Sunday, 26 January 2014

Seven Days in Tamimi

While Tamimi may conjure up images of a pacific island paradise, the bleaker reality is one of two United Nations compounds in the heart of Baghdad’s Green or International Zone (IZ). It is home to more than a hundred staff from the UN mission in Iraq (UNAMI) plus burgeoning numbers from an alphabet soup of international agencies. Members of the multinational teams whether working to inoculate children against disease, to settle and feed people fleeing from Syria and Anbar province, or to strengthen Iraq’s fragile system of governance, stay in pre fab containers alongside the security staff who protect them and the contingent of Fijian soldiers who guard the compound. Some of the staff have been there years, (with monthly breaks), others like me come for a few days for specific assignments.

Within hours of arriving, not so distant booms were followed by a loudspeaker instruction to stay indoors until further notice. An email reported an ongoing wave of explosions in the Baghdad area, small arms fire and movement of security forces. It was left to CNN to break the news that one of the targets was a juvenile detention centre with two guards killed and more than twenty escapes.

The attack cast a shadow over our planned visit to Rusafa prison, intended to form part of a five day training workshop organised for the Iraqi Correctional Service . Prisons have been targeted by Al-Qaeda across the region since last summer. While the Rusafa prisons are in the highly fortified perimeter of the Ministry of Interior, crucially they are in the Red Zone- a short drive but a world away from the eerily empty IZ , the  ghost town that is home to the international community of diplomats, aid workers and contractors , but it seems scarcely anyone else.

Venturing into the Red Zone requires close protection officers and an armed convoy and with limited resources support for missions has to be rationed. VIP visits and a long range mission meant our visit could not be supported until well after the workshop had finished.

Difficulties of international staff getting out of the IZ is matched by the problems Iraqis face in getting in. The stringent security meant the fourteen participants in our workshop could not arrive before 9.15 a.m. and had to leave by 2p.m. Bussed in and out of the IZ and checked numerous times, they reached the workshop venue not a little dazed and perhaps embarrassed by being on the receiving end of procedures they are more used to applying to others. Disappointed by the UN’s inability to authorise our visit to one of their prisons, the ICS staff none the less worked hard in the classroom at developing plans to bring their institutions into line with international standards. UNAMI’s human rights monitors may be able to check whether plans become reality, but their visits to prisons, like all missions into the Red Zone are severely restricted both in terms of time and place.

The technical limitations on UN activities are coupled with a political reluctance to embrace international norms. On the first day of our workshop, 26 death sentence prisoners were hanged - just a week after Ban Ki Moon had urged the country to suspend executions during his visit to Baghdad.

While security restrictions may frustrate the ability of agencies to do their work, they also shape everyday life at Tamimi and in the IZ. There is a curfew for staff and walking and cycling in the IZ  is prohibited at any time of day.  The UN’s Security Chief, visiting while we were in Baghdad, was told about the inhibiting impact of the regimen,  but given that the UN’s measures  are considerably less stringent than those operated by some other embassies, the deaths of UN staff in Kabul last weekend  and the upcoming elections,  any relaxation seems unlikely.

With a curious symmetry, on my last night  , the tannoy again instructed us to stay indoors,  this time to avoid some celebratory shooting – not it seems marking the successful end of the workshop but of a football match. Shortly after the all clear, staff descended on the bar where mysteriously free drinks were on offer. This came as a surprise to the visiting Security Chief next to me at the bar but was none the less a welcome one to everyone else. 

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