From Lusaka to Baghdad, scribes memories (Part 6)

WE ARRIVED in Rome, our last stop, as more drama surfaced.
At about 07:00 hours the following morning, our hosts escorted us to the airport where we boarded an Iraqi Airways Boeing 707 aircraft on a direct flight to Rome.
Slightly over two hours later, we landed at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport at Fiumicino some 30km west of the Italian capital.
The airport, which is one of Europe’s largest and most modern terminals, was heavily guarded by soldiers armed with sub-machine guns and other sophisticated military hardware.
They were on the look-out for members of the Red Brigade terrorist organisation who might want to commit acts of sabotage at the airport.
I did not realise until that day that Italians could be so rude at times. It happened that after we had disembarked from the plane at the airport, we lost our way, not knowing where we were supposed to check out. Nobody seemed to be willing to help out. We were directed to various places around the airport, but all of them turned out to be wrong ones. It was as if they wanted to make fools of us.
By the time someone directed us to the right place, we had wasted a good 40 minutes wandering about like fools.
We then had our passports cleared and after a long wait at the bus rank, we got a bus to Hotel Satellite in Central Rome, where we spent the first night at the expense of Iraqi Airways.
The following morning, we checked out and took a taxi to the Zambian Embassy so that we could be helped with accommodation for our last night’s stay in the city.
We had used all our travellers’ cheques in Iraq because we did not anticipate that we would encounter connection problems on our return flight to Zambia.
All we had in our possession at the time were 180 Iraqi dinars, which we had been given by our hosts in Baghdad at a farewell party the previous evening.
The guest of honour was none other than the Iraqi strongman himself, President Saddam Hussein. As he left the venue of the party after the function, the Iraqi leader took time to shake hands with each one of us and asking some of us where we came from.
For obvious reason, I had to pinch myself several times just to satisfy myself that this was not happening in a dreamland – a nobody like me shaking hands with the famous Iraqi leader known for his alleged ruthlessness against opponents!
To me, President Hussein appeared to be a good man, soft-spoken and genuinely loved by his people.
The surprise “brown envelopes” containing 60 dinars each were given to us after the party, long after the president had left.
The money was allegedly intended for us to buy souvenirs to remind us of our trip to that happy and rich country.
We were to learn later that apart from the money, the Iraqi government had also donated a golden wrist watch to each journalist invited to cover the elections but the three of us never saw these gifts.
For some reason, we didn’t spend the dinars that evening, although we knew that we would not be able to find time for shopping the following day since the flight to Rome was to leave very early.
But as it turned out, the dinars were to stand us in good stead during our last day’s stay in Rome.
We asked the embassy staff, who included Mr Martin Mubanga, later to become a provincial political secretary for the Copperbelt under the Kaunda administration, to help us change the dinars into the local currency, the lira.
The problem arose because the Iraqi currency, like our Kwacha, was not a convertible currency; it was not like the British pound or the American dollar, which were recognised worldwide.
It could only be used inside Iraq.
Later, we asked our way to the Vatican City, the home of the Roman Catholic Church, my denomination since childhood.
According to historical records Vatican City, officially known as Vatican City State, is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome.
It has an area of approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of around 840.
This makes it the smallest internationally recognised independent state in the world by both area and population.
We found it funny, if not strange, that although we had a Zambian Embassy in Rome, it had nothing to do with the Vatican City which was only a stone’s throw away.
It was the Zambia High Commission in London which was accredited to the Vatican City.
On our arrival at the Vatican, we were surprised to find it swarming with foreign tourists from various parts of the world.
They had come to visit cultural sites such as St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums, which featured some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures.
We were informed that the unique economy of Vatican City was supported financially by the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums and sale of publications.
We had hoped that we would have an opportunity to see the Pope (the late Pope John Paul 1) but he had gone on a state visit to Brazil.
So we entertained ourselves walking around St Peter’s Square and mingling with bona fide tourists who were being taken on a conducted tour of St Peter’s Basilica and surrounding areas.
What shocked us, however, was that “pornographic couples” were also active at St Peter’s Square – they certainly had no respect for such a holy place!
We spent over two hours at the Vatican and then ventured into the central business district of the Italian capital, Rome.
It seemed to us that the Italians liked associating themselves with their past because we could see statues of their historical figures at almost every public building. Once again, the famous words of Mark Anthony at Julius Caesar’s funeral rang into my ears:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…”
On the eve of our departure, the Zambian Embassy invited the three of us to attend a farewell party for the outgoing Zambian ambassador to Italy, Edward Lubinda, at his residence.
A number of Zambian nationals working or studying in Italy attended the function, including members of the diplomatic community representing various embassies in Rome.
We return home, sweet home.
By 07:30 hours the following day, we were back at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport to say goodbye to Rome and catch a connecting flight back home.
This was a Zambia Airways Boeing 707 aircraft on a scheduled direct flight from Rome to Lusaka, and the journey would take us seven hours.
And about 14:30 hours, our plane landed at the Lusaka International Airport. So finally, we were back home, sweet home!

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