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Roger Partridge
Pfeuferstr. 36 • 81373 München (Munich)

Two Thousand Miles from Home (2006, Roger Partridge ©)

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.

An hour later, after breakfast – I had to force down the fried eggs and those terrible English sausages, but the day I arrived I didn't get anything to eat until three in the afternoon – I go to the meeting point. I see two armoured cars: a convoy? I get in the back of the first car. The man in the front passenger seat turns around and smiles.

'Hallo, I'm John, team leader for security, and this is Sue our driver. And your name is?'

'Jana, from Czech Republic.'

'Well, that's a first for Sue and me. We're Kiwis.'

'Kiwis – Kiwi? Is that a region in England?'

They both laugh. Sue turns round to shake my hand. 'No, we're from New Zealand – most people can tell straight away.' I have enough problems to understand people speaking English at all without being able to recognise accents. John looks out of his window.

'Ah, here's your colleague at last. So we can get moving.' The 'colleague' gets in the car and sits next to me: I don't recognise him, but then different kinds of experts are arriving all the time. I sometimes wonder if anybody in the compound knows about me officially and what I'm supposed to be doing.

'I can see you're not a Brit.' He's tall, relaxed, probably not military -- and lots of black curly hair.

' Why do you think that?'

'Well, let's see: on your toes, casual hairstyle that obviously isn't. True, same sloppy semi-safari look as all the other women here, though in your case much . . . better fitting – in fact right out of an advertisement for adventure holidays.'

'Is that a British compliment?'

'Absolutely! Anyway, I'm Terry, and you're Jana, with a whole raft of letters after your name. So, tell me what we're supposed to be doing on this trip – I mean just the work part.'

He smiles, showing perfect teeth. Was he ever shy with girls, even as a young boy? I want to tell him there won't be a private – or personal – part of the trip but I don't feel sure enough of my English to tell him in the jokey way the English people here always use. He taps John on the shoulder. We have to make a detour to the Italian brigade headquarters in the neighbouring province. John is obviously annoyed that Terry hadn't made this known in advance. Although I don't understand everything they say the situation seems very strange. It's 'John' this or 'Terry' that although it is clear they don't like each other.

'Well, Miss Jana, do you like it here in Iraq?' We have arrived at the Italian army base; so I have a chance to chat with our interpreter while Terry is having a meeting with some of the army engineers.

'Abdul, please no "Miss" or I shall call you "Mr Abdul".' He smiles and nods. 'I didn't have a chance to see much of your country yet. They do not allow us to go into the city in the evening – or anywhere else without armed guards. I want to see the ruins of Babylon, but . . .'

'You and Ivan should ask some Czech soldiers to take you there in a special convoy.'

'Of course, he was talking about it one day in the canteen. Why do I never see you in the canteen, Abdul? Do you not like the food either?

You really don't know, . . . Jana? We Iraqis all eat in a separate tent, eating local food.'

'But I talked to an Iraqi engineer in the canteen yesterday evening at dinner.'

'He probably left Iraq years ago and is now a US citizen – sent here because he knows the language and the country.'

'Terry, why do the Iraqis not eat with us?' Terry's meeting is over and we are back on the road: Abdul is in the other vehicle.

'Probably because the cooks in the canteen are mainly Yanks or Brits and just can't manage to cook Arab food properly.'

'Is that not just an . . . excuse? Cooks from Basra could work in the main kitchen. I would certainly like to eat different food. And what did the British ambassador say the other day, "we must win people's hearts and minds"?'

He shrugged. 'Jana, it's not an issue.'

Soon we leave the main road and the road surface gets worse and worse. We catch a glimpse of our destination, the cement plant, for the first time. In spite of its almost uniform tan colour and the absence of any towers its size and the way it stands out against the flat, featureless landscape is impressive. Once inside the gates I notice the well-swept roads and paths. We draw up alongside a modern building. As we alight from our armoured vehicle we are welcomed by the Chief Engineer and some men in overalls.

We have a meeting with the Chief Engineer in his office. He is also Factory Manager since the directors higher up in the hierarchy fell victim of the "de-baathification" process. Did anything like that happen back home after the Velvet Revolution? – I don't think so, or perhaps we called it privatisation. Terry and I then start our tour of the site.

Walking around within each building one of the armed guards from the second car of our convoy always goes ahead of us, checking every hidden corner for a possible assassin. I have an impulse to change direction without warning to see how quickly he will react. But of course I don't. In one building, where gypsum from the adjoining quarry would normally be crushed and mixed with other minerals, we find that the floor is covered with a thick layer of dust which, due to a trick of the light, seems to be divided into three regions of different shades of grey – a moon landscape. Because of problems with the power supply the plant is not in operation and there's no one to be seen. In spite of the well-swept paths I have the impression the site has been abandoned, especially when a dog and six puppies follow us out of the building. I have to pick up the smallest one, and when Terry makes some comment about '50%-emancipated' women I stick my tongue out at him.

I see one of our guards looking around the whole site through binoculars. Perhaps because of the brilliant sunshine and a temperature close to 30° Celsius, it all seems rather unreal, even theatrical. I ask the Chief Engineer about fire fighting equipment and filters for emission control. He just shrugs. I wonder if I can really do anything – here or anywhere else in Iraq.

As we drive back to Basra I notice the flares on the horizon in the gathering dusk – natural gas from the oil and gas fields going to waste, but it is a spectacular sight. John receives a message over his intercom. He doesn't say anything, but his back stiffens.

'So what's happened?' Terry had noticed too.

'You know I'm not supposed to tell you on the road but could be this is an exception.'

'Okay, okay – we can do without the suspense!'

'There was a suicide attack at the Italian police headquarters this afternoon. Close to twenty of the policeman were killed.'

Terry turned to me, frowning. 'There were several officers of the carabinieri at the meeting at the army base this morning including an old friend of mine from way back, Giovanni Siora.'

'What's wrong, Jana? You were screaming.' It's dark and Sandra is standing beside my bed.

'I must have been dreaming. Sorry if I woke you.'

It was a terrible dream. I was back at the – completely deserted – cement plant. But I then saw the six puppies coming out of the same building as before. They were following a woman holding something covered in blood. I went up to the woman: it was Sue, the driver. She was crying softly and I could see she had the puppies' mother in her arms. 'Don't go inside, Jana'

But I couldn't help myself . . . There seemed to be men's bodies everywhere, some in uniforms. Their injuries were terrible and I could even see severed arms and legs scattered around. Even worse, I recognised many of the dead men – John, Abdul and the English officer. Suddenly the man furthest away stood up and walked out of the building. I couldn't see his face but from his clothes and the way he walked I knew it was Terry. What a relief! I ran after him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round and laughed. I screamed – it was Karel!

At dinner the following evening I spot Terry straight away at a table on his own.

'Have you found out if Giovanni is all right, Terry?'

'Yes, I have found out and no, he's not all right – he was blown to pieces.' Terry looks into the distance. 'Quite funny, actually: he was very popular with all the Iraqis he came across. But there you are, Jana, "winning people's hearts and minds" is not as easy as it sounds.'

'Are you sad?' It was a foolish question, but he was looking so calm.

'Sad? – I feel devastated!' he looks straight at me. 'Ah, I see, you're wondering why I'm not showing much emotion – beating my breast, tearing my hair out, that kind of thing.'

Without thinking, I clasp his hands in mine. He looks surprised, but then his body becomes less stiff and he smiles.