Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Yesterday marked the end of two weeks in Baghdad. I no longer flinch at the sound of gunfire that sounds as if it’s coming from just below my balcony. Restaurants and shops have re-opened, even though the electricity still sputters off and on.

Here at the al-Hamra hotel, just south across the Tigris from Saddam’s Republican Palace, we are lucky to have a working restaurant and room service - such as it is - for when you have to eat and file at the same time. They have even filled the swimming pool, which beckons when the dusty afternoons reach 42 celsius..

When I arrived, it was quieter and no one ventured out at night, but in general, the city didn’t feel like a war zone. Reporters didn’t seem to be using their heavy protective armor. There were specific places where you could see the rubble left by heavy bombing and each government ministry was either bombed or burned by looters, but Baghdad appeared functional.

Now I see that the longer you stay, the more pain and damage you see.

Sometimes it’s behind a wall, as with the posters of the missing and the lists of the executed that are posted by the Committee of Free Prisoners on the inside garden wall of the former home of a Republican Guard.

Sometimes it’s in a conversation, as when a squatter who’s been evicted from her home tells you she cannot afford bananas – which cost mere cents - for her two children. Or when her neighbor, a retired engineer, begins to cry as he tells you how he was tortured with electric shocks.

Sometimes it’s closer to home, as with the lantern-lit memorial service held on a fifth-floor rooftop of our hotel in memory of Elizabeth Neuffer, the Boston Globe reporter killed along with her translator when her driver smashed into a guardrail near Tikrit.

Yesterday, my driver decided to speed through a waterlogged street near a water main break. I was worried about hydroplaning but the greater danger turned out to be that Hassan flooded a nearby car with open windows. Four angry men pulled up next to us, shouting and waving their fists. My first thought was wondering whether they had guns, but I didn’t find out because Hassan dodged down a side street and then circled back another way. I didn’t know whether to be angry with him or thank him for his evasive moves.