirmation that I had been appointed to a position in Nairobi beginning early in the New Year.

The other reason to pull up stumps was that most fatal danger of field work—romance.







  1. keruin · January 8, 2016

    I really enjoy your writing – it’s very lively and without artifice. You seem to face the ironies and contradictions very plainly – saying “Here they are!” with sort of a grin, rather than trying to turn the facts of the story to make yourself look like a hero. Much appreciated!


    • Mr Harmonium · January 8, 2016

      hey thanks. btw. i’m doing a piece for DEVEX on this topic. If you have any thoughts or expereicnes to share on why you got in to the aid racket and your intentions or thoughts on how and when to get out they would be welcome. my email is ajnabi1957@gmail.com if you’re interested.


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