Glimpses into the life of a Global Nomad, Part Nine

my office at the UN building in Baghdad

A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen, your Associate Chief Editor of The Muslim Times. (How Sergio di Mello saved my life and lost his!) (to Cyprus and Iraq)


The UN Iraq Country Team took over the Flamingo Hotel in Larnaca. All the rooms were converted to offices and Internet connections were installed. The Weapons Inspectors Team was winding down here and everyone was getting ready for war. It is absolutely crazy: Here we were getting ready for Iraq when the war had not yet started and could have been avoided!

I met briefly Mr. Blix, the weapons inspector, who confirmed to the UN that Saddam Hussain did not have any weapons of mass destruction. Well, the war went on just the same and I still had a job (but Mr. Blix did not).

Just a thought about a job: Did I plan to have the jobs I wanted? Partially I suppose. I walked into Swissair in Zurich and Paris. I did apply for a job in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ghana, Nigeria, Antigua, Thailand. After that I think it was different. The position in Kosovo was just the only one I was offered after 4 months of searching. The position in Iraq was the same. I did not exactly have a choice between Iraq and any other location. Ah well, at the moment it brought me to Cyprus and that was ok.

The guys from other UN agencies were just delegated here to Cyprus in January simply to transform Flamingo Hotel into the UN Iraq Country Team Headquarter. They did not actually have any other duties, such as preparing for the actual work to follow. Other teams would do that. It seemed I was the only one that had actual duties to prepare for the project work in Iraq. Project work in Iraq also meant in surrounding countries such as Jordan and Kuwait, as a gateway into Iraq.

I created a very simple, hand-made computer data sheet, where I entered all the approvals that I had granted here and there. At the time the IOM accounts were monthly, not ‘daily up to date’. Consequently I entered there not only what we spent this month but also what approvals I granted. Consequently I sort of had an up to date idea of the balances of funds available. It was just a simple and crude way of doing thing, but the Headquarters was impressed enough to send me later on to Sudan and to an all-Africa meeting of Heads of Finance and Administration in Senegal to explain what I was doing. It seemed several times in other countries things got totally out of hand by colleagues granting approvals, thinking funds were still available, but either they duplicated approvals or others approved and then often they overspent funds.

In Dakar I stayed in the best hotel in town. There was a plaque on the entrance ‘a gift from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia’.

In Senegal I was able to meet in Dakar the Missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. A few years ago many members of Parliament of Senegal joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Several Pakistani and African Missionaries became active in the country. All of a sudden they  were expelled. Only one ex Pakistani Missionary remained in the country, because he now had a Gambian passport and consequently could not be expelled. He stated that there were Ahmadis in 365 villages. If he would have travelled to one village a day he could have made his rounds only once a year. Quite a challenge. I hope that in the meantime other Missionaries, may be from Africa could re-enter.

I recalled the story from The Gambia. The President of Gambia was invited to Pakistan by the late infamous General Zia ul Haq. At the end of the visit General Zia ul Haq stated that he would like to donate a hospital to The Gambia. The President thanked the General. And then the General added, but there is a small favour that I would like to ask you in return: Please expel all the foreign Ahmadis in the country. There were several from Pakistan and from various African countries working as teachers and doctors. The President of The Gambia politely refused the offer of a hospital and said that when the Ahmadi-Muslims arrived and built schools and hospitals they did not make any conditions.

No body told me and no body confirmed to me: But looking at the Plaque of the Five Star Hotel in Senegal donated by King Fahd and having expelled Ahmadi Missionaries from the country around the same time, it seems that while the President of The Gambia refused the kind offer of Zia ul Haque, because of the condition, the President of Senegal did not. Again: I do not have any confirmation of this conclusion, it is just my private view. And Allah knows best what is the truth!

We stayed in Cyprus for 6 months (January to June 2003). Of course it was a good location. I had an apartment on the seaside. I had a car to take Nafisa to Kindergarten in the morning and collect her later. We were on a salary plus DSA (daily subsistence allowance) as Cyprus was a temporary posting. Yes, I purposely tried not to get used to Cyprus too much as I knew it will not last.

In those days the frontier between the Turkish North Cyprus part and the Greek South Cyprus nation was still closed. As foreigners and UN ID card holders we could easily cross and get a permit at the border crossing. We therefore explored the Turkish Cyprus also. They used the Turkish currency.

Like in any of the at the moment 210 countries and territories there were of course members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, both in Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus. In Larnaca there were several Pakistani students in some local  University and we were able to arrange Friday Prayers. I met some Ahmadi-Muslim students in Turkish Cyprus also, but there seem to be fewer there. I am not sure whether they had arrangement for Friday prayers there.

The Flamingo Hotel in Larnaca was near the airport and my apartment was just across from the Flamingo Hotel directly on the beach. When summer arrived we could swim, before we just walked along the beach. During my walks I used to meet a fisherman. I never saw him cash anything. I think he just wanted to be away from his wife for a while. He said one day he actually caught about 20 good sized fish. That was when the wall of a fish farm nearby broke!


 In July 2003 I reached Iraq.  My first wife was still in Switzerland and my second one in Scotland, with our daughter Nafisa.

When reaching the UN headquarters in Baghdad we were ‘squeezed in’ to an office on the ground floor. In the same corner as the United Nations Country Representative was having his office on the third floor. Sergio di Mello had previously headed the UN offices in East Timor.

For the first night I slept in a tent in the compound of the UN Headquarters. The famous / infamous (you will see why I write this later) UN security had to ‘approve’ which hotels we could go into. After a night or two some hotel was approved for us and I moved into a hotel.

Others, including my boss, stayed in the tents. We received a DSA – Daily Substance Allowance – and out of this we had to pay our hotel ourselves. If we stayed in the tents we could keep the change. But I felt I was getting a bit too old for ‘joint pick-nicks’ I preferred my privacy. It was also easier to observe our daily prayers.

We were not supposed to leave the hotel and after 8 pm we were under a UN imposed curfew. I did not quite observe it. Across the road from the hotel, a bit further down, there was an Ice Cream Shop. It closed at 9. After dinner I usually went there for an ice cream with who-ever had the courage to accompany me. In fact the ice cream shop guy used to look out for me before closing. For some UN guys from New York to accompany me for an ice cream was the most thrilling thing they did in Baghdad.

In the shared office my neighbor on the other side of the desk was an Iranian Hussaini. He was very friendly. Seeing my ring with Arabic inscription he immediately recognized and accepted me as his brother. It did not matter in those days whether you were Sunni or Shia. This was a later creation of those who were bent to destabilize the region.

My boss was a nice guy from Austria, thanks god, because other colleagues were not so pleasant to work with. The first person to arrive in Baghdad was an American Jew of Polish origin. The second one was a gay person who slept in the office and was misbehaving there as well. But it was not because of their Jewish and Gay personalities that I did not get along with them. They did not know how things work financially. I, as the Finance Director, had to distribute over all projects the common costs, like for instance my salary. They kept arguing about it. They wanted to ‘micro-manage’ everything and did not ‘macro-manage’ anything properly. Luckily some others understood my role better and came to my assistance.

The Media person sent from Headquarters was Jewish too. He was a nice guy. He laughed himself that why the Headquarters sent a Jew to Baghdad. He said that he mentioned to the Director General whether it would not be better to send an Arab. His answer was that our donors are not Arabs (the main donors were American at the time).

At the time of my arrival in Baghdad we already had one project going on in Basra. It was a US financed ‘Iraq Transition Initiative’, similarly to the one we had in Macedonia, the ‘Macedonia Transition Initiative’. It consisted of small community projects. Later on, when we moved our activities to Jordan we lost this project. It was given to an US contractor. (We could have done it by remote control, but the donors did not see it that way at the time).

So my first trip out of the Headquarters was to Basra via Kuwait to see that operation. We went for a day-trip from Kuwait. Interesting it was. On the way to Basra we saw some boys at the road side who were selling one tin of coke. Not one crate, but one tin at a time. People also tried to stop us to ask for cold water. Unfortunately we did not come well prepared. On the way back to Kuwait the boys threw rocks at us instead. I am not sure whether it was because we did not have any water to distribute or it was just their general feeling for UN cars. They were justified, after years of UN organized sanctions on Iraq no Iraqi had any reason to love the UN. And I suppose they could not really distinguish between IOM cars and UN cars. Most people do not know that IOM is not part of the UN. In Iraq we were even closer to the UN than elsewhere, in Kosovo for instance, because we were part of the UN security system. When the UN security guys said that we could only stay in offices protected by them we had to share those offices.

Regarding sharing offices: When we arrived in Baghdad we shared offices at the UN headquarters. It was my duty to urgently find a building to rent for our own offices, separate to the UN compound. I found a building and we rented it as from 1st August 2003 (if I recall correctly. It might have been a few days later). We did not yet move in because we had to purchase furniture etc.

The first thing I arranged to be purchased were some water coolers. Temperatures in July / August were near 50 C. Air conditioners were also installed of course.

While the offices were getting ready some UN colleague told our boss that the big boss, the UN country director, Sergio di Mello, had asked during a meeting ‘when are these squatters leaving?’. My boss thought that he was referring to a project we did, charting the locations and numbers of public buildings that were occupied by Internally Displaced Persons. ‘No’, the UN colleagues said, ‘he means you!’ .  At the time IOM was still a non-UN agency, occupying UN offices. I suggested to my boss to move into our own offices quickly, even if they were not yet perfectly arranged. And we did.

And that is how Sergio di Mello saved my life and lost his. It seems that Allah did not think that I should meet with him in the next world just yet.

Because on 19th August 2003 the UN Headquarters in Baghdad was blown up. Or at least they blew up the corner where my office on the ground floor and Sergio di Mello’s office on the 3rd floor were located. My friend Hussaini died instantly and I would have died instantly with him if I had been on my previous office desk.

To celebrate my survival the United Nations has nominated August 19th as the World Humanitarian Day. (or was it to remember those killed on that day?).

Of course this was a total failure of the so famous UN security team. The gates were controlled so very carefully. We had to show ID cards and all that. But outside of the wall a truck full of explosives could easily drive up to the corner of our offices!

Ah these security guys! Once I reported to them that while I was having dinner at my hotel I heard rifle fire. A lot of shooting was going on. I was thinking about leaving my table near the window, but then decided to finish my dinner first. When I reported to UN security they nodded gravely and said that yes they had also noticed the serious security breach. When I reached to the office my local staff told me that at that time the Iraqi National Football team had scored a goal over the Moroccan team and the firing was in celebration of the goal.

The UN security also had big television sets in their strategy room. Sometimes, instead of them informing CNN what was happening they actually learned from CNN what was going on. Of course they did not reveal the source of their information. We were supposed to think that they were that clever.

Before the attack on the UN Headquarters in fact our agency, the International Organization for Migration, suffered the first casualty of any agency in the UN country team. Two cars were driving out of town. In both cars there was a female international staff and a driver. One car was hit by gun fire. The driver died. The international staff in that car was badly injured in the resulting car accident. She was Australian. She was taken care of by the US military medical services. She was after some time repatriated to Australia. In fact I do not know exactly what happened to her after that. I hope she recovered well. The lady in the other car was given extensive sick leave, extensive therapy and I think managed to still work with IOM. The last time I met her she was in Geneva Headquarters.

Because of this incident a ‘Psychological Support Officer’ came from Geneva to ‘council’ the staff and the family of the affected driver. He happened to be in Baghdad when the bomb went off and now he had his one great chance in his career: Counselling hundreds of UN staff from all over the world.

On that fateful day some colleagues and myself decided to go to the UN headquarters for lunch. We did not want to waste too much time in a restaurant, ordering food and waiting for the food. In the UN headquarters there was a buffet and we could get the food quickly and return to work. (OK, in addition it was free of charge. Why not take advantage of that too).  We were a bit late, around 2 pm, when we went to eat. We left half an hour later. And the bomb went off shortly after 5 pm.

We heard the bang in our office and from the roof saw some smoke and thought it might be at the UN building, which was soon confirmed.   We all had mobile phones given to us by the US administration. We could call free of charge anywhere in the world. The bill would go to the Iraqi Budget, curtsy of the generosity of the Americans. (In the office the connection was better on the roof of the building. I told my wife/wives that, yes, I could call free of charge, but I could not really talk all that long as I was on the roof of the building and the temperature was 50 C (in the shade, but there was no shade on the roof).

More psychologists arrived to give support to the staff affected by the explosion. The Psychologist from New York Headquarters was working out of our office, because we already had our own Trauma specialist here and we had arranged for him transport and translators and therefore it was a ‘ready to go’ situation. It was essential for all UN staff (and IOM staff, as we were under the UN security cover) to meet the Trauma specialist. As I personally had not been close to the explosion and was not really traumatized I did not know what I should ask him. I thought and thought about it and finally I asked him whether he could give me some advice how to work with a homosexual boss. He was a bit surprised but then gave me the advice to just keep the relationship official and a bit distant and sort of forget that he was what he was. I think I did ok.

After the explosion the UN began evacuating its staff from Baghdad. I told them that we were not in a hurry. As our staff was not in the UN building at the time they were not traumatized. We could wait for the evacuation of more important staff.

At first it was said that ‘non-essential staff’ should leave and ‘essential staff’ should stay. That all staff should leave was decided a few days later. It was amusing to see: Some staff (especially the young Americans in the ‘Iraqi Transition Project’) were on the one hand keen to leave but on the other did not want to be seen as ‘not-essential’. Well, lucky for them soon the order came for all to leave.

I at first also did not understand that the evacuation was sort of nearly permanent. I thought we would come back after a couple of weeks, but the UN decided otherwise. Thousands of people may die in Iraq, but none are supposed to be UN staff.

We were ‘temporarily’ relocated to Amman Jordan. OK, now my families could join me. And this time it was possible to find two apartments. Both my families joined me in Jordan. Nafisa, after attending Kindergarten schools in Kosovo and Cyprus now joined the senior class of the Kindergarten in Amman. Jordan. Nobody thought at the time that she will have her whole 12 years of schooling in Amman.

The UN set up new Headquarters in Baghdad. This time properly fortified. The US army would secure the outer perimeter while soldiers from Fiji were supposed to secure the inner perimeter. We could now come from Amman and spend some time in Baghdad. The ‘slots’ for accommodation spaces in Baghdad were limited and we could not stay permanently. We had to regularly make place for others, but we could come and pretend that we are in Baghdad.  I am saying ‘pretend’, because we were stuck in the UN headquarters and could hardly go to town. When we wanted to visit any Ministry in town we had to ask for US military guards and US military approvals. We had to wear helmets and vests to arrive in offices where all others did not wear anything like that. The US marines would accompany us up to the offices and would stand guard outside. They would after a not-so-long time tell us that it was now time to return to the ‘green zone’, where our offices and accommodation were located.

It was interesting to note the reaction to these military convoys from the Iraqis in the road. No waving and ‘thank you for liberating us from the dictator Saddam Hussain’. Rather the people would not even look at us passing. They would look away and pretend that we did not exist. (It was of course impossible for the onlookers to differentiate whether we were UN staff or IOM staff or US military officers. We were arriving in US marine humvees and for all matters we looked like part of the occupation).

Our accommodation were also equally guarded by US military on the outer ring and Fijian soldiers on the inner ring.

The camp was run by a Pakistani contractor who had staff mostly from Pakistan, some from Bangladesh and may be a few from Sri Lanka and Nepal. While the UN had a maximum stay of their staff in Baghdad for 6 weeks, after which the staff was given one week R&R (rest and recreation) the staff of the contractor remained in place for years, because they were afraid if they would leave they might not be able to return to their job. The UN, saving the whole world, could not save this problem.

Also at first the accommodation of the UN staff had overhead cover, protection against the crude rockets being sent into the ‘green zone’ from outside from time to time. The accommodation of the contractor’s staff did not have such a luxury. When a rocket did hit the UN accommodation compound the UN spokesperson was quick to say that ‘luckily no UN staff was killed’. Only after some urging did she state that a couple of staff of the UN contractor were killed. Only after a second such attack with similar casualties did the UN bother to cover the accommodation of the workers also with the protective cover.

We drove from the accommodation to the offices in armored cars. They simple ones we had cost about 150’000 US dollars. The UN team had about 80 such cars, only being used to drive from the accommodation to the office in the morning and back home in the evening. We were not permitted to go into town. OK, we would have sometimes some meetings with Government officials elsewhere in the green zone, but this did not happen all that often.

Definitely, the UN knows how to look after themselves, or rather their International Staff.

The travel from Amman to Baghdad and back was for the first few years by US air force planes. They took off in the old Marka airport in Amman. In Baghdad we did not enter the Civilian terminal but the US military terminal on the other side of the run way. We might not have been in Iraq at all. No entry stamps were done. Sometimes the Americans would pretend to start some control but after a couple of months it was again absent.  In later years the UN had its own planes.

From the airport to the town the usual route would be by the armored bus service. That would run at night around 2 to 3 am. We had to sign in at 8  pm. We were told that for security reasons we could not tell you the time that the bus would leave. In the night there was a curfew and the convoy of armored buses would have a free way. I think helicopter gunships flew overhead.

Some time we could avail ourselves of a helicopter service. At least then we did not need to wait for past midnight for the bus going to the green zone. Or coming from the green zone to the airport we could go and sleep, more or less comfortably.

We could wait in a tent if we wanted to. The tents were super-air-conditioned to the freezing point. There was a canteen where we could get dinner and breakfast and lunch, all curtsy of US Ministry of Defence.  All the camp was run by Dick Cheyney, I mean KBR, Kellogs Brown and Root, one of the most successful US military contractors.

The staff in the canteen were mostly Philipino and some Sri Lankans. I think they considered Pakistani or other Muslim nationals as a security risk and therefore they were not recruited. Of course US civilian also were there. In one American military base in the green zone in Baghdad I even found Turkish hairdressers.

I know it is not polite to listen to other peoples’ conversation. But, just for the purpose of my education, I would like to listen to the US military guys’ talk. For the most part of it these US bases could have been anywhere. It was just another military base and the talk mostly was just that. Only occasionally I did see some trauma. Ones apparently some guys at the next table came back from a trip where they were attacked and the mood was grim. Some ‘comrades’ had not made it. Another time, also at the airport military base, one guy was flipping out. He said that ‘I have done my year of duty and I was told that I could go home and now again my departure has been delayed’. His colleagues had to calm him down.

During our transit I used to read ‘Stars and Stripes’ newspaper and other papers lying around. From these I could gather that US soldiers would receive a ‘sign-up’bonus o10’000 US dollars or more. One guy wrote that ‘this allowed him to pay his debts and get out’. A similar bonus was paid for ‘signing up again’ after one round of duty had been completed.

Once I asked a US colonel how much he was being paid. He said that the pay depended on where the family lives. As his family lived in New York his housing allowance was high. He came to about 120’000 US dollars. Of course he himself has practically no expenses as food, lodging, clothing is provided and there is little chance to spend money, except for the occasional KFC and Burger King on the base. His medical cover is also excellent. He said he paid about 10 dollars for some papers when his son was born in New York. Others take advantage of scholarships to study free of charge when they return.

I just bought in the shops in the military bases a couple of nice Iranian prayer mat carpets. And some essentials like underwear. The Iranian carpet shop actually did have some good selection of carpets.

Yes, rockets used to fly in from time to time. I did not worry too much, because by the time you hear the bang in fact the rockets are down already. And if it hits you without you hearing it there is no trouble.

In the office, according to rules and regulations, we should put on the helmet and the vest when the alarm goes off. Frequently the alarms came on after the bang. (We also had to put on helmet and vest to drive from the accommodation to the office and back). Ah, yes, the UN takes care of its International Staff. I used to feel rather silly. We put on all that stuff and expect our Iraqi national staff to come from their home into the green zone without any security, without any armoured plates etc.

From time to time it happened that we heard explosions during the time that our staff was arriving in the office. I recall a moment when one lady came to the office, fresh and alert, reporting to me something of her work she just did at a Ministry. When I mentioned that I just heard an explosion, she calmly said that, yes, it was at the gate I was just passing.

In the beginning besides the Iraq Transition Initiative project we also had a project to assist the newly formed Ministry of Displacement and Migration. We hired a Consultant who drew up all the organizational charts and job descriptions for the main positions and we would have workshops and train the cadre of the Ministry. As the Ministry of Displacement and Migration was sort of a not so important ministry (compared to the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Oil etc) minority representatives were given the portfolio of Minister.  The first Minister was a lady from the Assyrian (Christian) Minority. The second one was from the Faili Kurdish Minority, a Kurdish Minority that is Shiah, while most other Kurds are Sunni).

Another main project was assisting the internally displaced persons. Due to ongoing fighting in places like Fallujah and Ramadi, large portions of Iraqis were displaced. Sunni / Shiah fighting also started and minority populations were kicked out from the neighbourhood.

The UN at first gave the mandate of arranging displacement camps to IOM. Interestingly no such camps were arranged. The displaced persons mostly went to stay with relatives or tribal brothers, who, despite the fact that they themselves did not have much, always opened their doors to their closer and farer relatives, or just ‘same tribe people’, or even Iraqi strangers.

After one year in Iraq, or rather working out of Jordan and occasionally going to Iraq, the Chief of Mission wanted to go. (At first one Austrian was Acting Chief of Mission, but he was having a cozy job in Berlin and did not really want to come. Then an American was appointed, who also agreed to come only for one year). The vacancy was announced for the position of Chief of Mission. Remembering what happened to me in Kosovo I applied for the position. The Chief of Mission, like a Captain, would be the last to leave a sinking ship. Of course at that time we never imagined that the Iraq Emergency would go on and on and we did not know when the Mission will downsize. (It still has not downsized ten years later). I understand that the vacancy notice was posted only for internal candidates.

My American boss did not strongly support me. He stated that yes, I was a good Head of Finance and Administration, but he could not say whether I would make a good Chief of Mission. Well, in my CV it showed that I was a successful Chief Delegate or Chief of Mission of Caritas Switzerland in Kosovo. The contract volume there was also fairly large. I had good references. I wrote to the Operational Directors that I was confident that I could do the job, but of course I would count on his guidance and closely follow his advice. He noticed that I would be ‘in his camp’. Anyway, I got the job, Alhamdolillah. All praise is due to Allah.

Later on when the position of Chief of Mission of Jordan became vacant I was asked whether I could look after that mission also at the same time. I did not say so, but I thought that if I can manage two wives to manage two Missions is easy, even if in the meantime IOM Iraq had about 30 International Staff and about 300 national Staff and IOM Jordan had similar numbers.

The main project, well, nearly the only project, of IOM Jordan at the time was the Migration Projects of Iraqis, who worked for the Americans in Iraq, who could now apply for Migration to USA. It took time for the project to materialise. In the beginning the Americans did not take in any refugees at all. After intensive pressure from some Military Personnel the project was started and Iraqis working as translators for the US army were allowed to enter the project. They would come to IOM, not the US Embassy. IOM would verify that this person had worked for the US military. After confirmation the file would be prepared. Sometime during the process the Department of Homeland Security would come to interview the applicant. Then a medical test would be made. When approval came from the US a ‘cultural awareness’ training was given and the flight was arranged. Of course the flight had to be coordinated with the arriving NGO, who would have some accommodation ready.

The project had offices in Amman and Damascus, as many Iraqi refugees were residing in those cities, and in Baghdad, where we worked out of the US embassy. We could not work out of the UN offices, because all of a sudden the UN would reduce our staff numbers, because someone else was coming, and this we could not accept for this project. The UN Country Director agreed to the arrangement.

We had therefore also a clinic in Amman, Damascus and Baghdad, for the ‘pre-departure’ checkups.

Later on, with the great support from Senator Kennedy, the program was extended from translators only to all staff that worked for any US funded office, whether US military or contractor, and the immediate family. Consequently the program expanded greatly.

For me as joint Chief of Mission of IOM Iraq and Jordan it was not a difficult task, because the Project Manager and Officers were well experienced and the project worked smoothly (and is still ongoing).

I may make an interesting side-remark. One interview with Washington Post got me in trouble with the US State Department. The guys got so angry with me that one of the top guys from Washington had a red head when he met me at the US Embassy in Baghdad months later.

What happened was that the reporter from the Washington Post asked me about this project. He asked me whether I thought that the Americans were doing enough for the Iraqis. I replied that ‘when someone risks his life for you, you do not just say ‘thank you and goodbye’. The reporter asked me whether he could quote me and I said yes. Therefore the next edition had a headline of ‘Mr. Rafiq Tschannen, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration, states that ‘when someone risks his life for you you cannot you say thank you and goodbye’. Up till now I do not understand why they got so mad at me. After all I was actually supporting their project. Anyway, Senator Kennedy had initiated the expansion of the project but not all in the American Administration liked it. Consequently matters were delayed again and again. While at first it took less then 6 months for all bureaucratic requirements to be completed later on it dragged on and on to more than 12 months.

I would have very much liked to know how the Iraqis got on when they reached to USA. Only from time to time was I able to find out. One husband phoned and begged me to help him that his wife could join him. I asked him how he was doing and he said he was fine. He was Laboratory Technician and he found work in his field.

In several other cases we noticed that people who were so anxious to go to America came back after a few months, because they could not find a job. One was my Secretary in Amman. She came back because her daughter was a dentist, but the only job offered to her in USA was as a waitress and she said this was not acceptable.

Ones a lady phoned from the USA that the accommodation that was given to her was in a dangerous neighborhood. She had small children and no husband. She was scared. All neighbors were black. Well, yes, accommodation I suppose was provided in the cheaper neighborhoods of the towns. The lady moved her accommodation, but because she did so she had to pay herself and after a couple of months she run out of cash. I am not sure what happened to her.

Another e-mail that I received was interesting. It came from an Iraqi lady from the Netherlands. It read something like this:

“At first when your staff started to open our files we were always treated politely. Everything was going well until the Interview with the US officers of the Department of Homeland Security. I was in the interview room with a Lady Officer. One of my children wanted to go to the bathroom and she did not allow it. Then the Lady Officer asked my 12 year old son whether Iraq was better now or under Saddam Hussain. Well, he was a child and he answered honestly and said ‘under Saddam Hussain’. The Lady Officer shouted at him and called him a liar. My children started to cry. After the interview they said to me: ‘Mother, you said Americans are nice people. Why did you deceive us’?’  The e-mail ended with the information that ‘we have now reached The Netherlands, at considerable expense, and you may close our file’ (and thank you again for your good service).

It was of course not easy for us to open an office for this project in Damascus. After a considerable delay however we managed. And then visitors started to come from the USA. Senators and other big shots wanted to see our project and were keen to visit Damascus also. I had to give them a briefing of how we had progressed so far in all locations. I recall one visit especially. I am not exaggerating:  Out of 8 people 6 were named ‘David’. David Cohen, David Apfelbaum, David Feinstein (no, besides Cohen I do not recall the exact names, but I think you get my meaning). I could not help it but I remarked to our American Project Manager that I know you do have a lot of jews in America, but surely not 80%. His answer was ‘oh, I did not notice’. Really?

The Davids were speaking totally open in our meeting. They asked each other which one was going on to Jerusalem (for reporting to the real boss). Two of the Davids affirmed that they were going immediately after Damascus to Jerusalem.

The Minister of Displacement and Migration, now a Faili Kurd, Dr. Abdus Samad Sultan was / is a great gentleman. I think that I can call him a friend. He was most kind to me. I respected him and he respected me also.

Well, nearly all Iraqis did (respect me too). Ones a delegation of Iraqi Members of Parliament came to my office in Amman. They were in a committee on displacement and migration. I gave them a briefing about our work. All was cordial and they left. The next day they said ‘may we come and see you again’. After our meeting they were told that I was a Swiss Muslim and consequently they wanted to come again and meet me this time as a Swiss Muslim and not as the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration.

The Minister of Displacement and Migration, as well as the Members of Parliament, who were mostly Shias, of course knew that I was not a Shia. (Shias are found mainly in Iran and then in Iraq and as a minority in Lebanon, Syria, India, Pakistan and Yemen). There was absolutely no hesitation or no ‘lesser brotherhood-love’ for me because they were Shia and I was not.

Dr. Sultan and myself did discuss lots of things; Politics and also religion. Once he mentioned to me that ‘if you had a large corporation and you had a son, would you not like him to carry on as the next Managing Director?’ Of course I had to affirm. He then pointed out that ‘yes, and just like that we believe that the best Imams after the Prophet (peace be on him) should come from his family’. Well, yes, why not.

On the ‘home front’, as some people call it, I had my two separate apartments in Amman. I would spend one night here and one night there. We sort of got into a routine and as long as we kept to the routine, that everyone got used to, things were going fairly well. But it is not easy: A polygamist husband can only be happy when everyone else is happy. When one wife is sad and lonely he cannot really enjoy the other one fully. Sometime wives could busy themselves and were sort of fairly happy, but at other times …?

The one day here and one day there had its disadvantages also. When I would reach the other house the wife sort of had to get used to the husband again. When she got fully used to him he had to leave already again and saying goodbye was not so easy.

In 2005 I took my wife Nilofar for Umrah. We stayed in Sheraton Hotel near the Kaaba. The accommodation was of course good, but we could have been in London, Paris, New York. We longed back to the good old days of our Hajj in 1975, when we stayed with a Makkan family and had the real feeling of Hajj.

The Umrah did not start all that well! During Tawaf, the walking around the Kaaba, I tried to touch the black stone. By doing so I got separated from my wife and afterwards could not find her again. I completed the Umrah alone and when I returned to the hotel she was there. As you can imagine she was not exactly pleased with me. I promised to not let go of her the next time and after a short rest we started again for her first Umrah and my second one.

Well, of course it was not all that bad. An American / Swiss convert to Islam told me that he lost his wife during Hajj in Mustalifa. As they were to stay in Mina for 3 days he found her again only after that at the Makkah accommodation. She was from Niger or something like that and she found refuge with her compatriots for the duration of her separation.

Well, about the start of the Umrah: The night before my wife felt stomach pain. We went to the emergency doctor to check whether it was appendicitis or not. Thanks God it was not. He gave her some drip and said that we could travel. Alhamdolillah, she was totally well in Makkah and Madinah!

Which reminds me of her prayer during our Hajj in 1975: She used to suffer from headaches, migraines.  She prayed that Oh Allah please let me not have any migraines during Hajj. She did not and was fine. When we came back home and she told her mother she exclaimed: ‘You silly girl, why did you not pray that you should be free from these migraines all your life?’

Later on in December I took my junior family for Hajj; My wife Neni Nuraeni and our daughter Nafisa, who was at the time 8 years old.

For obtaining the visa I had to go to the sharia court and declare that I was a Muslim and that Neni Nuraeni was my wife. After that the visa was obtained easily.

(Every time I obtained a Saudi visa for Hajj or Umrah the conditions changed. You may recall that at the first time in Afghanistan in 1970 the Embassy wanted me to write into the Swiss passport ‘religion Islam’, which I did. This entry was later on cancelled by the Swiss Embassy in Teheran, as they said it was against Swiss law. In 1975, when going to Hajj with my family (wife Nilofar and son Mahmud. We left Aischa with colleagues / friends as she was too young to join us at the time). At that time the Saudi Embassy wanted a letter from ‘our Embassy’ that we were Muslims. The entry in my passport, which I obtained from the Chief Justice of the Hijaz in Jeddah in 1970 was not considered. The Swiss Embassy correctly said that ‘we are not a church and cannot confirm such things’. We agreed that I would write that Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad Tschannen and his family are Muslims. The Swiss Embassy attested my signature with many beautiful stamps and the Saudis were happy.

We came with a small Jordanian group. We first landed by plane in Madinah. As this was a smaller airport than Jeddah the arrival was easier and we passed through immigration quite well. We got a hotel room with about 8 beds in it, but were told not to worry, the room was just for us. The hotel was in the second row of hotels, not too far from the Prophet’s Mosque.

At one time Nafisa came to the mosque with her doll, but the Security did not let the ladies enter. No problem, it was ok to once pray outside.

It was a nice time. Food was fine and nice Mango juice, fresh one, was available. It may have proved a problem, because on the long bus journey to Makkah Nafisa was in trouble.

The bus journey was so long because first we were told to be ready ‘after Asr’. It seems that not all Hajis of our group turned up, because then it was ‘after Maghrib’ and then after the night prayer ‘Isha’. Naturally everyone wanted to go to the mosque for prayers and coming and going took time. Consequently we were already hours and hours out of the hotel before we started with the bus. And then, because of the many nice Mango juices maybe, Nafisa had some problems on the way.

In any case, we did reach safely in Makkah Mukarramah, Alhamdolillah. We were a bit disappointed on the accommodation. We thought we had book a ‘VIP’ package for the Hajj. The accommodation was in an apartment building. Apartments were divided into rooms. Because we had a child we were allocated a room with an attached bathroom. There was not (hotel) service. During our whole stay in Makkah the bed sheets for instance were not changed, nor the room cleaned. When complaining we were told that the ‘VIP’ stood not for the quality of the accommodation but the distance to the Haram Shareef, the Holy Mosque. Yes, it was within easy walking distance.

Well, we got used to it and Alhamdolillah – May Allah be praised – we performed all the necessary rituals well. With 8 year old Nafisa the circling of the Kaaba was not easy. It was too crowded. After the first time we did the circling later on upstairs on the first floor. The rounds would be longer but at least there was less crowd.

Once we had a grilled chicken for lunch in a Restaurant where we could sit down. (Often we would buy food and take it to our accommodation to eat). When I wanted to pay for the lunch I was told that one man, a Saudi, had already paid our bill! Well, that was nice of him. May Allah reward him!

Sometimes during traffic jams, or ‘go-slows’ as they would say in Africa, some young men would come and distribute free cold water. They were volunteering for a local NGO who was looking after the comfort of  Hajjis.

Yes, of course there was a crowd, but generally speaking all Hajjis were trying their best to accommodate each other. Everyone was trying to obtain Allah’s blessings at this holy site and this holy time of pilgrimage.

In Arafat the men were in one tent and the ladies in another. Once I received an SMS from my wife that some people were bringing food from outside and I should also fetch some. (We had brought with us some snacks and did not necessarily have to go and look for food). I went in search of it and found an NGO place distributing free packaged lunches. I got some and brought it to her. She was saying ‘why do you bring it now’? I responded that you asked for it. She replied that she had sent that SMS a couple of hours ago, in the meantime she had already shared lunch with someone. It seems that in the rush of Arafat, with a couple of million of Hajis SMS-ing each other (and those back home) the SMS took a couple of hours to process.

At the end of 2005 beginning of 2006 the now infamous clock tower was just beginning to be constructed. We did not yet know the monstrosity of what was coming up.

It was after my retirement as Chief of Mission. (I managed to surpass the UN / IOM retirement age of 62 until 65, but then the Bureaucracy forced me to retire). My successor kindly gave me a post-retirement contract as Consultant. The paper work was arranged in such a way (at my suggestion) that I did not fall under the UN security restrictions and could go to town at my own will and arrangement. Consequently it was easy for me to visit for instance the Minister of Displacement and Migration.

My own friend’s term of office had also expired. Dr. Abdus Samad Sultan was still living in Baghdad, but was out of job. I could not acquire the same close bond with his successor, because he did not speak English (and I did not speak Arabic). Still, I suggested to H.E. the Minister that his Ministry should finance one of IOM’s projects. It consisted of creating small businesses for returnees or Internally Displaced Persons. H.E. agreed to finance such a project to the tune of 40 million US$. He had unused funds in his budget that could be utilized. I was hopeful because I dreamed that I had caught a fish my own size and was taking it on land.

To finance this project there would have been necessary just a small adjustment in the budget. Sort of transfer the amount to a newly created budget line. This proved too much for the Government bureaucracy. It went up to the Prime Minister Maliki who said that you can put it in next to next year’s budget (next year’s budget having already been passed).

I then dreamed that my wife said ‘do not bring this big fish home, we do not have place in our refrigerator’. Meaning that it was too good to be true and we could not handle it. And that was the end of that project.

And it was also the end of my tenure as Consultant to H.E. the Minister of Displacement and Migration. I did not feel that I was doing anything worthwhile now.

During my tenure in Iraq I had the opportunity to meet Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General.

I also had the opportunity to meet Angelina Jolie in Baghdad. She was showing us a documentary movie that she had made of the life of the guy who saved my life: Sergio di Mello. She was at the time hoping to get an Oscar for the category of documentaries. Well, I never heard about the movie again. I never saw it shown any where. I think Angelina Jolie was a bit too honest, showing his ‘womanizing’ here and there. He had a ‘partner’ in East Timor. When he was posted he took her along to Baghdad (while his somewhat estranged wife stayed behind in Brazil).

One other personality that I was fortunate to meet was Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer. I met him two three times in Amman. I was able to help with with logistics during his trips in Baghdad from time to time. I also met his son Frederic in Zurich. He specially came to Zurich to meet me from Germany.

Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer wrote several books about Afghanistan and Iraq. You must google search them all and read them all! One book was about Marwa, an Iraqi girl that last her legs during American bombings in April 2003. Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer wanted to pay for her education and I was the ‘Baghdad contact’ for him. Ah, it is not easy to help people, even if you want to. We did not manage to keep Marwa in school. Unfortunately her surroundings were complicated and not supportive. So even with cash available sometimes we cannot succeed. Poor Marwa. Please read the book ‘Andy and Marwa’ by Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer! (Andy was an American Marine who lost his life on the same day as Marwa lost her legs. The author is also following his biography up to his untimely death).

I now keep following the activites of Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer. He keeps telling the public well researched facts from places like Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Gaza, Syria and Afghanistan. He was the first and up to now one and only Journalist, Author, Activist that had visited the so-called ‘Islamic State’ for ten days and came back home to tell us all about it. Please also read his book ‘Inside ISIS’!

When I was not successful in obtaining funds from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, Iraq, I felt a bit ‘useless’ and was not so comfortable to continue my Post-Retirement Contract in Baghdad. When a vacancy came up as Head of  Benghazi  IOM Office I applied and my old boss from Kosovo, Pasquale Lupoli, who was now in charge of the Middle East Office in Cairo, accepted my application. When I asked him for how long the assignment was he said he did not know.

As a Summary of my Employment with the International Organization for Migration I must say that I enjoyed my assignment in Iraq. It was nice to do something useful and help a lot of people (and get paid at the same time). (having joined the ‘Lords of Poverty’ (google for the poem with the same name!). We had a nice team. I think many people respected me, may be others my chair (as all retirees will find out sooner or later). But anyway, it was nice as long as it lasted. Thanks to the Internet social media some of my colleagues stay in touch with me. It is always nice to hear from them.


4 replies

  1. Mr. Rafiq, one of the best managers (if not the best) that I have worked with. I truly learned a lot from him.
    May Allah bless you and your family.

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