Janina Hrebickova - Eight intense months in Baghdad recalled


My guest today on One on One is somebody we've had on the programme before. The last time we spoke to Janina Hrebickova she was just about to leave for the Iraqi capital Baghdad, to head the Czech delegation at the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority. Ms Hrebickova decided to leave Iraq at the end of last year and has been home in Prague for around a month. When she came into our studio this week, I began by asking her what she recalled of two of the worst attacks during her time in Baghdad: the bombings of the United Nations headquarters in August and the Hotel Rashid in October.

Janina Hrebickova, photo: CTKJanina Hrebickova, photo: CTK "There were many, many attacks. The UN, and Hotel Rashid where 99.9 percent of Coalition military and civilian workers were living. There were also attacks on many other embassies and many other hotels and many other international organisations. But these two touched me personally the most, because I had friends and old colleagues working in the UN and I was going to visit them three times a week. I had lunches and dinners in that building very often. And when they attacked Hotel Rashid, this was where I myself was living, plus two of my assistants. I was at the Madrid Donor's Conference when this happened, so I was really scared to death about whether my two assistants had survived. And if they came through it in good shape psychologically."

You were the head of the Czech delegation there - did some of your colleagues consider going home when these things happened?

"You know, I don't know what was happening in their minds. We didn't talk about it out loud because we all knew what was going on and it was completely useless to talk about it out loud. It was up to our own decisions what we were going to do. But I'm sure that every single person in that team did think about it, or did consider that option."

How long were you yourself in Iraq?

"Eight months."

Is that a typical length of time for somebody to stay working in such conditions?

"You have to make a distinction between the classical, so to speak, diplomats and diplomatic missions, and the CPA people..."

What does CPA stand for?

"Coalition Provisional Authority. This was actually the authority led by Ambassador Bremer, where the coalition countries and their representatives and many, many other people and Iraqis were working. For CPA people the usual rotation was happening each three months, maximum four months. So for CPA it was not usual to stay for eight months. Typical diplomats in the missions stay for a year, two, three, four. But it was a different kind of working environment."

Did Iraqis possibly have a more positive reaction to you than they might have had to an American?

"I would guess so, really. I think so. I really think it's not about the Americans, it's just about the traditional emotions, or traditional habits. Because Czechs, or Czechoslovaks, were really very much involved in the last fifty years there, during Saddam's regime and during the socialist regime of the former Czechoslovakia. In business, in education exchanges, there are a lot of mixed marriages. People are used to communicating with Czechs. What they really like, many people told me, is that Czechs can listen, they know how to listen, they don't tell things. So maybe that would be a kind of difference."

When you say mixed marriages did you meet people in Iraq married to Czechs?

"No, I didn't meet any. But I know Iraqis who are here in the Czech Republic for a long time, married to Czechs here."

Did the Iraqis you met know anything about the Czech Republic?

"Oh yeah, they really know a lot. They know about the oil refinery experts, about the engineers, about the water related engineers and the water cleaning system engineers. They know about Prague's Charles University and former president Vaclav Havel, who is very much respected. And they know definitely about the beer."

Really? Even though they can't drink it?

"They can! Iraqis can drink beer! Of course, you find a lot of Shia people who don't drink alcohol. They are still very open-minded and modern, but they don't consider drinking alcohol to be the right thing. But they are not extremists. Then you find a lot of Sunni people who might be extremist, but they still drink alcohol."

I expect you were already back here when you heard they had caught Saddam Hussein...

"I was on a plane, a US military Hercules plane from Baghdad to Amman, when I got the message through the pilot that they got him."

What was your reaction?

"Oh my God, I was really, really happy! I was so happy that I immediately sent at least 80 messages over my mobile phone, immediately after I landed in Amman. And I was getting replies and responses from all over the world, from my friends and colleagues, and people who were still in Baghdad. I think that there was big euphoria and big happiness, especially among Iraqis. I know Iraqis and the majority of them really were so happy that this place got rid of a man like Saddam Hussein and his regime, his people around him."

How did you feel coming back home to Prague after so long in Iraq?

"You know, I don't know...I was looking forward to it very much, then I decided to spend some five days in Lebanon, which for twelve years I always very much wanted to visit. And it was just great, it was beautiful. And then through Lebanon I kind of got used to the civilised, so to speak, way of life again. When I came to Prague Christmas came, my son came, the family came, I was very busy preparing things. So I really did not realise it in a silent way, but yes I am very happy that I am back. On the other hand, I am missing the action."

So what's next for Janina Hrebickova?

"I got a lot of offers. One of them was from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to be the deputy ambassador of the permanent mission at the United Nations in New York, which I might be going to in May or June, something like that. So I'm still thinking if this is really the best option for me and for the country, and for the way that I work. Because I've never worked in a state institution. This is from one side a big honour for me and from the other side it's also a big challenge, so let's see."


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