STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/16/2007

FEATURE | Crossing Into Iraqi Airspace

Story & Photos Sara Johnson-Steffey '00 

"You are blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That is when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family." Matthew 5:9 (The Message)

Crossing into Iraqi airspace actually wasn't very momentous. The red desert sands of Jordan blended seamlessly into the endless horizon of swirling dust. Unfortunately, during our flight the dust turned into a thick dust storm, and the Baghdad tower refused our landing request. We--myself and a half dozen NGO (nongovernmental organization) workers and contractors--flew back into the setting sun, back to the safety zone of the luxury hotel in Amman with its lovely pool and cool breezes.

I learned later that calling off flights because of "weather" held various meanings--like rocket launches and nearby mortar attacks. Our second attempt into Baghdad was successful. Because I had been briefed so thoroughly beforehand about the tight spiral maneuver necessary for landing, the actual corkscrew as we plunged toward the landing strip felt fairly mild. Another thing I had been briefed on--and that lived up to its potential--was the 120° air that hit me as I stepped off the plane onto the baking tarmac.

From the air, Baghdad hardly looked like an ominous war zone--just dusty, with a haze of film hanging over the city that reminded me of southern California. On the ground, however, the "war zone" part became clear. Outside the airport I was handed body armor by a team of security personnel and tucked safely inside an armored SUV--part of a high-profile convoy, I later learned. We passed through a half dozen checkpoints just to leave the airport, each time showing security badges and submitting to dog searches.

The road from Baghdad International Airport to the International Zone (IZ) is one of the most dangerous in the world. As we left the protection of the airport walls and merged onto the road, I could feel stress mounting in the vehicle. From the three-inch-thick tinted windows, the glimpses of Baghdad flashing by were of a city on hold, everything frozen: construction projects halted; vehicles abandoned on the sides of roads; weeds in what used to be manicured parks; streets blocked with jersey barriers. Before the days of Saddam's lunacy, before years of war with Iran, the city had been renowned for its architecture, its cosmopolitan culture, its intellectual life. Now there were no children, no marketplaces, no signs of life--just the realities of war, evident throughout the once-thriving city.

I had come to Iraq to work with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote a democratic culture and functioning government in Iraq. Quite a grand objective for any country, let alone one still mired in ongoing conflict. More than anything, NDI seeks to support the nascent efforts of Iraqis themselves as they struggle forward in their democratic goals--working with all political parties, civil society organizations, women's groups, and the interim legislature and executive branches.

I was an international affairs major at Gordon and took many economic development and social-change classes from Professors Ivy George and Stephen Smith. From Gordon I went to Brandeis University, graduating in 2004 with a master's in sustainable international development. The Brandeis program led me to combine my interests in law, development, civil society and good governance. After graduating I worked with a group of professors from Boston University School of Law to develop the International Consortium for Law and Development (ICLAD), serving as a founding board member and workshop trainer. I went with ICLAD to Indonesia, Brazil and Vietnam, conducting workshops with government officials and civil society members in drafting legislation to promote democratic social change. My husband and I soon moved to Minnesota, however, where there were few options for an international affairs major. I ended up fundraising at a local college while working with ICLAD from a distance as I was able.

One of my professors from Brandeis, April Powell-Willingham, also served on ICLAD's board and had become a friend and mentor. She had left to work in Iraq as director of the Constitutional Support Program for NDI, an organization I had long admired. As director of this program, she was working on the drafting of the new Iraqi Constitution with the Iraqi National Assembly's Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC). The NDI program was gearing up to support the CDC through the drafting process in the intense months leading to the August 15 deadline. In my boredom at my new job, I jokingly asked her if I could go to Iraq to carry her briefcase or something. In response, April told me that, in fact, she needed help shepherding a dozen internationally renowned constitutional scholars into the country to advise the Iraqi government during the drafting process.

I was supposed to stay for eight weeks; I stayed for more than five months. The Constitution was supposed to be done by August 15; it was still being rewritten October 13, two days before the countrywide referendum to vote on its passage.

Over those months I tracked the draft Constitution as it changed through negotiations; analyzed the initial draft and subsequent versions as it pertained to human rights, women's rights, elections, federalism, and a myriad of other topics of concern to Iraqis and to the work of NDI across its programs. We also assisted with outreach efforts, writing educational materials on the content of the Constitution and holding informational sessions.

Despite the efforts of NDI, the United Nations, and other nonprofits to make the document accessible to the public, the last-minute negotiations made full disclosure of the contents very difficult. So we served as references to answer questions on the content of the draft. I often joked that I knew the Iraqi Constitution better than my own. We also analyzed draft legislation that was written to implement the Constitution. Because of the vagueness of the Constitution document, this legislation is hugely important to the rights of Iraqis and to the functioning of democracy in the country.

Many memorable days stand out. The day of the first constitutional deadline, August 15, we waited until midnight in the National Assembly Hall, surrounded by National Assembly members and their aides, anxious for word from the political party leaders negotiating the many sticking points. Rockets hurtled toward us from outside the Green Zone. Security personnel surrounded us the whole day just in case one of the rockets came too close. The feeling in the room was a mix of anticipation, anxiety, hope, and some disdain. Of course the negotiations failed at the last minute, and the Assembly declared an "extension," which was extended again and again over the coming months.

In mid-September changes were finalized, and then finalized again October 13. On October 15 the country came together to vote for the Constitution--another memorable day, "the day of the purple fingers." I trooped around to polling stations within the Green Zone as an international monitor (within the IZ there are 5,000 to 7,000 Iraqis) to watch as the country finally came together to vote on the founding document of their new country, dipping their fingers in purple ink after voting and proudly holding them up for all to see. Even after all our work on the draft with the National Assembly, I wasn't sure what to hope for. The Constitution could work, but it had flaws. All I really wanted was the best outcome for the country as well as a peaceful day free from incident, one that would allow the Iraqi people to really think about democracy, stability and their future. Observing the process was incredible--to see all the work of the drafting committee and the political negotiations finally put to the people.

As I prepared to leave Iraq, I spent my final week teaching a workshop on legislative drafting to a group of Iraqi women with the help of a wonderful NDI Iraqi translator. The goal of NDI in working with these women was to assist their coalition of women's nonprofits in drafting a law on the status of women, the code that determines how to reconcile Islamic family law with secular law. This is a difficult topic to navigate given the differences between the liberal Kurds and Sunnis and the conservative Shia who make up the majority of the population. The group hoped to draft a better law than the one written 40 years ago but had a hard time grappling with the fundamental question: How do we reconcile our religious beliefs with what in practice those beliefs end up doing to women? Many of these women are lawyers and other professionals, not willing to see their rights slowly ebb away from them. And yet there was a feeling that this withdrawal of rights was like a receding tide that couldn't be stopped.

I was 29 years old, explaining to intelligent, well-educated women twice my age democratic concepts such as compromise, public input into policy, and the role of the legislature. They had no concept of democracy, what political representation means, how a legislature works, or how an elected government could give them voice and an access to power they had never had--or even dreamed of having. It was humbling. At the end one of them said, "We are not used to thinking about using law to change things--law is just a force Saddam used to get his way." Saddam was the law, and they joked that they now were all mini-Saddams inside, all wanting to have their way and not wanting to hear the other side. Despite their jokes, they soaked up newly found concepts. Without any men present, they were free to take charge, battle and debate each other, and vent their problems--the democratic process in action. These women who distrusted me at the beginning of the week eventually came to call me "habiti" or "dear one." They will always be in my heart.

The Constitution was voted in October 15, 2005, and eventually confirmed October 26. The permanent government of Iraq was approved December 15, four days after I flew out of the country to return home. The Constitution was hardly the social compact needed to bring together the various factions of the disjointed country. Revisions are still being made by yet another committee of the new Assembly--a last-minute change to try to entice the Sunni groups into the process. The government is now beginning the long road of negotiations and consensus-building necessary to bring together this divided country, whose only common denominator in the past was the ousted dictator who controlled every aspect of their lives.

Without that bind, Iraqis are trying to rediscover their commonalities beyond repression and fear--the ties that hold them together as countrymen. Today, however, that commonality of dictatorial fear has been replaced by the fear of terror and brutality as well as the common complaint of unemployment, lack of electricity, and poor health and educational facilities. Rather than redirecting this fear and frustration toward the goal of building a country and national identity, it seems to have been redirected into distrust of opposing ethnic groups--a concept fed by radical and conservative religious leaders, voices of authority often more trusted than the government due to the government's corruption and ineptitude at local levels.

I want to be so hopeful--I am hopeful--but I believe it is going to take years if not decades to rebuild what was destroyed by Saddam. First the war; now the terror that rules the streets. My heart aches for them and their struggle, and the dwindling support they will receive from Western democracies at the most crucial point of their journey.

I still shudder at doors slamming in the distance or the severe weather sirens that sound off once a week here in the Midwest. My mind immediately thinks "small arms fire!" or "rocket launched into the IZ!" Images of war or terrorism in movies are no longer entertainment. I cry when I hear of soldiers readjusting to life at home; when my church prays each week for our servicemen with whom I somehow feel a kinship even though my exposure to conflict and violence was much less than theirs. I loathe the sensationalized version of the war--whether liberal or conservative in slant--that the media is feeding Americans.
I have come to appreciate the complexities of our involvement in the Middle East. Don't I think it was right that we went in now, my conservative relatives ask? Not necessarily, I respond. Do Iraqis seem to think we should have gone in? Without exception, every one of them I met thinks so. Don't I think we should leave now, my liberal friends ask? No--please no. Iraq needs peacemakers right now. Not just foreign diplomats forcing their own countries' viewpoints, but Iraqi men and women to assist in building a national consensus on the huge issues facing the country today: revising the Constitution; dividing oil resources; ensuring women's rights; holding government accountable; providing human and social services.

Meanwhile, I am at home struggling to justify why I am here in this democracy we take for granted and they are there risking their lives to establish a democratic government. My life has changed so much since then. One year ago today I was scrambling around the National Assembly Hall trying to find out the status of the latest draft of the Constitution. Who was holding up negotiations? What issues were left to tackle? Today as I type I am listening to the quiet sighs of my newborn son--only two weeks old, yet already changing my world.

I will return to Iraq someday. It has gotten under my skin. Towards the end of my time in Iraq I stood on the roof of my hotel one Friday evening, looking out over the city at the smoggy sunset--the call to prayer echoing in the distance, the song reverberating from mosque to mosque around the city; that city alive with a cry out to God, gunshots echoing in the night as exclamation points to their call. "Hear us God!" they seemed to cry. "Listen to our pain. Come near to us! Save us!" A call of agony shared by all, in their very blood, with Iraq--including me.

Sara Johnson-Steffey is working as a fundraising consultant for a variety of nonprofits in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband, Steven, and new son Jackson. She continues to work with the International Consortium for Law and Development (ICLAD) and hopes to return to the Middle East within the next year to facilitate continued trainings in legislative drafting and civil society empowerment.


1. The red desert sands of Jordan form an endless horizon of swirling dust.
2. This boy is one of many children living in poverty in the IZ (International Zone) in downtown Baghdad. 
3. The Baghdad skyline at night. The road from Baghdad International Airport to the IZ is one of the most dangerous in the world.
4. October 15, 2005--Iraqi citizens who have just voted in the Constitutional Referendum show their ink-stained purple fingers.
5. August 28, 2005, at the National Assembly. The "final" version of the Constitution is read from the podium; however, it was revised three times after this.


A sandstorm
An boy in Baghdad
The Iraqi skyline
Voters fresh from the polls
The Iraqi Constitution is presented