I just returned to Iraq this afternoon after a month's break. In my absence, there's been an electoral recount that caused a couple of politicians to lose their seats, a string of bombings that killed and maimed hundreds of Iraqis, and the growing fear of civil unrest over how inclusive (or not) the next government will be.
Some things, however, haven't changed a bit.
The plane touched down, only a couple hours late, and I was eager to head straight to our bureau and see my colleagues. We passed easily through checkpoints and traffic was fairly smooth. We drove alongside the bombed-out Babylon Hotel and then turned down our street.
Roadblocks barred us from entering our block. A young Iraqi policeman ran toward us, waving his hands. "You can't go this way!" he yelled. My driver kept inching toward the roadblock, saying he'd explain to the officer that we lived there and then there wouldn't be a problem. But the policeman only got more animated, gesturing for us to stop immediately.
"Hmm, must be Americans searching the area," my driver mumbled.
Not this time. The roadblock had been set up because police had discovered a magnetic bomb stuck to the underside of a car belonging to an employee of a nearby interior ministry office. Police had cordoned off the area, which includes our house/bureau, until the device could be disabled.
My driver didn't want to sit exposed in the street, so we decided to drive to a safer place to park and wait out the process. We tried to go near the relatively safe compound of a senior Shiite Iraqi politician, but his bearded guards from the Badr Corps jumped up and blocked our path, AK-47s in hand.
We decided to go to the Hamra Hotel, our former residence that was bombed in January. Every route was blocked by makeshift barriers that apparently were erected by residents who were fed up with the bombings that targeted Westerners and only destroyed their houses instead. All the old routes were blocked.
Finally, we went to the main Hamra entrance and were able to find some guards to lift a security gate and allow us to pass. I hadn't been to the Hamra, where I spent the better part of the past seven years, since the bombing. Some things had been patched up, but it felt like a ghost town. The lovely pool was drained, with shrapnel still littering the bottom. None of my old friends from the cafeteria were left; they'd all been dismissed when the hotel guests were forced to seek safer digs.
I chatted with the three friends who still worked there, had a cold water with a new waiter who updated me on the old cafeteria crew and just killed time until we got the all-clear about the car bomb on our block. Turns out it might not have been an explosive device after all, I was told by colleagues when I finally made it home from the airport.
"Sorry, dear," said Laith, our office manager, apologizing for a delay that clearly was out of his control. "What can I say? It's Baghdad."