Image via El Payo/Flickr
We knew it was bad when we heard the sirens. It was early spring in Madrid, and the weather was just warm enough to sit outside without a jacket. My two American friends and I probably should've been sitting at a cafe eating tapas and drinking cheap cava, but we found ourselves sitting in the middle of the Puerta del Sol holding candles and singing, "No a la guerra."
It was 2003 and in just a couple of weeks, in the dark of night, the United States would begin the invasion of Iraq; a few weeks after that, on April 9th, Baghdad fell. We being Americans and war being bad, joining the quiet protest seemed like the least we could do. Then, when the paddy wagons screamed into the square and the billy clubs came out and the blood started flowing and the fires started burning, I realized there was nothing we could do. This war was going to happen, and a lot of people were going to die. I just hoped I wasn't going to be one of them.
I moved to Europe a few months after graduating on the government's dime. It was part of a scholarship program funded by the U.S. and German governments, a sort of let's-be-friends program likely descendant from the Marshall Plan, and I was pumped. It was more or less a public diplomacy effort, and I wanted to be a diplomat. It turned out to be a pretty bad year for diplomacy.
The year started like a fairy tale. I spent a month in the Black Forest doing Deutsch lernen before moving in with a host family just north of Hamburg. For a number of complicated reasons, things didn't work out with the family, and I soon found myself figuring out other ways to spend my gap year. Some family friends who'd recently moved to Geneva offered to take me in and I took them up on the offer.
Before I left my German high school, the English teacher asked me an odd favor. "Would you be willing to answer some of the class's questions about President Bush?" she asked. I couldn't help but furrow my brow when I said yes. Funnily enough, another exchange student friend said her English class also wanted me to stop by and talk to them, so I said yes to that too.
Both sessions went refreshingly well. "Why is President Bush trying to start a war?" they asked. "I don't know" was the best answer I could offer. I probably mumbled something about 9/11 and then launched into a tirade about how American didn't even elect the guy, not as far as we were concerned anyway. They couldn't believe this American kid disagreed with what his country was doing. This wasn't the first time I had to explain myself and my country abroad, and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
Winter in Switzerland is dismal. Sure, it's fun if you're up in the Alps with skis strapped to your feet, but down near Lake Geneva, the mountains make a bowl that fills up with smog when the air gets cold and wet. The effect is not unlike Los Angeles, except without the sunshine.
It was especially dismal that winter at the Palais des Nations, the decidedly Art Deco complex that was originally built to house the League of Nations and now serves as the European headquarters for the United Nations. By a fortunate twist of fate, I'd landed an internship at a rather obscure commission, and the day I went to pick up ID badge, I couldn't believe how empty the halls were.
But I didn't work at the Palais. I worked in a tacky office complex next to the airport where a different kind of emptiness lurked in the air. Inside, in a tattered office on the sixth floor, was the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC), a subsidiary of the Security Council which was set up in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.
Basically, a UN resolution that passed about a decade before I arrived required the Iraqi government to pay back the victims of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Anyone from individuals who'd lost a car, a house or an arm, to corporations and governments that lost millions of dollars could file for claims, and the money came straight out of Iraq's oil profits. In a way, it was like an insurance agency but with a lot more political overtones.
The folks at the UNCC were starting to get nervous about President Bush's war-mongering words when I started my internship a few weeks before the calendar turned over to 2003. Most of them were international lawyers or former diplomats. After about 40 hours of staring at spreadsheets full of Palestinian passport information, I realized that this wasn't exactly the kind of hands on international relations I'd imagined doing at the UN, so I stopped by the U.S. consulate after work one day to see if I could volunteer one day a week. (I've since learned that plenty of young diplomats spend years stamping passports before they even start thinking about policy issues.)
The only thing I really remember about the consulate was how obsolete the computers looked. Mind you, this was 2002, when monitors were the size of medicine balls and Macs resembled clam shells. I don't even remember many of the conversations I had there, but I do remember the time I asked my boss, a foreign service officer, for some career advice. At the time, my idealistic brain probably thought of it more as career inspiration. I wanted to be a foreign service officer, just like her. I couldn't wait.
"Get ready to be a worker bee," she said. "It'll take a decade at least before you store up enough seniority to make a difference." I can still feel my posture slump when I heard that. "Think about it this way: You're going to get a new boss every four years" — she was talking about the president — "and basically going to be carrying out whatever foreign policy he lays doing, whether you like it or not."
As the next few months rolled by, it looked like Bush wasn't just talking about war, he was preparing for war. There was nothing anybody in that consulate could do about it, and they knew it. There was also nothing the United Nations could do about it, but at leas they held on to a little bit of hope. That would be dashed that spring.
The gravity of the situation between the Bush administration and basically the rest of the world didn't hit home until that violent night in Madrid. I'd been traveling around France and Spain, doing the Eurorail thing and escaping my mind-numbing internship and bitter bosses at the consulate. On TV, I could clearly see that the resistance to the war was reaching historic proportions. On the ground, I could see that the violence wouldn't be confined to Iraq's borders.
Besides the sirens, the peaceful protestors in Puerta del Sol had not warning of what was about to happen to them the night we stumbled across the candlelight vigil. One minute we were sitting, sing, even smiling as we met other people with shared ideals. None of us wanted war.
The riot police arrived in a column of white vans that nearly ran over several protestors when it penetrated the crowd. The doors flew open before the vehicles even stopped, and the cops came out swinging. My friend and I froze, and time stopped. This wasn't real was it? But when the screams started — they were piercing cries of violence that cut through the sounds of the stampede that was the crowd trying to flee the square — when the screams started, I snapped out of it and muttered as calmly as I could, "Run." Walking backwards as the clubs and shields got closer, I said it a little louder, "Run!" The cops were just a few strides away now. I screamed, "RUN!"
We ran. It was about a hundred yards to the twisting streets, where we could hopefully hide or keep running or whatever we had to do. It's hard to think when fear is surging through your brain, but I thought I was going to die. Two steps behind me, a young Spaniard went down when a cop clipped him on the foot with his club. He held his arms over his face as the officer lashed into him. A protestor to my left suffered the same fate but managed to make it back up onto his knees before the cop smashed his shield into her face. I could swear I hear the crunch when her nose broke, but I probably didn't.
This must've been happening a lot in Madrid at the time, because the shops that were still open immediately slammed the gates in front of their windows closed to keep mayhem out. We made it out of the square and hid in an alley for an hour. When I looked back one last time, I saw flames and bound bodies being thrown into white vans. I could taste the chaos in the back of my throat, and it tasted like blood.
That night didn't end well for a lot of people. We were lucky and ended up with scrapes and bruises. Others went to jail. Years later, I found myself searching the web for more details about what happened that night and found a couple reports of deaths at the protest, but can't confirm that. I certainly thought death was a possibility.
But what did I really know? I went back to my job in my dingy underfunded office by the airport, where we were cleaning up after the first Persian Gulf War and didn't tell anybody about the protest. As we watched the bombs fall on TV and the second war begin, nobody said a word.
A few days after the U.S. dropped its first bombs over Baghdad — probably around April 9, when the city itself fell — I remember taking what ended up being my last trip to the Palais. The halls were still empty, and the air smelled stale. I delivered a package. I don't know what it was, but the trip was a good excuse to explore the building a little bit.
I went into grand auditoriums full of empty chairs. I sat in them and tried on the silly plastic earpiece that pipes translations of speeches into the ears of eager citizens from around the world, the few that were actually engaging in global. I pictured heads of state on stage, laying out ambitious plans. I pictured handshakes in hallways where attachés brushed shoulders with envoys. I wondered what this palace felt like full, dozens of tongues bouncing off the marble floors and cold stone walls.
It was empty, now, though. And so was I.
I made my way down to the cafeteria for lunch before taking the bus back towards the airport . I don't remember tasting the food or drinking the water, but I do remember hearing the tired old diplomats, cheap suits disheveled on their sloping shoulders and despondent looks in their eyes. I couldn't hear what they were saying to each other, but they looked defeated. The United States, my United States, had just ignored their life's work and killed countless innocent people. They surely knew better than I at the time that the fall of Baghdad was not the end of this war. It was the beginning. And there was nothing they could do about it.
So they sat in their palace of failed diplomacy, a place that now felt cursed by the very opulence and optimism that served as its foundation when it was built just before World War II. It couldn't stop that war or so many more after that, and it couldn't stop this one. If the doves of peace were meant to represent what these collective efforts should've accomplished, instead the United Nations seemed like a flightless bird, a creature with wings that would flap but would not fly.
As I gathered the trash up on my tray, I looked outside at the garden. The smoggy soup was starting to rise as the spring sunshine reached its zenith, and I could see the light bouncing off the lake. Suddenly, something waddled out from behind a tree, and I stepped closer to the window to see what it was. Through the glass — I couldn't believe it — there was a peacock walking my way. The train of iridescent feathers that it carried caught the sun's glare, and I wondered if it might fan them out, displaying the plumage.
But it didn't. The peacock turned away from me and walked away from the Palais, toward the lake.