Safwan, Iraq

IT IS ESSENTIAL, during times of war, to be in good company. And to that end, fellowship prospects improved markedly last week around the Kuwait City Hilton--known to hotel warriors as central command. After 36 sleepless hours, I had just stolen three or four when my phone rang. "Hello Matt," said the voice on the other end. "It's Christopher Hitchens. I'm here. Did I wake you?" Yes you did, I told him, though I wasn't about to turn down a social call from one of our finest magazine scribblers and seekers of truth. "Good," he said. "I'll give you five minutes to put your teeth in, then I'll be right over."

You can tell how at ease a man is in the world from the scarcity of possessions he lugs around with him. When I came here, it was with large backpacks and overstuffed duffels, extraneous tote bags, pouches, and carry-ons. But Hitchens showed up at my door with nothing more than a firm handshake and a half-smoked pack of Rothman's. As he stood there, rumpled and slightly jetlagged in blue jeans and a black leather jacket, he looked sort of like the Fonz--if the Fonz had been a British former socialist who could pinch large swaths of Auden from memory.

We plopped down in the living room, and I asked him why he hadn't brought his gas mask, chem suit, and Kevlar. "I wore Kevlar in the Balkans once," he said, "but it made me feel like a counterfeit, so I ditched it." Despite this cavalier disregard for safety, I was so grateful for the company that I offered him a Welcome-To-Kuwait shot of "Listerine" (as it is known by Kuwaiti customs officials). "I don't usually start this early," said Hitchens with feigned reluctance, "but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism."

AS I BRIEFED HITCHENS on the difficulties and dangers of getting into Iraq as an unembedded reporter, his eyes betrayed a wild impatience. "I have to get to Iraq," he told me. "You and everybody else," I replied, adding that the line started around the block. No, he said, I didn't understand. Vanity Fair had paid his freight, and he only had a short time. If his boots did not touch Iraqi soil, the mission would be a failure. Luckily, my best Kuwaiti contact called. The Kuwait Red Crescent Society was going into southern Iraq on a humanitarian drop. "Can you be downtown at the Sheraton by 1:00 p.m.?" she asked. It was 12:55, and we were in my car before she hung up.

When we got there, the convoy was pulling out and we weren't in it. "This can't be happening," Hitchens said, as if not getting in-country three hours after his plane touched down was an utter professional failure. The next day, the Red Crescent made another run, so we got to the Sheraton at dawn's crack to make sure we were on board. At the hotel press center, staffed by Kuwaiti Ministry of Information officials, an overflow crowd of journalists scurried about, all trying to cut deals to gain passage.

With hundreds of journalists waiting anxiously, like theater majors hoping for a speaking part in the school play, the list was finally posted. Hitchens and I were on it. I looked around to celebrate, but he was out having a smoke. When I finally spotted him, I broke the good news. I asked him if we should capture this celebratory moment with my disposable camera. "No," he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Save it for the bloated corpses. Don't say anything," he said, "or something bad will happen."

Hitchens told me that outside the hotel, he'd just run into P.J. O'Rourke. P.J. was riding in a caravan with ABC radio, and he'd asked Hitchens to join him. "They only had one seat," said Hitchens, "so I declined." (Like the Marines, Hitchens never leaves a comrade behind.) I ran into the gift shop to fill up my bag with gifts for the Iraqis. I already had Matchbox cars and Tic-Tacs, so I grabbed several cartons of Marlboro reds. When I came back out, Hitchens was having a smoke, and O'Rourke had rejoined him.

As I sidled up to them, O'Rourke, here for the Atlantic Monthly, congratulated me, telling me I was probably the only person here serving a smaller readership than he was. I showed both of them the contents of my swag bag, from which I intended to pass out gifts like GI Johnny from some bad World War II movie. "What?" said O'Rourke, "No chewing gum?" O'Rourke is an old hand in these parts, having gotten a book out of the first Gulf War ("Give War a Chance"). And so he was holding forth with mock bravado, telling us we hadn't seen anything. During 1991, he said, Scuds were coming down like rain. "The worst part was, the Saudis didn't know how to respond. They'd be driving like this [turning the wheel wildly] while looking out the window up into the sky. You stood a lot less chance of getting killed by a Scud than you did by an unguided Chevy Caprice."

Suddenly, we were barked at by a scratchy bullhorn, held by a Ministry of Information official named Yacoub. "Get on the bus" he said, though with the poor amplification quality it sounded like "Let up the truss." We got the gist, and were eager to get gone. I took a middle seat between Hitchens and a network TV producer friend I'll call Gabe.

Just as we were about to pull off, we heard two deafening booms overhead. They were missiles of some sort--either being intercepted or landing--that made a sound like God doing a can-opener off Heaven's own high dive. Hitchens turned to me worriedly. "You know what this means," he said. "That we're going to be injured or die?" I offered. "No," he said, "the trip's off." We all flocked out of the bus, looking to the outskirts of the city, where it seemed the sounds were headed. I ran up to a hotel employee, and asked him what we'd just witnessed. "Sir," he said, smiling the smile of someone practiced in the slow-rolling of information, "This is Kuwait. We won't know that until a week from now."

Yacoub jumped back on the bullhorn, sounding like Charlie Brown's marble-mouthed teacher. "The clip has a manifold," he mumbled. "Huh, what?" we asked. He said it again,: "The clip has a manifold." Still unable to make it out, I walked up in front of him, stopping two feet away. "What did you say?" I asked. "We can't understand you." He raised the bullhorn again so that it was just inches from my face. "THE TRIP HAS BEEN CANCELLED!" Why, I asked. "Due to weather and instability," he said.

Hitchens looked at me in disbelief, and something about his face had changed. His skin had tightened, and his eyes looked backlit with fire. He was a man with too much momentum to be stopped by bureaucrats with scratchy bullhorns. We were going to Iraq this very afternoon, he informed me, just as the block-red letters on our press passes deigned us--as "unilaterals." In the lobby of the Sheraton, Gabe the producer introduced us to one of his network's many drivers. The driver had a Syrian uncle who worked at the French embassy. Hitchens asked him how much it would cost for him to shuttle us around the checkpoints, into Iraq. "Make him an offer," said Gabe. "What is this, the souk?" said Hitchens. "No Hitchens has ever haggled. Tell him to tell me what he's worth."

The nephew settled on $500--a fair price it seemed, to risk his life and ours. I was feeling a little jumpy about the whole endeavor. Numerous colleagues had told me that about the nuttiest thing that can be done in a war zone is to hook up with journalists of the British or French persuasion. Now I was headed for Iraq with a driver from the French embassy and a Brit whose idea of planning ahead, provisions-wise, was to dig into the humanitarian food stash once we got in-country.

WHILE WE WAITED for our driver to get there, we went upstairs to Gabe's hotel room. He poured us two shots of liquid courage out of an Apollinaris water bottle. I thanked Hitchens in advance for getting me killed. "It'll be fine, really," he assured me. "I totally trust Massoud,"--our driver. "You've never even met Massoud," Gabe pointed out. "He's from the French embassy," Hitchens responded, as if that eliminated all doubt about his qualifications. I asked Gabe to ride with us. The more sane people on the trip, I figured, the better. I dialed P.J. O'Rourke as well, and told him we'd love to have him along. "Can't," he said. He had to be on the air with ABC radio shortly. "Plus," he added knowingly, "you'll never get past the first checkpoint."

He had obviously never met Massoud.

We went downstairs. Before Massoud pulled up, I suggested we pick up provisions in case we got stranded. Hitchens waved it off as unnecessary. "We'll be back by tonight," he said. Then his eyes grew saucer-like, as if he'd forgotten something. "Bananas!" he said. "We need bananas--it's the easiest way to carry food--plus, they're good for you." He disappeared somewhere and came back with a couple of bananas and cheese sandwich platters. If we ran into surly Baath party types, we could create a diversion by offering them our pickles.

Massoud's first idea was to switch to my SUV. Our driver, it seemed, didn't want to get his car dirty. We hopped into my truck, and Massoud took the wheel. He appeared to be a good enough driver. He stayed in his lane, and always signaled when turning. But the reason we hired him was to go off-road around checkpoints, so judgment was reserved. He spoke pretty good English, and told us all about the Iraqi occupation in 1990--how he'd had friends who'd been raped, had their cars stolen, and who'd been shot in the head--the usual stuff. Hitchens seemed to be breathing easier, "It's so good not to be in a convoy," he sighed, "Convoys are an insult to journalism, I think."

As we reached the Matla pass, about 15 miles northwest of Kuwait City, we rolled into the first checkpoint. A young British Royal Air Force policeman was standing sentry with a rifle and helmet that looked so oversized, you could've fit a bowl of soup in it and still had enough room for his head. The soldier told us we needed a special pass to get through. Hitchens replied that we'd already been issued two press passes--one from the Americans and one from the Kuwaitis. "What are these good for then?" he asked. "I haven't got a clue," said the Brit. He added that he couldn't let us go through for security reasons. "Security is only a word," protested Hitchens. "But it's not a reason, is it?"

Massoud pulled the car over, and Hitchens was on slow burn. "They're trying to protect us," he said indignantly, "Well I didn't ask to be protected." We exited the car and walked up to a sentry booth to haggle with the Kuwaiti official in charge. He wore a khaki uniform, a squirrelly mustache, and resembled an Arab version of Mario from the old Donkey Kong video game. He wore a dust mask, since the air quality in a Kuwait sandstorm is like pre-EPA Youngstown, Ohio. When we asked again if we could pass, he said no. Even if he said yes, he pointed out, others would say no at numerous successive checkpoints. While many of us pop off about personal liberties, Hitchens tends to view them as something other than polite abstractions. "We are asking for one thing," he said emphatically. "To travel freely in a free country!" The Kuwaiti still said no. Seeing that Hitchens's give-us-liberty speech didn't cut much ice, I took the Kuwaiti aside, and tried to offer him a bribe. Noticing that he wore some extravagant, salmon-tinted Gucci glasses, I told him, "In my country, we have Gucci glasses on every drugstore rack. I will buy many, and send them back to you." Despite my generous offer and slow-motion English, he wagged his finger at me disapprovingly, prompting me to cut off negotiations.

When we got back in the truck, I was now as distraught as Hitchens. What kind of Middle Eastern country is it when you can't even bribe your way through a checkpoint? Massoud pulled away to drive back to Kuwait City, so we asked him what happened to all of our off-road plans. We could've gotten turned back at a checkpoint by ourselves--and paid a lot less for the pleasure. Massoud shook his head. "Too dangerous," he said, if the Kuwaitis catch us running checkpoints, "they will shoot us in the back."

We paid off Massoud--$100 instead of $500, due to breach of contract--and waited for our luck to turn. The next morning it did. The Red Crescent had another humanitarian run into Safwan. The convoy had grown by at least ten buses from the day before. And once in it, we took our seats behind a Red Crescent volunteer and local journalist/fixer who asked that I change his name to Najeef. A Palestinian from Jerusalem and a graduate of Texas Southern University, Najeef offered pointers on how to identify the bad apples in Iraq. "The people who are for Saddam," he said, "I can tell from their physical appearance. The way they stand. The way they act." He said they throw the equivalent of gang signs--with a forefinger and middle finger extended, and with the thumb aiming out. Their facial expressions are also distinct, he said, pointing to his own and struggling to locate the correct English terminology. "Their glands are very sharp."

He told us that before the first war, the best way to bribe Iraqi officials was to offer them chocolate ice cream and bananas. "Even Saddam loves bananas," said Najeef. "If you gave bananas to Saddam, he'd probably let you [have relations with] him." Perhaps Hitchens was a better trip coordinator than I originally thought.

Najeef told us how wired he was in Kuwait. If we chose to hire him as a fixer, he could translate; he could get us into the yacht parties of decadent young Kuwaitis. He is close--personal friends--with a nephew of the Emir, who he said heads something called the Kuwait Bowling Federation. If we needed to get in any bowling while covering the war, Najeef was our man. He warned us that despite many forward-thinking Kuwaitis, like those in the Bowling Federation, there are others, like those in the Ministry of Moral Guidance and Public Relations, who are restrictive.

"They stop the boys from teasing the girls," he said. "They want you to go for prayer, to not listen to music--music is wicked. They don't want you to look at a girl or [have relations with] her." Though, Najeef reasoned, since the penalty in the afterlife is supposedly the same for each infraction, "it is better to [have relations with] her anyway." Generally speaking, Najeef said of the Islamic fundamentalists, "They kill all good things, all good activities. Live your life, let others live theirs. They live to f--- your life up. They don't like to see anybody happy."

Our bus caravan rolled on down the Highway of Death--which earned its nickname during the Gulf War, after Americans obliterated fleeing Iraqis in a what was widely considered a turkey shoot. As death-related interstates go, this is a fairly nice one: It is wide, comes with rumble strips, and has fewer potholes than your average Washington D.C. thoroughfare. Along the way we passed long convoys of U.S. military vehicles: Humvees and bulldozers and flatbed trucks stacked with fresh lumber. We passed soldiers, many of them looking baked and caked, from the months spent in this forbidding landscape of scorched, featureless, flatness that could very well pass for West Texas.

Numerous times, we were pulled over and forced to cool out at checkpoints for no apparent reason. After going about 40 miles in four hours, we were all a bit on edge. At one checkpoint, a group of soldiers sat around a Humvee, eating their MREs. Bored journalists gathered around them clicking pictures, as if they were one of the Seven Wonders. We asked a Sgt. Eric Jones from Knoxville, Tennessee, what he was eating. He warily eyed the plastic bag out of which he was shoveling chow. "It says chicken and noodles," he said, "but we still can't verify. They may convince a jury of their peers to believe it, but we don't."

Back on the buses, the Kuwaitis--lovers of bureaucracy and process--asked all the journalists to again sign their names and affiliations on a circulating roster. "Who wants to know?" Hitchens asked. He pointed out a journalist to me. "Look at him, reading the list upside down. Do you sign anything they put in front of you? You've got to push back hard or you'll get too used to being pushed around. What are they going to do with the list?" he inquired loudly. "Sell it to telemarketers," another couldn't-be-bothered reporter yawned.

Hitchens was right, there did seem to be more needless delay. "It's nearly midday," he said, "and we've been at this since 5:00 a.m." He reminded our driver that this was supposed to be a trip to assist the hungry. As we watched the Red Crescent volunteers waiting to get their forward-march order, while lollygaging outside their trucks in red, white, and blue, Evil-Knievel-style jumpsuits, Najeef concurred. By the time we got there, he said, "The starving people of Iraq will eat us as well."

Our convoy finally crossed into the DMZ, and we were stopped one last time. Our bus perched right on the border. Before we could get moving, some sort of mortar or shell landed on a hillside about a mile away. We heard the boom, and saw a large plume of smoke ascend. We had no idea if it was from enemies or friendlies, but nobody seemed too pressed. It was just close enough to spook us, but far enough to make us want to go on, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, ready to taste Canaan.

MIRACULOUSLY, the Kuwaitis let us go on. We pushed forward to Iraq, into the tiny border town of Safwan. As we did so, skinny children ran alongside us, sprinting past fall-down mud-brick houses, some of them without roofs. The recent fighting had knocked out the town's electricity and water. The locals were smiling, but wanly, desperately, many of them trying to wave the humanitarian trucks up to their houses, as if special deliveries were an option. The Red Crescent's 18-wheeler stopped on a dirt road, and the word had already gone forth. People swarmed the rig from every direction, with their feet mud-caked and cracked, walking briskly with the panther steps of those used to not owning shoes. The journos tumbled out of their buses, and watched a mosh pit form behind the back of the trailer truck.

Red Crescent workers screamed frantically for order, but there was none to be had. They initially refused to open the doors and throw out the boxed provisions, which just made everyone struggle harder. It was degrading to watch, and Hitchens, trying not to sound like some bleeding-heart humanitarian, said, "If they'd have been a bit more British about it, and formed a polite queue, they'd have all gotten a package."

Instead, the strong bulled their way in, elbowing and jostling like power forwards clearing the boards in an inner-city pick-up game. Everyone had to wait until they got tired of hoarding. Hitchens and I hovered on the periphery, trying to grab people for interviews. Some spoke a little English, and if they didn't, we nabbed Arabic journalists or relief workers to do some quick translating. One Arabic journalist led me to an Iraqi and asked, "What do you want to ask him?" I tried to keep the question simple. "Americans and British," I said, "Good or bad?" "Not bad," he answered. "Does that mean good?" I followed-up. The Iraqi spoke before being asked. "It means--not bad," my translator reiterated.

The body language of the crowd told you as much as their stunted English. While little boys approached us, chanting "Booooosh, yes!" the village teenagers had the damaged air of the older kids at the adoption agency who never got picked. I gave one of them some cigarettes, and shot him a corny thumbs-up sign. He shot one back, but mockingly, elbowing his buddy who flashed the hand gesture that Najeef had described as the Baath party gang sign. At the back of the line, we hit my swag bag pretty hard, trying to earn goodwill. I passed out Tic-Tacs and Matchbox cars to the little ones, who rolled the wheels against their hands. Then I dispensed cigarettes to Iraqis of all ages. (Hitchens went even further, giving them a light.)

As I did this, a small boy ran up to me with a blank piece of paper. He motioned for me to scribble on it, but I had no idea what he wanted--a picture, an autograph? I reached down and made a nonsensical doodle. He nodded appreciatively, then bolted for the truck. "He thinks you wrote him out a food ration," one of the relief workers explained. While working the crowd, trying to make connections with Iraqis, I felt a slight tug at my back. When I turned around, no one was there. But off to the side, stood a young boy who had just been there a moment before. He held up my water bottle, smiling sheepishly, as if to ask, "Permission to steal?" Permission granted.

The young ones coveted cigarettes as much as their older brothers and fathers. When I offered a choice of orange or white Tic-Tacs, they responded with a chorus of "smoke, Meester, smoke" while tapping fingers to their lips. I would give them smokes, they would palm them, then asked for more. Occasionally, I held a pack out, allowing a self-serve situation. With the older ones, there was no gratitude, none of the recognition one typically expects between supplicant and benefactor. There was just an urgency and desperation, a savage grab to take possession of something before it could be taken back.

It was hard to know exactly what they were thinking. Based on the translations I received, I don't think many of them knew either. They spoke in a rush of conflicting words and emotions. Coaxing out coherent answers was like conducting a telephone survey in a hurricane. The same person in the same sentence would often express distrust of Saddam, as well as of Saddam's invaders. After talking to one Iraqi man, Najeef translated: "They are not sure if this is liberation or occupation. They will wait 'til it's all over."

The people of Safwan are used to being disappointed. They have suffered greatly under the rule of Saddam, and more directly, under his Kurd-slaughtering henchman, Chemical Ali, who'd been given charge of the region. Back in '91, several miles north in Basra, the Americans had encouraged a Shiite uprising against Saddam, then when it went off, pulled out prematurely. The Iraqi rebels were crushed, and Safwan became a temporary haven for refugees. In order to survive, many were forced to eat boiled leaves with salt, and had to draw their water from mud puddles.

It is understandable, then, if their actions and emotions aren't easily classified--if they don't look too happy at all these journalists piling off buses like Great White Santas on safari. They love the help, and hate that they need it. While I passed out candy and toys to children, on more than one occasion, an adult stepped in and waved me off. One shot me an assassin's glare and offered a stern admonition. When I asked a relief worker what was said, he explained, "He is ashamed of his shit conditions. They are proud. This is not who they are. They do not want outsiders coming here and seeing them this way."

I temporarily refrained from emptying out my goody bag, but I couldn't stop. Especially not with Jasim standing on my arm. The boy, one of the most handsome kids I have ever seen, shadowed me through the crowd. He couldn't be more than seven, only four years older than my oldest son. He tried to speak English, and smiled a lot, while standing shoeless beside me. I watched him bleed from his ankle. It was not the kind of blood that comes from a bite or a picked scab, but the kind that flows from an incision. He didn't nurse it or even favor it--he just forgot it--as he stood by my side, continuously cadging cigarettes.

I will likely go to hell for all the cigarettes that I doled out to children this day. But it seemed the only pleasure they'd been granted for God knows how long. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids will doubtless bristle, but then, if these kids lived long enough to contract lung cancer, they'd be doing rather well. "Smoke? Meester," Jasim, said, smiling infectiously, while the blood trickled down his leg. I gave him Marlboro Reds, first one, then a couple, then an entire pack of "20 Class A Cigarettes," as it says on the box. I'd have given him the carton if I didn't think he'd get beat up for it.

"Quite a 'berg, isn't it?" said Hitchens, as we made our way out. When our buses pulled away, the food truck followed, and we witnessed crazed teenagers throwing open its doors, pushing themselves up inside, and tossing boxed provisions into the road until they licked the trailer clean. Later, I would learn that Muna Khalil, a journalist from Dubai, had a knife pulled on her after an Iraqi adolescent climbed on her bus, so desperate for food and water. He didn't want to hurt her, he said, he just wanted sustenance. She prayed for him aloud, a prayer that translates roughly as "God bless your mother and father, just like you," she said. The boy was both startled and grateful, and said, 'Oh yes, you know this prayer too?' Okay, bye-bye.'"

BACK OVER the border on the Kuwaiti side, Yacoub delayed us again, saying we needed to wait for other buses to arrive so that we could convoy home in the interest of "safety." "We're in Kuwait," Hitchens said, incredulous. "How are six more buses going to make us safer?" Yacoub exploded, and told Hitchens that he was taking his press passes. Hitchens gladly obliged, and told Yacoub he didn't want them anyway, since they didn't seem to get him anywhere. (He did express regret that he had to relinquish the one that said "unilateral.") Playing Powell to Hitchens's Rumsfeld, I got off the bus, and tried to smooth things over with Yacoub, who had had a long day himself.

After cooling off, Yacoub decided to make nice, somewhat, by wordlessly giving Hitchens back his press passes. But Hitchens, still smarting from having his freedoms trampled, accepted the American one, and handed the Kuwaiti one back. Insulted and red in the face, Yacoub screamed, "I will use my power! You will leave Kuwait tonight!" (Hitchens didn't get tossed that night--thanks to connections he had above Yacoub's pay grade).

In a show of collegiality that typifies the press corps these days, another reporter snapped at Hitchens, taking management's side. "And you wonder why people think we're arrogant and rude," he thundered.

"They don't have to wonder in my case," Hitchens calmly replied.

I exited the bus, and joined Hitchens outside, where as usual, he was having a smoke. I tried to console him, but he didn't seem to need it. "Remember my golden rule," he said defiantly. "Do something every day against Bastards HQ." An Indian journalist sidled up, playing the part of Hitchens' sole additional sympathizer. "We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men," he said quietly, causing Hitchens to smile broadly.

"You see," Hitchens said. "Only in India do people really bother with English literature anymore." It seemed the perfect pull--these lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men--to describe life at this moment, on this side of the border. And, as a bonus, there were still a few lines left over, to fit the place and the moment we just left behind on the other side: Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar / Shape without form, shade without color / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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