Welcome to Baghdad, Sir!

Reality caught up with me on Thursday, 28 May 2015. It happened at exactly 11:55 on my fifth night at the Babylon Warwick in Baghdad just after I turned off the lights and went to bed. My head had barely touched the pillow when I heard it. It was neither a kaboom nor a kabang. It was subdued. Muffled. More like the whoomp made by an exploding fireball. And almost instantaneously, the room trembled.

“That was a bomb. A very powerful bomb,” I told myself.

Within seconds, I heard a loud voice from across the Tigris boom: “Take cover! Stay away from the window!”

It was the public address system of the United States Embassy at the Green Zone. Vice Consul Theodore Andrei Bauzon told me I would hear this recorded warning whenever there are rockets or mortars are launched toward the Embassy. The warning was played over and over.

“Take cover! Stay away from the window!”

Instead of taking cover and staying away from the window, the journalist that I was rushed out of bed, headed straight for the window, and opened the curtains.

Instead of taking cover and staying away from the window, the journalist that I was rushed out of bed, headed straight for the window and opened the curtains.

I have never seen incoming mortars or rockets before and the prospect of  seeing one or two streaking towards the sprawling diplomatic compound that was across from where I was somehow excited me. I saw nothing. It was not the US Embassy that was targeted.

If it was not, then what was?

I then looked eight floors down. I stepped out into the balcony and saw pandemonium. People were spilling out of the Babylon’s main building and running towards the swimming pool area. I then heard the sirens.

It can only be an an improvised explosive device that exploded somewhere dangerously close. It was probably the last terrorist detonation that evening in a city where an average of five bombings slaughter dozens of people every single day.

* * *

Baghdad was still among the most dangerous cities in the world when I arrived there on 24 May. By the time I made it there, Iraq had been under Alert Level IV for almost nine months. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had gone on a rampage, capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and threatening to capture Baghdad. The mandatory repatriation of the more than 1,500 Filipinos in the capital had been ordered. But there were few takers.

Vice Consul Bauzon was the junior Foreign Service Officer who volunteered to join Ambassador Edsel Barba in Baghdad at the height of the Islamic State onslaught. I previously met him in Washington, D.C. as a member of the Philippine negotiating panel for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). After Ambassador Barba resigned suddenly in December, Andrei found himself temporarily in charge of the Embassy until the arrival of a replacement. That turned out to be me.

It was Andrei who made the arrangements for my temporary billeting in Baghdad until I find suitable and secured quarters. He emailed me a few days before I arrived to tell me that I have two choices: the Royal Tulip Al-Rasheed Hotel inside the protected walls of the Green Zone and the Babylon Warwick Hotel near the Embassy in the Red Zone.

***

The Al-Rasheed is an 18-story, 449-room hotel where most foreign diplomats, journalists, businessmen, NGO workers prefer to stay. Built in the 1970s and renovated in the 1990s, the Al-Rasheed was somehow old but considered very safe. The 300-room Babylon, on the other hand, is newly renovated and was just recently taken over by the Warwick hotel chain. It is a 16-story landmark along the Tigris that was built in the 1980s and initially managed by the Oberoi group.

WARWICK

I chose the Babylon, not only because it was newer and had better amenities but also because it was just five minutes from the Embassy, which was located at the upscale Jadriya District.  I could get to the Embassy easily, even walk, in case there is a problem.

I also chose Babylon because there are around 20 Filipinos working there. Several of them are with the Front Desk while others work in food and beverage and other departments.

I also chose Babylon because Andrei told me it was one of the more secured, if not the most secured location in Baghdad. The hotel was being protected by dozens of armed Nepalese guards under the supervision of retired British special forces officers.

I also chose Babylon because Andrei told me it was one of the more secured, if not the most secured location in Baghdad. The hotel was surrounded by anti-blast walls and had bomb-sniffing dogs. It was also being protected by dozens of armed Nepalese guards under the supervision of retired British special forces officers.

I chose Babylon despite the fact that just a few weeks earlier, a powerful car bomb struck a used car dealership less than 300 meters away. The explosion killed several people and broke some of the hotel’s glass windows. The blast missed Donnie Fetalino, the Embassy’s Communications Officer, who was then just a block away driving towards the intersection that separated the hotel and the car dealership.

In 2010, the Babylon was among several hotels in Baghdad that were struck by a wave of suicide bombings that left around 37 people dead. But even with the most recent incident, terrorist attacks in Jadriya were quite rare. Besides, I told myself, the chances that the Babylon would again be targeted would be rare.

***

It was Rowena Rivera, the Assistant Front Office Manager, who was among those who welcomed me upon my arrival. It was Rowena who arrangements for me. She also upgraded me to Room 823 overlooking the Tigris. From where I was I could see the huge US Embassy compound across the river. It is the largest American diplomatic mission overseas and probably the most secured spot in all of Baghdad.

I felt so safe there at the Babylon.

And then it happened.

***

After seeing the mad rush of people from the hotel building, I immediately dialed the Front Desk. I had to know what was going on. There were three other Filipinos working at the front desk aside from Rowena. There was no answer. “They are probably checking what that sound was,” I told myself. I waited and then called again. No answer.

I decided to go out of the room and check. As soon as I emerged from my door, I saw shards of glass near the fire exit. I went out to the hotel floor’s balcony overlooking Karada Street. The sirens were getting louder. As soon as I stepped out, I could smell the smoke. I only noticed it when I turned to my left and saw a dark orange cloud billowing from the side entrance.

It was then that I realized that it was the Babylon that had been hit.

Babylon-Lobby Fire

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered to myself. “The hotel had been hit and it’s only my fifth day in what’s supposed to be the safest place in Baghdad!”

I then heard explosions from afar.

I immediately walked back to my room to call the Front Desk again and check on the Filipinos there. The phone just kept on ringing. Nobody was picking up. It was then that the possibility struck me. From where the smoke was coming from, I assumed the explosion hit a portion of the hotel near the lobby if not the lobby itself.

“Oh no! They all could be dead. Or badly wounded,” I told myself as images of the death and destruction I have seen in news footages following a terrorist bombing raced through my mind.

* * *

It was 11:59 p.m. when I called Andrei, who, as it turned out, was also trying to get in touch with me.

“Are you all right, Sir?” Andrei asked. He was on the phone with his fiancée in Rome when he heard and felt the blast. He said he did not know where the explosion was but he knew it was close to both the Embassy and the hotel.

He said he immediately sent Qaisser Hamoud Hassan, one of our three Iraqi local hires, to check the location of the explosion with the Iraqi diplomatic police posted outside the Embassy. Qaisser came back soon after, told Andrei it was the Babylon and handed him an AK-47.  Andrei said he could only scratch his head after he was given the weapon as he never had fired one before.

“Yes, the hotel has been hit. The lobby is on fire. We may have casualties,” I told Andrei. “Please call Manila now and report what happened. Tell them I am okay.”

Andrei immediately did. He first tried calling the hotline at the Home Office. And when he realized it was a cold line, he decided to send his report via email instead.

I sent text messages to Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Administration Linglingay Lacanlale and Chief Coordinator Maria Teresa Dizon-De Vega in Manila and told them what happened.

***

It was then that the room phone rang. It was the Front Desk. Geoffrey Esmabe, one of the Filipino hotel staff, was on the line to check if I was okay. I somehow felt relieved hearing his voice. I asked him what happened.

“Sir, may sumabog po na kotse doon sa side entrance ng lobby.”

Okay ba kayong lahat? Is everyone accounted for?” I asked as I realized for the first time that it was not an ordinary improvised explosive device but a car bomb that struck what is considered to be one of the safest locations in Baghdad.

Okay ba kayong lahat? Is everyone accounted for?” I asked as I realized for the first time that it was not an ordinary improvised explosive device but a car bomb that struck what is considered to be one of the safest locations in Baghdad.

Opo, Sir. May kasamahan kami na Nepalese na napuruhan. Meron din pong mga guests na nasugatan pero okay naman po lahat ng mga Pinoy.”

“Thank, God!” I told myself as I finally let go of the gory thought that I would have to recover and help bring home whatever would be left of Filipino casualties in a car bomb attack just a few days after my arrival.

Geoffrey told me he almost became one of the casualties. He had just ended his shift and was walking towards the guest entrance when he realized he forgot something at the Front Desk. He said he had just turned around and taken a few steps when he heard the explosion. The shock wave from the blast sent him hurtling towards the lobby. He said he was still in shock but was otherwise unharmed.

Masuwerte ka,” I told him.

“Oo nga po, Sir,” he replied and then asked me to make sure the door to my room is locked and that I should not venture out. He said he will check on me again later.

I did as instructed but my concern at that point was the possibility of a second attack. In Iraq, complex attacks are common. These attacks that come almost immediately after the first most often involve suicide bombers detonating themselves as emergency personnel begin arriving at the scene of an initial bombing. These attacks are intended not just to kill more but also to get as much media mileage as possible.

I was reminded of a scene in the movie “The Kingdom” where terrorists gunmen  attacked the housing compound of an American oil compound in Riyadh and then detonated a powerful bomb hidden in an ambulance while medical teams and investigators were working on the crime scene a few hours later.

My thoughts were interrupted when the phone rang again. This time it was a female voice I recognized as Rowena’s. She was the most senior among the Filipinos working in the hotel.

“Sir, is everything okay there? Please make sure you lock the door to your room and stay inside,” she told me. And then I heard successive bursts from Kalashnikovs. Almost simulteneously I heard Rowena scream.

“Sir, meron pa! Meron pa!

“Meron pang ano?” I frantically asked as I imagined gunmen were now inside the hotel building and were taking the staff and guests hostages.

Sir, kinukuha nila kami!” Rowena said. I could hear male voices giving orders in Arabic.

“Shit, this is not happening,” I told myself. This was no longer just a simple bomb attack. It was a complex attack.

“What? What? Saan? Sino“Sino kumukuha sa inyo? Saan kayo dinadala?” I asked Rowena. She was hysterical.

“What? What? Saan? Sino“Sino kumukuha sa inyo? Saan kayo dinadala?” I asked Rowena. She was hysterical.

Sa basement, Sir!  Dinadala nila kami sa basement!”

“Sino nagdadala sa inyo?”  I asked her. I, too, was frantic by then as I visualized the gunmen leading her and the others to the basement, which, I was sure, they would rig with explosives to initially keep the authorities at bay.  Then they will start going room to room to get more hostages.

“Sino kumuha sa inyo?” I asked Rowena again.

Mga security namin Sir!”

Ha? Security niyo? Ninerbiyos naman ako sa iyo. Akala ko hinostage na kayo.” I said as I sighed in relief.

“Hindi po Sir. Sinasabi nila may nakita pang isang car bomb sa labas. Basta lock yourself in the bathroom. We will call you when it’s okay,” Rowena said. The line then went dead.

***

I locked myself inside the bathroom and sat on the toilet bowl. I began to wonder why a few days earlier I was even telling myself that Iraq was not as bad as people said it was. Everything appeared normal and it was business as usual except for some armored vehicles and armed soldiers here and there. Suddenly, Baghdad became the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.

I blamed myself for becoming complacent. The day before, I decided to no longer wear the body armor that a Taiwanese friend gave me before I left Manila. It was so heavy. I also decided to leave the old 9mm Iraqi-made Tariq pistol that was issued to me at the Embassy. Now, I had no other means to protect myself  except for the knife and the fork that came with the fruit platter.

I could not help but think about my own mortality and how it was going to end. All sorts of thoughts came flashing in my mind. I asked myself: Will there be a second wave that would try to rush in? What will happen if they capture the hotel? Should I stay in my room and wait? What if they go room to room and take me hostage?

Should I resist?  Would I be able to? What if I just take the nearest fire exit and find my way out of the hotel? But what if the terrorists chance upon me while I’m on my way down? What if security forces are in control and mistake me for a terrorist trying to escape? What if the terrorists set the hotel on fire?

I have run all sorts of worst case scenarios in my mind before I left for Baghdad but nothing really prepared me for this. These are scenes that one would typically see in the movies but when confronted with these situations in real life, it is completely different. I have never felt so vulnerable, so helpless. I then started sending text messages to my wife and other loved ones. And I prayed and waited. And prayed and waited. That was all I could do.

I have never been so afraid. And I have never prayed so hard in my life.

I have never been so afraid. And I have never prayed so hard in my life.

After 15 minutes, the phone rang. I made myself out of the bathroom to take the call. It was the Front Desk. “Sir, it’s all clear. It’s safe now,” the voice at the end of the line said.

I walked to the window and looked down Abu Nawaz, the street at the back of the hotel that runs parallel to the Tigris. It may be safe inside the hotel compound but the street at the back is not. A car bomb can still be detonated there and send shrapnel into the upper floor guest rooms, including mine. I decided to remove the mattress from the bed and used it to cover the glass window. Just in case, I told myself.

I then stayed low in the corner and tried to get some sleep. I was not successful.

***

Morning came and there was no second wave. My prayers were answered.

“Thank you, Lord for this second chance,” I whispered.

Undersecretary Lacanlale called me at around 5 a.m. to check how I was doing. I told her I was a bit shaken but was in one piece. Tess De Vega also messaged to tell me Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has been informed and that he was monitoring my situation.

I stayed in the room for a few more hours before I was convinced it was already safe to venture out. I went down the lobby. That was when I saw what a car bomb can do. I began taking photos.

It was bad. There was broken glass all over the ground floor. All the windows from the ground floor up to the 15th floor were blown off. It was a big mess. The bomb blew off portions of the side and part of the front of the building and exposed its inside. The blast tore a large hole in the upper parking area leading to the guest entrance. There was blood splattered in the wall where someone was probably standing. There was a trail of blood in another location.

BABYLON3

The Babylon’s General Manager, Charles Homsey, a French-Lebanese hotelier, was there outside the hotel assessing the damage. His office was just right above where the bomb detonated. He was lucky he was not there when it happened.

Charles told me that a few minutes before midnight, security officers conducted the perfunctory inspection of a brand-new 2015 Kia Sorento at the main gate. The Sorento was driven by a man who had previously stayed as a guest in the hotel. Charles suspected the man knew the hotel’s bomb snipping dog on duty at that time would already have been exhausted and would not be able to detect the explosives concealed in his vehicle.

BABYLON4

After he was cleared to proceed, the driver slowly made his way up towards the second level parking area where he lingered for a minute or two. “He was probably praying,” Charles told me. He then stepped on the gas and headed straight for the guest entrance. Seconds later there was a loud explosion followed by a huge fireball.

Nothing was left of the Sorento that Death took a ride in that evening. The blast also did not spare several armored SUVs parked nearby. 

Nothing was left of the Sorento that Death took a ride in that evening. The blast also did not spare several armored SUVs parked nearby.

What remained of the suicide bomber was found on the third floor. It was a badly burnt body part, probably a portion of his leg. It reminded me of litson baka. His eyeball was recovered near the tennis court.

Charles told me a second explosion hit the Sheraton at around the same time Babylon Warwick was struck. He said the same driver remotely detonated a car bomb at the parking area of the Sheraton where the ambassadors of Pakistan and Afghanistan were staying.

Charles and I were among the lucky ones that evening. Six people at the Babylon were not. The suicide bomber took them with him. Several more were wounded. The Islamic State would later claim the terrorist attack.

BABYLON7

Andrei joined me while I was standing outside with Charles. The police officers securing the hotel allowed him inside when he introduced himself as a diplomat and told them he was coming to check on me. He also could not believe what he saw.

“Holy shit!” I heard him say when he saw the extent of the damage.

He then turned and looked at me and said: “Welcome to Baghdad, Sir!”

BABYLON8

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