I had been warned. "It's been the quietest I've known it in Baghdad," a work colleague* had called to tell me as I was preparing to leave London. "For the first time, I have not been woken by bombs or gunfire while I was there."
I was encouraged, but it still didn't stop me from worrying at a dinner party the night before departing, where the conversation revolved around how hopeless the situation in Iraq seemed and would likely remain.
So I steeled myself as usual for the Baghdad experience. First days are usually the worst. Everything you've conveniently forgotten in order to get through being back home with a semblance of normality suddenly comes flooding back.
But once safely ensconced in the armored cars in the capable hands of our security team upon arrival in Baghdad, it's like you've never left. Flak jackets on, you settle into an automatic routine of familiar jibes and catch up chat that helps to fill the space of fear which goes with the airport road ride.
The dusty streets whizzed by as we sporadically did U-turns and other odd driving techniques in an effort to make it back to the bureau safely.
This time though, we saw some unfamiliar afternoon images from the darkened windows of our armored car.
|VIDEO: Baghdad -- positive signs of life|
I actually saw Iraqis on the streets, families eating out at roadside cafes, students hanging out by the university campus entrance, (a spot which had been targeted by suicide bombers in the past). There was even a man selling colorful balloons on the side of the highway. Signs of life in Baghdad I hadn't seen for years.
Weddings and kidnappings
As if to confirm my impressions, I sat down at the Baghdad news desk and was briefed that the bureau was working on a story about how life is getting back to normal.
"Weddings have started up again in big way; there was a recent job fair. People are going out again in the evenings and the street lights even function in some places," I was told.
Another even more upbeat colleague chimed in. "The other evening Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had an impromptu stroll along the river banks where restaurants are getting back to business and a famous soccer player was out teaching the kids.
"We are not sure whether it's because of the U.S. military surge, or the fact that areas have been so ethnically cleansed that they are now safer; or a mixture of both. We don't know how long it'll last, but for now it look likes things are on the up."
Our conversation was interrupted when my colleague turned to the translator as our office cleaner walked in.
"Tell him I am very sorry about his brother," he said.
"Thank you, we are looking everywhere," was the reply.
"What happened?" I asked. "His brother has just been taken hostage," was the response.
"Months ago another brother was kidnapped and he has never been found. And there isn't much hope for the second one. The family received a phone call saying they had his brother and would kill him, so need to bother looking for him. We think it's because he is Shiite and still lives in a Sunni neighborhood," was the grim explanation.
"And did you hear about Ali?" the conversation continued.
"Which Ali?" I asked (sometimes it seems like half our staff is named Ali)."Ali from Diyala," was the answer.
"He was kidnapped, but finally released when his family paid 10 times his salary."
"Oh, I thought you meant Ali from Sadr City," I explained, as I knew he had been tortured last year after a short spell in the hands of a Shiite militia. "No, not that Ali. He left for Sweden."
I took a look at the "life back to normal article" near my computer and noticed it had been written by a former NBC colleague and bureau chief.
"Be lovely to see him again," I said. "We should give him a call."
"What's the point? We can't go out and meet him.""another colleague said, referring to the fact that despite the advances, it was still far too dangerous on the streets of Baghdad for us to go out without a full security entourage.
Normal – Baghdad-style. It just seemed all too familiar.
*Names of NBC News Baghdad staff are not used to protect their identity.