Living Inside Baghdad Airport

"This place -- well, we like to joke that it's actually a hotel masquerading as an airport."

That's what a Western employee of the Western company that oversees the Baghdad International Airport told me one night recently as I sat during an eight-hour wait for my flight to Dubai. I was leaving Iraq's capital after a short trip in ABC's bureau there, flying two hours on an airline that everyone calls by its former name -- Jupiter -- probably because its current name is too embarrassing.

I mean, would you want to tell your mother you were flying out of Baghdad on Ave.com?

The Westerner I spent the evening with probably wouldn't appreciate my using his real name, so we'll call him "Mike."

Mike and I sat in the new black leather seats that fill the airport's one lounge. In front of us, two small cafes that serve drinks and snacks (samosas, yes, but past 7 p.m. don't ask for water that's not frozen). Behind us was a duty free shop with a bad selection of cheap luggage, a nice selection of expensive Cuban cigars and oddities like polo shirts labeled "Baghdad Country Club." Above us, a strange series of what look like PVC wind chimes that cover the ceiling.

As we spoke a young Iraqi boy zigzagged his way between the rows of leather chairs, making fighter jet sounds. He held a bright blue toy plane in one hand, his arms outstretched as if they were wings. The plane was a model of an American F-16.

"I've seen plenty of weird things here. Good entertainment value," Mike said, taking a drag of his fourth cigarette in the last hour. "I'm not bored yet."

His favorite story: the time a Russian pilot started yelling at the co-pilot after the latter was so drunk, he'd almost crashed trying to land. In response, the drunken pilot had pulled out a gun and started waving it around on the plane.

Mike and I chatted about why he came to Iraq from Washington ("the money") and what it was like to work -- and live -- at an airport in a war zone.

The 40 to 50 Western employees and the 300 or so locals who oversee the airport live in a compound just outside the main terminal. The ex-pats even set up a bar.

"It's quiet now, but a few months ago, it was kind of strange to listen to the sound of mortars as you drink," he says. "It'd be one thing if you were in a foxhole. But you're just hanging out, sipping a beer."

They're not the only ones who live here.

Iraq's chief minister of civil aviation lives in the "penthouse" -- a series of rooms converted into his office and residence. There are so many threats on his life, he never leaves the airport except when he flies, even though the city is only a 30-minute drive away. (The road from the airport to the city, once called the most dangerous in the world, is now mostly calm.)

And three days a week, a young and pretty Iraqi woman who says her name is Sally also calls the airport home. She lives in Baghdad, but it would be too dangerous for her to be seen driving home at night. Her neighbors don't know where she works.

She is a waitress at the airport's watering hole, a restaurant that serves Western food at Western prices (or Iraqi food at Iraqi prices, but those dishes aren't listed on the menu), as well as Heineken and tobacco in hookahs.

"There's no other work in Baghdad," she said as my security team and I cobble together enough Arabic to have a conversation with her.

She is 22 and wears a black leather skirt to her knees, a white frilly top that leaves most of her arms exposed, and short heels. She graduated from a local university two years ago but says she can't find any other job. "There are no opportunities in Baghdad, there's no money in Baghdad."

She says she doesn't mind it, though, and she smiles easily at the table of Western men.

"Westerners are better customers than the Arabs. They drink more."

I ordered a second beer.

We asked her whether she feels safer today than she did a year ago, as the levels of violence on both civilians and the military have dropped to four-year lows.

"The security situation has improved. I'm not worried about kidnapping," she said. But still, it's safer for her to live at the airport on the days she works. And she admitted that she wants to "leave Iraq, like most Iraqis. I'd like to learn English in America."

Mike's company secures the airport, and during my visits here I've always felt safe. The airport has never been directly attacked since the United States arrived here.

But there have been incidents. The U.S. controls the roads around the airport, and two months ago U.S. soldiers in Humvees gunned down the manager of the airport's bank as he drove to work. The military says the soldiers saw the car as a threat, but eventually admitted it was "an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident."

"The only weapon I've had pointed at me since I got here has been American," Mike says. Soldiers, private security officials -- all of them have to leave their weapons outside the airport.

It may be safe, but in many respects it's awfully basic.

After you check in and before you walk through immigration, you have to pay an airport tax. At 7 p.m., though, it seemed the standards were a little lax.

I asked the man underneath the "Tax" sign how much I owed. "Habibi as you wish," he said. I knew the tax was officially only $2 (payable only in dollars), but I only had a $5 bill. He took it, smiling, and put it into his pocket.

Later, as I waited, it dawned on me that neither Mike nor anyone in his company nor anyone else at the airport could actually tell me why my flight was so late, when it would arrive, or whether it had even departed Istanbul on its way to Baghdad. There are no reassuring information boards with flight numbers and departure times.

"Yes, 30 minutes sir," I was told about five times, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 12:30 a.m., when that statement was finally accurate.

The U.S. Air Force, which owns the Iraqi skies and oversees the airport's control tower, doesn't exactly share its information with the civilian employees trying to run the airport.

Not to say that those employees have a lot of flights to worry about. You can count the number of daily international departures and arrivals on one hand. Destinations: Amman, Jordan; Dubai, U.A.E.; Istanbul, Turkey. That's it.

In 18 months, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. body that certifies airports, will visit here. If the airport can pass the ICAO tests, the extraordinary insurance rates paid by the three commercial airlines currently operating out of here will finally drop, and more carriers will be able to fly in and out. That can only bring money for the country and more money to fix up the airport.

Mike's company would like one day to rebuild (and fill with passengers) the second terminal, which has been indefinitely shut. The Iraqi Republican Guard made its last stand there at the beginning of the war, and if you look closely you can still find bullet holes.

"We've got a long way to go," Mike admits.

Between the two terminals, there is a board that best represents this airport and, perhaps, this city. It lists flights taking off and landing from cities like Paris, Athens and Tokyo -- a depressing sign of what this airport once was. But it is also a sign of what it could become, again.

And maybe, by then, nobody will have to live in the airport.

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