Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zooby Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence
A tale of the selfless courage and humanity of a few men and women living dangerously for all the right reasons, Babylon�s Ark is an inspiring and uplifting true-life adventure of individuals on both sides working together for the sake of magnificent wildlife caught in a war zone.See more details below
A tale of the selfless courage and humanity of a few men and women living dangerously for all the right reasons, Babylon�s Ark is an inspiring and uplifting true-life adventure of individuals on both sides working together for the sake of magnificent wildlife caught in a war zone.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.82(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.94(d)
Read an Excerpt
Babylon's ArkThe Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo
By Lawrence Anthony Graham Spence
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the eastern side of the border hundreds of civilian vehicles were jammed up bumper-to-bumper, gridlocked on the desert sands as crowds queued to get out of war-torn Iraq.
On the Kuwaiti side, there was just one car among all the military hardware waiting to get in.
Or more correctly, it was mine for as long as I paid the fees. If the rental company had known I was taking one of their spanking new vehicles into the war zones of Baghdad, they would have had a conniption.
The border sentry held up the stamped permit granting me permission to enter Iraq. He squinted at it incredulously. It was legitimate.
But ... still. The astonishment on his face was almost comical. This was too weird for him to grasp.
He poked his head inside my wound-down driver's window, his face a foot or so from mine, and then looked at us as though we were escapees from an asylum. My two Arab companions from the Kuwait City zoo focused their eyes straight ahead, studiously avoiding his scrutiny.
"You guys sure you want to go to Baghdad? Don't you know there's a war on?"
I nodded. "We're going to try to rescue the zoo there."
He still looked flabbergasted, so I jabbed my thumb over my shoulder. "There's half a ton of supplies in the back."
The soldier eyeballed me, disbelief on his face, and glanced at the permit again. "There're animals in Baghdad?"
"We hope so. The zoo there was once the finest in Arabia."
"Man, people are shooting each other there. For real. Forget about animals. You've got to worry about your own sorry asses."
He gestured in front of us to the other side of the border. "Look at all these cars. Everybody else is trying to get out. And you want to go in?"
"We've got to get these supplies in. Urgently."
"Okaaay." The soldier pondered for a moment, then smiled. "This is crazy. You're the first civilians in-apart from some newsies, but they don't count."
I forced a grin. Maybe this was all insane. Maybe he was right, I should be somewhere else. My elation that my mission was at last under way was starting to deflate a little.
But it was too late for that. The soldier walked to the barrier gate and shoved it open. "Just stick to the main road, obey military instructions, and follow real close to the convoys, okay? We're getting several hits a day from the ragtops on the road."
This was valid advice, I thought. Advice, however, that my two Kuwaiti assistants, on loan from the Kuwait City zoo, had no intention of heeding. As soon as we came to an intersection on the highway they made signs for me to stop. They then climbed out, opened the trunk, and rummaged for a box of tools. With a few turns of a screwdriver, they whipped off the Kuwaiti license plates.
Alarmed, I asked what they were doing. But as my Arabic was limited to "Salaam Aleikum" and the Kuwaitis' English was equally scant, communication was a challenge.
"American ..." The Kuwaiti named Abdullah Latif made a shooting motion and pointed at himself.
I grasped what he meant. They were concerned the soldiers might target them as Arabs and equally concerned that if they were seen in a foreign convoy, Iraqi fighters would consider them collaborators.
All very well, but what about me? My instructions had been specifically to stick to the main Baghdad Highway and stay with the numerous military convoys speeding to the Iraqi capital. Indeed, in the hour or so it had taken us to drive from Kuwait City, cross the border, and enter Iraq, I had seen more military vehicles than you would find in the entire South African army. That's where I wanted to be, safety in numbers. I knew too well that a Westerner on the back roads was a prime target for remnants of Saddam's army or the scores of feral fedayeen gangs who were fanatically loyal to the deposed dictator. And I, six feet and four inches tall, with a pale complexion and blue eyes, looked about as un-Semitic as you could get.
I pointed at myself and also made a shooting motion. "Iraqis shoot me."
The Kuwaitis shook their heads and one spoke animatedly in Arabic. I gathered they were telling me they would refuse point-blank to travel on the main road, but I would be safe with them as they were Arabs and they could talk their way out of any situation.
I looked at the road ahead, a narrow ribbon of potholed tarmac, mirage shimmering in the hot air. It suddenly looked very desolate. There would be no American or British soldiers for hundreds of miles. I felt as conspicuous as a match in a fireworks factory.
But my guides from the Kuwait Zoo were not going to change their minds, so what the heck ... there was not much I could do about it. I couldn't very well order them back onto the highway. So I might as well enjoy the ride into bandit territory and hope like hell the clouds of billowing desert dust would disguise the fact that I was a Westerner in no-man's-land.
The barren landscape we were speeding through radiated hostility, and I somewhat ruefully reflected that making a ten-hour journey through the back roads and alleys of a war zone might not have been the most intelligent thing I had ever done.
But it was too late to turn back now, so I slouched low in the front passenger seat. Well, about as low as I could. The Toyota was not exactly built for someone as big as me to hunker down in. All the while I pictured Iraqi fedayeen, militia fighters specifically trained to hail Saddam Hussein as a cult figure, hiding in the dunes and relishing the opportunity to hijack a car. An unarmed white man would be the juiciest prize for them imaginable. I had no illusions that being a neutral South African would cut much ice with renegade gunmen. I was a visible Westerner, and as far as Saddam's Ba'athist fanatics were concerned, any foreigner would do.
I forced the grim visuals out of my mind. At least I had two Arabs with me, even though they were Kuwaitis.
However, that illusion was soon dispelled when my companions confirmed, through vigorous sign language and an interesting repertoire of facial expressions, that another reason they had taken off the Kuwaiti registration plates earlier was because there was no love lost between them and the Iraqis. Thanks to Saddam's vicious propaganda, most Iraqis believed Kuwait was the reason for the American invasion in the first place. Not only was I a Westerner far off the beaten track, but the welcome mat wasn't exactly out for my Arab companions, either.
As we drove deeper into the country, passing through remote villages unchanged since biblical times, I started to unwind a little. In fact, I even began to enjoy the view. It was like diving into another world where people were rooted in time immemorial: they had survived Saddam; they would survive the foreigners; they would survive the fedayeen. In among the squat-roofed mud buildings, women drew water from communal wells as they had in the days of the prophet Muhammad, while overburdened donkeys with drowsy eyes watched children running barefoot in the swirling dust. Time truly stood still.
We traveled fast to make sure armed gangs weren't following us. But even so, whenever the car had to slow down for loitering donkeys or camels, villagers did stunned double takes when they realized a white man was inside. Being in the only brand-new vehicle among the banged-up relics on the road also drew a lot of unwelcome attention to us.
I felt dread creep into my belly. Surely the fedayeen would soon know about me. Indeed, the rolling desert sands fringing the road could be hiding hundreds of Saddam loyalists. At one stage I saw at the roadside a man dressed in Bedouin robes that contrasted starkly with his wraparound sunglasses. He appeared unarmed, but there could be anything under those flowing garments. As we went past, he stared coldly before swiftly turning and disappearing down the back of a dune.
Whom was he going to tell?
Behind him, the skies were black with the greasy smoke from burning oil wells blazing red and orange in the distance. It must have the most expensive pollution in the world.
At another village we passed a group of men gathered under a cluster of wizened palm trees. Hookah pipes were bubbling on top of a box, and the group's transformation from soporific lethargy to instant alertness when they noticed me was unnerving. I felt exposed, alien.
Whenever we entered larger towns we had to slow considerably to ease through the narrow, congested streets and I crouched on the floor, the gap between the dashboard and front seat squeezing me as tightly as a python. These were the most dangerous moments in the journeys. Gunmen were more likely to be lurking on these urban perimeters, and the mere glimpse of a Westerner could trigger a hailstorm of lead. Squashed, sweaty, and uncomfortable, with only a thin metallic skin protecting me, I knew how a sardine felt. Even the Kuwaitis were silent.
Abdullah, a self-assured, well-built young man of about thirty-five who was keen to get to Baghdad to find lost family, was pensive and alert. His partner, who didn't speak a word of English, was quite the opposite; slightly built and unassuming, he sat in the back of the car in silence. They were originally both as keen as mustard to come with me to Baghdad; the war was over, after all, and it was a chance for a bit of an adventure and a few days off from their jobs.
Now that we were actually here, misgivings were beginning to surface. The atmosphere in Iraq hung like a pall and had tempered their ardor somewhat. As it had mine.
But the most harrowing few minutes of all were when we had to stop and refuel. We had brought spare gasoline with us, and running almost on empty, we pulled over beside a flat stretch of desert where no dunes could be sheltering gunmen. With a speed that would have rivaled a Formula 1 pit stop, we sloshed gasoline from twenty-five-liter jerricans into the tank, not overly caring how much spilled onto the steaming tarmac. Then I heard the Kuwaitis say something to each other, alarm in their voices. I looked behind; a crowd was gathering about one hundred yards away and starting to move toward us. They may have been curious onlookers or maybe inquisitive kids just hanging out. We didn't bother to find out. Quick as race-car drivers, we were back in the car and speeding off again.
As we got closer to Baghdad, the landscape was no longer biblical. The area was littered with burnt-out tanks, shell holes, bombed bridges, and hastily abandoned air-defense systems discarded like junk. There were Iraqi missiles, twenty-five feet long and as thick as oak trees, some still on the backs of their launch vehicles, others dumped casually on the roadside as lethal litter. Scuds, I thought; they were certainly big enough.
Also among the detritus of battle were scores of toppled statues and bullet-pitted portraits of Saddam Hussein-the calling cards of America's frontline warriors.
We skirted Nasiriya, Al Najaf, Karbala, and Babylon, now renamed Al Hillah, all bearing fresh scars of the American whirlwind advance.
Then to our absolute dismay we found we were hopelessly lost. The Iraqi army had removed all street signs to confuse the American advance, and we had no idea where we were or which way to go. We were forced to double back through areas we had been glad to see the back of, asking for directions in villages and navigating by the sun in the countryside until we found a large road. This had to be the main Kuwait-Baghdad road.
We looked at one another hopefully. It was. Abdullah slapped me on the back. The relief in the car was palpable.
Eventually we reached the outer periphery of Baghdad. There we asked for directions to the zoo and a friendly Iraqi pointed ahead. "Al Zawra Park," he said. "Just keep going straight."
I felt my stomach muscles tighten. We were entering the belly of the beast.
in baghdad, the awesome evidence of American firepower was omnipresent. Even though they had bombed strategic targets with surgical accuracy and few homes or apartments had been affected, the city was still a shambles.
In the upmarket Al Mansur district, buildings such as the Department of Information and the internal security headquarters were hollowed-out shells, their shattered cores little more than piles of rubble. Chunks of concrete dangled from tangled steel reinforcing as though they were giant wind chimes. Burnt-out Iraqi tanks and trucks were like mangled monuments of science-fiction movies, stark testimony to the Americans' shatteringly superior technology. Millions of spent cartridges lay sprinkled across the streets, a carpet of confetti glinting so harshly in the desert sun that your eyes hurt.
Every now and again random clatters of automatic-rifle shots sent civilians scurrying down the streets. This is for real, I thought, as I realized with horror what was happening. They are still fighting. I couldn't see where the shots were coming from, so we kept moving, heading toward Al Zawra Park in the center of town, home of the Baghdad Zoo.
To our surprise, there was a fair amount of traffic on the road. With all the traffic lights down, it was hard going as we swerved in and out, trying to get away from the shooting. Cars jumped intersections with reckless bravado. If one careered into another and could not be driven off, it was abandoned. The most important piece of motoring technology amid the anarchy was the horn. You sped through traffic intersections by honking as loudly as possible and praying that everyone else got out of the way.
But as we crossed Al Jamhooriah Bridge, spanning the river Tigris, everything seemed to go suddenly quiet. After the raucous gauntlet of gunshots and traffic chaos, the only noise now was the hum of the hired Toyota-ominously out of place in the eerie stillness. We were the solitary car on the road, although gutted Iraqi trucks littered both sides of the double-lane highway as far as we could see. Some were still smoldering.
From one side of the muddy river to the other, traffic had simply disappeared. We soon discovered why. Looming menacingly before us at the top of Yafa Street was a massive roadblock: Bradley tanks and machine guns spiked above sandbags and tightly coiled razor wire. Khaki-colored helmets peered above the barricades, commanding the street with absolute authority.
The desert sun was pitiless, blasting down like a furnace. Above the brooding bulk of the tanks, sand-colored camouflage nets twitched nervously in the heat, the only shade available for soldiers clad in full combat dress and ceramic bulletproof plates.
I felt uneasy about driving any closer, so the two Kuwaitis and I decided to stop right there. We were about one hundred yards from the barricade when I slowly got out and approached the machine-gun nest gingerly, my hands stretched wide to show I was unarmed and a friend.
Everything was tense. It was as if something brittle was about to shatter. I couldn't understand it ... surely Baghdad was a liberated city? I had seen the footage on TV of Saddam's statues falling like giant metal dominoes. I had heard the reports that his fedayeen were on the run. That the Iraqis were rejoicing in the streets ...
There was no rejoicing in this street. In fact, all I was aware of was a creepy sensation slithering up my skin like a snake.
I kept walking, slowly, with arms stretched.
The soldiers who had been watching my car as it came down the street were now monitoring my every move through high-powered binoculars. I tried to look as harmless as possible as I approached.
"Back off! Back off!" they suddenly yelled, waving me away. Machine guns now poked out from the bagged fortress, their barrels focused on my chest.
I stopped, stunned, feeling as though I had been punched. I had expected the Americans to be friendly. After all, I was here with their blessing.
"I've come to help at the zoo," I shouted back, waving my authorization papers.
"Fuck off! Just fuck off!"
Jeez, I thought, these guys are serious. They must've heard my shout, and I certainly don't look like one of Saddam Hussein's fedayeen.
I yelled out again that I was on a rescue mission for the zoo. This time there was no reply, just a sinister silence.
What the hell was going on here?
It was obvious I was somewhere I shouldn't be. But I never would have guessed I was at the entrance to the most heavily armed, highest-alert security zone in the city, somewhere nobody without top-level clearance was allowed in. In fact, I was just a block or two away from Saddam's palaces, the designated headquarters-to-be of interim administrator Gen. Jay Garner. Security was so paranoid that Abrams tanks firing 105mm shells casually vaporized any unauthorized vehicle driving or parked in the area.
This was strict "shoot to kill" territory, and soldiers at the checkpoints surrounding it were primed to do just that. Unescorted civilians were given one warning only.
I was on my second.
Excerpted from Babylon's Ark by Lawrence Anthony Graham Spence Copyright © 2007 by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >