running in the green zone

Jogger’s guide to Baghdad’s Green Zone
Despite petty annoyances, joggers find pleasure, relative safety in running in Iraq’s fortified zone.
By Bryan Pearson – BAGHDAD First Published 2007-12-14

Iraq’s Green Zone; the perfect place for running – and hiding
Run in pairs, stay alert, do not run at night, do not venture off the beaten track… most of the advice from joggers about running in Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” makes sense. The casually added “just watch for the mortars” does not.

The risk of being blown up by mortar fire in what is also known as the IZ (International Zone) — the most shelled 10 square kilometres (four square miles) in Baghdad — remains the same whether you are walking, driving or running.

And there is little you can do if one comes your way anyway.

While the wide roadways built in Saddam Hussein’s once-gated city within a city bear numerous pockmarks from where shells have hit, the number of people killed in the IZ has not been significant — not enough, at least, to deter the joggers.

The obstacles are rather more predictable — relentless military traffic, loudly clattering helicopters, menacing razor wire, threatening armed guards and offputting checkpoints.

But the experience of jogging past Saddam’s palaces, numerous monuments, the bombed shell of the Baath party headquarters, the riverfront villas where he housed his cronies and the courthouse where he was tried and sentenced to death make it worth braving the petty annoyances.

Favourite with joggers — mainly Westerners, both men and women dressed usually in shorts and T-shirts and linked in some way or other to foreign embassies or the American war machine — is Celebration Square, created by Saddam to mark Iraq’s successes in its war with Iran.

Centred around a large monument and the “crossed swords” parade ground, the area allows about a mile (more than a kilometre) of running away from traffic and alongside open fields, derelict fountains and a scattering of palm trees.

But the excesses of the executed despot are hard to avoid — the bullet-holed helmets of Iranian soldiers killed in the war embedded in the tarmac, the huge reviewing stand from which Saddam would glare down at his troops on the parade ground, the stadium-sized Tomb of the Unknown Martyr.

And of course the crossed swords monument — the main reference point to anyone giving directions in the Green Zone.

On each side of the football field-sized parade ground are a set of two arms, cast from the limbs of Saddam himself, which thrust skywards — each holding a sword in such a way that they are crossed.

“This is the best place to run,” said Frank Hallen, a US soldier dressed in shorts and tracksuit top jogging near the crossed swords with two women runners. “You can get away from the traffic and have some peace.”

The two women, who asked that their names not be published, said that the main problem with running in the Green Zone was that they had to put up with men harassing them — some even stopping their cars to proposition them.

“We always run with a guy,” said one woman, a press affairs officer wearing shorts and a Lycra running vest. “Men stop us all the time — it’s very annoying.”

Regular joggers have many tales of adventure to tell.

“I was running down the street with an air force officer when a mortar shell exploded near us,” said an employee of the US embassy who would only be identified as David.

“We saw an Iraqi man run into a house so we followed him. We found ourselves being stared at by a family of Iraqis. They wondered what we were doing in their house. We hadn’t even realised there were families living in the IZ,” he said.

Most embassy employees tend to stick to a circular running route that tracks through the compound, then out along a road following the Tigris river which is hidden from view by towering blast walls, then down a leafy street and back into the compound.

Every first Friday of the month some 200 people line up at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) for a five-kilometre (3.1-mile) race through the embassy complex, which is dominated by a marble palace built by Saddam.

The route passes a “junkyard” which contains two oversized giant busts of Saddam lying face down in the dirt plus a statue of him cast in bronze made to look like an Assyrian king, sword in hand and a fierce look on his face.

“Very few embassy staff run out in the IZ,” said David from behind dark glasses, and perspiring while jogging up onto the July 14 bridge for a view of the Tigris and some relief from the never-ending blast walls.

“When I tell them I have been running in the IZ they will think I am a hero.”

However do not mention the possibility of leaving the beaten track and doing some exploring in the drab, dusty and grossly misnamed Green Zone.

“The reason that people run the main routes is because it is too dangerous to go off and explore the unbeaten path,” said the second of the two women runners at the crossed swords.

“I would by no means consider the IZ a park to be explored by the curious runner.

“Rather, the object of running here is to run without getting hit by traffic, getting cut by concertina wire, falling over speedbumps and holes left by mortars and not gagging from the smells of burning trash, blowing sand, sewage and overflowing dumpsters.”

Run in pairs, stay alert, do not run at night, do not venture off the beaten track… most of the advice from joggers about running in Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” makes sense. The casually added “just watch for the mortars” does not.

The risk of being blown up by mortar fire in what is also known as the IZ (International Zone) — the most shelled 10 square kilometres (four square miles) in Baghdad — remains the same whether you are walking, driving or running.

And there is little you can do if one comes your way anyway.

While the wide roadways built in Saddam Hussein’s once-gated city within a city bear numerous pockmarks from where shells have hit, the number of people killed in the IZ has not been significant — not enough, at least, to deter the joggers.

The obstacles are rather more predictable — relentless military traffic, loudly clattering helicopters, menacing razor wire, threatening armed guards and offputting checkpoints.

But the experience of jogging past Saddam’s palaces, numerous monuments, the bombed shell of the Baath party headquarters, the riverfront villas where he housed his cronies and the courthouse where he was tried and sentenced to death make it worth braving the petty annoyances.

Favourite with joggers — mainly Westerners, both men and women dressed usually in shorts and T-shirts and linked in some way or other to foreign embassies or the American war machine — is Celebration Square, created by Saddam to mark Iraq’s successes in its war with Iran.

Centred around a large monument and the “crossed swords” parade ground, the area allows about a mile (more than a kilometre) of running away from traffic and alongside open fields, derelict fountains and a scattering of palm trees.

But the excesses of the executed despot are hard to avoid — the bullet-holed helmets of Iranian soldiers killed in the war embedded in the tarmac, the huge reviewing stand from which Saddam would glare down at his troops on the parade ground, the stadium-sized Tomb of the Unknown Martyr.

And of course the crossed swords monument — the main reference point to anyone giving directions in the Green Zone.

On each side of the football field-sized parade ground are a set of two arms, cast from the limbs of Saddam himself, which thrust skywards — each holding a sword in such a way that they are crossed.

“This is the best place to run,” said Frank Hallen, a US soldier dressed in shorts and tracksuit top jogging near the crossed swords with two women runners. “You can get away from the traffic and have some peace.”

The two women, who asked that their names not be published, said that the main problem with running in the Green Zone was that they had to put up with men harassing them — some even stopping their cars to proposition them.

“We always run with a guy,” said one woman, a press affairs officer wearing shorts and a Lycra running vest. “Men stop us all the time — it’s very annoying.”

Regular joggers have many tales of adventure to tell.

“I was running down the street with an air force officer when a mortar shell exploded near us,” said an employee of the US embassy who would only be identified as David.

“We saw an Iraqi man run into a house so we followed him. We found ourselves being stared at by a family of Iraqis. They wondered what we were doing in their house. We hadn’t even realised there were families living in the IZ,” he said.

Most embassy employees tend to stick to a circular running route that tracks through the compound, then out along a road following the Tigris river which is hidden from view by towering blast walls, then down a leafy street and back into the compound.

Every first Friday of the month some 200 people line up at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) for a five-kilometre (3.1-mile) race through the embassy complex, which is dominated by a marble palace built by Saddam.

The route passes a “junkyard” which contains two oversized giant busts of Saddam lying face down in the dirt plus a statue of him cast in bronze made to look like an Assyrian king, sword in hand and a fierce look on his face.

“Very few embassy staff run out in the IZ,” said David from behind dark glasses, and perspiring while jogging up onto the July 14 bridge for a view of the Tigris and some relief from the never-ending blast walls.

“When I tell them I have been running in the IZ they will think I am a hero.”

However do not mention the possibility of leaving the beaten track and doing some exploring in the drab, dusty and grossly misnamed Green Zone.

“The reason that people run the main routes is because it is too dangerous to go off and explore the unbeaten path,” said the second of the two women runners at the crossed swords.

“I would by no means consider the IZ a park to be explored by the curious runner.

“Rather, the object of running here is to run without getting hit by traffic, getting cut by concertina wire, falling over speedbumps and holes left by mortars and not gagging from the smells of burning trash, blowing sand, sewage and overflowing dumpsters.”

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