Baghdad was probably the last place anyone -- maybe even Saddam Hussein -- wanted to be on Jan. 15. And the order from my editors was clear: Get out -- not just out of Baghdad, but out of the entire region. Immediately. Without further delay. By whatever means necessary.
Easy to say, but very, very hard to do.
In fact, I was trying desperately to get out, but the Iraqi official at Saddam International Airport kept insisting, "You cannot go" -- this despite promises from the Iraqi Information Ministry that I could leave the country anytime, on any flight, regardless of how heavily booked it was.
Now I didn't know what to be more frightened of: getting stuck in Baghdad as the bombing began, or hearing my editors explode when I told them the Iraqis wouldn't let me leave. Luckily, the issue was resolved with the help of my Information Ministry "minder." Within a couple of hours I was safely tucked into an Iraqi Airways seat and heading to Jordan. Half my problems were solved.
But only half. The bombing was set to begin at any moment, and I had heard that all flights out of Jordan were booked solid.
In Amman, I went immediately to my travel agent, who announced that all outgoing flights were booked until Jan. 31. The word from Royal Jordanian Airlines was the same: Forget it, bub.
I decided to try a different approach, asking the agent to check all flights scheduled in the next 24 hours. First we tried New York, then London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Frankfurt, Athens and Vienna. The answer was always the same, "No can do."
Connections, I thought. There must be connections. Cyprus, Malta, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. All flights were canceled or booked. So I took a deep breath and asked for the big one: Cairo.
"Yes, we can book you on a flight tomorrow night," the agent said.She quickly made the reservation, sure she was finally rid of the Traveler From Hell. But I had one tiny additional favor to ask: Could she find me a flight out of Cairo?
We went through the entire procedure again, from scratch, but everything was booked solid. Finally, a business-class seat opened up on a flight to Frankfurt -- which would mean a seven-hour layover at Cairo's dusty, seatless international airport. No problem. Then she found a flight from Frankfurt to New York -- requiring a nine-hour layover in Frankfurt. I took the entire package gladly.
I was on my way. Or so I thought.
Down in the hotel lobby, other reporters pointed out that flights out of Amman were being canceled right and left, and that the allied invasion of Kuwait was set to begin shortly after I was to land in Cairo. My departure was by no means assured.
Nevertheless, by midnight on Jan. 16, after a two-hour flight from Amman, I had cleared Egyptian customs and was looking for a place to camp. Given the choice between one of the airport's two dozen hard, dusty, molded plastic chairs and a bed in a nearby hotel, I chose the latter.
When the wake-up call came at 4 a.m., I was wide awake. Was Baghdad being bombed into oblivion? At the airport, another traveler confirmed my fears: The allied bombings had begun.
As the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt began boarding, passengers were clearly nervous, growing more so during our 45-minute delay on the ground. A group of airline pilots and crew arrived late, explaining that their flight, which was to have been routed over the gulf, had been canceled.
The Lufthansa captain came on the intercom to apologize for the delay: "I'm sure you all know what is happening in Iraq right now, so you can understand the need to bring on additional passengers ... If you were in their position, you would want us to wait for you as well."
He updated us on the gulf fighting throughout the day. Of my dozen or so flights from the Middle East as a correspondent, this was one of the most somber.
In Frankfurt, our plane was greeted by no fewer than 10 German soldiers armed with automatic rifles. All carry-on items were hand-inspected, and all electronics and electric appliances were confiscated. I waited in line for two hours, watching the time for my flight to New York grow closer. At the end of the line, a security officer seized my laptop computer and Walkman.
He gave me a receipt and said I should receive my items within two days. They arrived at my doorstep in Washington nine days later.