Out of Iraq: The Haves, Have-Nots And Dogs

Wiley, foreground, lounging in the back yard of The Post's Baghdad bureau with the head guard's German shepherd.
Wiley, foreground, lounging in the back yard of The Post's Baghdad bureau with the head guard's German shepherd. (Family Photo)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The last time I was in Baghdad, I'd gone to fetch my dog. Wiley had stayed with me for most of the two years I'd been based in Iraq as a reporter, and now, 10 months after my departure, it was time for Wiley to leave, too.

But as my taxi pulled up to Baghdad International Airport, with Wiley in a plastic kennel propped sideways in the open trunk, I worried about what lay ahead. We'd arrive at the airport, and I'd be thrust, I feared, into a role I did not want but could not avoid -- the American carrying her dog away from a war zone while desperate Iraqis had no way out.

We all try to pretend day-to-day that our differences of nationality, race and class don't matter to us, but airports in war zones have a way of making clear that they do. When it's time to go, what passport you have in your hand and how much money you have in your wallet are matters of life and death, a haves-vs.-have-nots wedge that most people stateside don't ever experience.

Okay, you 26 million Iraqis living in daily mortal fear for yourselves and your children -- y'all hang tight! American chick with her Australian shepherd? You're good to go, little lady!

Setting Wiley's cage on the airport sidewalk, I felt a familiar tension. I was determined to take care of my dog, my responsibility. But I pictured myself succumbing to the disorder of the crowded and corrupt Baghdad airport, trampling desperate Iraqis to push Wiley's kennel onto the plane, and exposing my pretense of the past two years of being more or less the Mother Teresa of all Iraq.

A woman I encountered in West Africa, in Liberia in 2003, laid bare the hypocrisy of it all. Standing at the doorway to the Monrovia airport terminal, watching the mayhem of evacuation, she loudly made known her misery at being trapped while the fortunate scurried to safety.

Liberia's venal and vicious president, Charles Taylor, had just fled the country. The next day, as rebels kept up their advance on the capital, fleeing members of Taylor's family and regime converged on the airport. So did foreign journalists, leaving a story that had peaked.

Huddled against the terminal building for shelter from a pelting rain, Liberian villagers had flocked to the airport, too, hoping for protection against the rebels.

Just ahead of me in line was a noisy, frantic entourage. A kinswoman of Taylor's was fleeing, with her family and her flunkies. At the tail end of their group was a man lugging a plastic dog carrier. Inside was a poodle, its fur clipped and pompommed and dyed bright blue. The dog's indigo toenails skittered inside the cage.

At the sight of the blue poodle, the woman at the airport door wailed more loudly, outraged at the dog's advantage.

"Lord, the white people are leaving, and they're taking even their dogs! Even the dogs can get out!" she cried. "Lord, what about us? What about us people?"

Later, when our plane landed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the dog cage came out on the luggage belt, listing at a sharp angle, on the verge of tumbling to the floor. It's not the dog's fault it's blue, I told myself, as the pet circled slowly on the conveyor belt, its blue toenails clawing for purchase.

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