I want to preface this entry by saying that Amanda and I are completely safe. This happened a few weeks ago (I guess the title is a little self-evident). Honestly I wasn’t going to write about it all. I had only told three people to what degree I experienced it and aside from that I swept it under the rug.
But after a chance encounter in a hostel in New Delhi I looked at it in a different light. A guy I’d met and hit it off with gave me a perspective that I had not yet heard. He told me, as one of the relatively few people who experienced it, that I have some degree of responsibility to share such an experience, to give another account of what happened and help inform. That idea won me over, as that’s kind of the whole purpose of this blog- to give an account of people and places that my readers may or may not know about, and help inform or remind if so.
So without embellishment, and to the best of my hazy memory, this is April 17th.
I was supposed to go on a motorcycle ride, and Amanda was supposed to go on a hike. Things in Iraq seldom happen as planned. So instead we both found ourselves spending the day at O’Ccaffe, our favorite coffee shop in Ankawa, on a popular stretch of street directly across from the US Consulate. O’Ccaffe was perfectly comfortable, an American style coffee shop that was familiar enough to let the mind forget for several hours that you’re actually in Iraq.
We had a lot of work to get done anyway, and there was no better place for the perfect balance of enjoyment and productivity than O’Ccaffe. Amanda and I had just started volunteering with a French based NGO (Non- Governmental Organization; think UNICEF or World Wildlife Fund) called ACTED, and after spending a day volunteering in a refugee camp were in the process of developing several different activities and skills building workshops for refugees and other displaced people who were interested in empowering themselves.
Somewhere in the middle of one of these projects, we heard two or three gunshots go off down the road, enough to make people stop for five seconds and then continue. It’s common enough. I’d heard them outside my apartment before, and was now as accustomed as a local. We all went back to our business.
One of our friends joined us after a few hours (O’Ccaffe was popular enough that at any given moment someone you knew would walk in) after noticing us sitting in the front corner by the window feverishly typing away. She helped provide us some relief from the work, joking about traveling in Eastern Europe, sharing ideas and experiences. It was 540 pm, Amanda and I had already been there for over 6 hours and were getting ready to leave at the 6pm mark we had set for ourselves.
This is where the details become hazy.
I was sitting turned slightly towards the street. That’s how I saw it. Someone was mid-sentence and I was looking at my computer screen when a bright yellow glow emerged from 25yds down the street. It was followed closely by the thundering boom and shock wave that blew in half the windows, knocked chairs and people over, and brought panels from the ceiling crashing down. The air was instantly filled with a thick screen of dust. The initial shock of sensory overload lasted maybe a second or two before my brain started to tick again and brought me back to reality.
You are not in an American coffee shop. You are in Iraq. That was a car bomb.
I stood up and yelled at no one in particular to MOVE. I just remember yelling MOVE repeatedly, and pushing my girlfriend and our friend to the back of the cafe. We ran to the back, hardly paying attention to what broken furniture or tableware we were walking over. I started pushing people down, and myself, down under chairs and sofas in the back of the small cafe. I remember a woman with an Ethiopian necklace laying on top of me, already sobbing hysterically. Or maybe below me, these are the things that are hard to recall. We all went silent.
And then the gunshots started. Just a few at first, and then rapid fire. Shot after shot. All of the worst thoughts possible started rushing through our heads… The bomb was the beginning of a surprise attack, and we were stuck, defenseless, in the back of a small cafe. Gunshots continued unabated for ten minutes before one of the O’Ccaffe employees stood up from behind the main counter and yelled at all of us hiding under furniture, motioning to come towards him.
We paused only for a second, realizing that option was probably far better than where we were. We jumped up, kept low, and ran to the kitchen and into the back alley as gunshots continued. Following closely behind us was a man with bloody shards of glass in his neck and blood coursing from several spots on his scalp enveloping his face. He looked oddly calm. He was certainly in shock.
We didn’t leave the alley. Gunshots were still everywhere, some just around the corner. Amanda, our friend and I crawled into the back end of a storage closet attached to the cafe and waited. I peeked out only to see what other civilians were doing, to read their body language and decide if anything had improved or de-proved. We stood there for over half an hour, reassuring each other of the Peshmerga’s unquestioned battlefield superiority. Our friend was trying to get a hold of anyone to see who else might have been near. I was putting any local numbers I knew into a phone that I had stolen off a ledge in the madness. All of my belongings were still sitting by the shattered windows.
The gunshots slowly tailed off. I peeked back outside and noticed that all the civilians were gone. I had no idea where they’d gone. An employee saw me and ushered us back into the cafe to quickly- QUICKLY- grab our stuff. I regained my computer, backpack and phone, but had lost my water bottle, converter, and charger cord in the mess. We ran out the back alley with the same employee, and then ran away through a wider alley on to another main street, ushered forward by a Peshmerga soldier.
We stopped and stood only for a minute. Having my phone again, I snapped the only photo I took of the event, the photo that is the header for this entry. Little of importance is visible. The alleyway is in the center, the cafe is at the far end of the alley on the right, out of sight. Just a bit of the haze from the explosion and resulting fire that destroyed three shops can be seen on the right. There is also an emergency response truck at the far end of the alley, close to where we ran from.
So many details are still unclear. I’ve heard and read that the car was driven and then shot at by Peshmerga once they realized what was happening, killing the driver in the process. I’ve heard that the car was remotely detonated by a man who was arrested some 4-5 days later, but he has co-conspirators on the loose. Or that the gunshots we heard from several hours before were the result of another small explosive- a diversion for the later one- that was meant to throw people off the trail of the main bomb. I heard, and know, that not even two days later a similar VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) was discovered only two blocks away, near the house of one of my colleagues. I’ve heard speculation that there are two more similar car bombs in Ankawa that Kurdish intelligence is aware of, but remain undiscovered, waiting to detonate.
Supposedly all of the gunshots were Peshmerga soldiers shooting into the sky trying to keep people off the streets. It doesn’t fully explain how many, how rapid, and for how long the gunshots occurred. That’s why other accounts say there was a brief firefight after the explosion of the car bomb.
There are too many variables from that day that remain unexplained and never will be.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was aimed at the US Consulate, which is directly across the street from O’Ccaffe. If that is true, it would likely support the story that the car was driven in, shot at, and then exploded before it reached its target, the US Consulate, as the explosion happened about 25yds down the road. Had it exploded at its supposed target, the US Consulate, I might be in a hospital right now.
The official statistics as far as I know, are 3 dead, 12 wounded. The number of wounded is certainly higher, and does include a female American teacher. That female American teacher; I know her. She lives in my building, she works for the same company. She was two doors down from O’Ccaffe when the blast happened. As far as I know, she is still in the hospital for her wounds, but is recovering very nicely.
The overall experience, although shaking to say the least, reminded me of how overwhelmingly lucky I have been in life so far, and how much I truly appreciate it. Shortly after the car bomb, (without disclosing any details of it) I consulted my mom on whether I should stay or go. (I learned years ago it’s always best to tell her AFTER something has happened… ‘yes, I went skydiving’).
She said “There’s a lot of good that can be done in a lot of places that are a lot less dangerous right now”. She was right. My illusion of safety had been shattered. Some people, including one of my colleagues, argued against that idea saying that he felt perfectly safe. But that’s the terrible, terrible thing about car bombs… It can be safe for 4 months, Horrifically unsafe for 1 hour, and then safe for the next two months. You just don’t know when or where that 1 hour is going to be, and where you’ll be during it.
Amanda and I both took several days to consider our positions and whether we wanted to stay or not. We came to independent decisions based on different factors, but our decision to leave was the same. We said our goodbyes to colleagues, passed along our burgeoning ideas for volunteer programs to friends of ours who were interested, and bid farewell to Kurdistan, for now.