Escape from Baghdad

In 1990, computer consultant Graham Tottle found himself working in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here he tells Computer...

In 1990, computer consultant Graham Tottle found himself working in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here he tells Computer Weekly Xtra! how he escaped Baghdad before the bombs were dropped on Iraq

My former office in Baghdad is no longer standing - it was a prime target for cruise missiles in the Gulf War.

In 1990, a massively fortified skyscraper clad in four-inch-thick, hardened Posnan steel shutters served as the heart of the Iraqi government. This is where I worked, in the Sectoral Planning Division.

Of the handful of foreigners allowed in, I was the only westerner, admitted as a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) consultant to help develop their sectoral database. My office was next to the lift shaft on which the cruise missiles were later to home in on.

Each morning I would sit with my counterpart, an Iraqi professor, and chat over the day's plan. But on 17 April he was like a bear with a sore head. I waited while he conducted a heated exchange in Arabic on the internal phone. He ended with a tirade and slammed the phone down.

I was visited that evening by the FAO projects officer who described an extraordinary meeting he had just had. The Iraqi directors were due to give the annual production data for the economy, but my counterpart had announced that, due to computing problems, this year's figures would not be available. There was a sharp row, and the meeting had broken up acrimoniously.

It was not my problem, but Iknew that the computers were working perfectly.

By the morning of 2 August we were well into the project. The news had been full of a fierce political confrontation between the Iraqis and Kuwait. "It's all OK," people insisted, "just the politicians."

I was miffed when the team, normally enthusiastic, kept disappearing in groups, clearly excited. I found out why that evening, when it was announced that the army had entered and taken Kuwait.

The United Nations debated the invasion and swiftly declared it illegal.

At this point things became serious. Saddam rounded up his 3,000 foreign "guests" into various hotels where they were held "for their safety".

A colleague, Nino Nicotra, head of peach research at the Italian institute near Rome, joined me in the city from the northern mountains. This made the whole operation more exciting and less alarming. We used to crouch on the rooftop at night with our shortwave radios, listening intently to Margaret Thatcher "vomiting poison like a spotted serpent", as Saddam Hussein put it.

As things worsened, the FAO decided to get us out.

We got clearance to cross the desert to Jordan in one of their Land Rovers, leaving Baghdad at 9am on 6 August. However, the driver protracted our departure for 10 hours, so we arrived at the frontier post at 2am. I was mentally rehearsing my interview for the BBC when our driver came up with a broad smile. "We go back Baghdad," he said. The border had been closed at midnight.

My escape plans foiled, I continued working in the ministry. The database Iwas working on looked very relevant to the UN sanctions and my thoughts turned to espionage.

I described the database and a missile, which we had seen hidden under a motorway bridge on the way to Jordan, to an intelligence guy at the British Embassy. He was excited about the missile - an Al Abbas, which provided the first concrete evidence that Iraq was moving armaments west to cover Tel Aviv in Israel - but showed little interest in the database.

That night I thought about the dangers that spying posed to me and the team, and about abusing their friendship. Skulking around the corridors slipping spreadsheets on to diskettes would undoubtedly be seen as betrayal.

As I have found on subsequent remote assignments, you get deeply involved with your colleagues, and take an astonishingly different view of the world. I decided to do no more about the database.

The pressure intensified when UN Resolution 661 instructed us to withold further consultancy. This was debated at one of the regular meetings held by Harold Walker, the British ambassador.

Walker was clearly worried by his experience with the beheading of the Observer reporter Farzad Bazoft, and when I said I'd withold my labour he advised against it.

However, at work the next day, since the Iraqi Minister refused me permission to leave as and when I wished, I asked my Iraqi counterpart to come with me to FAO. There I said Iwould work no more. He assured me I could stay safely with him, but I wisely refused.

That night, at 2am, the police raided my flat. Lights flashed, people screamed, but Iwas hiding in an empty apartment nearby. When the vehicles left, we moved on.

In the days that followed, I did some work developing a peach database for Nino's outfit - texture, colour, habitat, etc. In the evenings we listened to the news on the roof and twiddled the cursors on MS Flight Simulator 4. But finally we took refuge in the Educational Social and Cultural Centre of West Asia (ESCWA), the UN's Middle East headquarters. Here our escape plans turned to putting pressure on the decision makers.

Nino phoned Rome and New York to great effect, while I worked on ESCWA's top guys, who were all highly politicised and pro-Iraq. We would be sitting in an ESCWA officer's anteroom before he arrived in the morning, and stay there, courteously embarrassing, throughout the day and the next until we got another level up the hierarchy.

Astonishingly, I was occasionally able to get through to the UK by phone in the small hours. At the sound of a western voice the Iraqi operators would usually just cut the connection, but once in a while I got through.

The UN used its influence to get its people out. Saddam Hussein needed the UN's goodwill, and the 200 expatriates dwindled until just Nino and I were left.

We slept on sofas in various areas, our favourite spot being the rather fine mezzanine. There was no cooking equipment except for mass meals. But people left us their frozen delicacies when they left and we cooked in a coffee percolator - excellent for spaghetti!

Then on 24 August we got to meet ESCWAs top man, Tayseer Abdel Jaber. We pressed him, and he assured me that there was no way he would leave until he had got us out. We rejoiced - cautiously.

We sat in Abdel Jaber's office the next morning to make sure the promise stuck. He announced that he was leaving at midday and handing us over as refugees.

We got very heated, and threatened his UN future. Then a softly-spoken middle-aged Ghanaian came in, one of two deputy UN secretary-generals who had arrived under resolution 661 to sort the situation out.

The man had an extraordinary capacity to analyse a situation and pour oil on troubled waters. Could we seek shelter with friends? No, they might be executed. Move to a hotel? No, random snatches were commonplace. Stay at our homes? We had none. So, Abdel Jaber needed to do this, the foreign ministry that, Iraqi Airways the other, a resolution meeting would be held with the following agendaÉ

We watched the spellbinder with hope and more than a tad of scepticism. "I'll have you out on Wednesday," he said.

We left as promised, and I reached my hotel room in Jordan and managed to phone my daughter.

"Hello, Dad," she said, "still in the capital are you?"

"Yes." Lump in the throat. "But a different capital."

The courteous Ghanaian magician? Kofi Annan, now UN secretary general.

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