Written after working as an "industrial expert" in southern Iraq, 2003; published 2007 in the British Czech and Slovak Review.
'Are you really from Prague, Jana?'
'Yes. Our government supported President Bush at the United Nations, and apart from Ivan and me Czech soldiers are also here.'
'Really? Nobody here from Canada or France. Polish troops further north and now you from Czecho. How the world changes.' The army officer smiles. This is another plus because in spite of his astonishment he speaks quite slowly, and for the first time since arriving in Basra three days ago I have no problem in following when somebody speaks English. With 'Johnson' on the name tag on his shirt and the crown on each shoulder flap he must be British.
'And just you two civilians. You must be the crème de la crème.' He smiles again and leans slightly towards me across the table – with a Czech a sign of more than friendly interest, but perhaps it's different in England. In any case I tell him about the never-ending selection procedure in Prague with its long lists and short lists and three rounds of interviews. And I wasn't even very sure if I wanted to come in the first place. All my friends said I was mad – even if the war in Iraq finished four months ago there was still a good chance of being shot or blown up. On the other hand, after ten years of plodding away at the same job in spite of my hard-earned engineering degrees, it did seem to be a big opportunity – a chance to help in 'nation building'. Especially with Karel moving out ten weeks ago, after five years of my thinking we would stay together forever. But I don't tell the English officer this.
Several times in the last three days I have wondered if it was a mistake coming here. I certainly didn't expect luxury or even much comfort in a military type of compound, and having to sleep in pre-fabricated huts doesn't bother me, or even the lack of office space – after all I didn't come here for a holiday. No, it's simply the lack of privacy. Perhaps I was lucky, but I've never had to share a bedroom in all my life except of course with Karel. And now, although Sandra from Milan is always cheerful and friendly, jostling past her mornings and evenings to get to the tiny, badly lit bathroom does get on my nerves. And meals three times a day with a hundred other people in the canteen, and food that always tastes the same – is this typical of English food?
I feel a long way from home – or from anywhere else! I've seen very little of Iraq and even less of Iraqi people. The drive in the armoured car from the border with Kuwait only took about three hours and, although we had to drive through the city of Basra and past the Czech hospital to get to the compound where we all live, I kept my eyes shut most of the time because the driver was clearly expecting an ambush at every street order or traffic lights. And, apart from a young interpreter, Abdul, and the lady working as secretary for our group, I haven't come across a single Iraqi.
A few days later my alarm rings at five. As I am already half awake I manage to press the button before it wakens Sandra as well. It's a shock but, yes, I am looking forward to the trip. At last a chance to get out of the prison-like compound and to go and see what I can do – at least at one factory.