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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Baghdad

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, May 9, 2003
From the Field
York Alan


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Pictures from Baghdad

Sudanese refugees play with dolls in the Red Crescent transit camp near the Jordanian-Iraqi borderr.
Awad Awad/AFP

Sudanese refugees wait in a tent near a refugee camp after fleeing Iraq.
Photo: Awad Awad/AFP

The Ishtar Sheraton hotel in Baghdad.
Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP

The Ishtar Sheraton must have been quite a place when it opened in the early 1980s, part of a hotel building boom that also gave Baghdad the neighbouring Palestine Hotel and the Al-Rashid. Unfortunately, a few wars have intervened and the hotel is looking a bit down-at-heel.

When the electric generator is working, the glass-enclosed elevators still speed you up through the seven-storey atrium, covered in cracked plexiglas, and as far as the 17th floor, although it's best not to think when the elevators last had a major mechanical overhaul. The hotel has also kindly installed ashtrays in the elevator cabs to accommodate the large number of smokers.

There's an impressive marble statue in the middle of the lobby fountain - I figure it must be the goddess Ishtar - but the surface of the fountain is always covered with a soapy scum. I discovered why late one night when I saw the hotel staff frantically washing the lobby floor with pails of water from the fountain and mopping the filthy residue back at Ishtar's feet. The Sheraton also is the kind of place where it's wise to tip the floor staff whenever you want clean sheets and towels.

So, I was anticipating the worst a few days ago when I arrived at my room to find the key wouldn't let me in and a message stuck in the door advising me to report to reception.

I knew right away that I was in trouble. I had inherited the room from a departing colleague at The Globe and Mail and never bothered to register because of the chaos at the front desk.

The people at reception couldn't have been nicer. After taking down my details, I managed to convince them that a sheaf of previous bills had already been paid. They then gladly took a $500 cash advance and sent me upstairs with a staff member armed with a master key.

Sure enough, the master key didn't work. The hotel employee knocked at the room next door and asked to use the phone. He also poked his head out the window and said simply, "I have friend."

A few minutes later, a tall, hunched black man turned up. Suspecting the plan, I pleaded with him that there must be a different way to get into my room. But before I could convince him, the Sheraton Ishtar's very own Spiderman was out the window and making his way along the ledge to my balcony.

And we're talking the 15th floor, with a panoramic view of the Tigris River below.

In just seconds, the crisis was over and I was back in my room. But who was Spiderman?

When I caught up with him later, James Samson Loukle Lako told me his sad story. A teacher from a village in Christian southern Sudan, he was caught up in the civil war dividing that country in the mid-1980s. Government soldiers killed his father and elder brother and he himself was arrested.

After managing to escape a detention camp, he made his way to Khartoum and with hundreds of other Sudanese ended up as a refugee in Iraq, which was in the midst of its long war with Iran. Initially, James spent much of his time in a Baghdad hospital recovering from damage to his kidney suffered from beatings during the war in Sudan.

For the past nine years, James has been working at the Sheraton as a member of the housekeeping staff. The hotel is his life - he works seven days a week, has been given a small room as his own and eats at the staff cafeteria. When the hotel is full, he earns 50,000 dinars, about $25 (U.S.), a month but when it's empty, he gets only 30,000 dinars.

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, hundreds of members of Iraq's Sudanese community have fled to Syria, Jordan and Iran asking to be repatriated or to be sent to safe third countries.

James says that he too would leave Iraq if he had a chance and attempt to find his wife and five children. But he doesn't know where they are. He thinks they may have fled the fighting long ago for refugee camps in Uganda but efforts to locate them through the Red Cross have so far failed.

And he's worried that despite talk of a peace deal in Sudan, returning there is not a good idea for a Christian from the South. "I'm sure if I go back there, it will be the end of my life."

So, James stays at the Sheraton. "The Iraqis here in the hotel are like my brothers. They love me. They give me food."

So when a guest is locked out, it's James who gets called out to do his Spiderman routine. "Nobody will do it except me, so I have to do it. Otherwise, the guests wouldn't be able to get into their rooms."

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.