Monday, July 23, 2007

A Flight to Nowhere

Catching any flight from Baghdad International Airport is an extraordinary experience in and of itself, but when the destination of your flight is Amman, Jordan, it reaches a whole different level.
I made this particular trip several times in the last three years, but my last journey was by far the worst.

I was used to the mild discrimination the Jordanians have been practicing against Iraqis at the airport in Amman in recent years. Passengers on a flight coming from any airport in Iraq do not exit from an ordinary gate like other passengers. Instead we are taken by bus from the plane parked hundreds of meters from the terminal under the watch of guards armed with automatic guns. Then we pass through extra security X-ray, metal detection, and a body search - before they get to the passports counters, even though all of us had passed through the strictest airport security system on earth before getting on board.

But that’s OK and we got used to it.

But recently our Jordanian brothers came up with a truly outrageous practice of discrimination against Iraqis. All disembarking Iraqi passengers now are taken to special passport counters in a hall separated from the rest of airport facilities regardless of the origin of their flights or the airlines they came aboard. Attached to this hall is what Iraqis call “the prison”.

In case you haven’t heard, Iraqi refugees stopped going to Jordan long time ago now because they know they would be turned away.
So the Iraqis I’m talking about are not refugees. Every one of them had a good reason for visiting Jordan; businessmen, official delegations, people who have family members who are residents in Jordan (residency in Jordan requires keeping $100,000 permanently in a bank in Jordan) and others who simply come to that airport in transit — to fly to another destination that is not among the limited destinations of the Iraqi airlines.

There are also people like myself who had to go there to apply for, or receive, a visa to the US, since ironically, the US embassy in Baghdad processes only two types of visas!

Last year, I received an admission offer from a prestigious American university to a master’s degree program in international affairs. It was a project I invested much time, hope and resources in for over a year. The story is long and I won’t bore you with the details.
Long story short, the American embassy in Amman recently notified me that my visa was ready to be stamped. I bought a ticket and got on a plane on my way to Amman confident that the documents I had would grant me access to Jordan for the week I needed…I was wrong.

I was ushered into the separate hall along with other Iraqi passengers, while foreigners on our plane were taken somewhere else. I was surprised by this new arrangement. “This isn’t looking good,” I thought, but I followed the procedure, handed my passport to the officer and sat down to wait as told.
Three hours later, I had been interrogated three times, shown every paper I had a couple times and got yelled at twice.

Finally I was taken to the other hall - “the prison”. At that point, I didn’t know what it was, and thought it was just another waiting stop. But the Iraqi guys who arrived before me briefed me on the situation. “Put your hand luggage over there in that room and quickly find yourself a blanket before they are all taken. You’re staying here for a long time brother!” one of the Iraqis said.
I was shocked by what I saw inside; a small passage with two rooms on the side and a third at the end; many Iraqis were chatting or lying on the floor with their bags littering the rooms. There were also some noisy children running around and sometimes crying. One room was designated as “women’s” room, another was for the men, the third was pretty much for children.

An hour passed before I could absorb what happened to me; locked up in a crowded room and just been denied the rare opportunity I had been working on for a year, for no other crime than being Iraqi.
There were about forty or fifty of us there at any point and the number went up and down as new arriving flights brought in more unfortunate Iraqis, or departing flights took some of us back home.

It wasn’t the typical scene of impoverished and suffering refugees, but in it’s own way it was painful to watch educated and professional people, doctors, businessmen and even diplomats with their red passports being treated this way; sleeping on the floor and asking for permission from a guard to go to the restroom.
No documents, letters, recommendations or pleads worked, even a phone call from the Iraqi ambassador couldn’t save the dignity of an Iraqi diplomat from being relinquished to “the prison”.
The most painful scene was of families of four being torn apart; half of the family would be allowed to enter Jordan while the other half would be rejected and ordered to go back. Many preferred to go home together over being separated like this.
One scene like this nearly turned to a tragedy when an old lady suddenly collapsed on the floor from a case of heart attack from all the stress she suffered that day. If not for the good Iraqi doctor among us, she would have died waiting for the medics to arrive.

The night was the longest ever. All of our stories were not enough to kill the time. and sleeping was not an option with all the noise and insufficient number of blankets. Many of the guys ran out of cigarettes early in the evening but luckily I had a full carton in my relatively large laptop bag! One elderly man somehow managed to get some hot water, a large kettle and some plastic cups. So we made tea and gathered at 4 am for a long tea and smokes party, waiting for the sun to rise and for the plane to come and take us home…

On the next day in the early afternoon, I boarded the plane that was returning to Baghdad with about a dozen other Iraqis. The kind stewardess was apparently familiar with cases like ours and noticed how tired we were so she immediately welcomed us with bottles of cold water and some kind words to comfort us, “There’s a few of you this time, yesterday we returned 75 passengers!” she added.
The guy sitting to my left said “There will be a day when they [Jordanians] will beg us to let them enter Iraq”.
No, the guy sitting to my right objected. “They were mean to us and they hurt us, but if we do the same we’ll have sunk to their level. Let’s instead hope that one day our country will become a better place.”

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